Augustus Melmotte, about whose past little was known, established himself in London, bought a large house on Grosvenor Square and soon gained a reputation as “a great financier.” With him were his wife and a daughter, Marie, whom he launched on the matrimonial market at a grandiose ball for which, in hope of favors to come, he secured the patronage of several duchesses and other titled personages.
A San Francisco stockjobber induced Melmotte to organize a London company for the promotion of a fictitious railroad, the South Central Pacific and Mexican, and to set up a dummy directorate of Englishmen of high social standing.
Melmotte’s large gifts to charitable organizations and lavish entertainments convinced the public of his financial genius, and money flowed through his hands. He was asked by the Government as a great London merchant to give a dinner for the Emperor of China; the Conservatives called on him to contest Westminster for a seat in Parliament. Shortly before the dinner vague rumors began to float about that Melmotte’s finances were not in order, and that one of the papers in the sale of an estate he was purchasing had been forged. Public opinion veered sharply. The great dinner was but sparsely attended, but at the election next day he won the Westininster seat.
Marie, as a reputed heiress of millions, was sought in marriage by several highly placed but uniformly impecunious young noblemen. She fell in love with the most worthless of them all, Sir Felix Carbury, planned in elopement with him and stole enough of her father’s money to finance it, but Sir Felix gambled away the money and failed to keep the appointment. She later married Hamilton Fisker, originator of the railroad scheme, and went with him to America.
Melmotte to bolster up his vanishing credit, forged yet another paper that would give him possession of his daughter’s trust fund. When this failed, deserted by the men who had fawned upon him, and after disgracing himself by appearing on the floor of the House while intoxicated he committed suicide.
"...one of the most remarkable of all English novels published between 1860 and 1890. This novel, had it been written by any one else or had it been published anonymously, would never have been allowed to pass out of English fiction, but because it came after a long series of novels by the same hand, and because its author had been for some years before its appearance far too readily 'taken for granted' by the critics, its remarkable qualities remained unperceived." - -Walpole