The houses on Harley Street, where the Merdles live, are very much alike. They are out of repair, despite the affluent people that live there. They don’t always match the personality of the person who owns them.
The Merdles were on top of the hierarchy of their society. Mr. Merdle was extremely rich and had a seat in Parliament. He held many titles of chairman, trustee, and president. Everything he did was successful. People needed him on board if they were to be successful in their ventures.
Mr. Merdle did things solely to maintain the good opinion of society. He married his wife so he’d have someone to display the jewels he bought and who could perform the necessary duties. He wasn’t much of a talker, and only his reputation—not his personality—made him stand out. He always appeared nervous. He fussed over his coat cuffs and hid his hands. He was pleasant enough, but he was a wall flower and never seemed to enjoy himself. He seemed constantly tired. He never really enjoys his wealth.
Mrs. Merdle had been married before to a colonel. Her son is from that marriage. He is considered to be a moron. He is constantly proposing marriage to unsuitable women.
At a dinner, acquaintances are discussing how Mr. Merdle has had another successful deal that has earned him lots of money. Mr. Merdle shows up late as usual. He has hired a butler for the party, whom he resents having—but society expects it.
Mr. Merdle’s friends are known by their positions—nicknamed Treasury, Bar, and Bishop. Treasury congratulates Mr. Merdle and comments on his patriotism, which pleases Mr. Merdle. Bar comes up to mention a great opportunity in purchasing an estate. The purchase would lead to political influence. The Bishop follows and asks for a contribution to a mission in Africa.
A physician at the party inquires after Mr. Merdle’s health, who complains that he is no better. The physician tells him to drop in the next day. Bar and Bishop overhear and attribute Mr. Merdle’s affliction to mental strain. The physician tells them that Mr. Merdle is as healthy as a rhinocerous, has good digestion, is mentally sound, and is not prone to nervousness. In fact, there seems to be no cause for the complaint. However, Mr. Merdle seems to be entwined so much with society that his problems are its problems.
Meanwhile, the Marshalsea’s shadow seems to darken over the Dorrit family.