If anyone wished to know the truly profound power of wealth in Victorian society, then reading Michael Fisher's book would answer their questions. He has written a wonderfully entertaining biography of a man of great wealth who spent the last decade of his life in legal limbo, trapped in a Chancery court case that hinged on his condition as a lunatic. That would be remarkable enough for the story of any Victorian gentleman, but the subject of this fascinating narrative is David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, a gross, corpulent and rakish man who inherited the fabulous wealth of the Begum of the principality of Sardhana in India.
It is a book of two halves: first, Fisher explains the history of Sardhana within the encompassing British Empire; then the story moves to London, where Dyce Sombre married and soon after became a Chancery "lunatic", whose freedom was always in doubt, along with his mental condition.
Dyce Sombre was adopted by Farzana Begum Sombre; his ancestry included German, Indian and Scottish blood. His parents were Julia Reinhardt and George Dyce, Julia being the granddaughter of the main family line.
When he decided to leave India and see Europe, he maintained his habits of frequenting prostitutes, gambling and lavishing wealth wherever he fancied. He was an Anglo-Indian Falstaff. He married Mary Anne Jervis, a musician and society celebrity in London; as a man of untold wealth, he would have been quite a catch.
It should have been a recipe for social success and great happiness, because it was a union of great riches and flamboyant artistic talent. But matters soon deteriorated, as Dyce Sombre became irrationally jealous of his wife.
Within a year of marriage he was violent; he became, as far as London society was concerned, as insanely jealous as Othello. He challenged dozens of men to duels and raged about his wife's alleged affairs with those she encountered in everyday life. But Mary Anne had powerful friends, including the Lord Chancellor and ranks of top lawyers and doctors, and so a solution was found: prove Dyce Sombre was insane.
The aim was to place him in the position of proving his sanity at Chancery hearings. He gathered a panel of his own experts, and even escaped to France and later Russia to assemble various medical men who would assert his sanity. When he first came to Britain, he had used his wealth to become MP for the rotten borough of Sudbury, but that had been controverted because of corruption. A man who had sat in Parliament was thus now considered to be mad.
Fisher provides accounts of the lengthy legal struggles: Dyce Sombre had six hearings in front of various Lord Chancellors, desperately trying to prove his sanity. As long as he was considered to be a lunatic, his wife and hangers-on enjoyed comfortable lives using his money and had control of his estate. Even at his death, he was not considered sane.
The issue at the heart of the book is how the society of the day defined sanity. The events took place mainly in the 1840s, a time when the "alienists" - the predecessors of psychologists - had widely differing views of what constituted sanity. Dyce Sombre could hold rational discourse on any subject except his wife. Was he "sane" generally and simply (in our modern vocabulary) paranoid in one aspect of thinking? Was his supposed madness actually no more than his oriental morality being applied in the West?
The author tells this story very strongly and clearly. But arguably, the personality of Dyce Sombre himself takes over and entrances the reader: after all, here was a man who was larger than life.
He was constantly in transit, with people conning him or exploiting his weaknesses. In his 43 years he was enmeshed in the use and abuse of great wealth and all that it could buy; yet he genuinely loved his Indian mistresses and perhaps even Mary Anne. In Fisher's writing he comes to life as vividly as the best fictional creation, and in enjoying that human complexity, the reader also learns much about the absurdity and cruelty of Victorian family law.
The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre: Victorian, Anglo-Indian MP and Chancery 'Lunatic'
By Michael H. Fisher Hurst, 400pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781849040006. Published 22 May 2010