By Bob Williams
Although not the last of Trollope’s many novels, The Way We Live Now shows the author at the peak of his ability and fully committed to its themes. He dwells a little to the side of the mainstream of nineteenth century fiction along with (for example) Elizabeth Gaskell and some of his work is original only in a very specialized sense. He is obsessed with money and how ambition or inexperience or both can be fatal flaws. Some of his best work madly misses giving even the most charitable reader full satisfaction and the money obsession can be boring.
The Way We Live Now is drenched in considerations of money and Trollope carries it off beautifully. For once what people will do for money and how their desires can defeat, disgrace, and humiliate them escapes the boredom that money as a subject commonly invokes. The connections are intricate, admirably stage managed, and have an impetus that some of Trollope lacks.
The intricacies arise from his considerations of love, its absence, and the problematic process of getting married (or not as events may dictate). In this manner we meet a character that loves another but is not loved in return. We meet characters that are determined to effect a marriage that will be to their profit but has no love involved. The patterns are interesting and are like illuminating bolts of lightning.
Beneath all this amorous or at least prudential activity is Augustus Melmotte. It gives nothing away to say that he is a consummate swindler. Accident, despite suspicious antecedents and reputation, casts him in the role of a power among the powerful. He emerges quickly as the supporter of a chimerical scheme that will allow him to make enormous and illicit profits.
He has a daughter although it is not immediately clear if his wife, if she is his wife, is the mother. Marie, the daughter, loves Sir Felix Carbury. Melmotte will have none of him and he is right in this since Sir Felix is in his way a greater scoundrel than Melmotte. We only enter later into Melmotte’s mind, for over half the book seeing him from the outside, but we spend a great part of the novel inside the head of Sir Felix. And it is a poor place to be for he is a selfish wastrel incapable of relating to the distress that he causes others and always willing to waste his mother’s and sister’s resources.
Lady Carbury is a fit mother to such a son. A manipulator, she is willing to use the affection or loyalty of others to gain her own selfish ends. She is sunk in conniving so far as to have no recognizable qualities that provoke admiration. In contrast Hetta, her daughter, is all that is amiable, a typical nineteenth century heroine – functional (alas!) rather than real and a major play-piece in the matrimonial game. Roger Carbury, her cousin, loves her and has asked her to marry him, but his best friend, Paul Montague, also loves her and Hetta loves him. Paul is honor bound by his friend not to pursue his suit until it is clear that Roger has no chance. Paul – a typical Trollope hero, weak and prone to be confused about money among other things – keeps his promise only partially.
Paul is a major player, an example of a person being what he is by the only somewhat interesting virtue of being at a particular event at a particular time. He makes an unwise investment with his uncle, a swindler in a small way, and gets caught up in the affairs of Fisker, an American hustler, who sweeps Paul into the ambit of Melmotte and his get rich scheme. Paul is engaged to Mrs. Hurtle. She is possibly a widow although there are some who claim that Mr. Hurtle is still alive. Paul regrets his engagement and makes efforts to escape. Much of the unfolding plot relies on this.
The Longestaffe family contributes minor players to the book but one is especially important. Georgiana, unlike her sister, has no promise of matrimony and will not rest until she has found someone – anyone – to rescue her. She even goes so far in her determination to be in London as to submit herself as a guest of the Melmottes, people that she hates and despises. Her brother, Dolly (short for Adolphus) is a close friend of Sir Felix.
Like most Victorian novels, this is a long book. Usually such novels tend to sag in the middle, but Trollope manages otherwise. When Melmotte runs for parliament, opponents scrutinize his past and try to examine his present. Neither activity can do anything but harm him. Dolly Longestaffe presses Melmotte for money due him, not a large amount by the popular idea of his resources, but Melmotte must resort to special trouble to raise the money. Marie attempts to elope with Sir Felix, an attempt that fails when she is arrested at Liverpool and returned to her home. Sir Felix has failed to keep faith with her. He gets drunk and gambles away all the money that she, his mother, and Melmotte have given him. And Paul manages to disengage himself from Mrs. Hurtle. The young woman that Sir Felix has been tampering with has fled to London where she is discovered by Roger Carbury, a friend of her grandfather. Some of the writing tends to be overdone but there can be no question that the crucial midpoint of the book is managed with dash.
It is at this midpoint that Trollope slows the narrative down and lingers intently over the rise and possible fall of Melmotte. At the same time that he entertains the emperor of China and the most royal men and women of England and the Continent at an extravagantly expensive dinner, at the same time as he wins the election to parliament, the forces are already in place that threaten his position. To gain his ends he has forged a document and the forgery becomes known or at least suspected. When he perceives that he is not likely to be arrested, his arrogance reasserts itself and he hopes to make his way to safety.
Melmotte is a Jew and Trollope deals with the anti-Semitism that Melmotte for good or bad provokes. In a subsidiary plot Georgiana Longestaffe agrees to marry Brehgert, another Jew whom Trollope depicts with all the trappings of caricature. But Trollope is tricky and Brehgert turns out to be one of the few morally sound characters in the book. Trollope lets us off nothing: he describes Brehgert as fat, greasy, and old, a man who uses a v sound where w is expected, e.g., ve vant instead of we want.
All of these personal relations take place within the wider world of politics and public affairs, a larger world even than that depicted in the Palliser novels. Through Lady Carbury, a writer of sorts, we learn at the very beginning of the book of the power of the press. One of the editors whom she importunes for an undeserved favorable review will run against Melmotte in the parliamentary election that is such a crucial part of the book. Trollope speaks acidly of the politicians who, he says, believe that they can make progress by standing still. The empire run by Melmotte is an uncontrolled venture over which no one has any regulatory authority. Society itself has degenerated from the ideals upheld by Roger Carbury, a man of honor and integrity, and the raffish crew of fashionable young men who form the social circle around Sir Felix have scarcely a virtue amongst them. Although Trollope, upon close analysis, cannot be dismissed as just another anti-Semitic, he yet sees the virtues of the class system and regards the intrusion into it of moneyed men and women as a further degeneration. The ceremony of innocence is drowned and voices of authority are lost in the babble of chaotic dissidence.
This is not just a novel: it is an indictment. We would do well to read it again and often and to spend time meditating on what Trollope has to say – for The Way We Live Now is – alas! – the way we live now.
About the Author: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer.