Book Review 022 / The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

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The Way We Live Now

 by Anthony Trollope


One-line summary: A grand Victorian melodrama with all of Austen's cynical wit and Sinclair's scathing social critique.

Originally published in 1875. Approximately 353,000 words (800 pages).  
In this world of bribes and vendettas, swindling and suicide, in which heiresses are won like gambling stakes, Trollope's characters embody all the vices: Lady Carbury, a 43-year-old coquette, 'false from head to foot'; her son Felix, with the 'instincts of a horse, not approaching the higher sympathies of a dog'; and Melmotte, the colossal figure who dominates the book, a 'horrid, big, rich scoundrel...a bloated swindler...a vile city ruffian'.

Anthony Trollope isn't as famous as Charles Dickens, though he was about as prolific. The Way We Live Now was one of my recent audiobook downloads, and my first experience of Anthony Trollope. After browsing the text version online, I think I see why Trollope isn't quite as popular with modern readers -- his writing is rather more stilted than Dickens's, and talk about dry English humor... Trollope's lines could wilt houseplants. He wrote The Way We Live Now as a vicious social critique of the greed and chicanery he saw running amok in London, and while he's always restrained and decorous, in that stuffy English way, he's accusing his countrymen of being stupid, hypocritical, and dishonest in nearly every paragraph.

Were I to buy a little property, some humble cottage with a garden,—or you, O reader, unless you be magnificent,—the money to the last farthing would be wanted, or security for the money more than sufficient, before we should be able to enter in upon our new home. But money was the very breath of Melmotte's nostrils, and therefore his breath was taken for money.

The central storyline is that of Augustus Melmotte. (Trollope isn't quite as clever and playful with his names as Dickens, but he does have his own style of giving his characters appropriate ones.) Melmotte is a great big con-man who arrives in London with nothing, climbs his way to the very top of the social ladder (at one point, he is actually elected to Parliament and hosts a state dinner for the visiting Emperor of China), and spends money that never actually existed like water.

What makes this farce even more pointed is that what Melmotte does is exactly what modern stock market con men do. He runs a great big elaborate credit fraud, a ponzi scheme luring investors in the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway. The South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway is supposedly building a railway line from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz. Does this railway actually exist? Has a single track been laid? Who's going to use it? Is there any need for a railroad from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz? How is it going to make a profit? The few silly people who ask questions like that are of course ignored in the rush to buy stock. How many of these English lords and merchants looking to get rich quick could locate Salt Lake City or Vera Cruz on a map? Who cares? It would be hilarious if things weren't completely unchanged since Trollope wrote this novel in 1875.

But surrounding the titanic, scandalous scoundrel Melmotte are dozens of minor characters, each with their own intrigues, mostly involving marriage. Here's where Trollope reads a little bit like Austen. There are women trying to hook a husband. There are men trying to woo a rich heiress. Money, class, and romance collide. Although Trollope wasn't really writing a romance, he gets us invested in the fates of each of the characters -- will the worthless Baronet Felix Carbury simultaneously seduce Marie Melmotte and ruin poor Ruby Ruggles? Will his sister Hetta marry penniless Paul Montague for love, or settle for her cousin Roger (who is a very kind and decent man who's very much in love with her, but also old enough to be her father)? Will Paul Montague be ensnared by the American "wildcat" Winifred Hurtle, who is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon? (Winifred Hurtle is kind of awesome.) Will Ruby's would-be suitor John Crumb twist the "baro-nite" Sir Carbury's neck?

Then there was another long pause, at the end of which poor John Crumb burst out with some violence. "Domn him! Domn him! What 'ad I ever dun to him? Nothing! Did I ever interfere wi' him? Never! But I wull. I wull. I wouldn't wonder but I'll swing for this at Bury!"

"Oh, Mr Crumb, don't talk like that," said Mrs Pipkin.

"Mr Crumb is a little disturbed, but he'll get over it presently," said Mrs Hurtle.

"She's a nasty slut to go and treat a young man as she's treating you," said Mrs Pipkin.

"No, ma'am;—she ain't nasty," said the lover. "But she's crou'll—horrid crou'll. It's no more use my going down about meal and pollard, nor business, and she up here with that baro-nite,—no, no more nor nothin'! When I handles it I don't know whether its middlings nor nothin' else. If I was to twist his neck, ma'am, would you take it on yourself to say as I was wrong?"

"I'd sooner hear that you had taken the girl away from him," said Mrs Hurtle.

Yeah, so... Trollope was not exactly a social radical. But Mrs. Hurtle is still kind of awesome.

I mentioned that I "read" this as an audiobook. I think this is one of those books that is really enhanced by having it read for you by a British narrator who can handle all the different dialects and read Trollope's dialog in a suitably humorous tone.

Marriage and Money

If there's a flaw in this book, besides the fact that it's really long (like Dickens, Trollope was paid by the word and was not pressured by editors as modern authors are to cut much), it's that Trollope is so very, very Victorian and thus so very bloody restrained, and thus all of his characters are. Time after time, you'd like someone to just come out and say: "You know what? You're full of shit." In a properly Victorian way, of course. But these very proper English lords and ladies have to be pushed to the wall before they'd actually call someone the Victorian equivalent of "asshole," and so conversations frequently travel in wide elliptical orbits circling the point.

Of course, that's how they were, so it's probably not fair to complain about upper class Victorians acting like upper class Victorians.

Likewise, sometimes the hypocrisy is stifling, even though Trollope is shoving it our faces deliberately. We've been seeing plots about women trying to snare a husband because their physical and economic security depends on it since well before Austen's time, but nowhere is it more suffocating than in this novel, where it's clear that financial considerations are foremost in everyone's mind, yet they're all supposed to pretend that holy matrimony is a union of two souls.

So it's worth a repressed British chuckle when one character comes close to uncorking on the subject. Lord Nidderdale (one of the few young men who actually has some scruples), is trapped into another conversation with his father, who is demanding that he find some woman with a suitable income to settle on, and the young lord says wryly:

"I don't think that a woman of forty with only a life interest would be a good speculation. Of course I'll think of it if you press it." The old man growled again. "You see, sir, I've been so much in earnest about this girl that I haven't thought of inquiring about any one else. There always is some one up with a lot of money. It's a pity there shouldn't be a regular statement published with the amount of money, and what is expected in return. It'd save a deal of trouble."

"If you can't talk more seriously than that you'd better go away," said the old Marquis.

Young Nidderdale is being sardonic, but his father's response perfectly illuminates the hypocrisy displayed throughout the book. Everyone did think in precisely those terms, coldly calculating the value in £s of any prospective mate, openly discussing their incomes and the amount settled on them, and yet, to actually say outright that you're only interested in someone's money and not their looks or personality was gauche. Even the most cynical "adventurer" (the Victorian term for a gold-digger) was expected to at least pretend there was some romantic feeling involved.

Trollope paints very detailed, very wordy character studies, and this is one of the things I enjoyed most about this book, though he did so in a style and manner that's considered a bane of modern writing, it was very much the way novels were written then.

He was prepared to deal fairly,—nay, generously,—by his partner, having recognized the wisdom of that great commercial rule which teaches us that honour should prevail among associates of a certain class; but he had fully convinced himself that Paul Montague was not a fit partner for Hamilton K. Fisker. Fisker was not only unscrupulous himself, but he had a thorough contempt for scruples in others. According to his theory of life, nine hundred and ninety-nine men were obscure because of their scruples, whilst the thousandth man predominated and cropped up into the splendour of commercial wealth because he was free from such bondage.

I also found it remarkable how many strong female characters there were in this book. Note that I mean "strong female character" not (as the term is so often misused) "strong female character." Trollope's characters were all Victorians and acted like it -- he wasn't breaking any gender stereotypes here -- but his women had motives, thoughts, and self-direction as complex as the men. I think Dickens often was a bit deficient in that regard.

It was afterwards said by some of those who had seen her at the time, that Marie Melmotte had shown a hard heart on the occasion. But the condemnation was wrong. Her feeling for her father was certainly not that which we are accustomed to see among our daughters and sisters. He had never been to her the petted divinity of the household, whose slightest wish had been law, whose little comforts had become matters of serious care, whose frowns were horrid clouds, whose smiles were glorious sunshine, whose kisses were daily looked for, and if missed would be missed with mourning. How should it have been so with her? In all the intercourses of her family, since the first rough usage which she remembered, there had never been anything sweet or gracious. Though she had recognized a certain duty, as due from herself to her father, she had found herself bound to measure it, so that more should not be exacted from her than duty required. She had long known that her father would fain make her a slave for his own purposes, and that if she put no limits to her own obedience he certainly would put none. She had drawn no comparison between him and other fathers, or between herself and other daughters, because she had never become conversant with the ways of other families. After a fashion she had loved him, because nature creates love in a daughter's heart; but she had never respected him, and had spent the best energies of her character on a resolve that she would never fear him. "He may cut me into pieces, but he shall not make me do for his advantage that which I do not think he has a right to exact from me."

Also, Winifred Hurtle is kind of awesome.

The 2001 BBC Series

According to Wikipedia, there was a 1969 TV serial of The Way We Live Now, but the more recent (and available) version is the 2001 BBC series directed by David Yates. (Yes, Harry Potter David Yates.)

How cool is it that they cast Éowyn as Mrs. Hurtle? (I found her American drawl rather unconvincing, though -- there is something bizarre about an Australian actress playing an American adventuress in a 19th century British drama and trying to add a Mark Twain twang to her speech.)

This four-episode series had some of the best casting I've seen in a novel adaptation. Matthew Macfadyen, 2005's dickish Mr. Darcy, is a perfectly caddish Sir Felix. David Suchet was nominated for a BAFTA as Augustus Melmotte, and Shirley Henderson was excellent as Marie Melmotte. (Though once I realized she was also Moaning Myrtle, my mind kept going to a Harry Potter/Trollope crossover which would be EPIC!CRACK!FIC so someone who's not me please write it.)

The movie, of course, ditches some of Trollope's restraint to have characters making out in a rather un-Victorian fashion, and adds humor that wasn't in the book (such as poor Mrs. Melmotte's chicken-step dance with the prince). And when Hetta Carbury says "To marry without love is nothing better than prostitution!" she's speaking for a 21st century audience. Trollope would never have put such explicit sentiments in his characters' mouths.

The Way We Live Now can be streamed from Netflix, and it's one of the better "bonnet dramas" I've seen -- such a shame they're rarely seen in the U.S. except by the PBS crowd.

Verdict: Anthony Trollope's been added to my "Need to read more of this author" list. Like Dickens, he is only considered "literary" a hundred years later -- he was writing the mass market paperbacks of his day. Anyone who likes Victorian novels should read The Way We Live Now, especially if you like biting social commentary. Trollope takes shots at everyone from the clergy to Parliament, and while he's at it gets a few digs in on literary critics as well. It's not really a romance, but there are plenty of romantic subplots. It's funnier than you'd expect, and enormously entertaining -- despite the wordiness and some barely-relevant chapters, it never dragged for me.