Over the past eight years I’ve read about 20 novels by Anthony Trollope, including the six Barsetshire novels and the six Palliser novels, but I’ve been saving The Way We Live Now as if it were a dessert. This one wasn’t highly regarded when first published in serial form in 1874-75 but its reputation has increased greatly in recent years, mostly for its disturbing view of what Trollope later called the “commercial profligacy of the age” (Autobiography, ch. 20).
Just 20 years separate the onset of the Barsetshire novels and the world of The Way We Live Now but England has changed a great deal, and everyone comments on those changes. Social mores have loosened somewhat, but the real horrors seem to be in the worlds of high finance where dishonesty and theft are the norms. The international cast of The Way We Live Now is obsessed with money, and this obsession has affected their entire lives.
Trollope thought of this book as a satire, and for sure they are some humorous touches, including typical Trollopian names like the law firm of Slow and Bideawhile, the publishing house of Leadham and Loiter, the society couple Sir Damask and Lady Monogram. But there are so many uncompromising portrayals of drunkenness, addiction, and domestic violence in this novel that the very title must have seemed like an insult to Trollope’s readers. I am not surprised it wasn’t appreciated at the time.
Trollope isn’t much of a stylist, and the opening paragraph of The Way We Live Now seems positively deadly:
Let the reader be introduced to Lady Carbury, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing-table in her own room in her own house in Welbeck Street. Lady Carbury spent many hours at her desk, and wrote many letters — wrote also very much beside letters. She spoke of herself in these days as a woman devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L. Something of the nature of her devotion may be learned by the perusal of three letters which on this morning she had written with a quickly running hand. Lady Carbury was rapid in everything, and in nothing more rapid than in the writing of letters. Here is Letter No. 1: —
We soon learn very much about Lady Carbury. She may have “her own room in her own house” but she has been emotionally damaged from an abusive marriage that today we would classify as codependent: “Her husband would even strike her — and the first effort of her mind would be given to conceal the fact from all the world.” (ch. 2)
Any instinct towards love has long since been snuffed out in Lady Carbury. Now she’s just trying to survive. She is having money problems — just about everyone in The Way We Live Now is suffering from money problems — and she has written a book to bring in some income. The book is an historical hack job entitled Criminal Queens, with portraits (among others) of Cleopatra, Anne Boleyne (as Trollope spells it), Marie Antoinette, and Queen Caroline. All three letters Lady Carbury is writing in the first chapter are to men — editors of newspapers and magazines — who she believes can help her literary career if properly buttered up.
Lady Carbury has two children of marriage age who she manipulates to reject love for themselves and accept her expedient matches. For her daughter Henrietta (called Hetta) she plans a marriage to her husband’s well-to-do cousin Roger Carbury. Never mind that Roger is much older than Hetta, or that Hetta doesn’t think of him romantically. Lady Carbury has little feeling for her daughter but positively dotes on her son Felix, one of the poorest excuses for a human being ever to appear in a Trollope novel.
He had so spent his life hitherto that he did not know how to get through a day in which no excitement was provided for him. He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women — the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him. (ch. 67)
Felix spends most of his evenings at his club the Beargarden, named after a famous London animal-baiting arena of earlier centuries. At the Beargarden he drinks and plays cards until the wee hours of the morning when he staggers home to bed where he stays until mid-afternoon. His friends include other dissipated young men, including Dolly Longestaffe, who has a much larger role here than in the Palliser novels. When the Beargarden is threatened with being shut down much later in the novel, the men describe why they like it so much:
Smoke all over the house … no horrid nonsense about closing … no infernal old fogies wearing out the carpets and paying for nothing … Not a vestige of propriety or any beastly rules to be kept!” (ch. 96)
Lady Carbury is mostly blind to the flaws of her son, and for him she has planned a marriage to none other than Marie Melmotte. She is the daughter of the famous international financier Augustus Melmotte, whose move to London kicks off much of the action of the novel. Melmotte claims he was born in England but no one is really sure.
It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. (ch. 4)
Melmotte gets involved in a project that originated in the United States of a railway line between Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz. Trollope is fond of constructing parallels, and an amusing one exists between the young men playing cards in the Beargarden and the financial maneuvers behind the railroad. The Beargarden regulars have been gambling among themselves so long that they no longer use real money, but instead place bets with each other’s IOUs. Later, as the Board of Trustees for the railroad is assembled, it becomes obvious that similar financial magic is at work.
There was not one of them present who had not after some fashion been given to understand that his fortune was to be made, not by the construction of the railway, but by the floating of the railway shares. (ch. 10)
Throughout the first half of the novel Melmotte seems to inflate in size like a giant balloon and at very nearly the center of the novel he runs for Parliament —as a Tory, of course — while simultaneously throwing a huge dinner party to honor the visit to London of the Emperor of China, an accumulation of hubris that can only lead to his deflation.
Despite the apparent broad scope of The Way We Live Now, Trollope feels most comfortable in the realm of young people in love, and the parallel extended romantic triangles are difficult to keep straight without a scorecard. Ruby Ruggles is betrothed to John Crumb, and yet she much prefers the attentions of Felix Carbury, who is officially pursuing Marie Malmotte whose father wants her to marry Lord Nidderdale, whose father has struck a deal with Melmotte.
Hetta Carbury’s mother wants her to marry her cousin Roger, and Roger wants Hetta more than anything in the world, yet she is much more attracted to Paul Montague, who was Roger’s best friend and protégé until the clash over Hetta. Moreover, Paul Montague has a past in the form of the American woman Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, who he met and travelled with in America and who has followed him back to London. Mrs. Hurtle may or may not be a widow, and if she's not a widow, she may or may not be divorced.
The fact, however, best known of her was that she had shot a
man through the head somewhere in Oregon. She had not been tried for
it, as the world of Oregon had considered that the circumstances
justified the deed. (ch. 26)
That rumor turns out to be true, as Mrs. Hurtle herself confesses:
‘That is no lie. I did. I brought him down dead at my feet.’ Then she paused, and rose from her chair and looked at him. ‘Do you wonder that that is a story that a woman should hesitate to tell? But not from shame. Do you suppose that the sight of that dying wretch does not haunt me? That I do not daily hear his drunken screech, and see him bound from the earth, and then fall in a heap just below my hand? But did they tell you also that it was thus alone that I could save myself — and that had I spared him, I must afterwards have destroyed myself? If I were wrong, why did they not try me for his murder? Why did women flock around me and kiss the very hems of my garments? In this soft civilization of yours you know nothing of such necessity. A woman here is protected — unless it be from lies.’ (ch. 47)
The subplot I found most fascinating in The Way We Live Now involves Dolly Longestaffe’s sister Georgiana. Georgiana is 29 years old, her elder sister is getting married, and she has become aware that she has missed her chances of making a good marriage.
She had begun life with very high aspirations, believing in her own beauty, in her mother’s fashion, and her father’s fortune. She had now been ten years at the work, and was aware that she had always flown a little too high for her mark at the time. At nineteen and twenty and twenty-one she had thought that all the world was before her. With her commanding figure, regular long features, and bright complexion, she had regarded herself as one of the beauties of the day, and had considered herself entitled to demand wealth and coronet. At twenty-two, twenty-three, and twenty-four, any young peer, or peer’s eldest son, with a house in town and the country, might have sufficed. Twenty-five and six had been the years for baronets and squires; and even a leading fashionable lawyer or two had been marked for her as sufficient since that time. But now she was aware that hitherto she had always fixed her price a little too high. On three things she was still determined — that she would not be poor, that she would not be banished from London, and that she would not be an old maid. (ch. 60)
Partially out of desperation Georgiana has accepted the proposal of Ezekiel Brehgert, who is not only some 20 years older than her, but Jewish as well. Nineteenth-century England was notoriously anti-Semitic, so when a Jew is introduced into a Victorian novel, the modern reader first cringes and then looks on with a curious fascination. Trollope was much less anti-Semitic than many of his contemporaries. He seemed to enjoy more the portrayal of anti-Semitism in his novels rather than the practice of it, and he gives to Georgiana some enlightened views:
Though she hardly knew how to explain the matter to herself, she was sure that there was at present a general heaving-up of society on this matter, and a change in progress which would soon make it a matter of indifference whether anybody was a Jew or Christian. For herself she regarded the matter not at all, except as far as it might be regarded by the world in which she wished to live. She was herself above all personal prejudices of that kind. Jew, Turk, or infidel was nothing to her. She had seen enough of the world to be aware that her happiness did not lie in that direction, and could not depend in the least on the religion of her husband. Of course she would go to church herself. She always went to church. It was the proper thing to do. (ch. 60)
Yet, this is no loaded-dice Guess-Who’s-Coming-to-Dinner manipulation where Brehgert turns out to be dashing and handsome and clearly superior to the Christian English folk. Trollope doesn’t let the reader off that easy. He describes Brehgert as “a fat, greasy man of fifty, conspicuous for hair-dye” (ch. 60) and makes the reader complicit in his characters' prejudices.
Georgiana’s parents and siblings react very poorly to Georgiana’s decision to marry Brehgert. Her brother tells their parents “You ought to lock her up.” (ch. 78) and I’m reluctant even to quote the ugly things the parents themselves say. Here’s one of Georgiana’s mother’s reactions that is more humorous than cruel:
‘It was so dreadful… so very dreadful. I never heard of anything so bad. When young what’s-his-name married the tallow-chandler’s daughter I thought it would have killed me if it had been Dolly; but this was worse than that. Her father was a methodist.’ (ch. 79)
The more we get to know Brehgert, however, the more we admire his quiet dignity, and even appreciate the skillful way in which he manages to rub the noses of the Longestaffes in their own hypocrisy. What happens between Georgiana and Brehgert is very odd. Through an exchange of letters they seem to offend each other in very subtle ways that Trollope is forced to meticulously describe lest they be lost on the reader.
That marriage doesn’t happen, but a great many others do, so many in the final chapters that The Way We Live Now finally has to be classified as a comedy. It is certainly not a perfect novel — Trollope’s books are too sprawling and messy to ever qualify as perfect — but it provides a unique revealing window into England circa 1875. Few novels of that era were as brutally honest as this one.