Reviewed by Harriet
Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.
So wrote Anthony Trollope about his late, great, long, 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now. It’s just been republished in a new Oxford World Classics edition, and I have to say that much as I love Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, I’m tempted to describe it as his masterpiece.
If you are familiar with Trollope you will know that he is rather fond of sub-plots, and there are probably more of these here than in any other of his novels. But the central figure, who dominates the book and who will stay forever in the memory of anyone who reads it, is the great financier and swindler Augustus Melmotte. Though his origins are obscure, Melmotte appears in London from some unnamed foreign parts, together with his wife and daughter, and sets himself up in incredibly grand style, buying a house in Grosvenor Square and throwing the most astonishingly lavish parties. He is soon approached by a young man, Paul Montague, who suggests that he invest in a new project, a railway line to run from San Francisco to Mexico City. Melmotte seizes the project and makes it his own, putting together a board of aristocratic directors and selling shares which quickly shoot up in value. But as time goes on it becomes increasingly clear that he is using the money to finance his own shockingly excessive lifestyle.
Connected to Melmotte in various ways are numerous other characters, whose lives are to be profoundly affected by his influence. Primary among these are Lady Carbury, an impoverished writer of bad books (and possibly based on Trollope’s own mother), her adored but utterly worthless son Sir Felix, who has gambled and drunk away his inheritance and now sponges off his mother, and her daughter Hetta, who falls in love with Paul Montague. Sir Felix is truly a monster — His heart was a stone. But he was beautiful to look at, ready-witted, and intelligent — but his mother adores him and readily connives at his plan to marry Melmotte’s daughter Marie, who is an heiress. When Melmotte refuses his consent to the marriage, the two plan an elopement, but Sir Felix gets drunk the night before, gambles away the money Marie has given him, and misses the train to Liverpool. Hetta meanwhile has troubles of her own, as she discovers that Paul has an American ex-mistress, Mrs Hurtle, who, refusing to accept his breaking of their engagement, has pursued him to London in an attempt to get him back. Then there’s Georgiana Longstaffe, whose father and brother are on Melmotte’s board. Desperate for a husband, she accepts a proposal from a widowed banker, Mr Breghart, but her father will not hear of the marriage because he is Jewish.
The novel is usually described as a satire on London society. But I imagine it is actually too near the reality to be described as truly satirical. Trollope apparently returned from abroad and was appalled by the state of affairs he found at home — in fact Melmotte himself is undoubtedly an amalgam of several well-known swindlers, two of whom managed to get elected to Parliament just as Melmotte himself does. But in any case Melmotte serves as a focus for all that is wrong with the society of the day. The aristocracy is in terrible shape, lacking both money and morals. All the young single men see Marie Melmotte as a highly desirable catch and a way to save their failing and crumbling estates, and their fathers are only too pleased to attend Melmotte’s tasteless parties and sit on his board, in the hope of recuperating their dwindling fortunes. Yet, despite their uniformly hopeless financial straits, they are all pervaded with the most frightful snobbery, most clearly seen in poor Georgiana, who accepts Breghart despite her misgivings that she will not be accepted into any of her friends houses if she marries a Jew, and who is in any case prevented from doing so by the knowledge that her parents will cast her out if she does.
The novel is not entirely devoid of characters who at least have some good points — Paul and Hetta, of course, but also Marie Melmotte, uneducated and passionate, who learns at last to be strong and independent and to think for herself. I also had a soft spot for one of her suitors, Lord Nidderdale, who turns out to be rather a good egg in the end, helping her and her hopeless stepmother when they find themselves in very dire straits. Kind hearted and intelligent, he is forced to acquiesce to his father’s demands that he marry an heiress, only remarking that it would be helpful if a list of such eligible young ladies were to be published, giving the amount of their fortunes and stipulating what they would require in return.
And, of course, the novel is notable for what it has to say about women. Although female emancipation was still a long way in the future, the women here are increasingly unwilling to submit to parental pressure, and speak up for themselves and their rights in quite strong terms. Mrs Hurtle is a fascinating character, and I suppose typifies women who Trollope would have been familiar with since his mother spent a long time in America, but even Hetta Carbury has plenty to say about the need to make her own decisions and live her own life.
And over the whole novel hangs Augustus Melmotte, terrible and wonderful in his entirely criminal and vicious power. The scene where he makes his final appearance in Parliament is a terrific picture of the fall of someone who I can’t help seeing as a tragic hero. And, having watched a 2001 BBC adaptation of the novel on YouTube, I will forever see Melmotte as he is brilliantly played by David Suchet.
The new Oxford edition has an interesting introduction and helpful notes by Francis O’Gorman. Highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, edited with an introduction and notes by Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press, 2016). 978-0198705031, 816pp., paperback original.
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