Charles Petzold

Reading Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now”

September 23, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

That rumor turns out to be true, as Mrs. Hurtle herself confesses:

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.

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:

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:

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.