Monday, 4 March 2013

'The Way We Live Now' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

It is a sign of how prolific Anthony Trollope was that he has been my most-read author for the past three years, and yet I have barely made a dent in his collected works.  Despite all the unread novels I have to get through though, I tend to go back to my old favourites when I feel like some comfort reading, and today's choice is one of his best.  There is something unique about this book though - it is the only one I have read and not reviewed on the blog...

...consider this oversight corrected ;)

The Way We Live Now is another shelf-groaner, coming in at 762 pages in my edition, but well over 800 in others.  It was originally published in twenty monthly parts of five chapters each in 1874/5, and it is actually set over six months in 1873.  It is truly a novel of its time...

As usual, most of the action takes place in London, with occasional visits to the countryside.  The main character is Augustus Melmotte, 'the Great Financier', a man of dubious provenance and even more dubious morals. While in earlier Trollope novels such a character would struggle to make it over the threshold of Barchester Cathedral, these are different times.  Melmotte may not be a gentleman, but he is (or appears to be) very rich, with a daughter ripe for the wooing:
"There was considerable doubt whether Marie was the daughter of that Jewish-looking woman.  Enquiries had been made, but not successfully, as to the date of the Melmotte marriage.  There was an idea abroad that Melmotte had got his first money with his wife, and had gotten it not very long ago.  Then other people said that Marie was not his daughter at all.  Altogether the mystery was rather pleasant as the money was certain.  Of the certainty of money in daily use there could be no doubt."
p.29 (Wordsworth Editions, 2001)
As young noblemen fall over themselves to court young Marie, their fathers attempt to attach themselves to the great man in the hope of profiting from his fortune.  Within a season, Melmotte is the biggest man in the city (possibly the empire), even hosting a banquet for the visiting Emperor of China.  But what goes up...

The Way We Live Now is Trollope's concerned look at the state of affairs in England at the time.  The gentry were beginning to struggle for money, and the idea of young heirs prostituting themselves for money was a common one - the men provided the blood and rank, their wives provided beauty and money, even if their grandfathers had made it in trade.  However, the fairly recent idea of speculation meant that bigger sums were on the table - even if the money was not always as safe as it might be.  The landed gentry see what they want to see and allow themselves to be blinded by the dream of unlimited wealth, at times with disastrous consequences.

We follow a degenerate example of this class, Sir Felix Carbury, a young man with many vices and little to recommend him but his appearance and his title.  He is the antithesis of Melmotte, a cowardly rake who cannot pluck up the courage to risk all on happiness with Marie (who prefers him among her many suitors).  Instead, he wastes his fortune on drinking, flirtations with lower-class women and cards at the club (where even his friends think little of him).

Although Felix loses large amounts in his gambling, this turns out to be nothing, for it is in Melmotte's offices in the city that real gambling is done.  The modern alchemy of creating money from nothing is a far headier (and riskier) activity than loo or three-handed whist.  Despite the obvious drawbacks, Carbury and his set of bored young noblemen begin to see the attraction of gambling on a larger scale than they had ever imagined possible...

Coming after some of the Palliser novels, The Way We Live Now is a further example of Trollope holding a mirror up to society at a time when new and old values were in conflict.  However, perhaps surprisingly, the old world isn't really portrayed that favourably.  In fact, many of the traditional characters in what was supposed to be a more balanced novel are fairly bland.  Normally, the reader would expect to be cheering on staid Roger Carbury, the reticent Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague, Hetta's chosen beau.  The reality is that in the company of figures like Melmotte and Felix Carbury, the supposed good-guys are as enticing as cardboard.

In a cast of dozens though, Melmotte is (possibly literally) head and shoulders above everyone else.  Trollope has created a monster, a man devoid of human feelings, using everyone and everything in order to satisfy his gargantuan appetite for wealth.  He is uncouth and arrogant with no knowledge of how to conduct himself in polite society, yet people fall over themselves to be in his presence.  All know his true character, but he somehow rises above his background, absolved of the onus of conforming to societal norms by the appearance of wealth.  At one point, a minor character compares him to Napoleon in explaining his appeal and his freedom of action:
"Such a man rises above honesty... as a great general rises above humanity when he sacrifices an army to conquer a nation.  Such greatness is incompatible with small scruples.  A pigmy man is stopped by a little ditch, but a giant stalks over the rivers." p.200
Trollope's views on the subject are never in doubt, but the majority of his characters in The Way We Live Now are sorely tempted by the opportunity to make their fortunes, even if (as the writer frequently points out) those who touch pitch run the risk of being defiled...

...for as powerful as Melmotte appears, he knows better than anyone that his power (and fortune) rests on the most fickle of bases - confidence.  His insistence on brazening things out is based on the knowledge that should he show a moment's weakness, his house of cards will come crashing down around his ears.  As the great man himself bellows:
"Gentlemen who don't know the nature of credit, how strong it is - as the air - to buoy you up; how slight it is - as a mere vapour - when roughly touched, can do an amount of mischief of which they themselves don't in the least understand the extent!" p.308
It is all a matter of faith - but just how long are people willing to trust him?

The Way We Live Now is a Trollope book I come back to time and again, and what makes this a great book is the fact that it will never lose its relevance.  Recent events (such as the Global Financial Crisis...) show that people will always allow themselves to be drawn into idiotic and unethical behaviour when there is any possibility of making a quick buck.  A book of its time?  Definitely - but it still has a lot to say to us today about the way we live now...