"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 26, 2011

"The Way We Live Now" by Anthony Trollope (Book review}

Anthony Trollope wrote The Way We Live Now in 1875 as a biting satire on his time. After a trip abroad, he saw England with new eyes and was struck by the central position money had come to occupy and the dishonesty and vice accompanying this phenomenon. The fantasy of easy money was twisting the lives of many people and in the novel becomes the butt of the satirist's whip.

In the process Trollope creates some of his most memorable characters: in the first place the sinister financier Melmotte, a colossal figure who dominates the novel - he plays the stock market and creates fortunes out of nothing, which also tend to evaporate into nothingness again (it is almost a satire of our own times!). His origins are as obscure as his financial dealings, but London's decadent and penniless aristocracy welcomes him with open arms.

Then we have Lady Carbury, a 43-year old coquette and scheming widow, who writes for money and bribes the newspapers to write positively about her work; her profligate son Felix, a spineless youth addicted to gambling and almost all other vices one can think of, whose only way out of ruin is to marry an heiress; Marie, Melmotte's daughter, who abused by her father, stands up for herself and develops into a stronger woman; and Mrs Hurtle, an indomitable American lady who in the past has shot a man and now has followed her renegade suitor to England to remind him of his marriage promise.

Less interesting are Trollope's "stock characters:" the young man who has sowed his wild oats and now has reformed himself (Paul Montague, the previous suitor of Mrs. Hurtle); the stubborn young woman who does not make the reasonable choice her environment expects of her but who follows her own heart (Hetta Carbury); and Roger Carbury, the square and boring head of the Carbury family, fruitlessly in love with his niece Hetta, and the mouthpiece for Trollope's tirades "against the way we live now."

The satire in this novel is so strong, that in its own time The Way We Live Now was one of Trollope's least popular works. It was considered as sour and sordid. Trollope had probably stepped on the long toes of his contemporaries. But since then, the novel has emerged as Trollope's masterpiece and the most admired of his works. It certainly has a delicious cast of characters and is an engrossing comedy of manners.

I have only one problem with this giant book: this, Trollope's longest novel at about 950 pages, is really about one-third too long. Trollope set out to fill two volumes of each 50 chapters and he kept to his plan. But... the story is in fact finished when we are about one-third in volume two. At that point, the downfall of Melmotte has become clear and the fates of the other characters bring no new surprises. As readers, we can see it all before us, and would have been satisfied with a quick finale. But Trollope still has to fill more than thirty chapters and plodding makes his way forward by repetition and by spinning out the story as much as he can.

Trollope had to satisfy his publisher with the planned number of chapters so that the novel could be marketed in two large volumes, which brought in more money than one volume. The Way We Live Now is a satire on the power of money - but by unnaturally stretching the story Trollope himself here sacrifices art on the altar of profit, showing that he, too, was a child of his times.

The Way We Live Now is available as Oxford World Classic and as Penguin. It can also be found free on Gutenberg. In 2001, the novel was made into a BBC mini-series with David Suchet as Melmotte (a great performance, repulsive and charismatic at the same time).