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The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

27 January 2009

A book by Trollope, finally posted to To Bed With a Trollope? It had to happen sometime, you know.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

‘Lie back and think of England’ may have been the genteel advice supposedly passed down from long-suffering mothers to newlywed daughters in Victorian England, but for certain strata of polite society even this suggestion glossed over the fact that marriage was often less of a joining of two hearts and minds and more of an outright financial contract. The moneyed sought the social legitimacy that a title or a family estate could provide, and the peerage and gentry looked for the heir or heiress (most often the latter) who could bring a sizeable sum to prop up their position in society. Often-cited real-life examples of this mercenary approach to marriage include American heiresses Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome, both of whom married into the family of the Dukes of Marlborough and whose successes encouraged others to look very carefully at prospective suitors or eligible ladies to determine whether a marriage was financially or socially suitable enough to be blessed by both families. More than a few contemporaries writers considered the marriage market to be a prime example of the moral bankruptcy of their age, and few writers attacked it and other social flaws of their day as skilfully and savagely as Anthony Trollope did in his 1875 novel The Way We Live Now.

One of the two main plot threads of The Way We Live Now centres on the ups and downs of the Carbury family: the widowed Lady Carbury, her handsome but odious son Sir Felix Carbury, and her trodden-upon daughter Henrietta Carbury. Lady Carbury, left in precarious financial straits upon the death of her abusive husband, is desperate to see her children settled in suitable marriages. She hopes that Felix, who inherited his father’s baronetcy but squandered the small amount of money left to him, will be able to use his good looks and family name to snare an heiress — and also hopes that Henrietta will see sense and agree to marry her older cousin Roger Carbury, in spite of the fact the girl is in love with Roger’s young ward Paul Montague. The Carburys’ domestic troubles are to some extent entwined with the other main plot: the financial fortunes of the fabulously rich (and possibly foreign) Augustus Melmotte. Melmotte is alternately loathed and worshipped by London society — the duchesses who clamour to attend his parties openly talk scandal about the source of his great wealth, and gentlemen who would refuse to accept Melmotte at their clubs are eager to invest sums they cannot afford in his scheme to build a new railroad in the American southwest. What is more, Melmotte’s daughter Marie is the prize of the season for every lord and gentleman who could use a £50,000 marriage settlement to settle a few unpaid gambling debts or tradesmen’s bills. Add in the complications caused by Felix’s attempt to seduce a young country woman and the unexpected arrival in London of an impulsive but warm-hearted American widow, and the plot threads become increasingly tangled to the point where it seems that none of the characters are likely to end the story happily. But as the story draws to a conclusion, the one thing that is most certain is that Trollope has raked every character over the coals and exposed all of their flaws and failings, and in doing so has highlighted the moral weaknesses of human beings at all levels of society.

The Way We Live Now is one of Trollope’s stand-alone books, mostly unrelated to either of his six-volume connected works, the Chronicles of Barsetshire or the Palliser novels. Trollope considered it to be a satirical commentary on the grossness of the commercial excesses that he saw in London society, the financial scandals and marriage brokering and outright deceit in everything from politics to relationships. Almost none of the characters are truly sympathetic or in some cases even likeable: Felix Carbury and his friends are drunken dissolutes, nearly all of the women are sneering hypocrites or weak-willed enablers of the vices of others, and even Trollope’s clergymen range from a genial but practically agnostic bishop to a pious but tactless Roman Catholic priest. The only characters who seem to emerge relatively unscathed by Trollope’s pen are the aforementioned American widow Mrs Winifred Hurtle, and to a lesser extent a Jewish banker named Ezekiel Breghert, who maintains his dignity in the face of exceedingly virulent English anti-Semitism. (Trollope is not exactly free of anti-Semitic tendencies himself, but he is at least more willing to acknowledge his prejudices for what they are.) The book is good about tossing the action back and forth among the main plots and a string of subplots, and even if some of the arrangements seem a little too coincidental to be believed they keep the story moving along to the end.

For a work of satirical fiction, The Way We Live Now has any number of unsettling echoes to the present day. In 1875, the British Empire was on top of the world and had nowhere to go but down. In The Way We Live Now, Trollope illustrates the factors that he thought would be the harbingers of imperial downfall, from the rise of American power and prestige to the poverty and dissipation of many privileged young men who ought to be leading the nation. But replace railroad speculation with dot-com stocks and subprime mortgages, compare gambling debts to credit card balances, and substitute trophy wives for heiress chasing, and it is difficult to deny that Trollope’s novel presents a very unforgiving picture of the way we live now.

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