The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1875. It is a stand-alone novel in that it was not part of Trollope’s two big series. I have heard a fair number of people call this the author’s best book. Though I thought a few of his other books were better, I thought that it was excellent and one of his best.
The plot of this book is fairly complex and involves a lot of characters. One center of gravity involves Augustus Melmotte. A British citizen who has recently returned from France, Melmotte is apparently fabulously wealthy. There are rumors that he has gained his money through disreputable means. Because of that, and because he displays vulgarity, he is initially shunned socially. However, as he gains power, people begin to fall in line and even established aristocrats begin to behave obsequiously to him.
Lady Carbury also plays a central role in the story. She is a widow entering middle age. Though she tends to be deceitful and manipulative, she has redeeming qualities. One such positive personality trait is that she is enormously self-sacrificing toward her son. She has also survived a difficult past with an abusive husband.
Marie Melmotte, Augustus’s daughter, is essentially being put up for sale by her father. He wants to marry her to a member of the aristocracy. One of her suitors is the wretched Sir Felix Carbury, Lady Carbury’s son. Felix Carbury, like most of Marie’s suitors, is only interested in her money.
Paul Montague, a flawed but complex young nobleman, is vying for the affections of Hetta Carbury, who is Lady Carbury’s daughter. His life is complicated by the reappearance of his former fiancé, the American widow, Mrs. Hurtle, as well as the fraudulent machinations of Augustus Melmotte.
A common theme that cuts through various families is the changing social situation that is going on in Great Britain at the time. The old aristocracy is for the most part broke. Family properties are mortgaged as everyone falls deeper and deeper in debt. There is a lot of new money around. The new money families have gained their wealth through commerce. Though the aristocracy formally looked down upon the new mercantile class, the older members of the old families are desperate to marry their children into this new wealth as a way to stave off insolvency. For their part, the new money families are eager to marry their children into aristocracy because it will bring aristocratic titles into the families. Amidst all this, Trollope portrays the young, aristocratic sons as spoiled, narcissistic spendthrifts whose behaviors are further burying their families into debt.
The ultimate example of this is Sir Felix Carbury. Though he is a baronet, he has squandered the modest fortune that his father has left him. Along the way he has ruined his military career. He lives a parasitical life draining his mother of her modest income as he continues to lose money gambling. Throughout the narrative he dishonestly courts Marie Melmotte in an attempt to get his hands on her fortune while simultaneously carrying on a dalliance with the lower class Ruby Ruggles. He is initially described as follows,
"He had given himself airs on many scores;—on the score of his money, poor fool, while it lasted; on the score of his title; on the score of his army standing till he lost it; and especially on the score of superiority in fashionable intellect. But he had been clever enough to dress himself always with simplicity and to avoid the appearance of thought about his outward man. As yet the little world of his associates had hardly found out how callous were his affections,—or rather how devoid he was of affection. His airs and his appearance, joined with some cleverness, had carried him through even the viciousness of his life. In one matter he had marred his name, and by a moment's weakness had injured his character among his friends more than he had done by the folly of three years. There had been a quarrel between him and a brother officer, in which he had been the aggressor; and, when the moment came in which a man's heart should have produced manly conduct, he had first threatened and had then shown the white feather. That was now a year since, and he had partly outlived the evil;—but some men still remembered that Felix Carbury had been cowed, and had cowered."
Add to this the many characters who are corrupt and greedy who populate this work, many of whom are in the orbit of the ultimate conman Augustus Melmotte. .
All of this has led many to call this a cynical work by Trollope. I found it in many ways similar to his The Eustace Diamonds. I wrote about that novel here. Both of these books are filled with unethical and narcissistic characters. Thus, these novels are darker than typical Trollope. However, Trollope still presents a world where good people act in contrast to the bad. Like The Eustace Diamonds, this book has a moral center of virtuous people such as Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague. In addition, at the work’s end, Lady Carberry turns away from vacuousness and narcissism when she accepts a marriage proposal from a man of decency and substance. Though much more cynical than the usual Trollope book, I find that this virtuous core, in the end, prevents this from being a truly cynical work.
There is so much more to this novel. It is filled with fascinating characters and situations. I will be posting at least one more blog on one particularly intriguing character. This is one of my favorite Trollope books. Though I liked Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset and Can You Forgive Her? a little better, since this book is a standalone, it would be a fine introduction to the author.
We have a nearly identical list of favorite Trollope novels, so I will certainly plan on reading this after the Palliser series. Enjoying The Prime Minister now.
It's interesting to hear about one of Trollope's standalone novels, particularly as the books from the two series tend to get the most attention. I've only read some of his short stories, most of which demonstrated his sharp eye for characterisation. Insightful commentary as ever, Brian. Thanks for the review.
Hi JoAnn - We also seem to be on a parallel reading track with Trollope. I think that you will enjoy the last of The Palliser Books.
Thanks Jacqui - I have actually not read any of Trollope’s short stories. I must give them s try. I think some people give this one book some attention. Folks seem to really like it.
Thanks for your insightful discussion of this important novel by Trollope. I enjoyed this novel in spite of the overtones of cynicism that you note. Perhaps one reason is that given by David Brooks in his introduction to the Modern Library edition where he suggests that all the major characters have an "admirable core" (with the exception of "the thoroughly worthless Sir Felix Carbury"). Indeed that may be the source of the "virtuous core" of the novel that you mention. You do not mention Mrs. Hurtle and the importance of the idea of America, but perhaps you are saving that for your further commentary.
I will look forward to your further thoughts about The Way We Live Now.
Thanks James - Trollope’s characters are complex and many of the not so good ones do show some humanity. Though Melmonte does show some interesting traits I do not think that he shows any virtue. Mrs. Hurtle will indeed be the subject of my second post on this book.,
felix carbury would be a kind of antithesis to the hero of the book i posted about: austin elliot, who suffered the same sort of honor - related social ostracism, but from the opposite perspective: he was afraid of being white feathered, but hadn't actually done the evil deeds that felix did. but he was considered beyond the pale nevertheless... anyway, a great review that covered all the salient points that T was concerned about...
My reading group has talked about doing a Trollope, and if we managed to get that up, this is the one I'd suggest because I haven't read it, and I did enjoy the mini-series. It was such a rich story about power, class and snobbery - and the characters have depth. Thanks for your review. It's a long time since I read Trollope and I do hanker to read him again.
Hi Brian, I've listened to some of Trollope's Barcherster books on audio & really enjoyed them but gave up on the the first Palliser novel - I think I probably should have tried reading the actual book. Sometimes I don't click with audios. I like the idea of a stand-alone novel so will keep this one in mind. Interesting thoughts on the book, as usual.
Hi Brian, Great commentary on this book. Over the years I have heard very good things about The Way We Live Now and agree that as a stand alone it might be a very good intro to Trollope. For me characters are always going to be the major part of any novel and it sounds like Trollope is a master at creating complex fascinating well drawn characters which the reader can become invested in. Must put this book on my list for 2019.
I never thought about the date Trollope wrote his novels before, although I figured they were 19th century. There's quite a bit of difference between each half of the century, however.
I would like to read this book because 1) it's by Trollope and 2) the changes about aristocracy would be very interesting.
Thanks for the review!
Hi Sharon- I think that you would like this book. What was going on with the aristocracy at the time was fascinating.
Thavks Mudpuddle. That Kinglsly book sounds very good. One interesting about Felix is that he is more or less accepted into the world of narcissistic rich young men that inhabit this book.
Hi WP - I think that this would be a good book for a reading group. As you say, it is rich. As a standalone it also can be read without reading more books to find out the fates of the characters.
Hi Carol - I think that the first Palliser book, Can You Forgive Her? Was a very worthy read. I can understand the thing with audiobooks. They can be a different experience. If you liked The Chronicles of Barsetshire I think that you would like this book.
Thanks Kathy - This would be a great introduction to Trollope. It being a standalone does indeed make it attractive. I think thaf Trollope is one of the greatest crafter of characters who ever wrote.
I'm kind of surprised that I haven't read any of Trollope's work yet. I will keep an eye out for this novel as it sounds like a good one to start with. Very interesting commentary, and post comments!
Hi Suko - This is a good one to start with in that it is one of Trollope’s better ones and it is a standalone. I think that you would like it.
I’ve just finished The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire, and will be posting on it soon, to end my sequence of posts on the series. I have the Pallisers waiting, but like the sound of this one. Its themes as you describe them sound familiar from the Barset sequence - he does tend to recycle his plots, while introducing interesting new characters. He’s at his best with those who are morally conflicted, I feel.
Hi Simon- Trollope does revisit a lot of plot points. I thought that this book was generally closer in plot and themes to The Palliser Books then The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I look forward to reading your thoughts on The Last Chronicle of Barset.
I like the elegance and psychological acuity in the excerpt you posted. And yes, it's hard to say everything about a complex book with so many characters in one post.
Hi Hila - That is such a well written quotation. I will be posting more on this novel.
TERRIFIC commentary as usual, Brian!
This novel does sound pretty cynical, although, as you have stated, there are some virtuous characters in it that set off the narcissistic, opportunistic ones.
I need to read some British history, as I've come across the type of thing you've mentioned here -- the fact that the old aristocracy was in debt, and eager to marry into the mercantile class -- in at least one novel I reviewed some time back. I don't recall the title now, but it definitely had something to do with this theme. How ironic that the tables were turned on the old aristocracy! They had previously looked down their noses at the mercantile class, and now they were courting them in order to avoid insolvency!
I really like Trollope's writing style. You always include an excerpt from the books you're reviewing, and I love it! Doing this give us, your readers, a chance to see a given writer's prose style. I have liked all of the Trollope excerpts you've included so far. They all show an incisive view of human nature, and are flawlessly written!
Incidentally, I've learned a new expression here, and I think it's a uniquely British one: "he had first threatened, and had then shown the white feather". The meaning is obvious, from the context, but I had never heard this before. How interesting!
By the way, I really like the cover of this particular edition! It has a touch of whimsy about it, yet it's not overly cute. :)
Thanks for your always insightful, well-written thoughts!! Hope you're having a GREAT week so far!! <3 :)
I have seen this called one of the best Trollope novels many times but I had no clue it was this dark. That’s quite surprising. It reminded me a bit of what I’ve read about Vanity Fair, another novel I need to read finally.
Hi Caroline- Dark is a relative term. This is still a Trollope book and I found that it still exudes his feel. There were similarities between this and Vanity Fair. I liked that book a lot.
Have you read Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans? It's rather harsh. :) I find Anthony Trollope a bit plodding most of the time, but the scathingly satirical The Way We Live Now is more up my street. Have you seen the mini-series adaptation? It takes some liberties with the story, but David Suchet is excellent as Melmotte.
Thanks Maria. Trollope really did write wonderfully. I also had never heard the term “show the white feather”. It is a neat figure of speech.
I also did not know about the aristocracy’s attempt to marry their way out of financial distress. I think that I learned it from Trollope.
That is a really nice cover.
Hi Violet- I have not read Francis Trollope. I must give her a try. I have heard good things about Domestic Manners.
I must also catch the miniseries.
Trollope sure seemed prolific. This one does sound cynical but with a lot of characters. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Have you read his novel Lady Anna or his autobiography? Just curious about those. thanks
Hi Susan- He wrote 54 novels.
I have not read Lady Anna but I would like to. I also want to read his biography. I am often torn as to whether or not to read more original work or a biography, but for Trollope, I really should get a biography in.
Just ordered The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope from Amazon. Noticed the video--David Suchet (Hercule Poirot).
Your analysis is thorough, and I appreciate that.
I'll be back.
Thanks for stopping by Susan and thanks for the good word.
I would love to know what you think when you read the book.
i love Trollope and you make me want to reread this! My own favorite is He Knew He Was Right, and any excuse will do. I do find I want to read Trollope all the time and I only hope your next post won't make me abandon some disciplined reading of newish books, because I find I always want to read 19th-century novels.
Thanks for stopping by Kat. I also have fallen in love with Trollope over the last few years. I also love 19th century novels in general. I have not read He Knew He Was Right yet. I must do so soon.
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