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.