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Anthony Trollope

The Way We Live Now

Revised 18-09-2020
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In his autobiography Trollope tells us that he wrote this novel as a satire inspired by the financial scandals of the 1870s. Augustus Melmotte, a mysterious financier with a dubious past, arrives in London from Paris and quickly acquires a reputation for financial wizardry and untold wealth. All sorts of people, notably impecunious aristocrats, are attracted to him and he takes advantage of them to fleece them. He hosts lavish parties, including a dinner for the Emperor of China, and becomes a Member of Parliament, but eventually everything collapses in confusion.

Although Melmotte's story is central to the novel it is by no means the only source of interest. There is a large cast of characters, at all levels of society, who provide numerous interlocking subplots which are quite as entertaining as that of Melmotte and his machinations. There is a lot of comedy, some of it arising from the activities of a group of feckless young men who attend a club known as the Beargarden. To an extent these are forerunners of P.G. Wodehouse characters such as Bertie Wooster and other members of the Drones, although in darker tones. One of them is a baronet who has wasted his inheritance and is being exhorted by his mother to marry Melmotte's daughter.to restore his fortune.

I'd seen television adaptations of other Trollope novels, but this is the first one I've read, and I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it is. It's a long book—100 chapters—but I had no difficulty in finishing it and kept reading to discover what would happen next. Trollope is a remarkably 'modern' writer, apart from his occasional authorial asides that remind us we are reading fiction, and also a fondness for giving his peripheral characters archly facetious names such as Bideawhile and Sticinthemud.

[Note added 18-09-2020: It has now occurred to me that both the authorial asides and the facetious names can be seen as examples of metafiction, which Wikipedia defines as "a form of fiction that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds readers to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work". He is by no means unique in this respect among nineteenth-century novelists. Plus ça change... .]

Trollope also seems modern in his treatment of his female characters. The limitations that Victorian society imposed on women is a recurrent theme and at least two of them react against this. One of these is Melmotte's daughter, Marie, who initially seems like a nonentity, a pawn in her father's schemes, but then develops a mind of her own and rebels against him; after his death she takes full charge of her own destiny.

Another example is Mrs Hurtle, who is probably the most interesting character in the book. She is an American who has had an affair with Paul Montague, an Englishman a little younger than herself. She is beautiful and passionate and comes to England in pursuit of her lover, who had promsised to marry her but now has changed his mind and fallen in love with a rather insipid English girl.

Mrs Hurtle gives herself out as a widow but there is some doubt about this and there is also a rumour that she once shot a man. Paul is still attracted to her but is also afraid of her; Trollope repeatedly refers to her as a dangerous wild cat. A feminist before her time, she perceives herself as constantly struggling against the prevailing assumption of male superiority.

Melmotte is suspected of being Jewish, Antisemitism is another recurrent theme in the book. This comes out particularly in a subplot concerning Georgiana, the appallingly snobbish daughter of an upper-class family of declining fortune, who finds her matrimonial prospects running out and in desperation decides to marry a rich middle-aged Jewish banker. Her family, predictably, are horrified but she insists. However, the banker loses a lot of money in one of Melmotte's schemes and honourably writes to Georgiana to warn her that he will have to curtail his expenditure. She replies in terms that make it clear she is only marrying him for his money, at which point he wisely breaks off the engagement. One feels he has had a lucky escape.

This novel was not a popular success when it was published; I'm not clear why. It certainly works well today, and it has left me wanting to read more by this author.


%T The Way We Live Now
%A Trollope, Anthony
%I Project Gutenberg
%D 2002, 2013
%K fiction
%O kindle version, downloaded from Project Gutenberg 2020

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