Before I fell in love with Trollope, sometime in the spring of last year, I couldn’t have told you a great deal about his books, but I would have told you that I understood ‘The Way We Live Now’ to be his biggest, his greatest, his most enduring work. That was why I felt I should read it in the year of his bicentenary, as, in between his two famous series, I explore his stand-alone novels.
Now that I’ve read it I can’t disagree with my earlier evaluation. I found the Trollope I loved, but I found that his tone was darker, and a little more cynical, that I had ever found it before.
I discovered that this books began as a satire, when Trollope returned to London after a year and a half in Australia, and was horrified to find how much in society had changed for the worst. And I believe that is reflected in this wonderful human drama.
The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers to try to secure the reviews that she knew she needed to make her newly published book, ‘Criminal Queens’, a success. She knew that it was not a very good book, but she was a widow with two children she wanted to marry well and had no illusions of being a great author; she was simply trying to bring in the money that was needed to keep her household afloat.
Trollope described her as ‘false from head to foot’, but I liked her. She put on a front, she was determined to keep up appearances, and she did her level best even when it seemed her children were set on making things difficult for her.
The satire here is glorious. I’ve read different suggestions of who might have inspired Lady Carbury’s character – including Frances Trollope, the author’s mother, and Mrs Oliphant – but much of what I read left me inclined to think that Trollope’s principal target was himself.
Lady Carbury’s greatest desire was to marry her son off to an heiress. But he, Sir Felix Carbury, was a hopeless wastrel, oblivious to his family’s situation, with a lifestyle centred around drinking and gambling his London club, the Beargarden, with other, like-minded young men. His mother was oblivious to his failings, and she and he had their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and swiftly rising through society.
But Melmotte had other plans for his daughter. He wanted her to marry well, to take a place in the upper echelons of society. He had in mind Lord Nidderdale, who could offer a title and a country estate, but would need a handsome dowry to keep that estate afloat. It was while the men were arguing terms that Marie, who had firm opinions of her own and was determined to chose her own husband, fell in love with the charming, attentive Sir Felix Carbury. Her father was appalled, but she was determined. It would be Felix who wavered, as he realised that Melmotte was quite capable of following through his threat of disinheriting his daughter if she did not follow his wishes.
Lady Carbury was less concerned about her daughter, Hetta; her son was clearly her favourite. But she was determined that she should marry her cousin, Roger Carbury, who loved her dearly, who had inherited the family estates but not the family title. Hetta was fond of him, but she had given her hear to Roger’s younger friend and protege, Paul Montague.
That was this book’s classic Trollopian love triangle; and I really couldn’t see a resolution this time. Because, though Paul loved Hetta as much as he loved her, he had made promises to an American widow, Mrs. Hurtle, and she had come to London to make sure that he kept those promises.
The emotional arc of this part of the book, and the many twists and turns, were wonderful. I had mixed emotions about the way this story played out, with acceptance on one side and heart-break on another, but I loved the journey to its conclusion.
These are the principal strands of the story, but there is a great deal more to consider.
The Longstaffe family entered a financial arrangement with the Melmottes; leasing their London home to shore up their precarious finances. Their daughter, desperate to secure a husband, saw that as a major setback, and she took drastic action with catastrophic results. She was selfish she was insensitive; but I understood her fears and what drove her and so I felt for her, even as she infuriated me.
Ruby Ruggles, the granddaughter of a tenant farmer on the Carbury estate, had caught the eye of Sir Felix; that led her to run away to London, to escape her grandfather’s beatings and the attentions of a good – but to her mind dull – suitor. She was taken in by her aunt, who also Mrs. Hurtle’s landlady.
Ruby’s story was not my favourite. It was clearly there as the ‘comic relief’ and it seemed a little detached from the other storylines. Though I appreciated that it made serious points, that it played a part in allowing characters whose paths might not otherwise have crossed to meet, and that it had to be there to allow the book to work as a whole.
I particularly appreciated that Ruby’s story brought Mrs Hurtle to the fore. Mrs Hurtle was a wonderful character; her past was dubious, but she had gained wisdom from her experiences; her spirit was strong and her heart was true.
But this book really belongs to the darkly charismatic Augustus Melmotte. The stories of his manoeuvres through the artistocratic society that doesn’t approve of his kind but is drawn to his wealth and power, the society that he knows he needs but can’t quite understand are darkly satirical and utterly compelling. The stories of his shady investments and financial skulduggery are less engaging, but they drive the plot forward.
And of course he is involved in almost all of the drama. There’s an elopement, there’s the election of a new member of parliament, and there’s even a visit from the Emperor of China.
Trollope created a monster, but he gave him such charisma, that after his dramatic downfall and his exit from the stage, my sense of loss was tangible.
The way he made a multitude of plots and a wealth of details work together was masterful. The cast of characters was fabulous, all utterly believable, real, fallible complex human beings. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but I could see that they were all the products of their lives and circumstances, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that they had lives before and after this book.
The women were stronger and more distinctive than the men. I saw some echoes of the Pallisers in some of the men here, and in the stories of parliament and the press; no more than echoes though, and the stories here were different and the characters were a degree or two deeper and darker.
Trollope takes his time winding up the story, setting each character who remained on the stage on the right path to their future. Lady Carbury’s was particularly lovely, and I would so love to read more chapters and find out what happened next to Miss Melmotte and Mrs Hurtle.
I can stand by my initial evaluation of this book; and I can also say that I loved it, and that I think Trollope did what he set out to do with this book very well indeed.