The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

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.

1171458The 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.

The Usurper: an Episode of Japanese History by Judith Gautier (1875)

I first learned of Judith Gautier earlier this year, when Lyn and her 19th century book group read this book. I loved the sound of it, and when I read more about the author I was intrigued.

She was the daughter of a writer and a ballerina; she was the lover of a noted composer; she was a student of the Orient; a poet, novelist and dramatist; and a member of the Académie Goncourt. Clearly she was a very accomplished lady, and I’m so pleased that some of her work is available in translation.

‘The Usurper’ is set in seventeenth century Japan, and it’s a wonderful story, full of action and intrigue, drama and romance, and informed by the authors love and understanding of the world where it is set.

When I found this book, on Project Gutenberg, I was captivated by the start by lovely, descriptive prose.

“Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

A hearty youthful peal of laughter, which broke forth suddenly, drowned these pious sounds for an instant; and two men appeared, dark against the clear sky, at the top of the snowy staircase. They paused a moment, on the uppermost step, to admire the lovely mass of brambles, ferns, and flowering shrubs which wreathed the balustrade of the staircase. Then they descended slowly through the fantastic shadows cast across the steps by the branches. Reaching the foot of the stairs, they moved quickly aside, that they might not upset a tortoise creeping leisurely along the last step. This tortoise’s shell had been gilded, but the gilding was somewhat tarnished by the dampness of the grass ….”

Those two men are Fide-Yori, a young Shogun who had been supported by a Regent, but was now ready for the Regent to step aside, and Iwakura, Prince of Nagato, his closest friend and counsellor They knew that  Hieyas, who was an ambitious, older man, would be unwilling to let go of the power he loved.

They were right. Hieyas believed that he should have the Shogun’s position, and that Nagato had undermined him. He began to plot and scheme against them. He believed that right was on his side, he drew others to his cause, and soon Japan was at war.

This story, full of action, drama and heroism, is entangled with love stories.

GautierUsurperNagato loved the Kisaki, the highest ranking of the Mikado’s wives. She return that love, but she knew that their relationship was doomed. She arranged for him to be betrothed to Fatkoura, one of her ladies who she knew loved him dearly. He obeyed, but he could not love her as she loved him.

That left Fatkoura vulnerable, and she abducted by one of Hieyas’ allies, the Prince of Tosa. He fell in love with her, he tried to court her, but she was contemptuous, even though her situation and her feelings for Nagato left her close to despair.

And the Shogun was smitten with Omiti, a young woman who had brought him a warning of plot against Nagato’s life. He wanted to make her his wife, but she had disappeared and he had no idea where she had come from or where she had gone.

Those are the broad strokes of the stories, and there is much more that brings the story together.

There was action! There was drama! There was romance!

There were plot twists aplenty, and a wealth of lovely details.

The characters were quite simply drawn, but I found it easy to understand their situations and their feelings, and why they spoke and acted as they did. It took me a while to sort out the different names and titles at the start, but once I’d done that I was fine.

I saw echoes of other stories in this one; some older stories and myths and some literature from closer to the authors own era. And though the setting is seventeenth century Japan there is much in her story that is timeless and universal. This is a very human story; a little predictable in places but well thought out and constructed.

I have to say though that the story was secondary to the world and the culture that the author wanted to illuminate. My own background in her subject is minimal, but I felt that she used her knowledge well, and that it must have been quite wonderful for her contemporaries, who didn’t have the possibilities for travelling and acquiring knowledge that we are blessed with now, to learn of history and culture on the other side if the world like this.

The wonderfully descriptive prose really pulled me into the world, and I loved seeing it; I couldn’t quite feel that I was part of the story, but I was a fascinated spectator, very close to the action.

The action scenes were well done, the romance was just a little overblown, but where the writing really shone was in the set pieces. There’s a picnic early in the story, where tales are told, and more than one person recognised the significance of the stories; I could read those particular pages over and over again. And I’m going to finish with the beginning of a dramatic scene in a theatre, towards the end of the book.

This isn’t a book for everyone, but of you like the sound of it, and if you like this kind of writing, I would recommend it as a wonderful, escapist entertainment

“Soon the favored portion of the public, who were able to engage their seats in advance, arrived from all sides. Across the two bridges arching the canal to right and left of the theatre came norimonos and cangos, their bearers advancing with measured pace, and following one after the other in infinite succession; from every street appeared countless palanquins. The black lacquer glittered in the sun, the dresses of the women, in haste to enter, had the fresh tints of newly opened flowers. Some young men arrived on horseback; they threw the bridle to the groom, who ran before them, and mounted the stairs to the theatre hurriedly. Under the shade of broad parasols came various families on foot. Upon the canal a throng of boats besieged the landing-stage; the rowers exchanged hard words; the women stepped on shore with little shrieks of alarm. They were followed by maid-servants carrying magnificent boxes of carved ivory, mother-of-pearl, or sandal-wood. The hall was soon filled, and the doors were closed.

The interior of the theatre was rectangular in shape, the parquet divided into square spaces separated by partitions about ten inches high. Two aisles led from the back of the house to the stage, which latter was not divided by any practical boundary from the body of the house, both being upon the same level. These aisles seemed intended rather for occasional exits and entrances of the actors, than for the accommodation of visitors, the partitions between the boxes being sufficiently broad to allow the spectators to reach the places reserved for them. The journey, however, was not without peril, and was accomplished amid screams and bursts of laughter. The women, hampered by their handsome dresses, advanced cautiously, stumbling occasionally. The men offered their arms, to help them into the boxes; but some preferred to sit upon the edge and slide gracefully down. Each compartment held eight persons, who squatted upon the matted floor; and as soon as they were seated, a servant, attached to the theatre, brought them tea and saki on a lacquer tray, with pipes and a brazier.

Raised above the parquet on three sides of the hall was a double row of boxes, the fourth side being occupied by the stage. These boxes, very richly decorated on a background of red or black lacquer, were the most select part of the play-house, especially those in the upper stage. There the most elegant coquettes displayed their magnificent toilets. The aspect of the theatre was delightful; most of the women were beautiful, with their dead-white skins, their glossy hair and dusky eyes. The rustle of silk, the shimmer of satin, the bright colors and the embroideries, formed a splendid spectacle. The married women were easily recognized by their teeth blackened with a mixture of iron filings and saki, by their plucked eyebrows, and by their sash tied in an enormous knot directly in front. The young girls made the knot at the back, and left their teeth to their natural whiteness. They also dressed their hair differently. Instead of letting it hang in a long twist, or gathered in a heavy mass on the top of the head, they combed it over the forehead, arranged it in wings on either side of the face, and fashioned it into an elaborate and voluminous chignon. Some might substitute, for the tortoise-shell pins generally used, others of similar length, but made of filagree gold; their neighbors might prefer to adorn their hair with nothing but flowers and silk cords.

The men were no less fond of dress; crape, brocade, and velvet not being forbidden for their wear. Some had an embroidered scarf on one shoulder, one end hanging forward; the longer the scarf was, the higher the social rank of the wearer. When he saluted a superior he must bend until the scarf touched the ground. Therefore the longer it was, the less he had to bend. A party of nobles appearing incognito, their faces hidden by black crape hoods, showing nothing but their eyes, filled the lower row of boxes. But one of these, very near the stage, remained empty; it was suddenly thrown open, and a woman appeared ….”

And there’s one last thing that I must say: the text that I read was translated from French by Abby Langdon Alger.

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