Like Déjà Vu All Over Again – Book Review of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/01/02/like-deja-vu-all-over-again-book-review-of-anthony-trollopes-the-way-we-live-now/

Anthony Trollope, who, like Charles Dickens was born in England in the mid-1810s, wrote 47 novels, several plays and a famous Autobiography … yet he is virtually unknown in America.  Many of his novels, such as The Warden, the first in a series of novels called the Barchester Chronicles, were extremely popular in Victorian England. In fact, many considered Trollope a superior novelist to Dickens.

In America, however, everyone knows Charles Dickens – if only from A Christmas Carol, featuring Scrooge, who has come down through the ages as a beloved rascal and is even a word in the dictionary. Dickens is also famous as the author of Oliver Twist, which has been made into plays and movies – and, of course, for his great novels, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens is a household name.

Yet only a narrow slice of the reading public, such as those in the elite international Trollope Society, celebrate Trollope and his works. Perhaps this is because of Trollope’s uninspiring and bland life. He was employed as a clerk and civil servant in the British General Post Office, working for almost a decade in Ireland during the great famine, at which time he wrote his earliest and least popular novels. It was only back in England in the 1850s when he wrote the six books about genteel England that make up the wonderful Barchester Chronicles that his fame grew.

How did he manage to produce such an amazing volume of work? Trollope wrote in his Autobiography that he rose without fail at 5:30 every morning and began writing. He wrote with a watch before him, and he demanded of himself that he write 250 words every fifteen minutes. It was through this iron-clad discipline that he managed to produce such an enormous volume of work. In 1868, he left the Post Office and became involved in electoral politics, running as a Liberal in Yorkshire for a seat in the House of Commons. He lost badly, coming in last of the four candidates, in an election fraught with charges of fraud and corruption. This was grist for the mill in what many believe was his greatest novel – The Way We Live Now.  

Having read and enjoyed the six books which make up the Barchester Chronicles, I decided to take advantage of the extra time I had during the COVID-19 pandemic to read this 750-page savage satire on the British upper class.   

In his Autobiography, Trollope explained why he decided in 1875 to write The Way We Live Now:  “A certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.”

In the gaudy, celebrity-worshipping culture that now dominates American society by means of cable and streaming TV and Internet social media channels, we can recognize what was so upsetting to Trollope. Several decades ago, who could have imagined that there would be wealthy celebrities in America such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who did nothing to earn their wealth or fame, and among whose chief accomplishments in public life is to have had their bodies filmed while having sexual intercourse and then posted on the Internet?

The Way We Live Now opens with the story of the scheming authoress, Lady Carbury, her worthless and penniless scoundrel of a son, Felix, and her beautiful but insipid daughter, Henrietta. But soon the novel focuses on the protagonist, Augustus Melmotte, a tycoon who lives in a stately house in Grosvenor Square in London. By flaunting his wealth and his business and social connections, he successfully courts many of London’s merchants, aristocracy, and politicians. Born a Frenchmen and having apparently accumulated a fortune in business dealings on the Continent, he arrives on the London scene with the source of his wealth shrouded in mystery. He establishes his office in the City of London, and shortly thereafter joins forces with an American entrepreneur, Hamilton Fisker, to float a company on the London stock exchange. They raise capital for the construction of a railway from Salt Lake City to Veracruz, Mexico. Melmotte allocates himself a great percentage of the shares of the new company without putting up any capital, and through innuendo and manipulation with associates, colleagues, and his acolytes, he contrives to drive up the share price, thereby enriching himself on paper.

Does this sound familiar? Anyone reading the U.S. financial press over the past several years will recognize so-called “meme” stocks, the price of which is manipulated by pools of investors using social media platforms like the subreddit wallstreetbets. (In case you’re not familiar with the terms, both are usually spelled without capital letters.)  Or the creation of SPACs (Special Purpose Acquisition Companies) floated on the stock market by well-known investors who raise money to acquire other companies — the sole reason for the successful sale of shares in SPACs being the fame and reputation of the principals. The Way We Live Now has many modern parallels.

Melmotte has a daughter of marriageable age, Marie, who is courted by a variety of penniless aristocrats who are seeking to restore their families’ fortunes by marrying an heiress – even one with no family pedigree or social standing. Lady Carbury’s worthless son, the Baronet Felix Carbury, is young and handsome, and he manages to win Marie’s heart. But his courtship is blocked by Melmotte, who has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry such a scurrilous character. Things are also complicated because of Sir Felix’s relationship with Ruby Ruggles, a pretty farm girl, who lives on the estate in Suffolk of his wealthy second cousin, Roger Carbury. Roger is the perfect foil for Melmotte, and he is perhaps the only kind, thoughtful, and morally upright character in the novel. Poor Roger is in love with Sir Felix’s beautiful sister, Henrietta, but his love is never reciprocated.

Melmotte is prevailed upon to host a magnificent state dinner at his London home for the visiting Emperor of China with his entourage of twenty. It is the most important social event of the season, and yet the foreign-born Malmotte has been chosen, because of his great wealth and social connections, to host the party, which he does with aplomb. He is then encouraged to stand for election as a Member of Parliament for Westminster and, despite the growing rumors that his wealth is built on a house of cards, he is elected to the British House of Commons.

There is not time or space to recount the many subplots in this 750-page novel, but most of the key events revolve around Melmotte, his daughter, and Sir Felix. Realizing that they cannot get the blessing of Melmotte, Felix and Marie decide to elope to America. Felix, who has been given money by Marie for expenses, goes to the Beargarden Club (the description of which is, in itself, a biting satire of London men’s clubs), and gambles it all away. Drunk and broke, Felix never even bothers to travel to the ship at Liverpool, where Marie has been intercepted by the police sent by Melmotte.

(Warning:  Plot spoilers coming.)

Meanwhile, it turns out the rumors are true:  Melmotte’s finances are indeed shaky. Knowing that his financial house of cards is perilously close to collapsing, Melmotte needs to come up with cash to complete the purchase of a grand country estate. He forges Marie’s name to get at the money he has put in trust for her (to protect it from creditors). When his clerk, Croll, refuses to witness the forged signature and resigns, Melmotte forges his signature as well. These forgeries are discovered by the banker, Brehgert, and the game is almost over for Melmotte. He makes an appalling drunken appearance in the House of Commons which seals his political decline, and with his creditors closing in and charges of forgery looming, Melmotte commits suicide by poisoning himself with prussic acid.

With Melmotte out of the way, the denouement of The Way We Live deals primarily with the wrapping of loose ends – especially regarding the novel’s romantic interests. Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, ends up marrying the American financier, Hamilton Fisker, and goes with him to San Francisco. The honest Croll marries Mrs. Melmotte. Henrietta marries her lover, Paul Montague, who has been forgiven. And Felix gets his just desserts, as he is banished on a small allowance to a British community in East Prussia.

Trollope’s works always have a deeply satirical quality, as he carefully examines society with all its flaws. Many see The Way We Live Now as his greatest novel. Returning to England after 18 months abroad, Trollope was shocked by the greed he saw everywhere, which is why he mercilessly exposes how money seems to hold sway over everything and everybody in England in 1875. One senses his anger, even outrage, over such corruption.

In that sense, it is a very modern novel. With real estate values and the stock market at an all-time high (and perhaps nearing a bubble), things in America currently feel like 1875 in England. “Meme stocks” are new, as our SPACs, but the human condition remains the same.

The Way We Live Now is not only one of a great novelist’s greatest works from 145 years ago. It is also a commentary on the fakery of our own age, and the comeuppance that may be in the offing.

 

Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.

 

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