Monday, March 1, 2010

The Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope's remarkable novel, The Way We Live Now, is 825 pages in my 1950 Alfred A. Knopf edition. I might mention that my book smells slightly old, and slightly damp. I found it, of course, on a shelf in a basement of a second hand store and when I saw it I realized that I had wanted to read it for many years and now had my chance.

To get the most obvious question out of the way first, the answer is yes, that in so many ways this book, which was published in parts in an American magazine beginning in 1874, is very much up to date and describes much of the way we live now. He is said to have written the book in response to the several large financial scandals of the 1870s. I presume they somewhat parallel the scandals of the first decade of our own century.

Trollope curiously includes a character, Mrs. Carbury who resembles his own scribbling mother, a woman author who does not get much encouragement from the publishing fellows in her immediate society. The problems of publication are quite different today, but the fright of trying to make a living as a writer is doubtless much the same if we go by Mrs. Carbury's experience.

But most striking for our time is the intense emphasis on money throughout the book. At its center is Augustus Melmotte, a master financial wizard who takes London by storm, is reckoned to be the wealthiest man in town, but who is suspected of being a rogue on the run from the continent. Melmotte has no manners whatever, and his bluntness is a blight on his immediate circle. He actually manages to be elected to Parliament from Westminster by virtue of plowing cash in the appropriate circles. . . does this ring a contemporary bell? And in Parliament he speaks to members as if they were waiters, and they do not approve.

Naturally, he turns out to be a con man of the dimension of our modern Mr. Madoff, wrecking the lives of many, losing a fortune, and unlike modern con men, commits suicide with prussic acid, not a pleasant way to go. But before he goes, he takes in a number of upper class but impecunious gentlemen and lords with his scheme for a Mexican railway to Vera Cruz. He sells shares at a high rate, and might have continued to flourish if it had not been for his hasty dealings with a piece of property whose bill of sale he casually forged. Once that was out he was out.

There are several romantic subplots, with Hetta Carbury refusing her cousin and preferring his friend, whose own situation is questionable. Marie Melmotte who, it turns out, has her own money, is refused by several adventurers hoping for her fortune but who assumed once Melmotte was dead that there was none. She, as a last resort, heads to America.  Even Mrs. Carbury ends the novel with the hope of a happy relationship with the editor of a local paper.

I have not seen the TV special that was done in 2001, but I think I will make an effort. I found the novel most interesting and assume the televised version, with David Suchet as Melmotte, would be quite worth seeing.

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