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the way we live now

18 january 2015

At one point I was reading what I thought was a lot of Anthony Trollope. Like most half-forgotten things, the scope of this reading project grew as I abandoned it and remembered less about it. I imagined that Trollope had written eighty or a hundred novels, and that I'd read fifty of them; come to find that his output was more like four dozen, and I'd read about twenty. I did keep track of how many pages of Trollope I'd read. After finishing The Way We Live Now this winter, I'm at 14,201.

That's odd, of course; The Way We Live Now is generally acclaimed as Trollope's best novel. But I'd read twenty others before picking it up. This is analogous to being a Nabokov fan who's never gotten around to Lolita, or an aficionado of fast-food burgers who has never been to an In-N-Out.

Though maybe not. Even if The Way We Live Now is the best Trollope novel, one defining feature of the Trollope œuvre is that it's all pretty much the same. The same classical tags, the same marriage plots, the same scenes of Parliament and London clubs, the same country visiting – you rarely know which Trollope novel you're in anyway. And most of his books are of uniform quality throughout. Even when you come to the best moment of the best book, your readerly excitement rarely rises much above room temperature.

The Way We Live Now has lots of good moments, though. It is a centerless novel that balances on almost any of its characters or scenes; like Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a novel "without a hero," and like Vanity Fair one where "we" all turn out to be more or less idiots. The title The Way We Live Now suggests a "condition of England" novel like Gaskell's North and South, or Dickens's Hard Times. But for all its rich accumulation of detail and its apparent attempt to span regions and classes, The Way We Live Now is not particularly topical, or political, let alone sociological. The way we live now, in Trollope's 1875, is pretty much the way we seem to have lived indefinitely, a way where the landed gentry are the focus of an entire nation (despite their aforementioned idiocy), and where small adjustments to their deadly conservatism produce transient melodrama without ever altering the fabric of England.

In the words of Roger Carbury, at least a stand-up guy if no hero (he's too obsessive in love and too hidebound), an English gentleman

owes a duty to those who live on his land, and he owes a duty to his country. And, though it may seem fantastic to say so, I think he owes a duty to those who have been before him, and who have manifestly wished that the property should be continued in the hands of their descendants. These things are to me very holy. (766)
We know that Trollope was a Liberal; we know that he satirized the upper classes. At the same time, we know that he was fascinated by those same upper classes, and over and over he shows that the "we" of this novel's title really is just the landed classes, which are all of England that matters.

I'm less interested in the biographical reasons for those beliefs than in how they work out in Trollope's fiction. Most notably, in The Way We Live Now, the effect is that only a couple of wafer-thin strata of the English population appear in this novel about how the English live. Readers see the mid-to-upper gentry and the minor nobility: some are poor and a few rich, but all are defined in terms of their estates and consequent income. Readers see a few working-class people for extreme contrast; in The Way We Live Now, they all seem fairly retarded, and have to be led by the hand through life by gentlemen like Roger Carbury. Readers also see a few commentating writers and journalists. And in The Way We Live Now, they see a few swindlers. In fact, the entire economy of England seems to be driven by gentry whose incomes are provided by the indefatigable labor of those retarded workers, and con men who parlay those incomes into bubbles and schemes.

Not that none of these people could exist. In fact, every few years a Bernie Madoff flashes across the sky to remind us that Trollope's arch-swindler Augustus Melmotte isn't really imaginary. But Melmotte is a peculiarly unrealistic character in the details, as opposed to the type. He seems to make his living by bilking impoverished aristocrats. I can't imagine that this would really have been a lucrative business plan in the 1870s City of London. Melmotte is brought down when he forges the impossibly idle Dolly Longestaffe's signature on a conveyance of title deed. As scholars like Frank Kermode (who prepared the 1990s Penguin edition) and John Sutherland (whom Kermode cites) point out, Melmotte doesn't need to forge Dolly's signature, because Dolly agreed to the conveyance (219, 568). The whole plot device seems like the oversight of a chronically rushed author. But I think it's more than an oversight. For Melmotte to be truly disgraceful, he must be shown bilking one of the landed gentry out of those hereditary estates so dear to Roger Carbury's heart. Mere swindling of bankers and bureaucrats would have no special affect, and might just seem like business as usual among a comprehensive pack of thieves.

The Way We Live Now is full of contradictions and flaws, most of which reveal deeper consistencies than one might suspect from a writer who notoriously chewed his way through his couple of thousand words a day. The novel's multiple marriage plots are resolved by means of multiple elisions, pentimentos, and outright prevarications.

Lady Carbury, Roger's cousin by marriage, at first turns down a marriage proposal from the editor Mr. Broune (276), weighing her feelings carefully and concluding that she likes her independence. She also has a dissolute son, Sir Felix, who is a charge on her household; but that's just another factor in the scale. Yet when she eventually accepts Mr. Broune's renewed proposal (694), both she and her new fiancé agree that the only reason she ever turned him down was because she didn't want to saddle him with Felix.

Paul Montague wants to marry Hetta, Lady Carbury's daughter, but there's the small matter of his previous engagement to the American maybe-widow Winifred Hurtle. Hetta has to be satisfied (670) that Paul didn't go away for a romantic weekend at the seaside with Mrs. Hurtle just days before proposing to her, and she is so satisfied; but the reader knows (355-56) that Paul was basically still "dating" (as we'd call it) Mrs. Hurtle when they went down the shore together. Yet 300 pages later, everybody has revised their memories to establish the innocence of that getaway – even the morally starchy Roger Carbury, who met the lovers on the strand.

Hetta even goes to see Mrs. Hurtle, on a mission to discover whether Paul has been recently prospectively unfaithful – and even Mrs. Hurtle, ill-disposed to them both, doesn't reveal what went on. She realizes (699) that Hetta has already made up her mind to marry Paul. What good would come of rubbing in facts that Hetta is going to ignore anyway?

As throughout Trollope's novels, there's a sense that men can easily transfer sexual attachments, but women, once they have chosen a lover, are sealed to him for life. That's a powerful ideology, even if it may seem powerfully weird to us.

Hetta Carbury, if once her heart had passed from her own dominion into the possession of another, would never change her love. (359)
Though perhaps we should say ladies, not women. Hetta is the exemplar of the refined lady (daughter of a baronet and descendant of country squires from time immemorial), whose sexuality is defined by closing the valves of her attention like steel, even if it's on a cheating heart like Paul Montague's. Other women, however, not as ladylike, are not as inflexible. Marie Melmotte, the grafter's heiress, falls piercingly in love with Sir Felix, but after he's out of the picture, she finds that she can accept the American grafter Mr. Fisker. Felix, in turn, carries on a sexual affair with the country girl Ruby Ruggles, but "Ruby, as soon as want or hardship told upon her, would return" to her country suitor John Crumb (359).

As the page numbers suggest, Trollope contrasts Ruby directly to Hetta – in fact he does so in free-indirect-style narration that tracks Roger Carbury's thoughts. Because Roger, oddly enough for a Trollope male, is in love with Hetta in the same way that Hetta is in love with Paul Montague. "There is an unchanging way about him that is awful to think of," Hetta says of Roger (507), awful perhaps because, in a peculiarly Trollopian way, it's positively gender-bending.

All these examples show that there's something vastly complicated beneath the banal exterior of The Way We Live Now, and indeed beneath that of most of the 22 or so of Trollope's novels that I've read. I'm delighted to be returning to his works, better late in life than never, and indeed perhaps better late in life than early.

Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. 1875. London: Penguin, 1994.