It’s probably too obvious to say that Anthony Trollope’s sprawling satirical novel, The Way We Live Now, could easily be about the way we live now, but given how many dire stories I’ve heard about how the economy is failing due to bad investments and shifty-seeming practices like credit default swaps, I can’t help but see the parallels. In his story of young men speculating in the railroads in hopes of gaining some of the money they’ve lost gambling (!) and living primarily on credit in the meantime, Trollope is writing about the way we live now. Add to the mix a nasty political campaign in which one side spends all its time digging up secrets and the other spends all its time trying to hide from or laugh off the scandals. Then throw in jilted lovers and two-timing men. Yep, it’s the way we live now all right. And it’s funny, funny and infuriating and oddly touching.
The novel opens by introducing us to the Carbury family. Lady Carbury fancies herself a great authoress, having just published a history titled Criminal Queens, and it’s clear from the start that she’s intended to be a comic figure:
She used her beauty not only to increase her influence—as is natural to women who are well-favoured—but also with a well-considered calculation that she could obtain material assistance in the procuring of bread and cheese, which was very necessary to her, by a prudent adaptation to her purposes of the good things with which providence had endowed her. She did not fall in love, she did not wilfully flirt, she did not commit herself; but she smiled and whispered, and made confidences, and looked out of her own eyes into men’s eyes as though there might be some mysterious bond between her and them—if only mysterious circumstances would permit it. But the end of all was to induce some one to do something which would cause a publisher to give her good payment for indifferent writing, or an editor to be lenient when, upon the merits of the case, he should have been severe.
Lady Carbury is a widow with two children. Her son, Felix, is the joy and the plague of her life. She gives him whatever he asks, and he spends most of his time gambling at his club and accumulating debts. He does find time to woo a country girl named Ruby Ruggles as well as Marie Melmotte, the daughter of the wealthy speculator Augustus Melmotte. Felix’s sister Hetta is more responsible than her brother, but Lady Carbury finds little to praise about Hetta because she refuses to marry her upright cousin Roger who owns the family estate. Instead, Hetta is in love with Paul Montague, who loves Hetta in return but has to deal with his former fiancee, Mrs Hurtle, who has traveled from America to London to see him. And that’s just the Carburys. Each of the characters related to the Carburys has his or her own storyline that sometimes has very little to do with the Carburys. And every storyline offers something worthwhile, and some move in entirely unexpected directions.
The characters in this novel are very well-drawn. Some characters are broadly comic and intended to be so. Lady Carbury never develops layers. Other characters, however, defy expectations, both my expectations as a reader and the expectations of the other characters. Marie Melmotte seems like nothing more than an empty-headed prize to be offered to the highest bidder, but she turns out to be quite the capable schemer. Roger Carbury seems to be the epitome of the upright Victorian hero, but he tends to be a prig who holds unreasonable grudges. Mrs. Hurtle, my favorite character, is reputed to be a wild American woman who’s always ready with a shotgun, but she’s really an honorable woman who has been forced to take care of herself.
This is the third Trollope novel I’ve read (the others being The Duke’s Children and Barchester Towers), and I recommend it highly to anyone who’s been meaning to give Trollope a try. For me, this kind of novel is what reading is all about.
This novel was the February selection in my ongoing “What Should I Read Next?” giveaway, so I’ll be passing it along to Brittney, who recommended that I read it. If you’d like a chance to win a (usually) gently used book from my shelf, visit my TBR list and make a recommendation.