If I told you I’d just read a brawling, sprawling, money-grubbing, dog-eat-dog indictment of society’s financial and moral systems, what would you think I was talking about? If you said, “Something by Christopher Reich or Scott Turow,” you’re in the wrong book discussion group today. If you said, “I can’t guess, is it something by Wharton or Dickens’s Bleak House or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now?” then pull up a chair, because we’re about to get into it.
Trollope does this thing in a lot of his novels where he uses his plots and characters to look at all sides of a certain issue, holding it up in the light like one of his stolen Eustace diamonds, letting all the facets sparkle. In He Knew He Was Right, it’s marriage; in Framley Parsonage, it’s a race between pride, money, and love, fairly equally matched. In an enormous and complex book like The Way We Live Now, it would be impossible to trace every important theme, but the two that stood out to me on this first reading are the difference in value between the written and the spoken word, and the huge, crude, human battleground over possessions.
The novel opens with Lady Carbury, who, despite her title, has very little left in the way of possessions. She is an impoverished widow whose utterly feckless son Felix has gambled and otherwise thrown away all his inheritance and all his mother and sister Hetta have to live on. Lady Carbury is a shallow woman, but a determined one, and she is out for the one possession that can still make her some money: a literary reputation — and whether it is well-or ill-gotten, she does not care at all.
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.
This gentle satire sets the tone for characters who take this same approach toward their possessions — from money, to estates both entailed and not entailed, to gambling debts and IOUs, to bank accounts and gems, to nonexistent railway stocks and shares that will ruin hundreds of lives, to reputations that carry more weight than Lady Carbury’s. All the characters, to one degree or another, want good payment for what is indifferent, or want leniency when someone else ought to be severe; they want the most possessions on the best possible terms.
Some very obvious examples of this sort of behavior are easy to find. Augustus Melmotte (whose story soon supersedes Lady Carbury’s, and overshadows most of the book) is a man of vast, impossible wealth, concerned only with getting more wealth. It becomes clear fairly soon, however, that his enormous home, his lavish soirées (one ten-thousand-pound party for the Emperor of China, for instance, is the epitome of hollow grandeur), and his vulgar ostentation are built on nothing and worse than nothing: on disgrace and fraud. The same is true, on a far smaller scale, on Felix Carbury and his friends, who write each other “notes” for their gambling debts, and have no hope of ever repaying them. They gain certain possessions — the life of a young gentleman of a certain sort — and lose any sort of honor.
But there are subtler examples as well. Marie Melmotte is at first a possession of her father’s, used as a pawn to be married to the highest bidder. In exchange for her dowry, Augustus Melmotte will gain a title in the family, and entrance to noble families, and Marie, who has submitted to her tyrannical father all her life, goes along with the plan. But when she falls in love with the worthless Felix, she decides to take her own worth — both personal and financial — as a possession, and to use it to her own advantage. Her disappointment when she discovers she is still only a pawn, though one in her own hands, is heartbreaking. Georgiana Longestaffe is another example of this sort of possession. She has been taught all her life to see herself as a piece of goods on the marriage market; when her father’s financial circumstances put her (as it were) in a back room of the market, she will do anything in her power to beg, borrow, or steal her way back into the front window. When Georgiana is pushing hard to stay with her unwilling hostess, Lady Monogram, we watch the bickering and selfish jabs, and we remember:
Each lady was disposed to get as much and to give as little as possible. — in which desire the ladies carried out the ordinary practice of all parties to a bargain.
Whether their bargaining is based on anything more real than Augustus Melmotte’s railway scheme, Trollope leaves his readers to imagine.
Do possessions ever make anyone truly happy in this novel? There’s one John Crumb who is arguably made very happy by finally taking possession of the girl he’s been determinedly pursuing during the entire novel. But he’s the exception rather than the rule. Trollope follows, in fascination, dozens of characters who seek to get on any terms possible — sometimes solid and honorable, sometimes fraudulent, dishonorable, disgraceful, maddening — and when they get what they’ve sought, it runs like water through their fingers.
Next time, I’ll talk about the way this book examines the written and the spoken word, and how it values each. What a novel!