My first post on The Way We Live Now was about possessions, in the broadest possible sense. Trollope examines, and satirizes, the way we live now (and indeed the way we live now is not very different) as a time of getting whatever we may on the best possible terms: money, marriage, an undeserved reputation, a seat in Parliament.
But how do his characters get these possessions? They must, usually, either talk or write their way into them; no one is permitted merely to sit still and let the good things roll in. There is a flood of both conversation and paper in The Way We Live Now, and the tension between the value of the spoken and the written word is woven into the fabric of the book.
I mentioned in my last post that the novel begins with Lady Carbury, who lives by her (rather mediocre) pen. As the book opens, she is writing to three newspapermen to ask for favorable reviews of her latest book, Criminal Queens. Her second letter reaches Mr. Booker:
He was an adept at this sort of work, and knew well how to review such a book as Lady Carbury’s ‘Criminal Queens,’ without bestowing much trouble on the reading. He could almost do it without cutting the book, so that its value for purposes of after sale might not be injured.
Lady Carbury knows that if she could speak to these men in person, and act just a little seductively, she could have a better effect — but her letters must do, and in the event, only one newspaper, whose editor is a personal friend, carries a kind review of her book. The foreshadowing of the effect that newspapers have on public opinion, and the fallibility of their editors, is the strong impression here. (I say nothing of book bloggers, who are the very model of integrity.)
Soon, however, Augustus Melmotte blusters his way into the story. His very name (Melmotte=mal mot=bad word) implies that the narratives he offers, about his past, about his family, about his railway and his wealth, are not to be trusted; his crimes are crimes of communication. All Melmotte’s words are bad — he breaks promises, forges signatures, and curses his daughter. But he is much more convincing with his written word than verbally. Floods of paper come forth from his railway concern: documents, shares, scrip, private letters, telegrams, advertisements, brochures:
It was clearly his idea that fortunes were to be made out of the concern before a spadeful of earth had been moved. If brilliantly printed programmes might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains and coming out of them on the margin of sunlit lakes, Mr. Fisker had certainly done much.
All of London knows by these signs that Melmotte is the richest man in England. But when he speaks, there comes a flicker of doubt:
He stood with his hands on the table and with his face turned to his plate blurted out his assurance that the floating of this railway company would be one of the greatest and most successful commercial operations ever conducted on either side of the Atlantic. It was a great thing. –a very great thing; — he had no hesitation in saying it was one of the greatest things out. He didn’t believe a greater thing had ever come out. He was happy to give his humble assistance to the furtherance of so great a thing. — and so on… He was not eloquent.
This tension that Trollope creates between the written word, which used to guarantee accountability but no longer does, and the spoken word, which is now more telling, is found in other characters and plot lines as well. Signatures become suspect: when the question comes up of whether Dolly Longestaffe signed the title-deeds, everyone assumes they’ve gotten him to sign something when he was drunk (though in fact this would not make the signature less legally binding.) This forgery is made easier by the fact that his “signature is never very plain.” The letter that Felix Carbury writes to Marie Melmotte at her father’s dictation is also problematic; when she points out that it is his handwriting, he says, “Of course it was. I copied just what he put down.” Carbury and his friends back their gambling debts with “notes” that eventually mean nothing, because they have no way to repay them; their signatures are as worthless as the paper they’re written on.
On the other hand, face-to-face communication is privileged. Honest John Crumb cannot write letters; he relies on speech (though he’s not too smooth with that, either, which Ruby Ruggles finds off-putting.) When Felix Carbury is humiliated and exposed, he remains completely silent, unable to talk even to his mother. Georgiana Longestaffe is able to confess her engagement to Brehgehrt in a letter to her mother, but face-to-face with her father, she can’t keep up the charade. For concerns of love and fidelity, speech is the old-fashioned mode of communication to rely on, and at the end of the book, Roger Carbury — the model of honesty and truly gentlemanly behavior — does not trust a letter; he goes to London to see Lady Carbury and Hetta. “I could not write an answer, and so I came.”
When Trollope was writing, the power and status of the printed word, and the way information could circulate, was changing: the railway, the post office, the telegram, novels, newspapers. This book examines that power of information and truth. Talk about the way we live now.