This novel I am actually quite excited to share about, because The Way We Live Now is a satirical tirade upon society written by Anthony Trollope, and considered to be one of his masterpieces.
I first heard of this book when surfing through period drama movies on Amazon, and upon seeing the BBC movie cover with Matthew MacFadyen and David Suchet, I was immediately curious to learn if it was an actual book. It was, I found, and I promptly put it on hold at the library, in December of 2010. Unfortunately, having a injurious habit of checking out more books than I can possibly read, simply to enjoy their company, I didn't have time to read it throughout the whole nine weeks I had it. And it wasn't until December of 2011 that I checked it out again.
In a way, I am glad. In December of 2010, I did not enjoy the process of constructive evaluation that can be enjoyed when reading a story. I would have either thrown it aside, as of little value, or not evaluated it as properly and thoroughly as I should. But by December 2011 I was much more ready--or should I say willing--to do this, with the result that I discovered a treasure that ranks with my top favorites.
Proceed, and you shall discover why.
Trollope and His Work
Bullied and snubbed at the high-brow schools he attended, Trollope contemplated suicide at the age of 12. Fortunately for the literary world, in the case of this book at least, he overcame the impulse. Fortunately also, he created vivid imaginary play worlds in his times of daydreaming. Francis Trollope, his father, fled to Belgium due to a failing legal practice and creditor's threats, where his wife and children joined him, and Anthony took a clerkship in a post office, beginning to rack up debts of his own. In 1841, at the age of 26, he volunteered for a transferal to an office in Ireland, where he met his future wife, Rose, and married her in 1844. Due to the long train rides necessary to his duties as postal clerk, he developed a disciplined writing routine, and began in earnest to perfect the talent that he had already begun before his marriage. After writing several novels based in Ireland, and the first of his Barsetshire Novels from an inspirational trip to England, he returned to England with another postal position in 1859, along with his family. After a varied nine years of his postal duties, and writing short stories and novels, he resigned his position in the postal service to run for a seat in the House of Commons. He finished last of four candidates. Continuing to focus on his career as an author, in 1871 he travelled to Australia, both to visit his son and to collect material for a new book. And in 1872, upon his return to England, he wrote and published The Way We Live Now as a satirical hand-slap to remind his fellow countrymen to focus not so much on the gold gilding, as to realize the value of solid gold character. To use his own words:
Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.
The Way We Live Now comprises the stories of three families. Oh, yes, there are numerous subplots. But for the sake of simplification, I shall condense the synopsis into the points below.
Lady Francis Carbury, very poor and aspiring writer of trashy novels, is out to make sure that her children are well settled in life. With a dissipate son, Felix, who spends his time at the 'Beargarden' gambling; and a stubborn daughter, Hetta, who simply will not marry for money; the poor lady is constantly harried in her attempts to give her son just a little virtue, and her daughter just a little vice to settle them properly in life.
Paul Montague, friend of Hetta's spurned lover Roger Carbury, is involved with an American firm trying to raise money to build a railway company that will stretch across the United States. He can't get out of the firm--he's in a bit too deep financially, and he can't say 'no'--so he comes with a fellow partner to help raise money for the railroad in England. Which will bring huge profits to all aspiring Londoners, of course. In between his frequent trips to America and England, he meets and engages himself to a beautiful--and possibly wicked--woman from the southern United States. Unfortunately for him, his rash love begins to wane as soon as he meets Hetta Carbury, and he breaks off the engagement. Weak-willed and compassionate, he cannot refuse when the woman pursues him to England and pleads for just one more meeting...and just one more...and just one more...
So these two situations go, until one man brings the whole of London together in a frenzy to fall at his feet. The insanely rich Augustus Melmotte sets up house in town after a long bout abroad. This accounts for his foreign accent, because he claims to be an Englishman, and of course he wouldn't lie about that. This man, with a rich only child Marie, and an obedient and submissive wife, scatters his favors and sets about raking up capitol while society treasures his every condescension. And as he takes an interest in Montague's American railroad--establishing himself as chairman of the English branch, in fact--he is soon on the front page of the newspapers.
Felix, attracted by Melmotte's daughter Marie and her prospect of being the inheritor of vast sums, makes secret love to her, only to be discovered a payed off by the father with a position in the railway firm. But Marie won't give up, and Felix isn't indifferent to breaking his word as long as he receives the cold hard cash.
Melmotte rises higher and higher, securing a position in Parliament...Hetta refuses to marry her mother's choice...Paul Montague cannot tear himself away from his ex-fiancee...and Felix Carbury is simply happy to spend his days and his cash at the club...
With laudable skill, Trollope weaves a masterpiece of political, social, and personal drama.
BBC adapted this work with Andrew Davies, but they didn't do a very good job according to reviews on Amazon. They added in themes of adultery, which Trollope didn't include at all, and they preferred to leave some of the endings darker and more hopeless than Trollope did. I have not seen the movie myself, but I read all the reviews, and very few of them gave it a favorable rating. All in all, the casting is excellent with Matthew MacFadyen as Felix Carbury and David Suchet as Melmotte (some of you will think of Aslan in the Narnia audio dramatizations.) But characters should go a little farther than accurate looks, and include accurate portrayal. Beyond those few points I couldn't say as I've not seen it myself, but with what I have read I am content to stick with the book, and I wouldn't give the movie a very high recommendation ethics-wise.
He's not a page-turner like Dickens. Or rather, I should say he gives you just enough to keep you reading, but not the excess of drama that is Dickens's trademark. But I found him to be highly enjoyable. Also he writes his conclusions quite fast. You'll be strung along and strung along, and then in a couple of pages he makes an end to that particular character. He doesn't believe in standing and lamenting over what he leaves behind. But don't let that put you off, as he takes care of everything thoroughly. :)
He had a little language here and there, but not as much as Dickens might, and much less than is typically found in the works of his day.
I don't know what Trollope's religious beliefs were. He mentions God in the text a couple of times, and not in a bad way either, but I can't really see from that what his worldview is. He did manage to catch two great Christian values, though, in the conclusion to his plots: number one, when children do not honor their parents, it does not go well with them. And number two, you reap what you sow. Good works produce a good crop, and bad works produce a bad crop. I've never read another fiction book that expresses the moral of the story so clearly, without ever putting it into writing.
To conclude in Anthony Trollope's own words: "I by no means look upon the book as one of my failures...."