Marie Melmotte wants to marry the beautiful Sir Felix Carbury but Mr. Melmotte wants his daughter to marry Lord Nidderdale. Ruby Ruggles wants to marry Sir Felix Carbury too but she is betrothed to John Crumb. Roger Carbury wants to marry his cousin Hetta but she wants to marry his friend Paul Montague but Paul Montague is already engaged to Mrs Winifred Hurtle. But where is Mr. Hurtle? Is he dead or is he alive and living in San Francisco?
But amongst all the romantic shenanigans, this big, fun satirical novel has a dark heart. Written in 1873, Anthony Trollope had arrived back in London after 18 months in Australia and was appalled at the greed and dishonesty that financial scandals had exposed. He says in his autobiography:
“If dishonesty can live in gorgeous palaces with pictures on all its walls. and gems all in 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.”
The heart of the novel is Augustus Melmotte’s story, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel . . . a bloated swindler . . . a vile city ruffian.” No one’s quite sure where he’s come from or how he’s made his fortune, but they are sure that he has a fortune. His is a story of social-climbing, mad speculation and fraud but still he becomes a member of parliament for Westminster and around him scuttle a cast of bounders and rogues and impecunious aristocrats, hoping for a touch of his luck. It felt so curiously modern that it reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, set 100 years later!
There are so many characters and subplots all moving along at a really brisk pace. The horribly selfish Georgiana Longestaffe, always throwing tantrums; the utterly feckless Sir Felix Carbury who wonders if he should give in and marry Marie Melmotte “and thus conquer all his troubles by means of his own personal beauty”; and characters like Slow and Bideawhile who “have been the family lawyers for a century” that give it a Dickensian feel and make it a really fun social comedy. I’m sure 50 years later Dolly Longestaffe would be a member of P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club!
Something that surprised me (for such a fearless satire), was the sympathy that I thought Trollope had for, if not the actual characters, then for their situations. Firstly, the women. Lady Carbury might be scheming for her son to marry a rich heiress and Georgiana Longestaff might be making ridiculous demands on her father to be in London for ‘the season’, but their financial dependence is at the centre of every female character. Secondly, despite his exasperated portrayal of the conservative country squire, in the shape of Roger Carbury; when Roger sacrifices his own love for Hetta in order that she should be happy I felt it was told with real understanding for the pangs of unrequited love. A sentimental story line yes, but not ridiculed. And the third thing that surprised me was that Hetta takes the London Underground!
“That afternoon Hetta trusted herself all alone to the mysteries of the Marylebone underground railway, and emerged with accuracy at King’s Cross.”
How fresh and modern is that?!
I read that ‘The Way We Live Now’ was not a success when it first appeared. Amongst the ‘whither’s’ and ‘thither’s’ and ‘hither’s’, that make the language feel so safe to read, Trollope has exposed greed and shown how it permeates the commercial, political, moral and intellectual life of the times, may be it’s not surprising it wasn’t a success.
But where is Mr. Hurtle?