”There are a thousand little silly softnesses which are pretty and endearing between acknowledged lovers, with which no woman would like to dispense, to which even men who are in love submit sometimes with delight; but which in other circumstances would be vulgar,— and to the woman distasteful. There are closenesses and sweet approaches, smiles and nods and pleasant winkings, whispers, innuendoes and hints, little mutual admirations and assurances that there are things known to those two happy ones of which the world beyond is altogether ignorant. Much of this comes of nature, but something of it sometimes comes by art.”
Anthony Trollope wrote this satirical novel as a reaction to the financial scandals of the 1870s in Great Britain. His character Augustus Melmotte, a man of uncertain religious affiliation, and even more uncertain nationality arrives in London. There is just the whiff of scandal nipping at his heels from the continent, but along with those rumors also come rumblings of his great wealth. The Lords and Baronets of London are in need of some cash and when Melmotte sets up a company selling shares in a railroad to be built across Mexico they feel this is an opportunity for them to reach solvency. After all Melmotte seems to understand these financial matters and the Lords are only interested in profit not in comprehending exactly how something as vulgar as commerce works.
Melmotte is not a gentleman, but he moves in the world of gentlemen. He is snubbed by some for not being of the proper set, but as he insnares more and more of the men of society into his dealings he begins to demand entry into the social events that normally he would be excluded from. Lord Nidderdale, one of those caught in the Melmotte web, knows all is not what it seems, but he can’t quite believe that such a thing could really be happening in his world.
”That men should be thoroughly immoral, that they should gamble, get drunk, run into debt, and make love to other men's wives, was to him a matter of everyday life. Nothing of that kind shocked him at all. But he was not as yet quite old enough to believe in swindling.”
Charles Ponzi, the man who leveraged greed.
Greed will always create opportunity for schemers and since I don’t ever see greed disappearing from our collective nature, schemes will continue to work. By the way Ponzi (1920s) may have been the most famous of financial deceivers, but long before he was formulating his plan to bilk rich people Charles Dickens talked about this type of deception in his novel Martin Chuzzelwit (1844). Melmotte finds that London is full of desperate Lords who have mortgaged their estates to keep up appearances and that ready cash is becoming as precious to them as their titles.
”Rank squanders money; trade makes it;— and then trade purchases rank by re-gilding its splendour.”
And that is exactly Melmotte’s plan for he has a daughter, Marie. He wants to see her married to Lord Nidderdale. If not Nidderdale than another. He is pretty sure he can buy one.
Marie has other plans. She doesn’t want to marry a Lord, but a Baronet, specifically Sir Felix Carbury. Now a Baronet is a step down from a Lord, but not a horrible situation if he weren’t a ne’er do well. Felix likes to drink, gamble, own expensive horses, and chase women a description that could fit most young men of rank of any generation. The problem is he has no money and no prospects to really ever have any money. His only asset is the title his father gave him and his handsome good looks.
Marie wants her father to buy the pretty one.
Now to complicate things Ruby Ruggles, a buxom beauty from the country, has run away from home to be near Felix. He is rather happy about this as he is only interested in Marie for her money and it isn’t like he can take her out drinking and dancing. The problem is the lovely Ruby is betrothed to a young man named John Crumb. A man not opposed to putting a few knots on the head of a baronet who thinks he can take his girl. Ruby dreams of ascending to rank. Marie dreams of owning a handsome husband. John dreams of starting a family and Felix, well, he just needs his lifestyle financed.
Felix’s uncle Roger Carbury has control of the family estate that provides a modest, but steady income. Roger is in love with Felix’s sister Hetta. She is in love with Roger’s best friend Paul Montague. One of the themes of this novel is that no one seems to be in agreement about who should be in love with who. To complicate this triangle of disaster another person is lurking in the background, a lovely American named Mrs. Winifred Hurtle. She was engaged to Paul Montague and just because he has supposedly found the love of his life that doesn’t mean she is prepared to just pack her bags and go back to San Francisco. Her notorious background created the means by which Montague feels justified in breaking off their engagement.
Mrs Hurtle was regarded as a mystery. Some people did not quite believe that there ever had been a Mr Hurtle. Others said that there certainly had been a Mr Hurtle, and that to the best of their belief he still existed. The fact, however, best known of her was that she had shot a man through the head somewhere in Oregon.
On top of all that she once fought a duel with her husband.
My sympathy for Montague evaporates as he insists their engagement is broken: and yet, whenever he is in her presence he can’t help but lavish kisses and endearments upon her. She is intelligent, gorgeous, and head over heels in love with him. So what if she has a colorful past? Your life will never lack for excitement Mr. Montague. Roger of course is well aware of circumstances regarding Mrs. Hurtle. He is an honorable man, maybe the only one in the whole book, and wants to reveal this damning information to Hetta with the hope that her affections will turn to him.
He can’t do it. He simply can’t. He has obviously never heard the phrase: All is fair in love and war. Roger is a true gentleman and though Hetta values his character she does not see him as a potential husband.
Another richly drawn character is the enigmatic Lady Carbury, mother of Felix and Hetta. She is trying to guide her ineffectual son through the perils of securing a heiress. Felix is so caught up in the pleasure of the moment it takes a Herculean effort to keep him on task. She is intelligent and beautiful and relies on those assets to keep the family affairs afloat. She lends too much money to Felix who squanders it on inane entertainments. She is a writer of historical points of history,but fact checking is not her strong point. With a liberal sprinkling of feminine wile she always manages to extract a check and a promise to publish from a, at least temporarily besotted, magazine editor.
”A woman's weapon is her tongue.”
Certainly can be true, but Lady Carbury leaves them with a chimera of possibilities.
Georgiana Longestaffe has issues with her father. He decides due to financial constraints that he will not open the house in London. They will remain in the country for the social season. Georgiana had thoughts of marrying a Lord, but as each year has passed she has widened the pool of possibilities. She can not afford to let another season escape without securing a husband. There are always a fresh crop of girls to compete with for the eligible men. Despite her tantrums and her flouncing and her threats her father refuses to change his mind about the house in London. He has leased the place to Melmotte and with the thought of making his life more peaceful agrees to allow Georgiana to go stay with them. The problem is, yes she is in London, but the Melmottes are not invited the places she wants to go. Her “friends” come up with all kinds of reasons to not invite her to their events, namely that she is tainted by staying with this upstart family. Georgiana is incensed.
"As for me I shall give over caring about gentlemen now. The first man that comes to me with four or five thousand a year, I'll take him, though he'd come out of Newgate or Bedlam. And I shall always say it has been papa's doing.”
She agrees to an engagement with a merchant (gasp), a man old enough to be her father (gasp), and he is Jewish (her mother just fainted). She has her father’s attention now.
Graham Greene worked for the foreign office during World War Two. He was stationed for a while in Freetown, Sierra Leone a place as far removed from England as an Englishman can find himself. I can’t find the reference, but I remembered reading that Greene relied on the books of Trollope heavily to keep him sane amongst so much squalor. Well I soon formed my own addiction to Trollope needing a dollop every day. It is his longest novel, but did not feel that way at all. The cast of characters is large, but they are all so well drawn that even though I read it over a longer period than I normally take to read a book I never lost track of the threads of the plot and the subplots.
I found myself despising Felix, rooting for Roger, shivering over the dastardly deeds of Melmotte, and wishing I could take Mrs. Hurtle out on the town just once. Trollope brilliantly brings these people to life, so much so, that even those characters I really didn’t like I developed an understanding of them, and dare I say a feeling of sympathy. As their worlds begin to crumble it seems that no one will be allowed to live happily ever after, but with a bit of the magic of happenstance some people discover new avenues of happiness. Trollope titled this novelThe Way We Live Now referring to the 1870s, but he could have been referring to the 1890s, the 1990s, or the 2010s. So read about The Way We Live Now and see if you know Ruby Ruggles, Felix Carbury, Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury, Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury, Georgiana Longestaffe or Augustus Melmotte. I bet you do.