The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
The Way We Live Now is a victorian novel that takes place in the 1870s. Similar to many novels of that era, it is about the changing times… but with an added twist about financial corruption. A victorian “Bernie Madoff” shows up in London flaunting his wealth and creating as much gossip and intrigue as Jay Gatsby did in Fitzgerald’s novel of New York in the 1920s.
In this novel, the villain’s name is Augustus Melmotte- a sociopath with a huge ego. His life goals are to be elected to Parliament, have his daughter marry a Lord, and of course, accumulate as much wealth as possible. He is a swindler and total fraud, wooing society with his ostentatious spending, extravagant entertaining, and arrogant demands for respect and acceptance.
Amidst the smoldering financial scandal, Trollope weaves a satirical tale of London’s upper class society. While the snobby landed gentry are breaking with tradition to fuss over the crude foreigner Mr. Melmotte – hoping that will enhance their own financial situation – the young women in London are having romantic trysts and rebelling against the conventional rule of marrying an appointed suitor. As the plot unfolds, each bold move away from tradition is explained away blithely with statements like the old cliche, “Everyone is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?”, and as though their actions could not be helped, “we belong to a newer and worse sort of world.”
After reading Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds several years ago, I commented in my review that I doubted I would read any other Trollope novels. Despite the amusing plot, I was appalled at the blatant anti-semitism. It was difficult to determine if Trollope himself was anti-Semitic or was merely expressing the sentiments of the elite British society. Then I decided to give him another try with what has been referred to as Trollope’s “opus”- The Way We Live Now. Unfortunately, it was more of the same… distasteful descriptions of the Jewish characters who turn out to be the villains of the novel. There were however, equally disparaging remarks about the American characters as well. Perhaps the British elite were narrow-minded, despising anyone who was not from their own ethnic background.
Trollope did excel in character development and provides the reader with an assortment of richly drawn characters. They range from traditional conservative, stoic Roger Carbury… to his spoiled, rude, over-indulged nephew Felix Carbury who spent most of his time drinking, gambling, and chasing women. There is Ruby Ruggles – the vivacious working class orphan who wants adventure. And Paul Montague who gets entangled with an unscrupulous American widow “those crazy Americans” who is rumored to have killed a man.
Perhaps if I had read The Way We Live Now at an earlier time in life, I would have given it the highest rating, but after a while, many of the British period novels seem redundant, and my tolerance for the excessively wordy 800 page literary composition about stuffy Brits, untrustworthy greedy Jews, and suppressed women has pretty much waned for now.
Rated 4 Stars
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