I think Anthony Trollope might be my new favourite novelist. His books might be ridiculously long, but they’re so much fun that the pages whip by in an ecstasy of stifled giggling, and leave you bereft when you emerge from the world he has created, desperate for more of his wonderfully drawn characters. I had only read one Trollope, some years ago now, when I decided, when stuck on a train with only what I had downloaded on my Kindle to read, to give The Way We Live Now a go. I know many people say it’s their favourite, and having watched the TV series (back in 2001, apparently – that makes me feel old!), I was keen to see what I would make of it. As I am currently completely submerged in the nineteenth century thanks to all the reading and research I’m doing for my MA, I have been avoiding Victorian fiction when I read for pleasure, but this was such a perfect blend of literary entertainment that I couldn’t put it down. Trollope is, in my opinion, far superior to Dickens in that he doesn’t preach and he doesn’t caricature; he presents life as it is and leaves the reader to make the judgements, and he does it all in a refreshingly pared-back prose that has none of the fuss of Dickens’ lavishly trimmed sentences. If you think Victorian fiction is too heavy going for you, then Trollope, I can promise you, will be a pleasant surprise. And The Way We Live Now is an excellent example of how atypically Victorian he is, as the world of selfish, materialistic characters being held to ransom by the machinations of the corrupt financier Melmotte feels disturbingly contemporary!
The multi stranded plot revolves around the central character of Sir Felix Carbury, a young, indulged and perpetually hard up aristocrat whose doting mother, Lady Carbury, is determined to secure him a financially stable future. Struggling to make ends meet, she is pursuing a literary career with little success, and is in despair at her daughter Hetta’s refusal to marry her irritatingly nice, sensible and wealthy cousin, Roger, who lives at the family estate in Suffolk. As Hetta won’t marry for money, and her embarrassingly terrible literary efforts aren’t filling the coffers as quickly as she would like, Lady Carbury sets her sights on the only daughter of mysterious financier Mr Melmotte, who is newly arrived in London and causing quite the stir. Marie Melmotte is hardly pretty, but she is rumoured to be the richest young woman in Europe, and isn’t averse to finding a husband. Thankfully for Felix, who has no inclination to marry, but is so desperate for cash to pay off his gambling, drinking and horse riding debts that he’ll do anything to get some money, is criminally handsome. As such, Lady Carbury’s plan to push the two young people together works like a charm; Marie is smitten at first sight with the gorgeous young baronet, and Felix is prepared to marry her if he can guarantee she’ll prop up his idle lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Sir Felix has embroiled himself in Mr Melmotte’s latest financial scheme; the Central Pacific and Mexico railway, which is promising riches to everyone who invests in it. Melmotte secures the backing of a number of aristocrats, and the talk in town is that he is sitting on a fortune, but soon the inexperienced and rather dense Lords who have been corralled into the scheme thinking it will save them from financial ruin become suspicious at both the lack of ready money and information about what exactly Melmotte is doing with the shares. Most concerned is Paul Montague, whose firm are behind the railway scheme; he doesn’t trust Melmotte, and is worried that his money has been sunk into a black hole. He also happens to be in love with Hetta Carbury, and she in love with him, but being penniless – especially as he has seen no return as of yet from his shares in the railway – he has no chance of winning Lady Carbury’s consent.
As Sir Felix, Lady Carbury and Marie plot a marriage behind Melmotte’s back, rumours, fuelled by an aristocrat who thinks he has been cheated, begin to circulate that Melmotte is not an honourable man. Stories surface about midnight flights from various European cities, broken promises, and bankruptcies. Questions are asked about whether Melmotte’s fortune actually exists, and investors in the railway begin to become nervous. Felix starts to wonder whether Marie Melmotte is really such a catch after all, and as all of London gossips and chooses sides, those who are reliant on Melmotte for their financial security are forced into nailing their colours to the mast. Will they stay loyal to Melmotte in the hope of a return, or will they withdraw, choosing the dignity of their names over the means to live up to them? And will Melmotte manage to weather the growing storm of doubt and disapproval before it brings his empire to its knees?
This is such a fabulous book, and there are plenty more characters and sub plots than I have been able to detail here. Trollope creates a wonderfully rich, vibrant world that takes us from impoverished country estates to city board rooms, London salons to boarding houses, all filled with lively, colourful and utterly real characters, all striving to make a life for themselves in a capitalist world. Sir Felix is a magnificent piece of characterisation, perfectly exemplifying the results of indulgent parenting, a poor education and the sense of entitlement that comes from unearned status, who still just about manages to be sympathetic despite being an utter waste of space. Melmotte is enigmatic, complex and not the villain you would expect, and the female characters are well drawn, with subtlety and realism in the dilemmas and strictures they face. Trollope is a refreshingly human novelist, with no axe to grind or agenda to peddle; he invites us to take a look at the corruption of society at all levels, and decide for ourselves who is at fault. There is no heavy handed narration, no clumsy moralising; instead, there is merely honesty, and an honesty that is hilarious as it is depressing. I couldn’t put it down, and I already can’t wait to read more. This is classic fiction at its finest; I’d challenge anyone not to love every minute of it!