The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The First Cloud 1887 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson 1832-1910

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!

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24 comments

  1. I utterly agree with you about Trollope and Dickens, although I think Trollope is often a less pared-back writer than you give him credit for; he’s frequently incapable of leaving out paragraphs explaining, e.g., precisely how relationships develop (or the progress of a hunt!), which a reader could fill in for herself; a lot of reading him, especially the Palliser novels, is moving through the sheer volume of information he wants us to have. But you’re right that he doesn’t do the kind of grotesquerie that Dickens does, and I also think he’s much better on poor people, and a thousand times better on women—all of Trollope’s women feel real to me. Can You Forgive Her? would be an excellent volume to carry on with, since it’s the beginning of the Palliser series…

    1. I absolutely agree with your comparison of Dickens to Trollope — especially the women! Dickens had some real issues. His women are either grotesque, simpering ingenues, or villainous.

      1. Although there is a certain level of interest in Miss Wade, of Little Dorrit – she always strikes me as a prototypical possibility of Dickens writing queerness, what with how much she loathes men and seems to adore Tattycoram. But then it turns out she’s been jilted by a man and that explains everything, which is a bit of a disappointingly normative explanation.

  2. I need to crawl into an over-large Trollope novel soon. Okay, well maybe at the semester break in May. Thanks for reminding me to hop too this soon. I do like Dickens, but I think because he really drew me into reading Victorian Literature as a teen. Bleak House is superb, but many of the other novels tend towards snobbery.

  3. I’m so delighted that you liked this novel, Trollope is my favorite Victorian writer and possibly my favorite writer of all time. The Way We Live Now was my very first Trollope and I was completely hooked on it, I kept sneaking away to read ‘just one more chapter!’ I also loved the Barset series and I’ve got two more Pallisers left, and there are a lot of great stand-alone novels — The American Senator is really good, plus Ayala’s Angel and Rachel Ray. I’ve also just finished The Flavorings and it was excellent. And the best thing about Trollope is that he wrote so many novels!

  4. This is just the review I needed! I’ve been hesitating on Trollope..(issues with large books and lack of concentration atm!)…but it sounds like so much fun. Thank you!

  5. Elizabeth Gaskell said she wished ‘Mr Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever’ – I feel the same! Thanks Karen for reminding me about The American Senator; it’s the one Trollope novel I’ve missed out on. But they are almost all entirely satisfying, addictive, happy-making reading – the only one that I have never wanted to read again is An Eye for an Eye which is a strange departure from Trollope’s other work, being melodramatic and unnervingly gruesome … maybe to be avoided!

  6. I’ve had this on both Kindle and Audible for some time and have been girding my literary loins to dive in.
    Was so pleased when you mentioned it on the podcast, and now you’ve all given me just the push I need – thanks!

  7. I found the manager of my local Oxfam shop a few weeks ago, sorting out a lovely stack of Folio editions of Trollope – and grumbling that they’d never sell, Trollope is boring, only for old men etc etc I jumped right in and gave him a good ticking off! Outrageous – especially when it turned out that he’d never actually read one. Of course, then I had to buy one as a good example. Ayala’s Angel – which I hadn’t even heard of – because I’d read all of the others.

  8. I started reading The Warden not too long ago and it’s funnier than I expected! Now I just need finish it and then I can start on the delightful looking Barchester Towers with more of the hilarious Grantleys! I read Can You Forgive Her? and The Eustace Diamonds back when I was book blogging (in 2010-11, it’s been a while!) and those were good too (although the endless dithering of the main characters got a bit much after about 800 pages…), but the Barchester series seems more entertaining.

  9. So happy to hear you have discovered the joys of Trollope! I feel like every time I read one of his books I find a character who is so unusually true to life that it quite shocks me. I was flipping through The Three Clerks a few nights ago and if ever there was a writer who understood the tedious grind of office work and what it does to a person’s soul, it was Trollope!

  10. Dear Rachel,
    Greetings from France !
    I have been following your blog for a few weeks as well as faithfully listening to your “Tea or books” podcast with Simon.
    I’m delighted that you enjoyed “The Way we live now”. Trollope is also one of my favorite novelists. I discovered him when I read “Miss McKenzie” a few years ago and have since read several of his novels.
    I’ve never been disappointed so far except by “The Warden” which I found boring.
    I love “The Duke’s Children”, but “He knew he was right”, “The Belton Estate” and “The American Senator” are also very good.
    Before my discovery I loved Dickens, but now I think Trollope’s plots and characters superior in the sense that modern readers feel closer to them.

    1. I agree, The Warden is pretty slow starting out. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Trollope, but I don’t think one should skip it and dive right into Barchester Towers (though I suppose you could go back and read it as a prequel). The Way We Live Now was my first Trollope and though I was a little intimidated by the sheer size of it, I absolutely loved it and kept sneaking off to read “just one more chapter.” I’m now addicted to Trollope and I’ve read about half of his works. I’m so glad he wrote 47 novels!

  11. I recently finished this book and must say that I found it very funny and redolent, also, of current affairs.

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