Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Way We Live Now

Whatever be the misery to be endured, get it over. The horror of every agony is in its anticipation.

Back in 2009, Newsweek created a list of fifty books that it considered "must reads" for understanding the times we live in. Surprisingly enough, the book it considered most important for those living in today's world was none other than an 1875 British satirical novel. Considered by many readers to be his masterpiece, Anthony Trollope's sweeping novel The Way We Live Now lashes out at the dishonesty that he saw prevailing Victorian England. From issues of money to love to politics, Trollope forces society to look in the mirror and see the glaring faults that it possesses. In so doing, it also shows us that the society that we openly despise as we read is in many ways eerily similar to our own.

The Plot:

It is the 1870s and London society is reveling the glitz and gilding of the Victorian era. The arrival of a foreign investment manager named Augustus Melmotte has a ripple effect that touches many lives. There's nonsensical Lady Carbury who imagines herself to be the literary world's next great authoress, as well as her son, Felix, whose gambling and philandering drive her ever deeper into debt, and her daughter, Hetta, who's heart is being torn in two. There's Roger Carbury and Paul Montague, two friends who have the misfortune to fall in love with the same woman. There's Melmotte's daughter, Marie, who finds that her hand (and her wealth) are coveted by man young gentlemen. There's Ruby Ruggles who spurns security and true love for a romantic dream, and Georgianna Longstaffe who will do ANYTHING for a house in town. And there's Mrs. Hurtle, the mysterious American trying desperately to retain the heart of the man she loves.

All of these and more find their lives wrapped up in the meteoric rise of Augustus Melmotte. He is the man to know, and almost all of them will crawl over broken glass to be seen in his presence by Society. But rumors soon begin to spread concerning Melmotte and as his rise gives way to a plummet, many are left scrambling to get out of the way.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I guess the first thing I should tell you about this book is that it is LONG. Clocking in at 100 chapters and over 700 pages, it is the definition of a clunker. I almost envy those Victorians who got to read it in serialization versus having to take it all in at once. Nevertheless, it is worth the time it takes to plow through it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Though the world that Trollope describes is one of corsets, horse drawn carriages, and waltzing, it is not hard to see that the essence of the story is reflected in the world of the 2000s. What Trollope despises most is the fact that Victorian society would overlook just about anything if the offender has enough money. Augustus Melmotte is a great swindler, which everyone knows from the beginning. He is coarse, greedy, arrogant, manipulating, and criminal. And nobody cares. As long as he lives in a gorgeous house in Grosvenor Square, as long as he entertains the royalty of the land, and as long as he throws a lavish dinner for the Emperor of China, the fact that he is a liar and a cheat means nothing. Society is more than happy to overlook any offense that is covered in gold. It is only after rumors begin to spread regarding Melmotte's actual worth that society begins to aim it's daggers at the interloper. Sounds a bit like our own time does it not? How often did we turn a blind eye to the dishonesty and criminality happening all around us, assuming that anything (or anyone) with that much money was worth being associated with?

Trollope also shows society's faults in the way it treats people like John Crumb, Mr. Breghart, and Roger Carbury. Each of these men is honest, hardworking, and sincere. Though John Crumb is capable (and more than willing) of providing Ruby Ruggles with a comfortable home and a loving heart, she despises him because he does not fit her romantic idea of a gentleman. Mr. Breghart deals honestly and straightforwardly with Georgianna Longstaffe, but she throws him over when the house in town no longer enters the equation. And Roger Carbury is the epitome of a gentleman, and yet Hetta gives her heart to Paul Montague who, though well-intentioned, does not exactly play fair between her and Mrs. Hurtle. Ok, so the last example is a bit of a stretch, but let it be known that I am solidly on Team Roger. I'd take him over that nice but weak-willed Paul any day.

When it comes to a good example of a Victorian novel, this is a wonderful one. Many people compare Trollope to Dickens, and in many ways this is fair. Trollope's focus on the problems facing Victorian society is very similar to Dickens, and you can see lots of similarities between their works (Little Dorrit anyone?). And though perhaps Trollope's characters are not as over the top or memorable as Dickens', they are very well drawn. There are those you love to hate, like Felix Carbury. There are those who are so ridiculous that you can't help but love them, like Dolly Longstaffe. There are those who never cease to surprise you, like Mrs. Hurtle. And then there are those who simply demand your love and respect, like Roger Carbury. Each of Trollope's characters are very human, and it is easy to see our own traits, faults, and dreams reflected in them.

Though it took a lot of diligence and effort to make it through this lengthy novel, it was well worth it in the end. It is a fine portrayal of life at the height of the Victorian era, as well as reflection of our own times. The Way We Live Now is just that.

The Movie:

This novel has been adapted twice by the BBC. The first was in 1969 and starred Colin Blakely, Cavan Kendall, and Phyllida Law.

The second is the more recent 2004 adaptation starring David Suchet, Matthew MacFadyen, Cillian Murphy, Miranda Otto, and host of other well-known British actors. It streamlines this sprawling plot beautifully, and the cast is wonderful in their respective roles. David Suchet is especially good as the scheming Melmotte. Worth a watch whether you read the book or not.

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