One of my favorite things about the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is the indulgence of the excuse to read Dickens and Trollope, my two most loved Victorian era authors. Accordingly, for the category “Very Long Classic”, I opted to read the doorstopper, The Way We Live Now which just happens to be Trollope’s longest of the 40-plus novels he wrote over his long career.
Now, of course, the title could be changed to “The Way They Lived Then” since Trollope meant the book to be a commentary on late 19th century upper-class society and their twin obsessions with status and money. But as with so many classics, there is plenty in the novel which still applies to our modern lives.
But how to write a short review of such a long novel? That’s the challenge. The story is rich with a variety of subplots and intrigues, but the majority of them all revolve around one man: Auguste Melmotte. Mr. Melmotte is a financier, a capitalist, a man who makes nothing himself but is able to use the money of others to make more money, chiefly for himself. His origins are murky, his past checkered. But as long as he appears to have the Midas-touch he is courted by the upper classes outwardly while behind his back they despise him. There is particular interest in Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, who is to be sacrificed to anyone with a title, provided the groom is willing to only have limited control over Marie’s dowry.
Marie, however, has other ideas about who she will marry. She is enamored of Sir Felix Carbury, Baronet. Felix is a useless idiot who loves no one but would like a way out of his debts. His mother, Lady Carbury, is all for the match since Felix, though he is her favored child, is rapidly depleting her own finances which she supplements by writing terrible books. Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta, has no problem with her mother’s favoritism. She only wants to be free herself to marry young but poor Paul Montague. But her mother wants Hetta to marry her much older cousin, Roger Carbury, who has an estate outside of London.
Paul Montague wants very much to marry Hetta if only his can get his finances in order, which are ultimately tied up with Melmotte and his dealings. But that’s not all. Roger Carbury is his closest friend and a father figure to him. Marrying Hetta may destroy that friendship. And, to complicate matters further, Paul is pursued by a certain Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow to whom he was once (and may still be) engaged.
There is so much more in terms of plot and characters than this bare bones outline, like the snobbish Longstaffe family who are inextricably bound up in Melmotte’s financial machinations or Ruby Ruggles, a country girl who wants to throw over her bumpkin finance John Crumb in the forgone hope that Felix Carbury will marry her. Also there is a wonderful parallel plot about gambling at cards among the aristocrats which satirizes the kind of high finance perpetuated by people like Melmotte.
I really enjoyed The Way We Live Now. I didn’t find it quite as charming as some of his previous novels, however; mostly because I found it hard to really root for any of the characters. They were all frustrating, though some such as Lord Nidderdale, Marie Melmotte, Hetta Carbury, Mrs. Hurtle, etc. were less egregious in the errors of their ways than others. But I always found them interesting and I was invested in their fates.