Monday, August 2, 2010

The Way We Live Now

A couple of weeks ago, I started reading the novel The Way We Live Now (1875), which had been recommended to me by a few friends, most notably LC, who wrote his dissertation on Anthony Trollope, the author of this and numerous other books. This particular novel is considered to be one of his best. Trollope (1815-1882) was truly one of the most popular and prolific novelists of the Victorian era. He practically invented the "series" in which characters would return from one novel to the next. Unlike his contemporaries Charles Dickens and George Eliot, whose long novels are noted for, respectively, their melodrama or morality, Trollope specialized in social commentary. In that sense he may have shared more with his contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray, whose Vanity Fair (1848) is another witty and devious Victorian novel.

Victorian novels put people off because they're frequently so long. I'm about 200 pages into the book, and I have another 600 to go, so it is going to take me a while to read it. But I'm actually glad. I love this book! The plot (so far) runs something like this: characters from the upper classes and fringes of nobility become enamored of the despicable Augustus Melmotte and his family. Their questionable background and poor sense of social niceties repulses everyone, but their enormous fortune also thrills them, and while everyone despises the Melmottes and talks about them behind their backs, everyone is also willing to entertain them--even marry them--in order to have a taste of their fortune. What makes the book so palatable is that even though it takes place in 1870s England, the actions of the characters are very 2010. The pyramid-like investment scheme that Melmotte oversees reeks of Bernie Madoff and the investment disasters we've witnessed over the past few years.

But it's the wit of the book that makes it most enjoyable. Everywhere there is double-talk, double entendre, and plot twists that you can sense are coming but are still completely startling in the way they create ironic twists in the storyline. With characters' names like Dolly Longestaffe and Lord Damask Monogram, how could you not help but grin? And with passages like the following involving the manipulative-but-maternally devoted Lady Matilda Carbury, I find myself laughing out loud at the brilliance of the writing.
Lady Carbury at dinner was all smiles and pleasantness. ... She sat between the bishop and her cousin, and was skilful enough to talk to each without neglecting the other. She had known the bishop before, and had on one occasion spoken to him of her soul. The first tone of the good man's reply had convinced her of her error, and she never repeated it. To Mr. Alf she commonly talked of her mind; to Mr. Broune of her heart; to Mr. Booker of her body--and its wants. She was quite ready to talk of her soul on a proper occasion, but she was much too wise to thrust the subject even on a bishop. (p.135)

Perhaps reading this passage out of context and not understanding Lady Carbury's personality it may be less funny. But you have to admit to the wit: of all the people one should be able to speak about their soul, it should be a bishop, no? And a Victorian lady thinking about her body's desires while she's talking to the bishop over dinner? It's scandalous, and delicious. These three named men are editors of newspapers whom she solicits for favorable reviews of her own writing. Can you see the double meaning in the text? Trollope is a novelist who has endured positive and negative reviews, who's writing about a woman who manipulates men in order to gain favorable opinion in their reviews of her books. It's clever, to say the least. I'm sure when I'm done with the book I'll write a review (for which no one tried to flatter me). I am convinced there is at least one character who is a "confirmed bachelor" (i.e. homosexual), and there is apparently a great BBC adaptation of the novel to watch too. Stay tuned for more.

1 comment:

Sherman Clarke said...

Thanks for reminding me that I wanted to add the BBC version to my Netflix queue. I read the book two or three years ago and found it very satisfying and entertaining too.