As you read this you may, like me, be working from home, while your partner is doing the same, and your child, or children, are at home too. Suddenly, this is the way things are, or at least should be, to #flattenthecurve of a very frightening virus. What happens when societies suddenly change is not a subject exclusive to our world at this moment. Anthony Trollope’s class novel, written in 1875, is a satiric take on the financial scandals of 1873, when a panic triggered a four-year depression in North America and Europe—with especially dire effects in France and Britain, resulting in two decades of economic stagnation.
Anthony Trollope, author of a staggering output of novels, novel series, short stories, nonfiction works, and plays, first published The Way We Live Now in monthly serialized installments—the last of the significant Victorian novels to appear in serial form. The book is structured in 100 chapters with numerous characters and subplots, inspired by the financial scandals of the era, and the author’s shock at the avarice and corruption that followed. And given our own times in which so many are working and schooling from home, for those writers who see these newly home-bound days as a way to finally get that novel written, bear in mind that Trollope began The Way We Live Now in May of 1973 and finished just before Christmas—a little under eight months.
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The plot centers on Augustus Melmotte, a mysterious French financier who arrives in London one day, takes a grand house in Grovenor Square, and begins a calculated overthrow of English society, as well as aristocratic and international investors. He has a mysterious past, including a shadowy history with a Viennese bank, a second wife acquired after the mysterious disappearance of his first, and a mercurial daughter, Marie, from his first marriage. An unexpected opportunity arrives with the engineering team of an American entrepreneur, Hamilton Fisker and a young idealistic English engineer, Paul Montague, who approach him to finance the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, which will run from Salt Lake City to Veracruz, opening the North American subcontinent to unheard-of levels of trade. As Melmotte lures investors, he ramps up the share price without investing any of his own funds, enriching himself without expending a cent for the railroad. Trollope tells us:
“Of course he had committed forgery;–of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life.”
Against this backdrop we meet Lady Matilda Carbury, a widowed authoress (“She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good.” ), heavily in debt and aiming to see her only daughter, the innocent nineteen- year-old Hetta Carbury, married to their wealthy cousin Roger, and her louche son, Sir Felix, separated from the gambling habit that has decimated his inheritance.
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The Melmottes and the Carburys collide when Felix, aiming to revive the family fortune, pursues the eccentric Marie. With his rakish style, he wins her heart easily, though her father has no intention of allowing her to marry without his consent and keep the family fortune. Meanwhile, Paul Montague, whose frustration with the stalled railroad causes his relationship with Melmotte to deteriorate (and will eventually expose the house of cards), meets Hetta Carbury through his mentor, Roger Carbury. Roger, unfortunately has set his sights on Hetta, though she gently turns him down, having just fallen for Paul. The Way We Live Now elaborates on the cross-purposes of these two families, and the society they inhabit. Class, wealth, addiction, privilege, dishonesty—Trollope spins them all into this cautionary tale.
“The facts, if not true, were well invented; the arguments, if not logical, were seductive.”
The novel’s personal dramas unfold against a political and social backdrop of London as the century approached the Gilded Age—in which rapid economic, political, and social changes rewrote the fabric of life. In Britain, the crash triggered the Long Depression, as it was called, which brought financial collapse, unemployment, and trade deficits that would last over two decades, and a new political protectionism that brought an end to the established liberal policies and launched an era of conservative interventionist ones. Trollope aimed for the novel to both criticize and dramatize the dishonesty that spanned every corner of the era’s society.
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— Lauren Alwan
Lauren Alwan’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Nimrod International, and other publications. Read her new column at Catapult, “Invisible History,” a chronicle of family stories of heritage and belonging and the complexities of her bicultural experience. Learn more at www.laurenalwan.com