The Way We Live Nowby Anthony Trollope, David Brooks
'Trollope did not write for posterity,' observed Henry James. 'He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket.' Considered by contemporary critics to be Trollope's greatest novel, The Way We Live Now is a satire of the literary world of London in the 1870s and a bold indictment of the new power/i>
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'Trollope did not write for posterity,' observed Henry James. 'He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket.' Considered by contemporary critics to be Trollope's greatest novel, The Way We Live Now is a satire of the literary world of London in the 1870s and a bold indictment of the new power of speculative finance in English life. 'I was instigated by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age,' Trollope said.
His story concerns Augustus Melmotte, a French swindler and scoundrel, and his daughter, to whom Felix Carbury, adored son of the authoress Lady Carbury, is induced to propose marriage for the sake of securing a fortune. Trollope knew well the difficulties of dealing with editors, publishers, reviewers, and the public; his portrait of Lady Carbury, impetuous, unprincipled, and unswervingly devoted to her own self-promotion, is one of his finest satirical achievements.
His picture of late-nineteenth-century England is a portrait of a society on the verge of moral bankruptcy. In The Way We Live Now Trollope combines his talents as a portraitist and his skills as a storyteller to give us life as it was lived more than a hundred years ago.
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LET THE READER be introduced to Lady Carbury, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing-table in her own room in her own house in Welbeck Street. Lady Carbury spent many hours at her desk, and wrote many letters, wrote also very much besides letters. She spoke of herself in these days as a woman devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L. Something of the nature of her devotion may be learned by the perusal of three letters which on this morning she had written with a quickly running hand. Lady Carbury was rapid in everything, and in nothing more rapid than in the writing of letters. Here is Letter No. 1;
Thursday, Welbeck Street
I have taken care that you shall have the early sheets of my two new volumes to-morrow, or Saturday at latest, so that you may, if so minded, give a poor struggler like myself a lift in your next week's paper. Do give a poor struggler a lift. You and I have so much in common, and I have ventured to flatter myself that we are really friends! I do not flatter you when I say, that not only would aid from you help me more than from any other quarter, but also that praise from you would gratify my vanity more than any other praise. I almost think you will like my ;Criminal Queens.' The sketch of Semiramis is at any rate spirited, though I had to twist it about a little to bring her in guilty. Cleopatra, of course, I have taken from Shakespeare. What a wench she was! I could not quite make Julia a queen; but it was impossible to pass over so piquant a character. You will recognise in the two or three ladies of the empire how faithfully I have studied my Gibbon. Poor dear old Belisarius! I have done the best I could with Joanna, but I could not bring myself to care for her. In our days she would simply have gone to Broadmore. I hope you will not think that I have been too strong in my delineations of Henry VIII and his sinful but unfortunate Howard. I don't care a bit about Anne Boleyne. I am afraid that I have been tempted into too great length about the Italian Catherine; but in truth she has been my favourite. What a woman! What a devil! Pity that a second Dante could not have constructed for her a special hell. How one traces the effect of her training in the life of our Scotch Mary. I trust you will go with me in my view as to the Queen of Scots. Guilty! guilty always! Adultery, murder, treason, and all the rest of it. But recommended to mercy because she was royal. A queen bred, born and married, and with such other queens around her, how could she have escaped to be guilty? Marie Antoinette I have not quite acquitted. It would be uninteresting; perhaps untrue. I have accused her lovingly, and have kissed when I scourged. I trust the British public will not be angry because I do not whitewash Caroline, especially as I go along with them altogether in abusing her husband.
But I must not take up your time by sending you another book, though it gratifies me to think that I am writing what none but yourself will read. Do it yourself, like a dear man, and, as you are great, be merciful. Or rather, as you are a friend, be loving.
Yours gratefully and faithfully,
After all how few women there are who can raise themselves above the quagmire of what we call love, and make themselves anything but playthings for men. Of almost all these royal and luxurious sinners it was the chief sin that in some phase of their lives they consented to be playthings without being wives. I have striven so hard to be proper; but when girls read everything, why should not an old woman write anything?
This letter was addressed to Nicholas Broune, Esq., the editor of the 'Morning Breakfast Table,' a daily newspaper of high character; and, as it was the longest, so was it considered to be the most important of the three. Mr. Broune was a man powerful in his profession, and he was fond of ladies. Lady Carbury in her letter had called herself an old woman, but she was satisfied to do so by a conviction that no one else regarded her in that light. Her age shall be no secret to the reader, though to her most intimate friends, even to Mr. Broune, it had never been divulged. She was forty-three, but carried her years so well, and had received such gifts from nature, that it was impossible to deny that she was still a beautiful woman. And she used her beauty not only to increase her influence, as is natural to women who are well-favoured, but also with a well-considered calculation that she could obtain material assistance in the procuring of bread and cheese, which was very necessary to her, by a prudent adaptation to her purposes of the good things with which providence had endowed her. She did not fall in love, she did not wilfully flirt, she did not commit herself; but she smiled and whispered, and made confidences, and looked out of her own eyes into men's eyes as though there might be some mysterious bond between her and them if only mysterious circumstances would permit it. But the end of all was to induce some one to do something which would cause a publisher to give her good payment for indifferent writing, or an editor to be lenient when, upon the merits of the case, he should have been severe. Among all her literary friends, Mr. Broune was the one on whom she most trusted; and Mr. Broune was fond of handsome women. It may be as well to give a short record of a scene which had taken place between Lady Carbury and her friend about a month before the writing of this letter which has been produced. She had wanted him to take a series of papers for the 'Morning Breakfast Table,' and to have them paid for at rate No. 1, whereas she suspected that he was rather doubtful as to their merit, and knew that, without special favour, she could not hope for remuneration above rate No. 2, or possibly even No. 3. So she had looked into his eyes, and had left her soft, plump hand for a moment in his. A man in such circumstances is so often awkward, not knowing with any accuracy when to do one thing and when another! Mr. Broune, in a moment of enthusiasm, had put his arm round Lady Carbury's waist and had kissed her. To say that Lady Carbury was angry, as most women would be angry if so treated, would be to give an unjust idea of her character. It was a little accident which really carried with it no injury, unless it should be the injury of leading to a rupture between herself and a valuable ally. No feeling of delicacy was shocked. What did it matter? No unpardonable insult had been offered; no harm had been done, if only the dear susceptible old donkey could be made at once to understand that that wasn't the way to go on!
Without a flutter, and without a blush, she escaped from his arm, and then made him an excellent little speech. 'Mr. Broune, how foolish, how wrong, how mistaken! Is it not so? Surely you do not wish to put an end to the friendship between us!'
'Put an end to our friendship, Lady Carbury! Oh, certainly not that.'
'Then why risk it by such an act? Think of my son and of my daughter, both grown up. Think of the past troubles of my life; so much suffered and so little deserved. No one knows them so well as you do. Think of my name, that has been so often slandered but never disgraced! Say that you are sorry, and it shall be forgotten.'
When a man has kissed a woman it goes against the grain with him to say the very next moment that he is sorry for what he has done. It is as much as to declare that the kiss had not answered his expectation. Mr. Broune could not do this, and perhaps Lady Carbury did not quite expect it. 'You know that for worlds I would not offend you,' he said. This sufficed. Lady Carbury again looked into his eyes, and a promise was given that the articles should be printed and with generous remuneration.
When the interview was over Lady Carbury regarded it as having been quite successful. Of course when struggles have to be made and hard work done, there will be little accidents. The lady who uses a street cab must encounter mud and dust which her richer neighbour, who has a private carriage, will escape. She would have preferred not to have been kissed; but what did it matter? With Mr. Broune the affair was more serious. 'Confound them all,' he said to himself as he left the house; 'no amount of experience enables a man to know them.' As he went away he almost thought that Lady Carbury had intended him to kiss her again, and he was almost angry with himself in that he had not done so. He had seen her three or four times since, but had not repeated the offence.
We will now go on to the other letters, both of which were addressed to the editors of other newspapers. The second was written to Mr. Booker, of the 'Literary Chronicle.' Mr. Booker was a hard-working professor of literature, by no means without talent, by no means without influence, and by no means without a conscience. But, from the nature of the struggles in which he had been engaged, by compromises which had gradually been driven upon him by the encroachment of brother authors on the one side and by the demands on the other of employers who looked only to their profits, he had fallen into a routine of work in which it was very difficult to be scrupulous, and almost impossible to maintain the delicacies of a literary conscience. He was now a bald-headed old man of sixty, with a large family of daughters, one of whom was a widow dependent on him with two little children. He had five hundred a year for editing the 'Literary Chronicle,' which, through his energy, had become a valuable property. He wrote for magazines, and brought out some book of his own almost annually. He kept his head above water, and was regarded by those who knew about him, but did not know him, as a successful man. He always kept up his spirits, and was able in literary circles to show that he could hold his own. But he was driven by the stress of circumstances to take such good things as came in his way, and could hardly afford to be independent. It must be confessed that literary scruple had long departed from his mind. Letter No. 2 was as follows;
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Meet the Author
ANTHONY TROLLOPE, the quintessential Victorian novelist whose dozens of books illuminate virtually every aspect of late nineteenth century England, was born in Russell Square, London, on April 24, 1815. He was the son of Thomas Anthony Trollope, a failed barrister. His mother, Frances Trollope, successfully turned to writing in order to improve their finances.
As a charity day student at Harrow School Trollope was shunned by boarders. Later as a student at Winchester College he was often flogged his older brother Tom. At the age of nineteen Trollope embarked on a career as a civil servant in London's General Post Office. In 1841 he was transferred to Ireland, where he lived happily for the next eighteen years, advancing steadily through the ranks of the postal service. In 1844 he married Rose Heseltine, who became a trusted literary assistant once he began to write.
The Macdermots of Ballycloran, Trollope's first book, was published in 1847. But it was not until 1855 that he achieved commercial success with The Warden, the initial volume in six-book series about clerical life in and around the fictional cathedral town of Barchester. Two sequels, Barchester Towers (1857) and Doctor Thorne (1858), quickly ensured his fame. The West Indies and the Spanish Main, the first of several travelogues Trollope recorded while journeying abroad on postal business, appeared in October 1859. The same year he returned to England and took up residence at Waltham House in Hertfordshire, some twelve miles from London. There Trollope settled into a disciplined routine that enabled his phenomenal productivity. He rose every morning at five o'clock and wrote for three to four hours in order to meet a self-imposed weekly quota of approximately forty pages; moreover he frequently began a new book the very day he completed one. The novelist's only passionate diversion was foxhunting.
Trollope quickly became part of London's literary life. His work began to appear serially in Cornhill Magazine, and he formed a great friendship with its editor, William Thackeray. He finished the last three volumes in the Barsetshire series--Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). Meanwhile, he launched the Palliser novels, a new series about politics, with Can You Forgive Her? (1865). At the time, Nathaniel Hawthorne perfectly pinpointed the secret of the Englishman--s appeal: 'The novels of Anthony Trollope [are] just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of. These books are just as English as a beef-steak . . . but still I should think that human nature would give them success anywhere.'
Trollope resigned from the postal service late in 1867, to become editor of Saint Paul's Magazine. The next year he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in Parliament. In 1871 Trollope relinquished Waltham House and embarked on a two-year trip to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Upon returning to London he settled at 39 Montagu Square and soon published the engaging travel book Australia and New Zealand (1873). In later novels Trollope shifted his interest from scenes of provincial life to satires of English politics and society--among them The Claverings (1867), He Knew He Was Right (1869), The Way We Live Now (1875), and The American Senator (1877). The five remaining Palliser novels--Phineas Finn (1869), The Eustace Diamonds (1873), Phineas Redux (1874), The Prime Minister (1876), and The Duke's Children (1880)--also focused on political and social themes.
In the final years of his life Trollope traveled extensively. He journeyed to Ceylon and South Africa, and revisited both Ireland and Australia. He also turned out two biographies, Thackeray (1879) and The Life of Cicero (1880), and began writing his memoirs. Anthony Trollope died on December 6, 1882, a month after suffering a paralyzing stroke. The author's self-portrait, An Autobiography, appeared the following year. 'Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy . . . of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself,' judged Henry James. 'His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.'
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THE WAY WE LIVE NOW is is a dark and witty commentary upon a society that has just-discovered capitalist manipulation of wealth. The author's maidens who can't make up their minds are not in this masterpiece. All the characters are out for themselves in a detailed scramble for money. The central character of Augustus Melmotte is the greatest figure of imagination created in the last century. Like Gatsby, he is ourselves had we been asked to be a character in the novel. Both the movie Wall Street and the book Bonfire of Vanities could never have been had not Trollope shown the way. There are a dozen or so wonderful characters in this story, not the least Melmotte's daughter, who is far from a blushing maiden in money matters. The TV version of this story goes one better than the novel by introducing details that Trollope would have omitted from a sense of delicacy; the script, casting and acting in the TV version (available from barnes and noble.com)are twice as enjoyable when you have read the novel.