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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Way We Live Now

My last book for the Victorian Challenge is Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” As I understand it Trollope wrote this book in the early 1870’s at a time when he was very disillusioned with life in England. At over 900 pages in the Oxford Classic version it is also a very long work even for Trollope. Surprisingly it was a very quick read for me, just under three weeks. Usually I can read a Trollope novel relatively quickly, but never at the rate of about 300 pages a week.

The introduction to this edition (which as always I read after the novel) suggested that the first half is very much an indignant satire of almost every aspect of English life, but that the second half settles down to be a more typical Trollope novel as the fates of the characters work themselves out. A big part of the story is the career of the mysterious financier, Augustus Melmotte who in spite of a questionable history, is sought after by everyone because of his supposed great wealth and financial acumen. In an online Trollope discussion group I saw something to the effect that this part of the novel is about a sort of natural dislike for those who make money from money. My reaction to that it is that the like or dislike should to some degree be based on exactly how the money is made.

In this novel, as in almost all of his novels, Trollope uses what I call two-one dynamics or what might be more typically called love triangles. The difference is that I counted at least four such triangles, some of which even overlap. For example, Paul Montague is in a competition with Roger Carbury over the hand of Hetta Carbury while at the same time Montague is the male interest in a dynamic between Hetta and the mysterious and dangerous Mrs. Hurtle. All of these are not exactly situations where two people are competing for the third, but in each case there is a three way dynamic at work.

What I found fascinating in this novel is that in one of these dynamics, Trollope crosses class lines. This concerns Ruby Ruggles, basically a commoner who is sought after by John Crumb, a dealer in meal and pollard at the same time that Ruby is infatuated with the ner-do-well baronet Felix Carbury. The rest of the female characters in these dynamics are struggling to marry for love not money or to avoid marrying because of their money. Interestingly Ruby ultimately comes up against the same issue – can she maintain her independence without marrying for financial reasons even though unlike the middle to upper class characters, she has at least some options as to how to support herself.

One of the things that I like about Trollope’s work is that at the end, the result is not all happy endings and/or each character getting what he or she deserves. Novelists who consistently make that happen (Jane Austen, in my opinion) create a world that isn’t real enough. True to form Trollope, once again, avoids that kind of situation, but does ends some character’s stories showing them to be working through their disappointments which I thought was a nice touch.

I am grateful for the challenge and the structure of the Victorian Challenge. It enabled me to finish George Eliot, start Elizabeth Gatskell and continue with Anthony Trollope. Fortunately there is still a lot more to read!


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