Spoiler Alert: If you plan to read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, be aware that I’m going to spill the beans on fairly major plot elements.
I bought it for the title – and the introductory essay by David Brooks, whose description of the novel’s contemporary relevance immediately evoked Donald Trump. It being 2017, I was vulnerable to the book’s themes, and ventured to embark on this 900 page account of British society circa 1870 and the fabulously wealthy foreigner who briefly upends their world. The book is, of course, The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. The disruptive foreigner is a Frenchman by the name of Augustus Melmotte, Esq., whose reputation and aura as the richest man in all the land soon has London society fawning at his feet.
Being a society novel, the expected characters are all there — the marriage-minded ingénues, country squires, bankers and businessmen, bluestocking widows, and even a few representatives of the lower orders. These provide the chatterbox backdrop to Melmotte’s remarkable rise and fall, and the all-too-willing dupes of his cunning schemes.
For Trollope’s characters, the way we live now is clearly different from the way we lived before, back when the nobility owned everything. The old landed gentry, who were, after all, remnants of feudalism, were about to be overtaken by the new, rich, self-made men of the commercial world.
Augustus Melmotte is such a man–brash, ruthless, gauche, and, despite his ugliness in all ways, charismatic. Trollope implies that even those who oppose the infiltration of rich commoners into their carefully defended fiefdoms can still fall for the lure of their money. Melmotte has no problem getting invitations to the best houses or buyers for his worthless stock. They line up for the privilege, even as rumors begin to swirl that Melmotte is not what he appears to be.
Naturally, the novel is more than a mere send-up of society for pandering to wealth. It’s also about the insubstantial nature of wealth and reputation when they are built on the short-lived gains of greed. (Compared, one supposes, to the bedrock of hereditary right and privilege that the gentry themselves enjoy.)
As it turns out, Melmotte isn’t quite as rich as people thought he was. In fact, most of his so-called wealth is invested in a variety of speculative ventures, all of them dubious. The scheme Melmotte sells our Londoners is the Great Mexican Railroad, which only sounds promising to gullible investors in Britain who are never going to go there and hence will not know, until it’s too late, what Melmotte is really doing with their money. Alas for them, there is no Great Mexican Railroad, and no investor in it was ever intended to make a dime. Melmotte had reinvested their money in other shady deals, juggling dozens in an effort to keep his operation afloat lest it collapse in a cascade of defaulted debt.
But while he is up, he is very up indeed. Melmotte lives like a lord, and enjoys the animated interest, if not the respect, of London society. In the end, his popularity is such that local Tory operators decide to run him for Parliament, he, a French commoner, only two years in the country. Quickly, they get him some credentials and run him in Westminster, for the express purpose of blocking their liberal opponents from getting the vacant seat. But by then, Melmotte’s financial machinations have begun to come undone and the ruling class are dropping him in droves.
Despite his crashing reputation and against all the predictions of the newspaper pundits, Melmotte wins. As one wag puts it, the common people of Westminster were liable to vote for him simply because it was the disruptive thing to do and they liked to stick it to the people in power. Since the people in power were against him, he must be their man!
In one remarkable scene, Melmotte, the newly minted MP goes – drunk on his ass, to be blunt – to take his seat in Parliament for the second and last time. He manages to find his seat but it’s clear from the start, there will be no redemption here. Everyone knows. They’ve been laying wagers as to whether or not he’ll show up. Nevertheless, he bides his time and keeps his perch, barely. And then, to his colleagues’ amazement, he lurches to his feet to speak. A speech! But no. Words fail him and so do his legs. He falls headlong onto another member. The room is electrified, his fellow MPs frozen in place. But like some unkillable zombie, he gets back up, retires to his bench, and then minutes later, walks out of the chamber, grotesque but proud, never to return.
What happens next surprises you, not because it happens, but because it happens with over a 100 pages still to go in the book. Trollope kills off his central character. This is a brilliant device and it works very well in this novel. Melmotte, cornered now and out of options, faces almost certain trial on charges of fraud and will likely be imprisoned. His illusory fortune has vanished, his former fame is now simple notoriety. There is only one way out and he takes it – a vial of poison on top of a bottle or two of brandy. And so the great Melmotte is no more.
There is a bit of plot-related tidying up after Melmotte’s death, but aside from this light housekeeping, Trollope and his remaining characters cease to mention Melmotte at all. They simply go on with their lives as if he never was. Trollope rolls on to his conclusion, dispensing justice and marrying off lesser characters as the plot requires, but no one ever again mentions Melmotte who had once loomed so large in everyone’s lives.
For the reader, the disappearance of Melmotte feels almost unnatural after all he and we have been through. But perhaps for the duped gentry at the novel’s core, the unpleasantness he represented was simply not worthy of mention. Justice had prevailed, in its way, and they were rid of an unsavory character in their midst. To drop him without a word shows, better than any speech, with just what contempt Trollope’s bankers and squires held him after all.
While Melmotte plays the novel’s primary villain, there is another lesser villainess who animates the life of the young male lead. There’s much one could say about Mrs. Hurtle but for our purposes, it’s enough to say that she is American. Naturally, this also means that she is conniving, money-grubbing, and ruthless, much like Melmotte, but in a completely different style. Where Melmotte is a bear, Mrs. Hurtle is a black widow. Tellingly, neither are British.
Although it’s a stretch, a case could be made that Trollope’s gentry disliked America and France, not only because they were historical adversaries, but also because they were republics built, however precariously, on egalitarian principles. If there’s one thing the nobility don’t like, it’s egalitarian principles that displace centuries of privilege. As far as these neo-feudalists were concerned, the Americans and French were immersed in the dirty world of commerce, and no longer capable of understanding the finer things or the sagacity of preserving the old, elitist ways.
By giving us these particular villains, Trollope allows his British characters to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that the English are better than all that. But we the readers aren’t fooled.
Trollope’s title, The Way We Live Now, has a contemporary ring to it, inviting readers of any era to compare the book’s times with their own. But it is Melmotte, above all, who captures our attention, exemplifying that most perennial of traits, the charisma of wealth.