February 11, 2012
I’m back to hitting the books and writing about them. I’m slowly learning to alternate my writing and art schedule with some success. Discipline is the key and in a strange way, that idea is what motivated me to seek out and read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I discovered Trollope many years ago while wandering around the library. That was back in the days when I was still listening to my audio books on CD and the library had a good selection. I randomly checked out The Warden: Chronicles of Barsetshire #1 and liked it so well I next read Barchester Towers: Chronicles of Barsetshire #2. Then I didn’t read anything else by him – until now.
But what really attracted me is the story I read about Trollope’s disciplined writing method. It seems that for most of his working life, Trollope had a regular job as a post office clerk or supervisor, and did his writing is disciplined time blocks, such as three straight hours before work in the morning. Using this method he became one of England’s most prolific and popular novelists of the 19th century, turning out a total of 47 novels. I am inspired.
Somehow I never encountered Trollope in high school or college English classes, even though I was an English major. In my opinion, at least in The Way We Live Now, he is as good as Dickens – different, and not a hilariously funny perhaps, but as good in his way. In general, his characters seem more multidimensional – the good guys have serious character flaws and the bad guys can break your heart with their humanity. And while retaining a strongly defined recognizable identity, his characters can fluctuate in attitude, change their minds, evolve and learn, even act outside of their usual range. They can act on their better instincts one day and fall back on their weaknesses the next. And I am especially impressed by the depth and complexity of his female characters.
After poking around the Internet for a few minutes I found that many people consider The Way We Live Now (published 1875, later in his career) to be one of Trollope’s best novels. I also discovered that many reviewers have mentioned the novel’s relevance to the recent financial scandals in the news, especially the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. I am no expert in the finance world but this book had me doing some peripheral research: I now know the difference between a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid scheme, an economic bubble, and a confidence game. This novel definitely features a Ponzi-like scheme even though it was written long before the term was coined. (The term comes from a guy named Charles Ponzi who ran afoul of the law in 1920 after operating such a scheme.)
The main plot centers on Augustus Melmotte, a mysterious foreigner who moves into a posh mansion in a primo London neighborhood along with his timid wife and 18-year-old daughter Marie and ostentatiously displays his seemingly limitless wealth. Although no one knows anything about the family, other than some whispered rumors about Melmotte’s shady past, the family quickly becomes the hottest celebrities in town, their home the place to see and be seen, their name the name to drop. A gang of poverty-stricken young aristocrats immediately begin to make their plays to snag the young heiress in matrimony.
Several subplots intersect with this main one, including a love triangle involving the daughter of a second major character, the determined Lady Matilda Carbury. Lady Carbury is a widow who has fallen on hard times, primarily due to the dissolute lifestyle and gambling of her worthless cad of son, Sir Felix. Her daughter, Hetta, the resident representative of virtue, doesn’t know much about all that. Hetta has problems of her own: she is being pursued by her older cousin Roger Carbury, owner of the Carbury estate and paragon of integrity. Roger is so perfect in every way that Hetta has no good reason to reject him, especially since by marrying him she could relieve all financial distress for her mother and brother. Except that she is in love with adventurer Paul Montague, who has gotten his business mixed up in the scheme of guess who – Augustus Melmotte.
However intricate the twists and turns of the plot, The Way We Live Now is primarily a character-driven novel. In fact, the plot is so well integrated with the characters that none of it could have happened without this particular set of characters, every one of whom is defined by his or her attitude toward two things: money and love.
Take loser son, Sir Felix Carbury: a handsome baronet who wastes his entire inheritance on vice and gambling within two years of his father’s death and then starts in on his mother’s inheritance. Felix’s attitude toward money: it should always be available and its purpose is to spend on his immediate desires. Attitude toward love: pretend to feel it in order to obtain either money or sex. Unfortunately, Sir Felix is the one suitor young Marie Melmotte falls in love with.
My favorite character in the book is Lady Carbury, an aspiring writer. Lady C’s attitude toward money: It’s good to have because it provides you with a big house and status is society. You do what you need to do to procure it, even if it means making little compromises here and there. Attitude toward love: Foolish nonsense that has no place in her life but she’ll hint a little simulated love in order to obtain certain favors, such as good reviews for her book.
Here are some of the other characters and their attitudes:
Money: It buys you everything, even a seat in Parliament. It makes you what you are. It is all that matters.
Love: What’s that?
Money: If you are so fortunate as to have inherited it, you must steward it with scrupulous care and responsibility. It must be kept in the family.
Love: Once given to someone romantically it is a fact never to be altered. Love of all others must be in a responsible Christian sense with self-sacrifice where practical.
Money: Must be used with integrity. It’s nice to have but willing to give it up if it becomes tainted with dishonesty. It is possible to actually earn it.
Love: Believes in love at first sight but finds true love at first sight is subject to error.
Money: Doesn’t care beans about it but has never lived in abject poverty.
Love: To be bestowed with extreme caution. Once given, cannot be altered.
Marie Melmotte (interesting character who grows and changes dramatically within the novel):
Money: At first, it’s just a big nuisance because it attracts a swarm of pesky suitors, all of whom she hates except for Felix Carbury. Gradually comes to recognize full import of money as a source of power.
Love: First believes in true love. Due to lies and betrayal of Felix, she comes to see love as a sham. Although she still longs for it above all things, she considers in pie in the sky, not to be considered when making matrimonial decisions.
Money: Represents independence. You have to fight for it.
Love: Longs for it and believes in its reality. But you have to fight for it.
The novel is richly enhanced by a host of supporting characters including distressed aristocrats on their way down, industrious tradesmen on their way up, an unscrupulous American entrenpreneur, and Felix’s lower class girlfriend Ruby who expects him to marry her and ends up teaching him the only lesson that sticks – all of whom express their own unique attitudes toward love and money.
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What are your attitudes toward love and money? How much do you think these attitudes affect your behavior and decisions?
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