Looking at Punch shows how widespread were the social stereotypes Trollope uses for his satire. Two cartoons from the January l, 1872 issue of Punch, for instance, depict characters remarkably similar to those mocked in The Way We Live Now. Both cartoons appear to come from "The Ruling Passion," a series which mocks the social consciousness and eagerness to ascend to the nobility so apparent in the novel.
The first cartoon features an invalid bearing the pretentious name Mrs. Woodbee Swellington Jones being told of a horrible riding accident involving a young lady by Sir Talbot Howard Vere de Vere. The invalid Mrs. Jones remarks that the incident is "quite too shocking," but in the same breath goes on to inquire not if the young lady is likely to survive, but if she "was — er — a person of position."
This caricature is duplicated almost exactly in the character of Lady Pomona. When Lady Pomona learns that Georgiana, her daughter, is engaged to marry a Jew she not only laments that "such an occurrence in the family would be to her as though the end of all things had come" and that "she [can] never again hold up her head, never go into society, never take pleasure in her powdered footmen again," but she also retires to her bedroom and becomes ill for the next few days with a psychosomatic illness. Though Lady Pomona has a title (and I'm not sure how she's a "Lady" but her husband only a "Mr.") we learn that she is constantly haunted by the possibility that one of her daughters will marry into a situation above her own.
The second cartoon depicts two men, a host and a guest, talking at a dinner party. The host, Mr. Snobley Choddson, gesturing to another guest, remarks: "See my distinguished foreign friend, my Lord! He's as proud of all those crosses and medals as — as — as — " The host is unable to finish his sentence, but has it finished for him by his guest, Lord Algernon Fitzrad, who remarks aside: "As you are of getting me to come and dine with you, Mr. Snobley."
Compare this cartoon to this passage from chapter four of The Way We Live Now in which Trollope describes the efforts necessary to make the Melmotte's ball a success:
Almost incredible efforts had been made to obtain the co-operation of great people, and these efforts had at last been successful. The Duchess of Stevenson had come up from Castle Albany herself to be present at it and to bring her daughters, though it had never been her grace's wont to be in London at this inclement season. No doubt the persuasion used with the duchess had been very strong... Where the Duchess of Stevenson went all the world would go. And it became known at the last moment, that is to say, only the day before the party, that a prince of the blood royal was to be there. How this had been achieved nobody quite understood; but there were rumors that a certain lady's jewels had been rescued from the pawnbroker's.
Both the Punch cartoon and Trollope's novel make clear that only the presence of important people made an event significant in the public's eyes. In the case of Melmotte's ball, the situation is obvious. Melmotte must literally pay for high ranking members of the royalty to attend in order to establish himself as a respectable member of the upper class. The fact that Melmotte has more money than many of the nobility does not, however, make him a gentleman.
The cartoon in Punch, parodies the situation described in The Way We Live Now. The person of whom the host is so proud is a "distinguished foreigner," which probably means that he is not worthy of the great respect that his host believes. In addition, his "crosses and medals" as well as his ridiculous appearance give the impression that his rank is somewhat manufactured, and that he is not nearly as distinguished as his host would like him to be. The fact that the host, a man who has no title, is trying to impress a Lord by presenting him to this ridiculous fraud signifies the host's social ineptness.
What I find interesting about both the cartoons and the novel is not that they mock frantic efforts to ascend in social status, but that they leave memebers of the nobility in a position of unquestioned superiority. In the cartoon I have just mentioned, for instance, the host appears a fool, but more importantly, it is the lord who indicates this. This line could easily have been spoken by another untitled bystander without losing its comic effect; the fact that it is spoken by the lord indicates that the lord is definitely superior to the host.
Likewise Trollope's The Way We Live Now clearly maintains the superiority of the upper class. Melmotte's attempt to "buy his way into society" is doomed from the beginning; people may come to his house if he effectively pays for their presence, but he never succeeds in attaining the degree of acceptance and respectability that he aims for. This is demonstrated when Georgiana complains that, on account of her association with the Melmottes she is snubbed by Lady Monogram.
"Everybody goes to their house," said Georgiana, pleading her case to the best of her ability. "The Duchess of Stevenage has dined in Grosvenor Square since I have been there."
"We all know what that means," replied Lady Monogram.
"And people are giving their eyes to be asked to the dinner-party which he is to give the Emperor in July, and even to the reception afterward."
"To hear you talk, Georgiana, one would think that you didn't understand anything," said Lady Monogram. "People are going to see the Emperor, not the Melmottes."
The Way We Live Now does portray some members of the lower classes, such as John Crumb, in a favorable light, but they clearly belong to a different world. Crumb may be more than an adequate husband for Ruby Ruggles, but it is impossible to imagine him marrying Hetta. Even Marie Melmotte, who has both money and intelligence, cannot marry above her station but must instead marry Fisker, a man of almost identical position to her father. Both Trollope's novel and the Punch cartoon suggest that social mobility is impossible and that those who attempt it are at best ridiculous.
Last modified 1996