In 1874, when Anthony Trollope was writing The Way We Live Now — a scathing criticism of Victorian society and social mores — many writers and critics had great concerns about what they perceived to be the decline of the aristocracy. From moralizing tirades on noblemen's drunkenness and debauchery to cynical commentaries on their scrambling to marry wealthy bourgeois heiresses, many such articles made their way to the headlines and the daily gazettes. The pretentiousness and pompous behavior of the upper class were one of the more popular subjects. An article in the leading humor magazine Punch (May 30, 1874), "The Charge of the Court Brigade," describes a disorderly ballroom scene where those invited desire to "see and be seen" and snatch up a wealthy wife in the process:

Half a yard — half a yard —
Half a yard onward,
Through the first crush-room
Pressed the Four Hundred.
Forward — the Fair Brigade!
On to the Throne, they said:
On to the Presence Room
Crushed the Four Hundred. ["The Charge of the Court Brigade, 233]

The poem, in itself a parody of Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," satirizes the over-eager throng of debutantes and arrogant young men during the annual London season. The girls were formally presented to the sovereign in the throne-room, then met arrogant young gentlemen looking for wives with large fortunes — in other words, undertaking, beneath the surface gaiety, the deadly serious business of the "marriage market" (Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, New York, 1994). Punch's chaotic scene closely resembles the Melmottes' ball in The Way We Live Now, where an air of false nonchalance and happiness pervades the atmosphere, but in reality, those invited either want to mingle with the "cream of society" or make sure their children marry into money. Prompted by his mother, Sir Felix Carbury slyly maneuvers to win the heart of the financier-swindler Melmotte's daughter, Marie, "the one heiress to all [Melmotte's] wealth" (Trollope, 31). Trollope criticizes the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, whose main concern has degenerated into an obsession with money and power, even if it means mingling with swindlers and other pompous nobles.

The Punch poem's next stanzas expose yet another facet of aristocratic falsehood — their evident discomfort during the very parties for which they would kill for an invitation:

Forward, the Fair Brigade!
Was there a girl dismayed?
E'en though the chaperons knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make complaint,
Theirs not to sink of faint,
Theirs — but words cannot paint
Half the discomfiture
Of the Four Hundred.

Crowds on the right of them,
Crowds on the left of them,
Crowds all in front of them,
Stumbled and blundered:
On through the courtier-lined
Rooms — most tremendous grind —
Into the Presence-Room,
Leaving their friends behind,
Passed the Four Hundred.

Bodies crushing, blundering boobies, and half-witted noblemen characterize this situation, which, although exaggerated, sheds light on Trollope's interpretation of the aristocracy's hypocrisy and loose morals. For instance, during Lady Pomona's dinner party, all the nobles (and some members of the bourgeoisie) who count themselves as important undoubtedly attend. But Trollope exposes their hidden agenda — which is for them to boast that they were present within the so-called cream of society — when he states, "The grand room was soon full, but nobody had a word to say" (The Way We Live Now, 189). The fact that everybody only desires to be present at the party but does not otherwise care about enjoying themselves or even bothering with small task suggests their overblown egotistical airs, which Trollope scathingly condemns.

Trollope goes on to paint laughable caricatures of the ostentatious nobles whose main purpose is to literally stand next to Melmotte, "whom all the world worshipped" (I, 331) so they can brag about having done so: "On this occasion nobody could utter a word. Lord Alfred stood, stock-still, stroking his grey moustache with his hand...Lady Pomona and her daughters were grand and handsome, but weary and dumb" (I, 188). A Punch cartoon in the August 1, 1874 issue, entitled "The Last of the Season" resembles this clumsy situation. A man, stroking his moustache, stares at his companion without talking. Another man plants his feet firmly on the ground as if to prove he has been to this exclusive showing at a picture-gallery. In the foreground, a naive young woman says, "O, ma! Do look at this beautiful sunset!" The mother, however, clearly has another agenda: "Nonsense, Madeline, don't be absurd! We haven't time to look at anything! We must run through, and be able to say we have been here" (45).

Once again Punch makes a cogent point: many members of the upper class, and bourgeois men and women with pretensions as nobles, attend social functions mainly to prove that they are indeed fit to mingle with the wealthy and the powerful. If they can snag a rich heiress to marry in the process — never mind this nonsense called love — they consider themselves extremely lucky.

Likewise, Trollope condemns this attitude in several other instances, most notably the Dinner for the Emperor of China. A great fuss is made over the party, which is so popular that Melmotte has to hand out tickets: "The desire for tickets at last became a burning passion, and a passion which in the great majority of cases could not be indulged" (I, 330). Trollope, however, turns the tables this time, when he exposes a different kind of aristocratic hypocrisy. For when the dinner actually takes place, it is a disaster. Half the people invited do not come: "A week since...a seat was as a seat at some banquet of the gods! Now it looked as though the room were half-filled" (II, 81). Trollope explains that there were many absentees, since Melmotte is suspected of having forged a signature on the Longestaffes' property. The fact that their almost orgiastic enthusiasm is so easily dampened by a rumor — although they know full well that Melmotte is a swindler — reveals the falseness of the nobility.

Trollope's individual characters fit into this category, perhaps more so than his generalizations of aristocratic behavior during the parties and balls. The flightily pathetic Lady Carbury, "false from head to foot" (I, 17) endlessly schemes to effect the marriage between Sir Felix and Marie Melmotte, even proposing that they run away together. Felix, described by Trollope as having "the instincts of a horse, not approaching the higher sympathies of a dog" (I, 17), displays a capability for falsehood when he cons Marie into thinking he loves her, while Sir Miles Grendall cheats at the gaming-table. While there are some moral nobles such as Roger Carbury and Hetta, they end up having to compromise their position and are portrayed as weak. Here Trollope laments the decline of the aristocracy with his scathing social commentaries, but he does not offer a solution to the problem except to let the middle-class come forward and take over the management of noble affairs, as Paul Montague does when Roger gives him Carbury Manor. Punch (May 30, 1874), however, offers a more drastic — and literal — solution to aristocratic pretentiousness, of which Trollope would no doubt have approved:

Now, my Lord Chamberlain,
Take my advice. Again,
When there's a drawing-room,
Shut doors, and don't let in
More than Two Hundred. (233)

Works cited

"The Charge of the Court Brigade." Punch 30 May 1874: 233.

Punch 1 August 1874: 45.

The Way We Live Now. Ed. John Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford UP: 1982.


Last modified 1996