"She had told both her father and her mother very plainly that it behoved her to be in London at this time of the year that she might — look for a husband. She had not hesitated in declaring her purpose; and that purpose, together with the means of carrying it out, had not appeared to them to be unreasonable. She wanted to be settled in life. She had meant, when she first started her career, to have a lord; — but lords are scarce. She herself was not very highly born, not very highly gifted, not very lovely, not very pleasant, and she had no fortune. She had long made up her mind that she could do without a lord, but that she must get a commoner of the proper sort. He must be a man with a place in the country and sufficient means to bring him annually to London. He must be a gentleman — and, probably, in parliament. And above all things he must be in the right set."[Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, Oxford Classics, I, 298]
No character in The Way We Live Now is permitted to escape Anthony Trollope's caustic wit. From a garish caricature of Augustus Melmotte to the snidely titled Sir Damask Monogram, the players in this social comedy each fall victim to the author's disgust with late nineteenth-century England. And in Georgiana Longestaffe, a shrill, grasping spinster with a taste for London townhouses, Trollope captures the pettiness of upper-class life at the same time that he parodies its stifling insularity. By contrasting the vapid Georgey with more generous and active figures like Mrs. Hurtle, however, Trollope reconfigures the landscape of literary heroism. The individuals who eventually find redemption in The Way We Live Now hardly seem the perfectly coiffed heroines of traditional narrative. Instead, these women and men break convention — in their speech, their action and their ancestry — to triumph over an absurdly pompous society which has little use for dynamic personalities.
If Trollope's ire was fueled by the hypocrisies of the late Victorian era, he at least had company in his fury. The satirical "charivari" Punch, in the same year that The Way We Live Now appeared, published a number of cartoons mocking society's preoccupation with the frippery denoting class and position. "A Flower of Fashion" (Punch [May 16, 1874]: 206), for example, depicts a quintessential belle's wardrobe-related musings.
While her milliner and husband hover solicitously, the Fashionable Lady ponders the most strategic way to show off her new hat. Just as Georgiana Longestaffe considers church a tiresome recreation, endurable only as a bucolic fashion show ("they always did go to church when they were at Caversham; and would more especially do so today, because of the bishop and because of the bonnets" [I, 194]), so does this paragon of style sublimate spirituality to the interests of chic. The Fashionable Lady, in order to allow for an unobstructed view of the treasured hat, considers moving to a different pew, while her husband suggests helpfully that she may even want to change "the church, you know, if necessary." In their exaggeratedly vacuous speech, both Georgey — always obsessed with "the right set" — and the "flower of fashion" represent broad, almost vaudevillian characters. And as they lampoon the reality of contemporary social circumstances, Trollope and his witty co-conspirators provide a vivid portrait of upper crust English life at the same time that they skewer its blatant superficiality.
At once a reflection of Trollope's personal dissatisfaction and an index of greater societal malaise, The Way We Live Now is an equal-opportunity satire. Descriptions of Melmotte — a "gigantic swindler" (I, 31) — alternate easily with those of minor figures like the pretentious Julia Triplex. But although no-one escapes Trollope's wickedly cartoonish sensibilities, several characters reveal surprisingly subtle shadings. Hetta and Roger Carbury, alone in a generally harsh portrait, are painted in gentler tones; Mrs. Hurtle and Marie Melmotte assert their passions and their independence; Mr. Fisker, initially "fast and florid" (I, 89), carries off his heiress with something approaching real affection. Even Ezekiel Brehgert, vilified by Dolly Longestaffe as "that horrid vulgar Jew" (II, 266) and by Trollope himself as "a fat, greasy man" (II, 91), possesses a dignity utterly foreign to the affable buffoonery of Lords Grasslough and Nidderdale. Uniting these sympathetic portrayals is a sense of alienation from proper London society — the very society for which Georgiana Longestaffe so foolishly yearns.
Marie Melmotte, Mrs. Hurtle and Ezekiel Brehgert are all, in their own ways, interlopers. Marie's humble birth on the Continent, Mrs. Hurtle's American origins and Brehgert's Jewish background forbid them membership in "the right set." This insularity manifests itself in another 1874 cartoon from the April 25, Punch.
In "Euphemistic," the distinctive "twang" of the oyster makes Tompkyns gag with disgust — a thinly veiled allusion to anti-American sentiment. Tompkyns might empathize with the characters of The Way We Live Now, who view the United States as a strangely exotic land filled with dubious railway ventures and questionable widows. Yet redemption, in Trollope's eyes, belongs primarily to these mutinous outsiders. Hetta calls Mrs. Hurtle "a wonderful woman" (II, 392) for her kindness and dignity of speech; meanwhile, Hamilton K. Fisker, while acknowledging that "us Americans...we're a pretty rough lot" (II, 398) wins the hand of Marie Melmotte through his patient perseverance. Hetta and Roger Carbury themselves, although imbued with an aura of quiet gentility, are uncomfortable with the flashy dilettantism at prestigious dinner parties. (Hetta attends her mother's literary soirees unwillingly, and her cousin finds continuing solace only in his role of country squire.) Each of these characters, operating in some way outside the realm of conventional society, is rewarded with a description of increasing sympathy and maturity. By identifying heroism in frequently unlikely quarters, Trollope acknowledges the reality of contemporary society as he simultaneously re-envisages its future.
Last modified 1998