ailway speculators and swindlers come under rigid scrutiny in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and Thomas Carlyle's "Hudson's Statue". Augustus Melmotte, the wealthy financier, is a "horrid, big, rich scoundrel...a bloated swindler...and a vile city ruffian" (I, 221). The director of the corrupt corporation, the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, Melmotte is detested by the members of the aristocracy, who regard him as a swindler and cheat. Similarly, George Hudson "the railway king" — a notorious railway speculator of the 1840s — comes under attack in "Hudson's Statue" as a dishonest, vulgar swindler to whom the English public plan to erect a statue.
Trollope and Carlyle, however, do not merely condemn the evils of swindling. Instead, they criticize the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the English public for blindly worshipping wealth, throwing honesty to the winds. In The Way We Live Now, Trollope questions the admiration accorded to Melmotte. One way into this central issue in the novel is through the praise of outsider, the American Mrs. Hurtle, for Melmotte:
"What power; — what grandeur!"
"Grand enough," said Paul, "if it all came honestly."
"Such a man rises above honesty," said Mrs. Hurtle, "as a great general rises above humanity when he sacrifices an army to conquer a nation. Such greatness is incompatible with small scruples...You must take me to see Melmotte. He is a man whose hand I would kiss."
"I fear you will find your idol has feet of clay." [I, 246]
Mrs. Hurtle's exclamation, "What power; — what grandeur!" (I, 245) and her revering statement, "He is a man whose hand I would kiss" (I, 246) suggests the distortion of moral values that Trollope believes pervades Victorian society. Although one may argue that Trollope portrays Mrs. Hurtle as a violent American woman with consequently skewed social attitudes, he makes her less guilty than the English aristocracy. For Mrs. Hurtle confines her reverence for "such a man [who] rises above honesty" (I, 246) to words, but the noblemen (and women) in the novel adore Melmotte's wealth and fame, while at the same time condemning the source of his money.
Trollope harshly attacks this equivocal attitude. It is bad enough, according to him, that the aristocracy gathers at Melmotte's house to "see and be seen," each try to his hand at winning Marie's hand — as evidenced by Lady Carbury's harebrained schemes for Sir Felix and Lord Nidderdale's bumbling efforts. Yet, as Trollope suggests, it is quite another matter to condemn a swindler as corrupt if one already sits at the Board of Directors of the Railway firm and accepts invitations to his parties.
Dolly Longstaffe's pointed remark to his sister Georgiana, "No; — everybody does not come and stay here as you are doing. Everybody doesn't make themselves a part of the family" (I, 237) portrays the aristocracy's hypocritical behavior toward Melmotte. On one hand, they are perfectly content to gather at Melmotte's house for the balls — the events of the season — but they also wish to prove their moral superiority by not permanently siding with him; in effect, the nobility avoids him as much as they can, except when being with him is to their advantage. When people such as Lady Carbury, Sir Felix, and Lord Nidderdale find it convenient, however, they join the fray in demanding tickets, as everyone else does in the chaotic rush for invitations to the dinner for the Emperor of China. Trollope describes the heightened enthusiasm: "The great purport proposed was to show to the Emperor by this banquet what an English merchant-citizen of London could do" (I, 327).
In contrast, Carlyle focuses on the English public's blind admiration for Hudson, the powerful railway king. He criticizes them for allowing a corrupt financier to be "[mounted] on the highest place you can discover in the most crowded thoroughfare." Carlyle argues the people's desire to erect a statue to Hudson is itself lamentable.
Last modified 25 October 2000