I have a great love for nineteenth century novels. Their leisurely nature and broad scope allows readers to inhabit their worlds entirely. It makes them perfect for long afternoons reading, but I’ve found, too, that they suit perfectly for piecemeal ebook reading as well, which may at first seem unlikely. The truth is that depth and leisure make it very easy to pick up a book days or weeks later and fall back into the adventures without hesitation. I have read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now over a matter of months, whenever I might be idle for a moment and have my iPod to hand.
Barchester Towers has generally been acknowledged as Trollope’s masterpiece and I can’t recommend it enough, but there’s something timely about The Way We Live Now with its financial shenanigans—bounders, bubbles bursting and fortunes ruined—that fits our time perfectly. That it begins with a writer struggling to make ends meet likewise endears the book to me. The depiction of Americans in London—with their wild and brash ways including a woman who wields pistols—made me laugh, but by the end Trollope has characters acknowledging that while “They do tell bad things about them Americans,” as the owner of a boarding house put it, some might be quite good to know.
The good characters nearly break your heart and the bad characters prove so fascinating that you almost understand their motivations even if you can’t quite forgive their horrible behaviours. Let me offer some bon mots from the book to demonstrate Trollope’s style such as his description of the Evening Pulpit, one of the papers Lady Carbury (the struggling writer) implores for a good review. The paper was meant to record events of the day and predict those of the morrow. “This was effected with an air of wonderful omniscience, and not infrequently with an ignorance hardly surpassed by its arrogance. But the writing was clever. The facts, if not true, were well invented; the arguments, if not logical, were seductive… A newspaper that wishes to make its fortune should never waste its columns and weary its readers by praising anything.”
Of course her pleas were vain, and she appealed to her publisher to defend her. “Mr Leadham did not care a straw for facts or figures—had no opinion of his own whether the lady or the reviewer were right; but he knew very well that the Evening Pulpit would surely get the better of any mere author in such a contention. ‘Never fight the newspapers, Lady Carbury. Who ever got any satisfaction by that kind of thing?'”
I think Trollope felt the sting of the situation sharply. It’s hard to believe he might get such cutting reviews with his wonderful sense of nuance. Of the American woman he writes: “Mrs. Hurtle got up to receive him with her sweetest smile—and her smile could be very sweet. She was a witch of a woman, and, as like most witches she could be terrible, so like most witches she could charm.”
Of the swindler Melmotte who ends up winning the seat for Westminster despite rumours of his financial misdeeds: “The more arrogant he became the more vulgar he was, till even Lord Alfred would almost be tempted to rush away to impecuniosity and freedom. Perhaps there were some with whom this conduct had a salutary effect. No doubt arrogance will produce submission; and there are men who take other men at the price those other men put upon themselves. Such persons could not refrain from thinking Melmotte to be mighty because he swaggered; and gave their hinder parts to be kicked merely because he put up his toe.”
At a low point, Lady Carbury repeats to herself “those well known lines from the satirist — Oh, Amos Cottle, for a moment think / what meager profits spread from pen and ink.” She plunges on anyway: if our characters were not to make so many errors of judgment, we would not enjoy their lives quite so much. Lady Carbury finds much to console her in the writing of her novel: “One becomes so absorbed in one’s plot and one’s characters! One loves the loveable so intensely, and hates with such fixed aversion those who are intended to be hated.” However, on the bad days, “on a sudden everything becomes flat, tedious, and unnatural. The heroine who was yesterday alive with the celestial spark is found to-day to be a lump of motionless clay.”
Trollope’s gentle affection and even gentler derision invites the reader to think generously of characters despite their many faults. He says of the good, if unimaginative man Roger Carbury: “To a man not accustomed to thinking there is nothing in the world so difficult as to think.”