…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer and blogger Mel Campbell:
Photo by Lee Sandwith
I first encountered the 1875 British novel The Way We Live Now as a cracking 2001 BBC miniseries. It starred David Suchet as the charismatic but corrupt Jewish financier and railway speculator Auguste Melmotte, Shirley Henderson as his sheltered daughter Marie, Matthew McFadyen as dissolute young rake Sir Felix Carbury, who woos Marie to fund his gambling habit, Paloma Baeza as Felix’s virtuous sister Hetta, and Cillian Murphy as Paul Montague, who loves Hetta but has been tricked into an engagement to a wily American widow, Mrs Hurtle (Miranda Otto). There are too many other interwoven characters and subplots to expound upon here – although I could! – but suffice to say I was completely absorbed.
In August 2007 I signed up to DailyLit, a service that emails you novels in daily instalments. Many of them are free, and I chose The Way We Live Now. Each instalment was set to arrive at 8am, so I fell into a ritual of reading it over coffee at my desk when I first arrived at work. It came in 409 instalments, and even after I changed the settings to get two instalments at once, I still didn’t finish it until October 2008.
But I have to say this was the perfect way to read this novel, which was originally serialised as many Victorian novels were (it originally came in 20 parts). Trollope builds so many plot twists, reveals and cliffhangers into the work that each instalment always left me intrigued and wanting more. Too often, I think, we binge-read and binge-watch our favourite stories. We don’t allow ourselves time to ponder and anticipate them, and we get mad at the gatekeepers who slow down our reading. Think of how George RR Martin is being bullied to bring out his next Song of Ice and Fire novel, or the way we methodically work our way through DVD box-sets.
Trollope (1815-82) is also an inspiration for me as a writer. He was insanely productive, getting up at 5am and banging out a thousand words an hour – in longhand, mind you – in three hours. His writing day was done by 8am, and he could write three novels a year. Then he spent the rest of his day hunting or hanging out with his mates. He wasn’t afraid to enjoy the good life and, unlike, say, Dickens, Trollope was not interested in the terrain of poverty – this is a book about wealth.
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating book called Gentry by Adam Nicolson, which has helped me understand the socioeconomic relations underpinning the class preoccupations of English novels as diverse as Wolf Hall, Pride and Prejudice and The Line of Beauty. By focusing on key gentry families in their moments of crisis and change, Nicolson reveals how class values have changed, as well as the means by which families sustain themselves.
Trollope does much the same thing. He forensically tracks the trajectories of capital and the social attitudes surrounding it, from the stolid old landed gentry and rural peasantry to aristocratic young dickheads gambling in their gentlemen’s club with paper IOUs, from the nouveau riche city wheeler-dealers to a bourgeois professional class paranoid about appearances. The old money was easy to trace: it was generated from property and intermarriage. Later, wealth and social authority came through international trade and the professions. But Trollope shows how the legitimacy of the ‘new’ symbolic economy of financial investment, managed opaquely by unaccountable City mandarins, still rests on establishment ties via friendship and marriage.
This central theme remains stunningly contemporary in a world thrown into global financial crisis by corporate traders whose risky gambles have brought down entire nations’ economies. But unlike Melmotte, who is almost a classical tragic hero, the individuals responsible for the Global Financial Crisis have never faced any disgrace or censure. This is still the way we live now; think about the way America’s elite Ivy League universities incubate the next generation of corporate financiers as well as providing academic legitimacy for the government regulators and pundits who let them get away with it. And much like Melmotte’s dodgy American railway scheme, investments are still directed mysteriously overseas – the City of London now processes all sorts of opaque offshore transactions.
But Trollope also has the literary world in his sights. Any modern writer will recognise the shamelessness of Lady Carbury, the impoverished aristocrat who sustains herself by writing horrible potboilers and then aggressively pimping them (and, not-so-subtly, herself) to her friends who edit magazines and literary review journals. She is a figure of contempt in this novel – not least because she indulges her awful son Felix while ignoring her daughter Hetta. Possibly she’s based on Trollope’s own mother Frances, whose literary efforts sustained the family during his childhood after his barrister father went bankrupt.
I love the sly way she plays off her literary acquaintances against one another. At the start of the novel, she writes to one editor, Mr Booker, proposing they trade positive reviews for their respective new books. Reading Lady Carbury’s letter, Mr Booker knows he’s been played by a player:
He laughed inwardly, with a pleasantly reticent chuckle, as he thought of Lady Carbury dealing with his views of Protestantism—as he thought also of the numerous historical errors into which that clever lady must inevitably fall in writing about matters of which he believed her to know nothing. But he was quite alive to the fact that a favourable notice in the “Breakfast Table” of his very thoughtful work, called the “New Tale of a Tub,” would serve him, even though written by the hand of a female literary charlatan, and he would have no compunction as to repaying the service by fulsome praise in the “Literary Chronicle.” He would not probably say that the book was accurate, but he would be able to declare that it was delightful reading, that the feminine characteristics of the queens had been touched with a masterly hand, and that the work was one which would certainly make its way into all drawing-rooms. He was an adept at this sort of work, and knew well how to review such a book as Lady Carbury’s “Criminal Queens,” without bestowing much trouble on the reading. He could almost do it without cutting the book, so that its value for purposes of after sale might not be injured. And yet Mr. Booker was an honest man, and had set his face persistently against many literary malpractices. Stretched-out type, insufficient lines, and the French habit of meandering with a few words over an entire page, had been rebuked by him with conscientious strength. He was supposed to be rather an Aristides among reviewers. But circumstanced as he was he could not oppose himself altogether to the usages of the time. “Bad; of course it is bad,” he said to a young friend who was working with him on his periodical. “Who doubts that? How many very bad things are there that we do! But if we were to attempt to reform all our bad ways at once, we should never do any good thing. I am not strong enough to put the world straight, and I doubt if you are.” Such was Mr. Booker.
Mr Booker’s brand of literary realpolitik has not changed a jot in nearly 140 years. He strives to be principled, yet he knows himself well enough to recognise that being too principled is a foolhardy career risk. I also adore that he takes care of his review copies so he can sell them later. (I’ve got a pile of books on my study floor that I’m planning to flog to my local second-hand bookstore.)
So even The Way We Live Now‘s most minor characters have moral dilemmas and interior lives that are still recognisable to us. When it was first published, the “we” of the title caused some backlash in literary circles due to its implication that the sins of the novels’ characters are those of its readers, and of English society more broadly. But that’s what makes this novel so powerful and perceptive. It argues we are all flawed people struggling to get by in a world that seems to be changing in unwelcome, inhospitable ways – but we will be ‘good’ people if we can face the truth of who we are and what we do.
Trollope wrote of his novel:
That men have become less cruel, less violent, less selfish, less brutal, there can be no doubt – but have they become less honest?” And he fears that dishonesty “magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.
I feel that The Way We Live Now will always be topical, which is an absolute feat for any novel, and definitely makes it the kind of book to hold onto and re-read.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now through Affirm Press. She blogs on the cultures of clothing at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk
Your turn: Have you read The Way We Live Now? Or any other books by Trollope? Have you tried reading a book in installments? Sounds like a great way to approach the unapproachable!