It shouldn’t be surprising to pick up a book that’s been considered a classic for over a hundred years and find that it is, in fact, excellent, but somehow it always is a surprise to do so. Though I suppose the ability to surprise new readers is part of what makes a book a classic in the first place. I knew that The Way We Live Now would be clever in its satire of Victorian London life, but Trollope surprised me with the compassion he demonstrates for his characters even as he reveals to us their most repellent weaknesses.
Take for instance his treatment of Lady Carbury:
Her mother had run away from her father, and she had been tossed to and fro between this and that protector, sometimes being in danger of wanting anyone to care for her, till she had been made sharp, incredulous, and untrustworthy by the difficulties of her position…during the first fifteen years of her married life she was successful amidst great difficulties. She would smile within five minutes of violent ill-usage. Her husband would even strike her, –and the first effort of her mind would be given to conceal the fact from all the world… but in doing all this she schemed, and lied, and lived a life of manoeuvres.
Trollope calls her “false” throughout the book, and finds her one redeeming quality in her selfless love for her worthless son, Felix. But he takes care to explain to us why she is false, and in doing so retains our sympathy even as Lady Carbury ignores the well-being of her daughter, attempts to manipulate her friends, and schemes at a purely mercenary marriage for her son. Late in the book, in one of the most beautiful proposal scenes I have ever read, Lady Carbury is made an offer of marriage by her good friend Mr. Broune, and is given the chance to renounce her superficial aspirations:
The long vista of her past life appeared before her eyes. The ambition of her youth which had been taught to look only to a handsome maintenance, the cruelty of her husband which had driven her to run from him… then her attempts at life in London, her literary successes and failures, and the wretchedness of her son’s career; –there had never been happiness, or even comfort, in any of it… Could it be that now at last real peace should be within her reach, and that tranquility which comes from an anchor holding to a firm bottom?
Lady Carbury and Mr. Broune, in this scene, meet as two friends who understand each other deeply, and who are considering a partnership based on trust and real caring.
They are some of the only characters in the book to achieve such a friendship. The book, being a satire, roundly criticizes the social climbing so prevalent in England at this time, and such striving does not allow for much true human connection. Trollope describes a society of people so obsessed with image that it is common to live beyond one’s means simply to maintain the illusion of greater wealth. It is a society in which parents overspend to the detriment of their children, and then pressure their children into loveless marriages simply to acquire wealth. It is a society in which Augustus Melmotte, the man around whom the book really revolves, can be a liar and a crook and still have a shot at being elected to Parliament, simply because so many people believe him to be a man of great wealth. As one character explains, “There’s the butcher round the corner in Bond Street, or the man who comes to do my hair. I don’t at all think of asking them to my house. But if they were suddenly to turn out wonderful men, and go everywhere, no doubt I should be glad to have them here. That’s the way we live…”
Trollope really sticks it to the upper classes when he describes John Crumb, a middle-class dealer of grain and pollard who is described as being a bit slow and laconic almost in the extreme, but who, in contrast with many of the wealthier and more quick-witted characters, “[C]ould earn money, –and having earned it could spend and keep it in fair proportion. He was afraid of no work… He was honest, and ashamed of nothing that he did… He was willing to thrash any man that ill-used a woman… He knew the value of a clear conscience, and without much argument had discovered for himself that honesty is in truth the best policy.” This kind of irony reminded me of Jane Austen, who maintained again and again in her books that being a “gentleman” pertained more to one’s manners and morals than to one’s birth.
This combination of social criticism and masterful characterization made this one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, though it seems arrogant to say so of a book that’s been an acknowledged masterpiece since 1875. But again, that’s what great books do: make us feel as if we’ve discovered them ourselves.