Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875)

by Mark Wallace

Apparently, Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday was last Friday. As it happens, I was just finishing The Way We Live Now (1875). This once-neglected novel has become now possibly Trollope’s best known: for example, it has appeared in Robert McCrum’s ongoing Guardian list of 100 Best English-Language Novels. Quoth McCrum:

The Way We Live Now is a wonderful, melodramatic tale-of-the-times, by a master of his craft. It begins in satire and finally resolves into entertaining social comedy. As a savage commentary on mid-Victorian England by a marvellously addictive writer steeped in every aspect of an extraordinary society, it could hardly be bettered. No wonder the first reviews were atrocious.

I think its status as tale-of-the-times is important. It is both a good narrative and, equally importantly, a historical document, as is clearly announced by the book’s title. However, it is not really considered a part of the Condition-of-England genre of the mid-19th century, because despite its length, scope and interest in politics and economics, the issue of class doesn’t come in strongly. Trollope was a writer of the middle and upper classes, and though there is a sub-plot about Ruby Ruggles, a working-class woman who is embroiled in a relationship with aristocratic ne’er-do-well Felix Carbury, there is no questioning of the relationship between the classes on a larger scale, no forays into industrial relations, trade unions, strikes and the like, as in Hard Times, North and South, et al.

That’s the curious thing about Trollope. He’s able to get inside his characters’ heads without regard for class or gender (especially gender, he seems to give more time to his female characters’ thoughts than the male ones), but his empathy stops at the individual. He’s able to be sympathetic to all characters, without questioning any of the social conditions that creates the inequitable relationships he describes. Thus I disagree with McCrum’s use of the adjective “savage”: Trollope is the very opposite of savage, being unerringly mild and even bland in tone, in contrast to say, Dickens.

Thus, Trollope can present all sorts of situations in a fairly frank manner, without seeming to draw attention to or critique them. Looking through my notes on reading The Way We Live Now on Kindle, I came across a reflection on suicide. Typical Trollope, he goes into detail on the aftermath and the technical details of an inquest. The question is whether the suicide is mad; this is important because if not, (s)he has committed a crime and cannot be given Christian burial. The narrator reflects:

Perhaps it would be well that all suicides should be said to have been mad, for certainly the jurymen are not generally guided in their verdicts by any accurately ascertained facts. If the poor wretch has, up to his last days, been apparently living a decent life; if he be not hated, or has not in his last moments made himself specially obnoxious to the world at large, then he is declared to have been mad. Who would be heavy on a poor clergyman who has been at last driven by horrid doubts to rid himself of a difficulty from which he saw no escape in any other way? Who would not give the benefit of the doubt to the poor woman whose lover and lord had deserted her? Who would remit to unhallowed earth the body of the once beneficent philosopher who has simply thought that he might as well go now, finding himself powerless to do further good upon earth? Such, and such like, have of course been temporarily insane, though no touch even of strangeness may have marked their conduct up to their last known dealings with their fellow-mortals.

The narrator is contemplating the absurdities of criminalizing suicide, and his suggested remedy is not any questioning of a bad law, but a suggestion that it can be quietly circumvented – implying that it is a bad law, but not directly confronting that fact. Someone like Dickens would have denounced the law, demanded its repeal, and mocked those who supported it. The impression created of Trollope here is one of excessive mildness and inoffensiveness.

He’s similar in his dealing with such matters as anti-semitism in this novel. He documents the anti-semitism shown by the English middle and upper classes towards the Jewish Brehgart, but explicit and even implicit critique is absent, just as assent is absent. He is curiously dissociated from his subjects, sympathetic but aloof. Perhaps it the relative aloofness from social problems that gives him the unshakeable reputation as a writer favoured by conservatives (see this, for example, from Conservative journal The New Criterion). It’s not that Trollope avoids such problems; he documents them, but not as problems, just as stuff that happens in society – in a society that he evidently takes such pleasure in viewing that it almost reads at times that he enjoys even the blatant injustices of it.