The Victorian Sage

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Tag: the way we live now

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

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 It is both a good narrative and, equally importantly, a historical document, as is clearly announced by the book’s title.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, if not actual hypocrisy in calling for the apparent obedience to the law while quietly ignoring it.

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.

Spectacle of Privilege in The Way We Live Now (2001)

Andrew Higson wrote in the 1980s of the centrality of the “spectacle of privilege” (125) to the English period drama of that time. Through the 90s, this was increasingly evident in BBC serials, heavily foregrounded in Pride and Prejudice (1996) and the like. In P&P what is introduced first is not the set of characters, but the setting: one of opulence, wide open country spaces and a country house of massive proportions. The spectacle of this domain of privilege is the focus of the opening scene of P&P.

P&P opening2-bmp

Somewhat similar is the opening of The Way We Live Now, the 2001 Trollope adaptation, also scripted by Andrew Davies. It is not the people of the story who are introduced, but their stuff. The viewer is invited to gorge him or herself on the sights of privilege, before he/she is initiated into the narrative. In this scene, a very large house is being furnished, and we watch as various movables are brought together to create a domain of privilege.

melmotte-bmp globe-bmp Way we Live-bmp

This is quite standard for the genre at this time. The twist comes when all of this privilege is seen in connection with its owner. This is Augustus Melmotte, and he is introduced at the end of the scene. Before he is seen, he is heard: a voice coming from a carriage gruffly shouts, “Get out!” at two females who come scurrying from said carriage; left inside, we see only a thick cloud of cigar smoke (through the serial, Melmotte is rarely seen without a fat cigar). The camera tracks him from behind as he enters the domain of privilege (i.e. his house, which he has evidently just bought), and on the soundtrack is heard a heavy, bestial breathing, but still we don’t see his face. Finally, having reached the inner parts of the residence, he turns to the camera, briefly disengages his cigar from his mouth, and says in an accent markedly foreign, if unplaceable (it eventually appears he’s either German or Austrian): “Well, let us see what we can do here.”


A closer look at the serial and Trollope’s source text would be necessary to reach any definite conclusions here, but certainly an important focus for the serial, alongside the obligatory romance between Hetta and Paul, is Melmotte’s attempted journey to the centre of English society, and the importance of the expulsion of this contaminative source. That the rejection of foreign degradation is assumed to be a theme of dramatic urgency for the audience by the makers of TWWLN is I think strongly suggested in the opening and throughout the serial and appears to support Higson’s reading of period adaptations, which can often seem to posit an idealized national identity, a real England belonging to the past but recoverable, at least temporarily in the medium of the period adaptation, in which Melmottian machinations may threaten to penetrate the surface and infect the heart of Englishness, but they are localized threats, and may be adequately counteracted from within the community.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129
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