Live Now Trollope did not write for posterity, according to writer Henry James. "He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket." (Hall, 1993) "The Way We Live Now" was meant to be a satire of the literary world of London in the late 1800's and an indictment of the new power of speculative finance in English life. "I was instigated by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age," Trollope said.
Critics of Anthony Trollope's work have suggested that the author's tone grew darker as he grew older. This is particularly true in "The Way We Live Now," which was written by Trollope in the 1870's when Trollope was a mature man. The story is a sharp panoramic satire based on London's society.
Author Stephen Wall wrote that, in "The Way We Live Now," Trollope uses satire to describe the business, politics, and social classes of 19th Century London (Wall, 1987). Due to the fact that readers of all ages and backgrounds can relate to the fundamental similarities of the characters in the novel and people of today's society, this book has not excluded readers who do not understand the Victorian era. However, the actual story portrays Victorian society in a manner that is clearly distinguishable from today's society.
For example, the book is based on the lives of a few main characters: the city con artist, Augustus Melmotte, the American divorcee, Mrs. Hurtle, and the scheming, aspiring writer, Lady Matilda Carbury. People in today's society could easily relate to these characters. According to Henry James, Trollope's greatness lies in his "complete appreciation of the usual." (Hall) However, Trollope specifically attacks the corrupt nature of London's aristocracy and the sexual hypocrisy that ran rampant throughout the city during this time.
When Trollope first began writing "The Way We Live Now," he intended on making Lady Carbury the main focus of the book. However, his supporting character, Melmotte, quickly became the spotlight of the novel.
Lady Carbury is an unsuccessful novelist, who was ridiculously devoted to her undeserving son Sir Felix. Trollope's use of satire is clearly seen as he describes the socialite, who would "write after a glib, commonplace, sprightly fashion, and had already acquired the knack of spreading all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She has no ambition to write a good book, but is painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good." (Wall, 1987)
Wall was correct when he said that Trollope found it difficult to respect those who had no self-respect. Lady Carbury was clearly one of the objects of Trollope's disrespect, as he mocked her not for her lack of talent but lack of ambition to produce a decent novel for justifiable causes (Wall, 1987).
Sir Felix Carbury, her son, is a good-looking man but also a mean drunk and a bit of a sissy. Trollope uses him to fully represent the Victorian English aristocracy. This character spends most of his time idly pursuing Marie Melmotte and her father's money. In the end, he cannot even hold up to his end of the bargain. Feix's mother desperately wants him to marry Marie so that she can enhance her own social position.
Augustus Melmotte's character is a charming and convincing man who was also sharply manipulative. He would take a good idea, form a company, sell stock, and use that money to set up another company and do the same thing. However, he would not invest the time, money or effort to make the companies successful or even keep them running. He was simply out to make money for himself.
He threatens to cut Marie off without a penny if she marries Felix, but Lady Carbury weighs the pros and cons in her head. Her greed shines through in this paragraph:
But the girl was an only child. The future honours of the house of Melmotte could be made to settle on no other head. No doubt the father would prefer a lord for a son-in-law; and, having that preference, would of course do as he was now doing. That he should threaten to disinherit his daughter if she married contrary to his wishes was to be expected. But would it not be equally a matter of course that he should make the best of the marriage if it were once affected? His daughter would return to him with a title, though with one of a lower degree than his ambition desired. To herself personally, Lady Carbury felt that the great financier had been very rude. He had taken advantage of her invitation that he might come to her house and threaten her. But she would forgive that. She could pass that over altogether if only anything were to be gained by passing it over." (Trollope)
Although originally designed a supporting character, Melmotte is definitely the most memorable character in this novel is Melmotte, who was a member of the Parliament and an absolute swindler. According to Wall, Melmotte plays a very important role in exposing the underlying characteristics of Victorian society.
For example, Melmotte avoids confrontation on all levels, usually by lying or cheating his business acquaintances. If he owes someone money, he avoids them at all costs. If he is confronted with an issue, he manipulates his way out of the situation.
Trollope wrote, "Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life... Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself."
Trollope exposes the shady business techniques of Victorian businessmen through Melmotte, who uses his reputation as an "important" financier to build his own wealth and position in society.
Lady Carbury encourages her son, Felix, to marry Melomotte's daughter so that the Carbury family can rise up in the social ranks themselves. Trollope's knowledge of dealing with editors, publishers, reviewers, and the public during the Victorian era largely contributed to his satirical image of Lady Carbury as an impetuous, unprincipled, and unswervingly devoted to her own self-promotion.
In addition to using his characters to expose society, Trollope also used events. According to Punch magazine, the Victorian newspaper at the time of the publication, Trollope exposed the true colors of the Victorian era' social scenes (The Victorian Web, 2002).
The elite society of London often turned parties and gatherings into games where social advancement became the final prize. In the novel, Trollope uses Melmotte's dinner party to show this custom. The Emperor of China is invited to the party and becomes the featured attraction that attracts important members of British society to the party.
The aristocracy wants to be involved with the party because they feel that dining with royalty will increase their social position. Similarly, Melmotte hopes to bump his social status up a few notches by organizing one of the prestigious parties in his own home. Therefore, the party is not about having friends and acquaintances come together for a good time, but rather about the importance of social position in London in the Victorian era.
When Melmotte's reputation is damaged, his party loses its status, as well. Few of his "important" guests actually turn up and Melmotte ends up wasting a massive amount of money on nothing. While Melmotte is actually a rather shrewd businessman, he believed that spending a large sum of cash on a party was a wise business move. This shows the ideas that Victorian people had on the importance of social position. Through Melmotte's story, Trollope criticizes the entire societal system of Britain.
According to critic Ellen Moody, "a combination of misinformation, snobbery, caste-arrogance, Trollope's stubborn honesty which led him to refuse to mystify his art or the workings of his imagination, and politicized literary scholarship has led to the paradox at the heart of Trollope studies."
This is best seen in the way every character possesses the elements of Trollope's satirical wit. Each character in the novel shows Trollope's repulsion with Britain in the late 1800's.
Marie Melmotte, Mrs. Hurtle and Ezekiel Brehgert are all, in their own ways, intruders to London's elite social scene. Marie comes from a humble land. Mrs. Hurtle's American origins and Brehgert's Jewish background forbid them to enter the British elite.
Miss Hurtle is painted as the typical American Woman in Trollope's story. She killed her first husband in Oregon, and then sets out to find herself a new one in London. Her jealousy takes up the greater part of her story until she redeems herself at the end. Trollope revealed her American "dream" in this passage:
She had told both her father and her mother very plainly that it behoved her to be in London at this time of the year that she might -- look for a husband. She had not hesitated in declaring…