Why I Love ‘The Way We Live Now’
March 9, 2014
A mortifying admission, but I had never read anything by Anthony Trollope until last week. My youthful hatred of Dickens cast a shadow over the entire Victorian era. Nor did it help that Trollope had written so many books, none universally acknowledged as drastically better than the others, so one could feel confident starting with that. It’s the Joyce Carol Oates problem, made worse (it must be acknowledged) by his being a 19th-century male. I expected — what? Sermons, sentimentality, one-dimensional female characters. What can I say? I was a fool.
“The Way We Live Now,” satirizes, among other things, financial fraud, the English aristocracy, marriage, and Americans. The narrator is wry and knowing, always making asides like “The reader hardly needs to be told that…” which might be annoying, except he’s so funny. There are lot of subplots and and lot of characters: some unabashedly worthless, some striving to do the right thing, and others an entertaining mixture of the above. Trollope is compassionate toward all of them, but never at the expense of being less than clear-sighted about their failings. I could quote many delightful passages, but this one — in which Lady Carbury, a scheming would-be literary lioness, tries to get an editor she knows to publicize her just-completed work — made me start laughing out loud in the subway:
“I suppose you never wrote a novel, Mr. Alf?”
“I? Oh dear no; I never write anything.”
“I have sometimes wondered whether I have hated or loved it the most. One becomes so absorbed in one’s plot and one’s characters! One loves the loveable so intensely, and hates with such fixed aversion those who are intended to be hated. When the mind is attuned to it, one is tempted to think that it is all so good. One cries at one’s own pathos, laughs at one’s own humour, and is lost in admiration at one’s own sagacity and knowledge.”
“How very nice!”
“But then there comes the reversed picture, the other side of the coin. On a sudden everything becomes flat, tedious, and unnatural. The heroine who was yesterday alive with the celestial spark is found to-day to be a lump of motionless clay. The dialogue that was so cheery on the first perusal is utterly uninteresting at a second reading. Yesterday I was sure that there was my monument,” and she put her hand upon the manuscript; “to-day I feel it to be only too heavy for a gravestone!”
“One’s judgment about one’s-self always does vacillate,” said Mr. Alf in a tone as phlegmatic as were the words.
To which I can only add, yes, yes, yes.