Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now represents the culture of pervasive dishonesty and greed he saw everywhere around him in High Victorian England. The novel has come to be understood as a text about the unfamiliar problems of modernity, of the title’s “now.” In 1873, Trollope responds to the cultural moment by briefly retreating from his liberal reformist stance to a belief only in private commitment between individuals. The novel marks a caesura in Trollope’s faith that the public domain could reform.
Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now responds to the culture of pervasive dishonesty and greed he saw everywhere around him in High Victorian England. The novel has come to be understood as a text about the unfamiliar problems of modernity, of the title’s “now.” This is not only because of its chronicling of what seems to Trollope to be a new phenomenon in the history of society, but also because of his sense that there is no resolution to moral dilemmas in the public arena—which, for a reformist Liberal, must have been a sobering reflection. The perspective that there is no societal remedy is anomalous for Trollope, who had—particularly in the 1860s and 1870s—been reformist in his Liberal view of the changes possible to English society. Trollope’s vision of the ineffectuality of public life never appears with such bitterness either before or after this anomalous work. In novels written from the early 1860s until his death in 1882, Trollope responded powerfully to the reformist currents of his times, like the good “advanced, but still conservative Liberal” that he defined himself as being. Why is it that in 1873, when Trollope writes The Way We Live Now, he retreats—albeit briefly—from a liberal reformist fiction to a representation of the private life as the only sanctuary from a public domain in which efforts at change are either invisible or ineffectual?
In works that echo the locution of his novel’s title, Trollope’s subject matter in The Way We Live Now has resonated with writers who are thinking about the present cultural moment’s break with past traditions. These homage works are inherently political creations that undertake to describe why the past has become obsolete or at least incommensurate to the task of dealing with present exigencies. Amanda Anderson’s provocative book, The Way We Argue Now, published in 2005, analyzes what is at stake in contemporary academic debates in feminism, queer theory, new historicism, postcolonial, and other schools of criticism. In 2009, The Way We Read Now, an issue of Representations co-edited by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, focused on innovations in literary analysis in the twenty-first century that resist previous psychoanalytic and Marxist-engendered “symptomatic” or “deep readings” for new “surface reading” paradigms. Marcus and Best specifically indicate the contemporary political realities (Abu Graib, Hurricane Katrina) that in their view demand a revaluation of literary interpretive techniques. Book critic Dwight Garner’s 2012 essay in The New York Times, “The Way We Read Now,” uses the same title for a rueful, tour de force exploration of innovative electronic reading devices from Smart phones to iPads, an analysis imbued with his deep ambivalence about leaving paper and bindings in an age that increasingly views the material object of the book as an artifact.
The work that most closely echoes Trollope’s title and is simultaneously most imbued with the sense of threat commensurate to the terrorism Hadley considers is Susan Sontag’s widely-read 1986 short story in The New Yorker, “The Way We Live Now,” in which a group of New York art world friends react to one of their number falling ill with AIDS. This story documents an historical moment of siege when the diagnosis of HIV-positive was a death sentence—about a decade before it became a chronic disease that could be managed. Sontag documents a vivid and urgent “now” in which only the private life matters in the face of the lethal, and the public realm not only has nothing to offer as succor, but is hostile to the idea of treating a “deserved” plague. The friends are on their own in a frightening new world in which they have only each other. It is a claustrophobic milieu that Sontag represents to a great extent through tumbling dialogue spoken by one character after another in quick succession and reported in elliptical sentences that merge in and out of narrated monologue, free indirect discourse, and indirect report of speech.
Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is, like Sontag’s story, most concerned with representing contemporary manners and morals at a moment that seems to him to be in moral crisis. His expansive novel represents the “now” as opposed to the “then” of England’s past history. Trollope writes of the fast pace of social changes that often disregard prior values and habits. He represents an England in which fraud of all kinds—financial, literary, erotic—is pervasive, a result (at least in part) of the swift changes and ensuing instability of modern life. Trollope portrays upper and middle-class Victorian society’s ills of greed and inertia, of shallow thought and feeling, of rapidly altering values that prize riches over intrinsic merit and the coarse man of wealth over the “gentleman.” Trollope is especially interested, in this present-day atmosphere’s moral results, in the many venues in which frantic self-interest degrades civil society.
Trollope may well have been personally unsettled when he wrote The Way We Live Now. He had just moved to his new house in Montagu Square, in the heart of London, in early 1873 after traveling abroad to see his younger son Fred in Australia. Fred—recently married to an Australian girl—was working extremely hard and not getting ahead, and Trollope was troubled by Fred’s problems. Fred’s recent marriage made his return to England even less probable, and this was a sadness to Trollope as well. Added to these worries was Trollope’s wife Rose’s seeming dislike of Fred’s new lower-middle-class wife Susie. Previous to this long journey to the Antipodes, Trollope had lived for many years at his beloved country house at Waltham Cross, where he kept horses for his often thrice-weekly foxhunting. He was now, however, more wholly an urban man, although he had always loved his London clubs and the theater. He was still foxhunting during the season until April 1876, and last hunted in March 1878 (Autobiography 351; Letters, 2. 759), but he already knew that his great enjoyment of this country sport was coming to an end. After his move to Montagu Square, the first work to which he turned was The Way We Live Now, a novel set mostly in London, the center of the mercenary culture he would dissect: “When . . . the new furniture had got into its place, and my little book-room was settled sufficiently for work, I began a novel, to the writing of which I was instigated by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age” (Autobiography 353).
It seems to have been generally recognized not only by Trollope himself but by his reviewers that the novelist was writing in a different strain than in previous work, in his effort to represent something that he saw as new and different in his culture and society. Trollope later felt that the novel had been too darkly satiric, and he criticized the formal elements of the genre: “The book has the fault which is to be attributed to most satires . . . the faults are exaggerated” (Autobiography 355). Most of his contemporary reviewers, who were used to the more sanguine view of the novelist of Barsetshire, agreed; they did not admire Trollope’s book, which was influenced by Juvenal’s satires of “2nd century Rome’s amorality” (Tracy, Oxford 562). The Saturday Review, for instance, begins “by quarrelling with the incivility of Mr. Trollope’s title” and continues to quarrel with “the ill nature of Mr. Trollope’s satire” (Smalley 401-402). The Times differs, stating that Trollope’s novel “is only too faithful a portraiture of the manners and customs of the English at the latter part of this 19th century” (Smalley 407).
Both the subject matter and the satiric mood of The Way We Live Now strike many present-day readers as modern. Nevertheless, Trollope’s novel, as his biographer John Hall tells us, is of all his novels “the most topical, the most rooted in contemporary events, the most inspired, so to speak, by newspaper accounts. The title was meant to be taken literally, in that the story is set firmly in the year of its creation, 1873” (Biography 384). Trollope, like Sontag after him, was documenting his cultural moment. Recent episodes of rampant speculation and fraud were powerful influences on Trollope’s work, especially upon the characterization of the novel’s great financial trickster, Augustus Melmotte. Napoleon III’s expansive commercial speculation followed by his death in exile in 1873 and the “Bank of England Forgery” perpetrated by four young Americans who cheated the Bank of England out of £102,000 in 1873 have been suggested by John Hall as sources for The Way We Live Now (Biography 385). John Sutherland cites Charles “Joachim” Lefevre’s successful bilking of millions of pounds for the proposed (but barely started) Interoceanic Railway in Honduras, which culminated in June of 1872 with Lefevre’s escape abroad with the funds. Finally, Sutherland also mentions the ensuing Paris trial of General Fremont and other promoters of the Transcontinental Memphis-Pacific Railway Company, for stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds of investors’ money and not building any railroad at all (xix-xxi).
The year 1873 must have seemed to Trollope like the breaking of a cultural wave that had been swelling since earlier in the century. Melmotte is arguably based not only on very recent financial swindlers but also upon England’s dramatically fallen mid-century speculators, such as the recently deceased railroad baron George Hudson (1800-71). The most likely original might be the Irish financier and M.P. John Sadleir (1813-56), Chairman of the Royal Swedish Railway Company—who committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid, as does Trollope’s Melmotte (Tracy, Later Novels 159-60; Hall, Biography 385). The banker Henry Fauntleroy (1784-1824) may be one of the prototypes for Melmotte; he was executed on 30 November 1824, for forging signatures of power of attorney, as does Trollope’s financier (Malton; Tracy, Oxford 566). In the novel, rumor hints that Melmotte is really the son of an Irish-American forger named Melmody.
The Way We Live Now is not only a topical but also a prescient book, detecting the contemporary speculative ambiance that will only months later culminate in international economic panic. When Trollope began his novel in May of 1873, the Panic of 1873 that began later that year was still months away in England, although the Vienna Stock Exchange began its crash on 9 May (Hall, Biography 384; Kindleberger 311-316). Trollope finished the novel between July and December of 1873; he was thus still writing The Way We Live Now during the Panic of the early fall of 1873. Economic collapse was brought on in part by rampant speculation on the new railways in America’s West. One of these was the Northern Pacific Railway—possibly evoked by Trollope’s South Central and Mexican Railway—whose shares did not sell, causing the American banking house of Jay Cook and Company to fail in September of 1873. The 1873 Panic’s results would continue to be felt until 1879, and by some measures much longer, until nearly the end of the century (Musson).
Although its origins were firmly located in 1873, Trollope’s harsh critique of upper-class London society, an “image of people living in a commercial Victorian wasteland filled with dishonesty and impotence” (Polhemus 186), has suited the changing modern taste that has gradually acclaimed The Way We Live Now to be one of Trollope’s masterpieces. The very center of this wasteland is the magnificent portrait of the purportedly successful financier Augustus Melmotte, the great merchant prince who, as the narrator tells us, “was becoming greater and greater in every direction,—mightier and mightier every day” (267). Trollope’s narrator provides commentary that both explains Melmotte and disperses the responsibility for his success to the avid society that has glorified him. We also have access to Melmotte’s interiority through free indirect discourse, a technique that humanizes him by revealing his cerebration. Trollope segues from the narrator’s commentary into Melmotte’s mind: “He had achieved great things. But the things which he was achieving were beyond his contemplation” (267). Trollope’s Melmotte in this respect differs greatly from Little Dorrit’s caricatured Merdle, Melmotte’s most famous fictional prototype. We never know Dickens’s Merdle any more than we know the opaque Chinese emperor at Melmotte’s grand dinner—only Merdle’s neurotic gestures suggest his disturbed mental processes. Melmotte, in contrast, is treated in part sympathetically, as an outsider who tries to enter the upper reaches of English society by appealing to its greed.
With all of its representations of the mercenary, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is ultimately most concerned with attempts at salvaging relics of truth and faithfulness in opposition to the fraud, cheating, and infidelity that characterize so many of its characters’ actions. The individual acts in isolation. The only public insistence upon truth comes early on in the novel, when Paul Montague alone challenges Melmotte at the railroad Board of Directors meeting: “I am prepared to risk the not improbable loss of everything I have in the world. . . . I cannot, I suppose, absolve myself from further responsibility; but I can at any rate do what is right from this time forward—and that course I intend to take” (285). All of the other resonant moral stances in the novel are taken in relation to romantic love or friendship.
Hetta’s decision to cleave to Paul despite his past love affair with the mysterious American beauty Mrs. Hurtle and the pressure upon Hetta to marry her much older kinsman Roger is a commensurate moral decision in the private sphere. In Lady Carbury’s desire that her daughter participate in the same marriage market in which she made her own bad marriage bargain, Trollope examines a part of the way we lived then that is as devoid of emotional content as the materialistic alliances he describes in The Way We Live Now. Lady Carbury has suffered terribly in her own abusive marriage, yet she sees her daughter as an object of exchange in a similar business transaction: “A woman, she thought, if she were unfortunate enough to be a lady without wealth of her own, must give up everything, her body, her heart—her very soul if she were that way troubled—to the procuring of a fitting maintenance for herself” (694). Trollope’s choice of the word “procuring” could scarcely more pointedly compare marriages of convenience to prostitution.
In the face of this commodifying of human beings, The Way We Live Now most prizes the complexity and possibility of private human relationships. This intense valuing of private life, evocative of what later would be associated with the Bloomsbury ethos, resonates in the Sontag story. Sontag’s narrative documents the AIDS era of fear and apprehension, the decimation of a sub-culture of artistic and literary folk, as friends jockey for position in relation to their afflicted comrade, judge the intersections of his private history with their own and wonder who’s next. Her text leads us back to Elaine Hadley’s urgent inquiries into the possibility of liberal agency in the age of terrorist threat with which this essay begins. Trollope’s novel may well remind readers of the faithless world represented in that very lyric poem Hadley interrogates, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867), in which the fervent plea “Oh love, let us be true to one another” expresses the private, individual nature of faith and love in the way we live now. What remains most valuable and sustaining in Trollope’s novel are private moments of intense, genuine feeling in an inauthentic society: Paul Montague’s writing of his passion in a letter to his beloved Hetta or the middle-aged editor Mr. Broune and Lady Carbury’s embrace in a posture that is “almost holy”; Lord Nidderdale’s succor of Marie Melmotte after her father’s ugly suicide; the Jewish banker Brehgert’s stalwart insistence upon his role as gentleman in the face of the blatant anti-Semitism of the country gentry Mr. Longstaffe.
Trollope’s relationship to the historical past is more vexed in The Way We Live Now than might seem to be true from his satiric critique of English society. Trollope is trying to find a way forward that validates his reformist work. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best in The Way We Read Now, who consider the necessarily changing role of the literary scholar “when the past decades have shown that literary criticism alone is not enough to effect change” (2), follow Trollope’s lead here as elsewhere. He, like Sontag in the late twentieth century, is trying to find a new form in which to represent a moment of moral crisis, and he is ultimately unhappy with the satiric genre. Trollope—echoed by his twentieth-century inheritor Dwight Garner’s lament for material books in “The Way We Read Now”—clings to certain elements of the past. Although Trollope clearly approves the moral salubriousness of the country versus the city, for instance, he does not romanticize England’s preindustrial history. As he states in An Autobiography: “That men have become less cruel, less violent, less selfish, less brutal, there can be no doubt;—but have they become less honest?” (354). Trollope agrees with “the convictions of men who cannot but see how comfort has been increased, how health has been improved, and education extended . . .” (354). The only admirable religious figure in the novel, the Anglican Bishop Yeld, speaks nearly these very same words in chapter 55 of the novel. Trollope does not want to return to England’s past, but he does see some historical elements that are worth retaining. One of these is truthfulness as an inherent part of the ideal gentleman’s character. It is significant that Trollope’s quintessential gentleman, Plantagenet Palliser, never lies, however wrong-headed he can be.
Trollope wants to progress from the way we live now, but his only solutions in this novel are in private life. He effects a kind of compromise between past and future in the marriage of Paul and Hetta. Trollope does not allow his regressive middle-aged country squire Roger Carbury, embodiment of England Past, to mate with Hetta Carbury, but instead chooses Roger’s ward, the modern young businessman Paul Montague. Paul and Hetta will produce England’s future children—children not yet in evidence but much talked of at the novel’s close as the future inheritors of Carbury. Paul has stood up to Melmotte and Hetta to her mother and her importunate kinsman Roger, as the young couple fight for their love. Paul renounces his previous romance with the fascinating American beauty Mrs. Hurtle, a whirlwind love affair born of the excitement of modern travel and consummated upon a transcontinental railway, an instance of unstable erotic desire as a part of the way we live now. He has been urgent in the proofs of his faithfulness to Hetta despite Winifred Hurtle’s reappearance in his life, most notably in his fervent letter to Hetta in the chapter “A Vindication.” Hetta in her turn has thrown off her habit of subservience to the unreasonable, misogynist demands of her dissolute, spendthrift brother Sir Felix and her mother Lady Carbury, and makes her own decision to believe in her lover. These two, the lovers Hetta and Paul, have negotiated the morally complex “way we live now” and have been “true to one another”—but there is no sense that they are anything but anomalous in Trollope’s fictional world. They retreat to Carbury Manor with Roger as avuncular protector rather than remain in the metropole to reform England and the Empire from the center of power.
Thus, just as Trollope got settled into his sociable life of London clubs and dinner-parties in 1873, he wrote a satire of the very urban society in which he now resided. It is a world in which the only kindnesses seem to be between individuals, and the only refuge from inauthenticity is in the sustaining private life—especially romantic love, but also, on occasion, friendship. The Way We Live Now is a kind of caesura, then, a pause before Trollope again engages in public debates in his fiction, influenced by the political tumult over further extension of the franchise and the continuing agitation for women’s rights in novels like The Prime Minister (1876) and Ayala’s Angel (1881). Trollope will return to his Liberal vision of reform in the many novels he has yet to write in the years to come, including The Duke’s Children (1880), written in 1876, which ends with the Duke returning to the political fray once again as a member of the Liberal Cabinet. For a moment, however, in The Way We Live Now—as Trollope surveys the urban scene of which he has so recently become a denizen—he can only imagine and represent a society in which the defiance of individual love and faith keeps alive the hope of a wider dispensation.
published July 2014
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
Morse, Deborah Denenholz. “The Way He Thought Then: Modernity and the Retreat of the Public Liberal in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, 1873.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].
Anderson, Amanda. The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. Print.
Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction. Reading ‘The Way We Read Now.’ Representations 108. 1 (Fall 2009): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jul. 2014.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.
Garner, Dwight. “The Way We Read Now.” The New York Times 17 Mar. 2012, Sunday rev. Web. 10 Jul. 2014.
Hadley, Elaine. Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.
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Hall, N. John, ed. The Letters of Anthony Trollope: Vol. 2, 1871-1882. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983. Print.
—. Trollope: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1991. Print.
Kindleberger, Charles P. Historical Economics: Art or Science? Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004. Web. 22 Jun. 2014.
Klaver, Claudia. Rev. of Victorian Literature and Finance, edited by Francis O’Gorman. Victorian Studies 50.4 (Summer 2008): 706-709. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jul. 2014.
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McGann, Tara. “Literary Realism in the Wake of Business Cycle Theory.” Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Victorian Literature and Finance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
Morse, Deborah Denenholz. Reforming Trollope: Race, Gender, and Englishness in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013. Print.
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 See most recently Morse, Reforming Trollope, for analyses of his liberal fictional responses to gender, race, class, and nationhood issues in novels from The Small House at Allington (1864) through He Knew He Was Right (1869), Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1870) and Lady Anna (1874), to Dr. Wortle’s School (1881) and Ayala’s Angel (1881). See also Elaine Hadley, Living Liberalism, on Trollope: “Of all well-known mid-Victorian novelists, he produced the work that was most concerned in representing the specifically political liberalization of his society . . .” (35). Hadley focuses in particular on the construction of the liberal individual’s character through Septimus Harding in The Warden and on Irish Liberal politician Phineas Finn in an imperial context (Phineas Finn: The Irish Member).
 “Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change. This in turn raises the question of why literary criticism matters if it is not political activism by another name . . . .” (2).
 For example: “Kate thought his appetite was good, and what he said, Orson reported, was that he agreed when Stephen advised him that the main thing was to keep in shape, he was a fighter, right, he wouldn’t be who he was if he weren’t, and was he ready for the big fight, Stephen asked rhetorically (as Max told it to Donny) . . .” (16-17).
 See Reforming Trollope 43-46.
 Although the 1840s railway frauds influenced both Dickens’s and Trollope’s fictional characters, Trollope is writing after a new wave of fraud nearly twenty years after Dickens’s novel. In some ways, Melmotte does, however, resemble his famous predecessor of nearly two decades before, Dickens’s Merdle (“O mighty shares!”), who is also worshipped for his supposed riches. Trollope’s Melmotte, like Merdle, is in truth not only deeply in debt, but is lavishly spending money he has bilked from credulous investors. Like Merdle, Melmotte commits suicide in a manner that evokes Roman history, only to point up the ugly modern version of death without honor: Merdle implicitly compared to Seneca in his bathtub, bleeding himself to death after borrowing tortoiseshell scissors from Fanny Dorrit to slit his wrists, or Melmotte drunkenly swallowing prussic acid after the narrator compares him to Caesar as he “wraps his toga around him.” However, the cultural moment in which Little Dorrit was written included the wretched circumstances of the Crimean War, and the absurdly ineffectual Circumlocution Office is as much an emblem of Englishness and the target of Dickens’s satire as Merdle’s fraudulent business dealings. Dickens’s satire is directed most powerfully against institutions rather than individuals—or individuals who represent institutions (Tite Barnacle as the Circumlocution Office, or the Bosom as Society), despite his caricatural art. Institutions like the Church and Parliament—which have been the essential milieux of the Barsetshire and Palliser chronicles, respectively—are not only ineffectual, but mostly absent in Trollope’s novel.
 See Tara McGann, “Literary Realism in the Wake of Business Cycle Theory,” for the view that Trollope’s partially sympathetic representation of Melmotte as a victim of circumstance is a reflection of the novelist’s belief in the amoral economic cycles in which the financier is caught up. As Claudia Klaver states in her Victorian Studies review, McGann argues that “Trollope moves the representation of character and circumstance out of the realm of individual agency and toward the realm of amoral naturalism” (707). McGlynn argues that Trollope thereby challenges and transforms the conventional genre expectations of Victorian high realism.
 Notably, there is no commensurate public moment of sacrifice in the political arena, as there is at the end of Phineas Finn (1869), when Phineas adheres not only to his Irish love Mary Flood Jones, but also to Irish tenant right, which results in the loss of his seat in the House of Commons. Elaine Hadley comments on Phineas’s moral choice: “By the end of its narrative, Phineas Finn dramatizes the impossible fit between the priorities of a liberal citizen and the requirements of the politician . . .” (235).
 “‘It is very hard to see into the minds of men,’ . . . ‘but we can see the result of their minds’ work. I think that men on the whole do live better lives than they did a hundred years ago . . .’” (414).