The Underrated Genius of Trollope: “The Way We Live Now”

Money is at the center of what may be Trollope’s most famous novel, The Way We Live Now.  Although it is long –  nearly 900 pages – this masterpiece is elegantly-written, fast-paced, and a good starting point for those who are leery of his well-known series books. 

Much to my surprise, when I began to read Trollope, his work was not universally respected. One summer I sat in a lawn chair and read his political series, known as the Pallisers books, and recommended them to everyone. But when I mentioned Trollope to a professor, she made a little moue and said, “Yes, yes,” as if I were wasting her time.  

I gather from his popularity at Goodreads, a number of online discussion groups, his bicentennial in 2015, and the thriving Anthony Trollope Society that his reputation is now secure. And certainly his remarkable books are pertinent to our own economically unstable times:  The Way We Live Now reflects how we live, with our endless desire for money, distant suburbs, McMansions, SUVs, three-car-garages,  the latest iPhone, college debt, mortgages, and a deadly appetite for fossil fuels.

The Victorian marriage plot, of course, follows the money, or would if the enervated, broke aristocrats could leave the Beargarden club long enough to chase the women.  Oblivious of morals, they plot to marry nouveau riche heiresses, the despised daughters of “Jewish” bankers, stockbrokers, and merchants. (By the way, Trollope attacks the prejudice against Jews).   

Some aristocrats are kinder than others: the witty, affable Lord Nidderdale develops a real respect and liking for Marie Melmotte, the richest heiress in London.  At one point, Nidderdale, who has been on the marriage market for years and has not yet bagged a rich wife, humorously suggests that a new list of rich heiresses with their requirements for husbands should be published weekly.

But there are also despicable wife-hunters:  Sir Felix Carbury is a truly moronic, cold, vicious baronet who drinks and gambles away his fortune and is so deeply in debt that  his adoring widowed mother, Lady Carbury, despairs.  Lady Carbury, who has just written her first book, Criminal Queens, frenetically networks with newspaper editors in the hope of winning sympathetic reviews and selling books.  (In one case, a reviewer is kind but privately admits he read only a few pages:  most of the pages of the book are uncut.)

In this Victorian society that breaks the rules, the women are often stronger than the men.  Lady Carbury, a middle-aged woman who did not marry for love and was beaten and abused by her much older husband, has no romantic illusions, and so she has turned to work.  She has two hopes of solvency for her family:  Felix must marry Marie Melmotte, who is besotted with his beauty, and Hetta must  marry her rich older cousin Roger, an affectionate man who is in love with  her but whose love she does not return.

Hetta Carbury is a nice, bright, ethical, charming young woman who does everything nicely – as I would and did, too – and refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love – as her mother did.  But some of the women characters are much bolder than she in their open pursuit of the men they want.

I will write only about the most fascinating of them, Hetta’s rival, Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow and divorcee in her mid-thirties, who has a dubious past. Though well-educated, charming, and brilliant, she does not fit into the English class system:  she looks after her own money and has shot and killed at least one man in the West.

 What is the connection between Mrs. Hurtle and Hetta?  Hetta has fallen in love with Mrs. Hurtle’s ex-fiance, Paul Montague, and he reciprocates her love and proposes marriage.  After he writes to Mrs. Hurtle breaking off their engagement and informing her of his engagement to Hetta, she travels from America to London, and uses every ounce of charm to try to win him back.

During my previous reading of this book, I was annoyed by Mrs. Hurtle.  Paul and Hetta are the perfect couple. Trollope satirizes the Western American woman, but reading between the lines this time, I found her delightful. She dresses plainly but beautifully, flirts and entices, and also expresses emotions. But she has her scary side. In an unsent letter, she writes that she would like to horsewhip Felix. And then she reads it aloud to him. Naturally, Felix is not pleased by the prospect of a horsewhipping.

Mrs. Hurtle is kind to other heartbroken women.  She even has a chat with Hetta. And she helps her landlady’s niece, Ruby , who has broken off her engagement and come to London to frolic with unreliable Sir Felix, who she thinks will marry her.   Mrs. Hurtle herself may once have been as wild,  passionate,  and savage, but she makes sure that Ruby doesn’t sacrifice herself to worthless Felix.

The boldest heroines do not always win first prize in Trollope’s marriage game. They don’t fit neatly into English society, so they cannot quite make it to the top.. When Mrs. Hurtle meets Hetta, she regretfully notices that Mr. Montague has a type:  Hetta is a younger version of herself, with the same gorgeous dark hair and coloring.  And that is discouraging, because she cannot compete with her younger self.

The financiers in The Way We Live Now play a dangerous game, but the marriage game is also fraught with mines.

4 thoughts on “The Underrated Genius of Trollope: “The Way We Live Now””

  1. Thank you for a magnificent review. I appreciate the time you spent on Mrs Hurtle. I think she’s been an overlooked character in most discussions of “The Way We Live Now.”

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