Robert Fulford's column about Trollope's The Way We Live Now

(The National Post, April 9, 2002)

Anthony Trollope knew about money. He knew about needing it, making it and spending it. When planning his 47 novels he kept in mind the money they would generate. He despised the pious notion that serious authors should ignore financial matters. Such innocence, he believed, was contrary to nature.

Knowing his attitude to money helps us understand The Way We Live Now, the excellent satiric novel that he wrote in 1875 about greed in upper-class London. Those who watch the heavy-handed Masterpiece Theatre treatment of that remarkable book (the four-part Monday night series runs on PBS to April 22) may assume that Trollope looked down on people who sought to enrich themselves. That would be a grave misunderstanding. What he despised was hypocrisy, and the desire to obtain money without effort.

In his shabby-genteel childhood, money was a matter of anxious concern. His father had little and made none, yet tried to live as a gentleman while Trollope's mother wrote books to keep the family solvent. At Harrow, which he attended as a "charity boy," rich schoolmates never let him forget his status.

When he was 19 he became a clerk with the post office, where he worked for 43 years; he helped invent the penny post and the street postbox while he made a reputation as a novelist. He rose early every morning and worked for hours on a novel before going to the office. He rarely rested. If he finished a novel on Wednesday, he started a new one on Thursday. He supported his family in gentlemanly style and maintained horses for hunting.

Trollope loved industrial progress and its spectacular innovations, like railways. He could happily write a chapter while travelling by train, considering a compartment the "modern man's study." A Trollope novel functioned as smoothly as a steam engine, its narrative boilers and couplings machined to perfection.

He described his economic life with wondrous frankness. Has any other author, before or since, stated precisely what he made from each book? His autobiography ends with a three-page listing of titles and the money received for each of them; for instance, the two novels that brought him to public attention in the mid-1850s, The Warden and Barchester Towers, were sold as a package for 727 pounds, 11 shillings, threepence. Twenty years later, when he was 60 and had a much larger reputation, he obtained an advance of £3,000 for The Way We Live Now.

It's a story about the fantasy of easy money twisting the lives of a dozen characters. One young woman, desperate to marry well, says: "Who thinks about love nowadays?" Conveniently, she blames her own avarice on the corruption of the age. Trollope and his characters consider their historic period uniquely corrupt.

In the 1870s, Trollope spent 18 months in Australia and the United States. When he returned to England with freshened eyes, he was disgusted by the financial immorality of the upper classes and those yearning to join their ranks. Dishonest stock manipulation had reached so high in society that many people no longer thought stealing disgraceful; a dishonest life was admirable if lived "in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners." Ladies and gentlemen in grand houses spoke about the moral standards of society, but primitive greed dictated their business decisions.

Trollope saw his own profession eroded by another form of fraud. He opens The Way We Live Now with a hack writer, Lady Carbury, scheming to organize good reviews for her new book. To Trollope, the general decline in honesty was symbolized by reviewers who praised mediocre work in hope of reciprocal favour from the author. (Fortunately, that practice died out long ago.)

A swindle based on a crooked railroad stock, organized by a mysterious financier named Augustus Melmotte, sits at the centre of The Way We Live Now. Melmotte is an unclassifiable foreigner, thought by some of the English to be a Jew and therefore suspect. The social leaders of London dislike him, but change their minds when they think he can enrich them. Anti-Semitism crops up often; the novel and the TV series also depict an honest and forthright Jewish businessman, Ezekiel Brehgert, who is rejected on grounds of race.

A dissolute young baronet, Sir Felix Carbury, schemes to marry Melmotte's daughter and inherit his riches. The baronet's sister has to make an agonizing choice between a suitor she loves (who is involved with Melmotte) and a suitor who offers security. Melmotte, like the stock promoters of our own time, hides the crippling flaws in his business and loves telling his board of directors, "This is the opportunity of the century." In 2002, the word Enron will dance through the minds of viewers.

The book's first readers thought the story too savage. They knew Trollope as a comfortable writer, and considered The Way We Live Now uncomfortable. A typical review, in the Spectator, complained about the "atmosphere of sordid baseness"; the reviewer acknowledged that such an immoral world might exist, but that was no reason to write about it.

Masterpiece Theatre packages this piece of literary history in the usual carmel-coloured art direction and then proceeds to get everything just a little wrong. Over-ambitiously, it tries to cram onto the screen all the interlocking stories that needed 425,000 words, or 767 pages, of Trollope prose. That requires a lot of skipping along the surface.

On another level, the series isn't ambitious enough. The producers don't trust the audience to enjoy subtle storytelling, so they make Melmotte's character obvious at the start. Trollope let the plot unfold gradually.

David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot on Mystery, drives the Melmotte character over the edge into caricature. This makes him the core of the story and weakens the main point: Trollope satirized an aristocracy that was susceptible to Melmotte's chicanery because it had lost its own moral compass. He let Melmotte rob only those who wanted to get rich without work. In Trollope's eyes, losing their money was no more than appropriate punishment. People who deserved to be prosperous were those who made valuable goods, like novels.

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