April 09, 2003

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Somewhere, which I cannot for the life of me recall, I read that Tony Blair presented Bill Clinton with a copy of this book on a visit to the States. I hadn't read the book at the time and thought it a rather strange gift. Both men are highly intelligent although from what I recall, Bill wasn’t doing much recreational, um, reading in the White House. Anyway, I bought it on the strength of my past readings of Trollope and a faint, very faint, desire to know what it was that Mr. Blair had in mind.

What he had in mind was a warning to Bill about what happens when you build your house on shifting sands using wormy wood.

Augustus Melmotte is a wealthy man. Everyone says so, therefore it must be true. Everyone flocks to his presence though they are offended by his vulgar, coarse manner and his total lack of breeding, family, or class. His wife is an ugly, unfashionably dressed woman who lingers in the background of society, put up with by the wives of the gentlemen who need the Melmotte wealth. His daughter is chattel to be married off for the reflected consequence of the title her future husband can bring, in exchange, of course, for a substantial dowry and marriage settlement. He has no friends, only business partners. He has absolutely nothing of worth except what money can buy.

Lady Carbury is the widow of an abusive husband reduced to writing extremely bad romantic novels to support her daughter and horrid, dissipated son. Felix Carbury lives off his mother having wasted his inheritance on gambling, horses and drink, caring nothing for her or his sister except that they leave him alone and provide him with cash to gamble with. His haunt is a club called the Beargarden where he spends his time reveling the night away. However, he is persuaded by his mother to court Melmotte's daughter, Marie, for her money in the hopes that he can find his way clear of the crushing debts he has accrued. Lady Carbury cares nothing for his happiness except that he should have money enough to support himself.

Paul Montague, in love with Lady Carbury's daughter, Hetta, has invested unwisely in a land scheme in San Francisco. His uncle and partner sells his shares in the venture to a man named Fisker who comes up with the idea of creating a paper company supposedly to finance a railroad from Salt Lake City to Mexico City. Augustus Melmotte is named the London Director and is given control of the company and Paul, on the Board but having no shares to sell, is drawn into the whole fraudulent scheme, not knowing how to get out.

That is a brief outline of the novel's intersecting plots. Around this are other characters who gather around Melmotte, feeding his ego and losing their money in bad business decisions. I disliked just about everyone in the book, even the stodgy Roger Carbury who is supposed to represent the "good" gentlemen of England in the book. None of the women in the book were in the least sympathetic. They were either self- centered, egotistical predators or mindless, spineless victims.

Despite that, the book was fascinating. I think it was the sense that all this was going to come to a head, that it couldn’t go on. And the crash was going to be horrible. And knowing people were going to be hurt, I couldn’t look away.

Kind of like the same feeling I felt during the Bill and Monica thing. Disgusted, angry and fascinated at the same time.

Posted by Deb English at April 9, 2003 05:28 PM

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