The Introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition tells me that The Way We Live Now was composed in a fit of uncharacteristic spleen. Trollope had spent eighteen months travelling in Australia and New Zealand (his book of observations on Australia is a classic) and returned to England late in 1872 finding his literary star declining to the extent that he had to give up his country home and live in London. There, disgusted by the dishonesty he saw running rampant in fashionable society, he composed The Way We Live Now.
It's hard to summarise the sprawling, multi-stranded plot of this novel, but here are some of the primary plot lines:
Sir Felix Carbury, baronet, a ne'er-do-well gambler and coward who having frittered away his patrimony is now sponging off his devoted mother and long-suffering sister, elects to support his dissolute lifestyle by marrying an heiress. The heiress in his sights is Marie Melmotte, the only daughter of the fabulously wealthy but utterly mysterious Great Financier Augustus Melmotte - but as bullied and controlled as she's been all her life, Marie is beginning to develop a mind of her own.
All of London society understands that Augustus Melmotte is an adventurer and probably a swindler, but his unimaginable wealth makes him, not just respectable but positively sought-after. As he juggles more and more daring confidence schemes than he ever has before, Melmotte rises higher than ever before - and risks the fall of his life.
Upstanding squire Roger Carbury is devotedly in love with his cousin Hetta Carbury, but unfortunately Hetta has fallen in love with Paul Montague, a rather pliable young man trying to escape a former engagement to an unscrupulous American woman. Will Paul escape Mrs Hurtle's machinations? Which of her suitors will Hetta choose?
Satire and Pessimism
The Way We Live Now was not published to very positive reviews. It begins, after all, with a scorching critique of literary society, as penniless and desperate would-be bestseller Lady Carbury wheels, deals, cajoles, and flatters newspaper editors for favourable reviews (even today, I defy any writer not to read this and wince!). While the tone of the story mellows toward the second half, becoming more sympathetic to its characters, the tone has a good deal more bite in it than Trollope's usual fare, and few of the characters are as lovable as those in Trollope's other stories.
In addition, the plot and cast seem to have gotten away from Trollope somewhere. Lady Carbury, for instance, is introduced as the book's central character, but the character of the Great Financier, Augustus Melmotte himself, quickly wrests the plot away from her, as do a host of smaller supporting characters - the repulsive Georgiana Longestaffe with her increasingly desperate efforts to find a husband, romantic farmgirl Ruby Ruggles with her dangerous crush on Sir Felix Carbury, feckless Lord Nidderdale and the other upper-class twits at the Beargarden Club - some of which end with a bang, and some with a whimper. Paul Montague is another of those indecisive young Trollopean heroes whom you want to reach inside the book and hit over the head, but to whom we give a (reluctant) pass because we suppose he is rather truer to life than the average romantic lead.
So, I will admit that I found The Way We Lived Now a little difficult to love, and certainly not as delightful as The Last Chronicle of Barset. However, there were plenty of things to like.
Politics and Family
There was the Lady Carbury plot - a little sidelined by the great business of Melmotte's rise and fall, but by the end of the book I thought it was the most satisfying thing in the whole novel. I loved how her friendship with Mr Broune developed from coquetry to brutal honesty.
One of the things I've come to notice and deeply appreciate in Trollope's novels is his concern for women and their status. This comes out partially in Hetta Carbury's plot - of whom it's said that she "had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially for a daughter." Similarly, Marie Melmotte has always been bullied and controlled by her father, and gradually, over the course of the book, begins to assert her own judgement. Unusually for his young female characters, Trollope does not let Marie off without some pretty trenchant criticism, but I wound up with a gleeful appreciation for her. When the loathsome Felix Carbury first set about cold-heartedly convincing Marie to marry him for the sake of her fortune, I was worried for the put-upon and naive young girl. Well...I hate to spoil anything for you, so I'll just say that I needn't have worried. Or at least, not about Marie.
Perhaps most fascinating was the political satire in this story. Augustus Melmotte becomes such a titanic figure in London society as to run for Parliment. His political opinions are so unformed that he could equally easily run for the Liberal or the Conservative platforms, and he ultimately chooses the Conservatives purely because he thinks he will make more money that way. And London eagerly plays along: "Mr Melmotte was not like other men. It was a great thing to have Mr Melmotte in the party. Mr Melmotte's financial capabilities would in themselves be a tower of strength. Rules were not made to control the club in a matter of such importance as this." Not only are shots taken at the willingness of political causes to prostitute themselves to larger-than-life personalities (h'mm, where have we seen that before?) but also at Conservatism itself: "The Conservative party at this particular period was putting its shoulder to the wheel, - not to push the coach up any hill, but to prevent its being hurried along." The more things that change...
Dishonesty and Hypocrisy
If there's one overarching theme in this book, it is that of dishonesty. Melmotte is the great swindler who dominates the whole story, of course, but the book is full of lesser dishonesties. Felix Carbury, living on credit and loans extracted from his already impoverished mother; Lady Carbury herself, "false from head to foot" who must learn the value of honesty; Georgiana Longestaffe, incapacitated by her greed for any honesty either social or romantic; or on the other hand, the unexpectedly wonderful Mr Brehgert, whose honesty proves himself immediately one of the best characters in the book. Overall the book is mournful in tone: Trollope puts aside his customary optimism in order to bewail the dishonesty that he felt had come to characterise his time: "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places...so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable." The Way We Live Now is a tale of hypocrisy on a grand scale; its aim ultimately to wake its readers' consciences. The fact that it was disliked in its day and is now regarded as Trollope's magnum opus is perhaps a sad sign that hypocrisy is as lively as ever it was: we are always more willing to put on sackcloth and ashes for the sins of our forbears than for the sins of our own day.