Saturday, May 24, 2014

Victorian Novels

The Way We Live NowThe Way We Live Now 
by Anthony Trollope

“Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time 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. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now. And as I had ventured to take the whip of the satirist into my hand, I went beyond the iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody, and made an onslaught also on other vices;--on the intrigues of girls who want to get married, on the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single, and on the puffing propensities of authors who desire to cheat the public into buying their volumes.”   ― Anthony Trollope, Autobiography of Anthony Trollope

I have been interested in Victorian novels for most of my reading life. Early in that life, before I knew what a Victorian novel was, I fell in love with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The other early love of my reading life was for the novels of Charles Dickens that began with a reading of Oliver Twist that so enveloped my imagination that I brought it along in my backpack to Boy Scout Camp in the north woods of Wisconsin. Never mind that there were no merit badges to be had for reading Dickens, or any other nineteenth century author. My life-long infatuation with Bronte and Dickens and my interest in Victorian literature was continued in my teens with the discovery of the novels of Thomas Hardy, especially The Return of the Native. I fell in love with the intelligent Clym Yeobright and his difficult relations with the alluring Eustacia Vye (a love I more recently found that I shared with the fictional Holden Caulfield, perhaps the only thing I shared with him). The sensationalism of Hardy in his novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles,  the education of Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations, and others satisfied my teenage reading desires and furthered me on the road of Victorian literature. It was not until my post-college years that I would come to appreciate the intelligent novels of George Eliot and the later Dickens along with those of Anthony Trollope. It has been during more recent decades that I have included reading and rereading Middlemarch, Bleak House, and the Barsetshire novels in my traversal of Victorian literature.

Most recently I have been reading Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now,  a novel  written late in his career. Unlike his early novels, this was a critique of the England of his age, including a broad-based attack on Victorian class, finance, politics and culture. Set in the 1870s it tells a story of two families struggling to adapt to the changing times. The Carburys are one family with Roger Carbury, the squire of Carbury Manor, leading them both morally and financially. The other family is represented by a young Paul Montague who becomes entwined in the shady financial dealings of a confidence man named Augustus Melmotte. Financial collapse entraps all of the families in some way and provides a sense of realism as the story is based on real-life events. In some ways reminiscent of the later Dickens' social novels, Trollope's novel is presented as a more realistic slice of life, foreshadowing the turn toward naturalism near the end of the century. Most of the characters are quite unlikable and there is little incentive to sympathize with them when they are taken in by the vulgar predator Melmotte. While there is humor in The Way We Live Now, it is a sharper and darker humor than that which made Trollope's early novels such a delight to read. However, the novel retains a relevance for our own day when financial scandals are still in the headlines.

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Brian Joseph said...

I am on a kind of Victorian novel kick myself lately. I am actually in the middle of Jane Eyre right now and I recently discovered Trollope. I have not read this one yet.

It is particular interest that you describe this as presenting a realistic slice of life. Having only read three of Trollope's earlier novels so far, I will go out on a limb and say that his characterizations seem to portray people more realistically then any other author that I have evert read. Combining such personas into a very realistic place and plot must make for some great reading.

James said...

Thanks for your comment regarding Trollope's realism. Along with his genial style it is what makes him such a very readable author.
I envy you if you are reading Jane Eyre for the first time. It is one a small group of novels I have read and reread throughout my life.
Among the Victorians I would highly recommend Middlemarch, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Jude the Obscure; both the Dickens and Hardy novels are their final works in that genre--they both kept getting better until they stopped writing novels.
Among Trollope's many novels, most of which I have not read yet, I would recommend Barchester Towers and The Last Chronicle of Barset; although if you like politics I am told that the Palliser novels are great.