I have never read an Anthony Trollope book before reading The Way We Live Now. In fact, I knew so little about Trollope that I thought he was a French novelist, but of course I was wrong. He was born and died in London, and was roughly a contemporary of Charles Dickens. The only reason I listened to The Way We Live Now is because Audible.com had a sale on audio books priced at $4.95 each and I loaded up on them. Whenever Audible has one of these $4.95 sales I buy just about anything that sounds good, taking chances on books that I normally wouldn’t buy at regular price. This chance taking often pays off, and with The Way We Live Now was a huge success.
I didn’t even mean to start listening to The Way We Live Now this month, I have several books needing to be read for book clubs, and it was extremely long. But I was curious and once I started listening I couldn’t stop. The BBC WW edition I listened to was wonderfully narrated by Timothy West who seems to have made a career out of performing Trollope. The 32 hour and 25 minute audio book was broken down in four 8 hour plus digital sections, and as I finished each part I watched one episode of the 4-part BBC One production of The Way We Live Now (2001).
That means 8 hours of book is turned into one hour of film. Listening and watching was very educational about how movie makers distill a novel into a teleplay. Sadly, four hours was way too short. I think they needed a minimum of 8 hours to do the job well, and would have been a superior production if they had given it 12 hours like many HBO shows. If a tiny 9.5 hour audio book like Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris can be made into a 12 part True Blood, imagine what the BBC could have down with The Way We Live Now at three times the length.
The film version uses the phrase “the way we live now” more than once, but I don’t remember it used in the book, but that’s essentially what the book is about, a time when things are changing. People are having to change, and all the characters illustrate “the way we live now.” The book is set in London during 1873 when everyone is caught up in an economic bubble. The story has a very modern feel to it.
Augustus Melmotte is a very rich man who has come to London buying real estate and promoting a stock investing craze. He has a Donald Trump quality to him. His background is very mysterious, but he wants to be the wealthiest man in London and even has political aspirations. He has a daughter Marie that he’s dangling in front of the English aristocracy hoping to wed her to another large fortune and get a title for the family to legitimatize his ambitions. Unfortunately for Melmotte, many of the swells have titles but no money and see Marie as a solution to their own economic problems.
The story is about class and social climbing, and satirizes much about London life that Trollope didn’t like. To stir things up even more he gives us two American characters Hamilton K. Fisker and Mrs. Hurtle. Fisker is a wheeler-dealer promoting a railroad from Salt Lake City to Veracruz, Mexico and convinces Melmotte to lead the charge with British investors. Fisker wants Melmotte in on the deal because of all the lay about aristocrats he can get for the board of directors and use their names to sell stock to the gullible English. And the English want to cash in on American empire building.
The story is long and leisurely, but never slow. It has a horde of characters, many struggling to find appropriate mates, sometimes for love, sometimes for money. Like most Victorian novels there’s no actual sex in the story, but Trollope seems to go further than his contemporary novelists at indirect suggestions. He knows that people are having sex, he just doesn’t give us any sex scenes, or even directly implies his couples are having sex. What’s interesting is the film version does bring the Victorian novel into the realm of PG-13. I don’t think this hurt Trollope’s story except when Mrs. Hurtle tells another woman she was sleeping with Paul Montague, and that just doesn’t happen in the novel. But we the reader knows that Hetta is thinking it.
The film versions leaves a lot out, and actually changes the story in key places, and totally screws up the ending. If I hadn’t been reading the book I would have given the film a B- for a Masterpiece Theater type show, fun, but not great, like the A+ Downton Abby. Knowing the book I’ll have to give the film a D+ at best, but well worth watching if you are hard up for Masterpiece Theater kind of shows, which I often am.
The novel is full of great characters that illustrates different layers of London life.
Sir Felix Carbury, a young penniless baronet, lives by his looks and title, mooching off his mother Lady Matilda Carbury while gambling at cards all night, and half-heartedly chasing Marie Melmotte. Felix is as modern as any slacker son today, and gives his mother endless grief. Lady Carbury, his doting mother, tries to get by on writing, but she writes terrible books such as, Criminal Queens: Powerful Women as the Playthings of Love that are full of inaccuracies and quickly cribbed from other sensational books of the time. Trollope uses her literary ambitions to make fun of writers and publishers of the day. Again, its very modern.
Roger Carbury is the novel’s decent man and suffers for it. He’s always been in love with Felix’s sister Hetta, but she’s not in love with him. Lady Carbury pushes her daughter to marry her cousin so the family would be rich again and Hetta would inherit the Carbury estate. Hetta is in love with Paul Montague, English partner and civil engineer to Hamilton Fisker’s great railway project. Paul is Roger’s protégé and best friend. It’s quite a nasty love triangle.
Paul is tangled up with Mrs. Hurtle, an American adventuress that might have killed more than one husband for being scorned or cheated on, and has taken to the English gentleman thinking he is honorable. In the novel Trollope portrays Americans as bold, calculating, brash, uncouth, immoral and uncultured. Mrs. Hurtle dominates Paul and he wants to run, so she chases after him like a big game hunter, refusing to let him escape her clutches.
Marie Melmotte, played by Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films) steals the show in the film version, and for the most part fulfills the character of the novel. In the novel, Marie is boy crazy for Felix, but her domineering dad, Augustus sees right away that Felix has no money and is worthless for his plans. At the beginning of the story Marie is weak and mousy, but by the end she’s in command of her fate. The Way We Live Now is very much a feminist novel, or as much as it could be for the time. One young social climbing girl is even willing to marry a Jewish man to get what she wants. Trollope deals a lot with anti-Semitism in the novel, again showing the way we live now involves accepting Jewish people into society and politics, and I think he’s sympathetic to this issue, but I’m not sure.
I doubt few people will run out and read The Way We Live Now because of my recommendation. Giant Victorian novels just aren’t that popular anymore. But I do give it an A+ for entertainment value. It has become one of my favorite 19th century English novels – and the very best include Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Middlemarch.
JWH – 4/24/11