What Are They Reading?
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW.
By Anthony Trollope.
Oxford. 1,024 pp. $11.95.
I've started this book repeatedly because I love Trollope, but until now I've never got past the initial descriptions of Lady Carbury, female scribbler and mother of the weak and evil baronet Felix Carbury. Now that I'm well into it, and have progressed past initial character delineation into full-blown plot, I remember all the pleasures of Trollope, the slow buildup to the inevitable catharsis, the elaborately portrayed, sophisticated London personalities: the editors, in this case, and the reviewers, the capitalists and the corporate board members, the society ladies and their fortune-hunting daughters and ne'er-do-well-sons, the ambitious MPs and the gouty, gimlet-eyed lords, and of course the thoroughly good country squire, our hero.
In many ways, reading The Way We Live Now is like being a daily reader today of "Page Six" or the New York Observer. There's the gossip about the high and mighty, there are the ins and outs of their high-flying lives, the ups and downs of wild financial schemes, sex scandals, broken and bad marriages, books of questionable merit, children gone bad, runaways, even, occasionally, the appearance of an actual real, almost normal person in print--in short: the whole human parade.
There's something so grown-up about Trollope (especially as compared with his contemporary, the beloved Dickens). Felix Carbury, getting very bad ideas as he watches a better-born gentleman cheat at cards, is an example of the writer's willingness to describe how people really do think. Trollope also has a great and surprising understanding of the way women's lives are controlled by cultural expectation, and of their attempts to escape; viz., Ruby Ruggles eating standing up in the kitchen with the housemaid, after standing through the men's dinner, which she cooked, and pouring glass after glass of beer for her charmless, tongue-tied intended; Hetta Carbury, doing just what her mother wants, all for the glory of her wastrel brother; Marie Melmotte, rebelling against her controlling father, who cares for her only because she might bring him--if she's well-behaved--a son-in-law with an important title.
I always thought Tom Wolfe was doing Trollope when he wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, and having read a lot of Trollope already (and there is much to read), I knew I was right, but until this book, I never knew how right. The big difference between the two writers is: Trollope loves his characters; with Wolfe, you don't get that feeling. But the parallel is strong (with Wolfe's A Man in Full, also): the conservative distrust of change, the ugly corruption of society, of money (Kurt Andersen mined the richly Trollopian dotcom money world in his recent novel, Turn of the Century); the detailed imagining of men and women from all walks of life (Trollope is better than Wolfe on women's inner lives); that profound familiarity with the structure of the culture; and the amazing facility for plot, as well as for a high melodrama that in Trollope at least sometimes reaches the level of tragedy, but more satisfyingly, often, often turns into comedy of the gentlest and deepest sort.