Monday, December 06, 2010

The Way We Live Now: But there was much it forbad him to do

Mr Longestaffe was a tall, heavy man, about fifty, with hair and whiskers carefully dyed, whose clothes were made with great care, though they always seemed to fit him too tightly, and who thought very much of his personal appearance. It was not that he considered himself handsome, but that he was specially proud of his aristocratic bearing. He entertained an idea that all who understood the matter would perceive at a single glance that he was a gentleman of the first water, and a man of fashion. He was intensely proud of his position in life, thinking himself to be immensely superior to all those who earned their bread. There were no doubt gentlemen of different degrees, but the English gentleman of gentlemen was he who had land, and family title-deeds, and an old family place, and family portraits, and family embarrassments, and a family absence of any usual employment. He was beginning even to look down upon peers, since so many men of much less consequence than himself had been made lords; and, having stood and been beaten three or four times for his county, he was of opinion that a seat in the House was rather a mark of bad breeding. He was a silly man, who had no fixed idea that it behoved him to be of use to any one; but, yet, he had compassed a certain nobility of feeling. There was very little that his position called upon him to do, but there was much that it forbad him to do. It was not allowed to him to be close in money matters. He could leave his tradesmen's bills unpaid till the men were clamorous, but he could not question the items in their accounts. He could be tyrannical to his servants, but he could not make inquiry as to the consumption of his wines in the servants' hall. He had no pity for his tenants in regard to game, but he hesitated much as to raising their rent. He had his theory of life and endeavoured to live up to it; but the attempt had hardly brought satisfaction to himself or to his family.

At the present moment, it was the great desire of his heart to sell the smaller of his two properties and disembarrass the other. The debt had not been altogether of his own making, and the arrangement would, he believed, serve his whole family as well as himself. It would also serve his son, who was blessed with a third property of his own which he had already managed to burden with debt. The father could not bear to be refused; and he feared that his son would decline. "But Adolphus wants money as much as any one," Lady Pomona had said. He had shaken his head, and pished and pshawed. Women never could understand anything about money. Now he walked down sadly from Mr Melmotte's office and was taken in his brougham to his lawyer's chambers in Lincoln's Inn. Even for the accommodation of those few thousand pounds he was forced to condescend to tell his lawyers that the title-deeds of his house in town must be given up. Mr Longestaffe felt that the world in general was very hard on him.

I’m only a little over 100 pages into The Way We Live Now (just over one-tenth of the total) and Trollope seems to finally loosen up some in his writing. He has been quite the scold to this point, settling personal scores in addition to satirizing the England he sees around him. What keeps the book readable is his wonderful touch at times when not so heavy handed. Every character save one (Roger Carbury) seems completely daft when it comes to money.

The book (so far) focuses upon the sham worlds people have erected around themselves and the dishonesty flowing through every facet of life. So far, money and financial dealings have been one of the central targets. A few of the quotes involving the characters and their money:

  • Felix Carbury: “A baronet, holding a commission in the Guards, and known to have had a fortune left him by his father, may go very far in getting into debt; and Sir Felix had made full use of all his privileges.” “It was now his business to marry an heiress. He was well aware that it was so, and was quite prepared to face his destiny.”

  • Augustus Melmotte: “The young Lord Nidderdale, the eldest son of the Marquis of Auld Reekie, had offered to take the girl and make her Marchioness in the process of time for half a million down. Melmotte had not objected to the sum,—so it was said,—but had proposed to tie it up. Nidderdale had desired to have it free in his own grasp, and would not move on any other terms. Melmotte had been anxious to secure the Marquis,—very anxious to secure the Marchioness; for at that time terms had not been made with the Duchess; but at last he had lost his temper, and had asked his lordship's lawyer whether it was likely that he would entrust such a sum of money to such a man. "You are willing to trust your only child to him," said the lawyer. Melmotte scowled at the man for a few seconds from under his bushy eyebrows; then told him that his answer had nothing in it, and marched out of the room. So that affair was over.”

  • On the scheme several characters lend their name to: “The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company. Paul thought that Mr Fisker seemed to be indifferent whether the railway should ever be constructed or not.”

  • The general outlook: “Wonderful are the ways of trade! If one can only get the tip of one's little finger into the right pie, what noble morsels, what rich esculents, will stick to it as it is extracted!”
  • Two attributes run through many of Trollope’s characters. The first he calls silliness, not just with money matters but encompassing a frivolous approach to everything. The second quality, not mentioned as much but underlying many actions, is cowardice. What keeps the characters from slipping into stereotypes are varying combinations of the two attributes. Lady Carbury, for example, shows courage when it comes to her writing/publication and her son Felix’s marriage prospects but wilts when it comes to any monetary request he makes. Lady Carbury dwells on what Felix “might be with £20,000 a year” but the correct answer would probably be ‘an even bigger bum’.

    I chose the opening quote because it incorporates many of the themes or targets Trollope has set his sights on (and it doesn’t hurt it was the most recent section I’ve read in the book—many other excerpts could serve just as well). What starts out sounding like a new vs. old order accumulates additional layering so that a caste system emerges. Everything hinges on money, yet there are silly rules about paying or questioning charges. The younger generation has learned their lesson well and gone into as much debt (or more) as their parents. Adolophus (the elder) may think that could never “understand anything about money” but it’s clear that he doesn’t either. Financial scams aren’t reserved just for phony stock schemes but are a routine part of everyday life. The one important area not mentioned in the opening quote, but I need to mention, involves the importance of marriage as a business transaction as portrayed everywhere else in the book so far.

    The area where Trollope heaps the most scorn involves the publishing and review of literature, something that feels like he’s settling a personal grudge. It fits in with the overall theme of pervasive dishonesty but it hardly seems to merit the most derision. Trollope’s wit saves these sections from sinking into simple scorn, especially since it seems like a trite area in the grand scheme of omnipresent deceit. Regarding Lady Carbury’s attempts at writing: “The one most essential obstacle to the chance of success in all this was probably Lady Carbury's conviction that her end was to be obtained not by producing good books, but by inducing certain people to say that her books were good.” Her initial targets know the game well, as Mr. Booker’s talents indicate: “He was an adept at this sort of work, and knew well how to review such a book as Lady Carbury's "Criminal Queens," without bestowing much trouble on the reading.”

    Ah, but I’m beginnning to warm to Trollope’s book and hope to bestow more trouble on the reading of it...

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