Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Way We Live Now: A peculiar bitterness

Forgive the extended quotation in this post, but the opening of Chapter 49 captured so much of what makes The Way We Live Now enjoyable. Trollope has created a wonderful villain in Mr. Melmotte yet that character is rarely on the stage (so far). Watching how others respond to him is the delicious part. “As he was a demi-god to some, so was he a fiend to others.” Often he proves to be both for quite a few characters.
The very greatness of Mr Melmotte's popularity, the extent of the admiration which was accorded by the public at large to his commercial enterprise and financial sagacity, created a peculiar bitterness in the opposition that was organized against him at Westminster. As the high mountains are intersected by deep valleys, as puritanism in one age begets infidelity in the next, as in many countries the thickness of the winter's ice will be in proportion to the number of the summer musquitoes, so was the keenness of the hostility displayed on this occasion in proportion to the warmth of the support which was manifested. As the great man was praised, so also was he abused. As he was a demi-god to some, so was he a fiend to others. And indeed there was hardly any other way in which it was possible to carry on the contest against him. From the moment in which Mr Melmotte had declared his purpose of standing for Westminster in the Conservative interest, an attempt was made to drive him down the throats of the electors by clamorous assertions of his unprecedented commercial greatness. It seemed that there was but one virtue in the world, commercial enterprise,—and that Melmotte was its prophet. It seemed, too, that the orators and writers of the day intended all Westminster to believe that Melmotte treated his great affairs in a spirit very different from that which animates the bosoms of merchants in general. He had risen above feeling of personal profit. His wealth was so immense that there was no longer place for anxiety on that score. He already possessed,—so it was said,—enough to found a dozen families, and he had but one daughter! But by carrying on the enormous affairs which he held in his hands, he would be able to open up new worlds, to afford relief to the oppressed nationalities of the over-populated old countries. He had seen how small was the good done by the Peabodys and the Bairds, and, resolving to lend no ear to charities and religions, was intent on projects for enabling young nations to earn plentiful bread by the moderate sweat of their brows. He was the head and front of the railway which was to regenerate Mexico. It was presumed that the contemplated line from ocean to ocean across British America would become a fact in his hands. It was he who was to enter into terms with the Emperor of China for farming the tea-fields of that vast country. He was already in treaty with Russia for a railway from Moscow to Khiva. He had a fleet,—or soon would have a fleet of emigrant ships,—ready to carry every discontented Irishman out of Ireland to whatever quarter of the globe the Milesian might choose for the exercise of his political principles. It was known that he had already floated a company for laying down a submarine wire from Penzance to Point de Galle, round the Cape of Good Hope,—so that, in the event of general wars, England need be dependent on no other country for its communications with India. And then there was the philanthropic scheme for buying the liberty of the Arabian fellahs from the Khedive of Egypt for thirty millions sterling,—the compensation to consist of the concession of a territory about four times as big as Great Britain in the lately annexed country on the great African lakes. It may have been the case that some of these things were as yet only matters of conversation,—speculations as to which Mr Melmotte's mind and imagination had been at work, rather than his pocket or even his credit; but they were all sufficiently matured to find their way into the public press, and to be used as strong arguments why Melmotte should become member of Parliament for Westminster.

All this praise was of course gall to those who found themselves called upon by the demands of their political position to oppose Mr Melmotte. You can run down a demi-god only by making him out to be a demi-devil. These very persons, the leading Liberals of the leading borough in England as they called themselves, would perhaps have cared little about Melmotte's antecedents had it not become their duty to fight him as a Conservative. Had the great man found at the last moment that his own British politics had been liberal in their nature, these very enemies would have been on his committee. It was their business to secure the seat. And as Melmotte's supporters began the battle with an attempt at what the Liberals called "bounce,"—to carry the borough with a rush by an overwhelming assertion of their candidate's virtues,—the other party was driven to make some enquiries as to that candidate's antecedents. They quickly warmed to the work, and were not less loud in exposing the Satan of speculation, than had been the Conservatives in declaring the commercial Jove. Emissaries were sent to Paris and Frankfort, and the wires were used to Vienna and New York. It was not difficult to collect stories,—true or false; and some quiet men, who merely looked on at the game, expressed an opinion that Melmotte might have wisely abstained from the glories of Parliament.

In a previous post I had questioned if The Way We Live Now is the way we live now. It seems human nature has not changed much in the past 135 years.

The question that intrigues me at this point revolves around Trollope’s moralism. He started the book as a scold, then lightening up and letting his humor shine through. In a similar vein, Trollope begins as a strict moralist but that severity seems to relax a little here at the end of the first volume. While only a small degree of loosening, it will be interesting to see if I’m imagining things as the second volume progresses.

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