You’ve got it by now, haven’t you? You’ve sussed it. This is a blog about books. I applaud you. In recognition of your intellect and prompted by a digital genius friend, I have deleted the ‘books’ category with which I was, with the loyalty and brainpower of a spaniel, tagging every post. There’s now a list of nineteen categories so you can navigate around my 84 glorious posts – just check out the tab beneath ‘What Sort of Thing Are You Looking For?’ to the top-right of this text (ON THE WEBSITE, Mum, not within this email. Yes.)
It’s an interesting little bite of data on my reading habits, should such a subject fascinate you. Clearly I have no interest at all in romance (one tag) and an overwhelming love of ‘Cultural Commentary’ (fourteen tags.) Many of these I could just have well tagged as satire, but I held off. Cultural Commentary seemed a bit more broad, a bit more friendly. Satire is the friend that you love to see for the occasional sour glass of white wine because they’re offensively amusing, but would quail if they moved in next door. The problem with satire is that is often doesn’t have a heart – it’s cold, and only produces a character to make a withering point by them. Yes, it’s richly enjoyable up to a point, but beyond this it becomes merely cynical and depressing. Thus an extremely long satirical novel runs a great risk. The novels that manage to be extremely long, bitingly satirical and emotionally moving – I’m looking at you, Catch 22 – are few, and great, indeed.
The Way We Live Now is not only disgracefully lengthy – it’s a three volume Victorian novel, and they’re renowned (rightly or wrongly) for moral teachings, formative lessons, and people getting what they deserve. But TWWLN is a thousand page satire peopled with the despicable or the weak, and even though it concludes with the requisite cluster of marriages, none of these represent the good getting their just desserts.
There’s no denying that the heart of the novel – dealing with the corruption of British society by the insidious creep of money and credit – is excellent. Melmotte, a financier with a shady background and an even murkier present, cons and forges his way around London, gaining access to and approbation from the highest echelons of society which he cons in turn. It’s wonderful to watch London society rush from disgusted distancing (Melmotte is suspected of being a Jew, a terrible thing in the world of the novel and not a perspective from which Trollope convincingly distances himself) to desperate fawning.
I had a particular soft spot for the heartless, mindless cad that is Six Felix Carbury. Where most of the other characters have at least a degree of moral ambiguity, Sir Felix is bad, bad, bad, and simply doesn’t care. The closing words of the novel testify to his complete lack of reform, and you have to enjoy his utter awfulness. His stomping ground, a London club called the Beargarden, is a nocturnal den of debt-racking and boozing filled with selfish, dim young peers with nothing to do with their time but ruin their families. With a little more bite it belongs in Waugh.
But! This thing is a thousand pages long! There are hefty, lengthy subplots involving hosts of pathetic characters, and you feel the only redeeming feature for their presence would be them learning a lesson and where appropriate ending up happy. This is not to be, and you can’t help wishing Trollope had cut them out entirely, wrapped up at 500 pages, and gone to the Beargarden for some gin.
TWWLN is a novel with some shining strengths, but it offers no rose tinted glasses. After a while, with no one you actually like to accompany you, the view gets rather bleak.