Off the moral gold standard

by
04 November 2016

Michael Wheeler on The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

A certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.

 

THIS is not Roger Carbury, but Anthony Trollope himself, writing in his posthumously published autobiography about his angry response to the corruption that he observed in Britain on his return from Australia in December 1872, as he settled down in his new London house.

In The Way We Live Now, he wrote, he took “the whip of the satirist” into his hand and laid about him “beyond the iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody” to expose a more general moral malaise.

The title of Trollope’s 34th novel challenged his own generation and now challenges ours. When it first came out in 20 monthly numbers, between February 1874 and September 1875, his contemporaries compared it unfavourably with the chronicles of Barset, and the earlier novels in the Palliser series, for which he was known and loved throughout the world. Professor John Sutherland thinks that its publication as a two-volume novel as early as July 1875 may have been partly because the last numbers were selling so badly.

And yet today, The Way We Live Now is often described as his masterpiece by biographers and critics who carry less critical baggage than Trollope’s first reviewers in terms of their expectations. For all its prolixity, this novel speaks to us loud and clear, and sometimes it shouts. It is a fascinating and edgy read.

Parallels between the corruption of High Victorian England which Trollope describes and the state that we are in today are not hard to find. The very name of Melmotte, the great spider at the centre of his web of deceit, not only echoes that of Dickens’s Merdle in Little Dorrit, but also uncannily anticipates that of Robert Maxwell.

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Paper, in the form of banknotes, IOUs, share certificates, billets-doux, and playing cards, flutters in the air in The Way We Live Now. A city in which the moral gold standard seems to have been abandoned, and where promises are not worth the paper they are written on, baffles Roger Carbury of Carbury Hall in Suffolk, as it baffles many “old-fashioned” people in our own time.

The world of the novel, in which a character, Paul Montague, becomes disorientated, is not so far from that of the subprime mortgage crisis, the collapse of Barings, and the exposure of football managers’ “bungs”.

Sir Felix Carbury may be simply the most extreme example of a worthless Victorian cad, but Lady Carbury (originally intended to be the main character), Mrs Hurtle, and Mr Squercum are strikingly modern: they could turn up at a reception in a London business centre today. And Trollope’s sensitivity to the lot of women in a male-dominated world, one of the glories of this novel, looks ahead to our own ideas with regard to sexual politics.

Thinking about the contrasts between Trollope’s world and ours is equally compelling, and here we are challenged to make historical allowances. The kind of casual anti-Semitism that runs through the novel, for example, was normal among Trollope’s contemporaries, but is now unacceptable: see the current row about attitudes in the Labour Party.

Subtler, and much easier to miss, is the frequent use of the word “gentleman”, now reduced to a vaguely honorific term for any man (“I saw the gentleman pick the lady’s pocket”), but then a highly significant and frequently contested social and moral indicator. Roger Carbury “was a gentleman; — and would have felt himself disgraced to enter the house of such a one as Augustus Melmotte”.

“Why, mamma,” Georgiana Longestaffe says, “the apothecary in Bungay is a fine gentleman compared with Mr Melmotte.”

The Church still had a highly influential voice in the public square in the 1870s, whereas, in the 2010s, it does not. Trollope’s treatment of “The bishop and the priest” in Chapter XVI is interesting for the student of Victorian attitudes towards Roman Catholicism, but it is easy for other modern readers to miss the nuances of Trollope’s treatment of Fr Barham, himself an English “gentleman”.

Trollope regarded Thackeray as his greatest precursor, and in this novel he is closest to the cynical writer of Vanity Fair, published 1847-48. But whereas Thackeray emphasised the unchanging quality of human behaviour, and particularly bad behaviour, over the generations, Trollope wanted to hang on to his belief in progress. The big questions that he asks in The Way We Live Now are summarised in his autobiography:

 

That men have become less cruel, less violent, less selfish, less brutal there can be no doubt; — but have they become less honest? If so can a world retrograding from day to day in honesty be considered to be in a state of progress?

 

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton, chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a former Lay Canon at Winchester Cathedral. His most recent book is St John and the Victorians (CUP, 2011).

The Way We Live Now is published in various editions, including one by Wordsworth Classics at £1.99, 978-1-85326-255-5; an illustrated paperback from Create Space Independent Publishing Platform at £13.99, 978-153900876-7; and an Oxford World’s Classics edition, £9.99, 978-0-19-870503-1.

 

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW — SOME QUESTIONS

The novel’s narrator describes “the new dispensation”: what does The Way We Live Now teach us about how to deal with a changing world?

In an introduction to the book, Professor Francis O’Gorman writes that The Way We Live Now is “something of a theological novel . . . about faith, and about why and when we ought to doubt”. Do you agree?

How useful are the Bishop of Elmham and Fr Barham as examples for today’s clergy?

“Most fellows are bad fellows in one way or another”: is this a pessimistic book?

Trollope ironically refers to Melmotte as a “hero”. Who, do you think, is the novel’s central character?

“The kindness of a controlling hand”: what advice might this novel give us about pastoral care?

The Way We Live Now is full of momentous decisions, often instantly regretted. What does it have to say about the nature of commitment?

“What did love mean if not that?”: what did you make of the book’s portrayal of love and marriage?

By the end of The Way We Live Now, have all the characters got what they deserve?

 

In our next reading-groups page, on 2 December, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is published by Hodder at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-473-62139-8.

 

Book notes

Published in 1934, The Nine Tailors is Dorothy L. Sayer’s ninth novel featuring the aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. When a man’s body turns up in the wrong grave in the East Anglian village of Fenchurch St Paul, the Vicar enlists Lord Peter’s help in finding the corpse’s true identity, and how it came to meet an untimely end. With its fenland setting, ominous with the ringing of church bells, The Nine Tailors is one of Sayer’s best-loved detective stories; in 1999, the British Crime Writers Association awarded it the Rusty Dagger for best crime novel of the 1930s.

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Author notes

Dorothy L. Sayers was born in Oxford in 1893, the daughter of the chaplain of Christ Church. Best known for her mysteries and detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, she “brought to the detective novel originality, intelligence, energy, and wit” (in the opinion of P. D. James). A lifelong Anglican, Sayers wrote several works of theology, the ground-breaking radio drama The Man Born to be King, and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She died in 1957, and was buried under the tower of St Anne’s, Soho, where she had been a long-serving churchwarden.

 

Books for the next two months:

January: The Enduring Melody by Michael Mayne

February: Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

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