Three Cheers for Mrs. Hurtle!
Chapman and Hall, 1875, Penguin Classics, 2002
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Though written in the late nineteenth century, The Way We Live Now has a good deal to say about the way we live now, which is why it might be a good time to pick it up if you’re ever going to. When a group of us discussed this recently, several people saw the resemblance between the great financier and master scam artist Augustus Melmotte of the novel and real life con artist Bernie Madoff. And I think Trollope would be a little disheartened to find that the public has learned nothing in the intervening years about how to avoid being bilked. Reading his novel might have proved a kind of vaccination against this sort of thing.
For me, though, it wasn’t so much the shenanigans of Wall Street as the infatuation we currently feel with the icons of the new technological age that seemed most intriguingly similar. The way the City investors clamor after shares in Melmotte’s venture, the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, may remind you of certain initial public offerings that have come down the pike in recent years. As with Melmotte’s scheme, people aren’t investing in a company, the inner workings of which they know little about, so much as in being able to association themselves with a great venture. And of course, make a little money while they’re at it, too.
Though one member of our group was quite happy to be reading what he termed a novel of economics, this isn’t so much a novel about money as about the illusion of money. Never will you come across, I think, another novel in which so many people think so much about money and have so little ready cash in hand. There is a great deal of paper floating around, in the form of IOUs, scrip, and promissory notes, but the coinage of the realm proves to be much more elusive.
If economics aren’t your thing, though, don’t worry. This is also a novel of wooing, and even, occasionally, romance. I’m not sure I could say with any accuracy how many marriage plots are actually going on in the book, as who’s courting whom at any given moment is a bit free floating. One of the things I find most intriguing about the book is how strong the young women are in their dissent from choices their elders are pressing upon them. They don’t all get the men of their dreams (luckily for them), but they all make a damn good run at it. It’s interesting that in a book that is all about how important it is to marry for money in order to preserve oneself or one’s family’s fortunes, most of the women are actually trying to find a way to marry for love.
As a Dickens fan, I must say that I could do with a bit of his exuberance in Trollope. You will find none of Dickens excesses of emotion or imagination or whatever else you may find excessive in “Boz”. But, as various members of the group pointed out, there are many things you won’t find in this novel. You will not find food (although you will find frequent proffering of brandy and water). You won’t find nature, despite a fair portion of the book being set in the country. And you won’t find children who aren’t yet of marriageable age. (Mrs. Pipkin, who takes in lodgers, has four, but though they figure in for plotting purposes, you will never hear their names.) And as Frank Kermode points out in the introduction to my Penguin edition, the ‘we’ of the title is not inclusive of the vast majority of Britons, whose families did not have the 800 pounds a year that would make them part of the ‘comfortable’ class. The novel’s subject is this comfortable class—which, it turns out, is not so comfortable as all that.
What you will find, though, is a writer at the top of his game. Although I have seen some comments about his stylistic infelicities, what I was perhaps most struck by in the book is Trollope’s ability to carry the reader mile after mile on his smooth, transparent prose. This is a book to read once for the story and then again for the individual sentences. Trollope may not be all that interested in children, food or nature. But as to conveying the thoughts and inner motivations of people trying to maneuver their way through a callous, calculating and somewhat debased society, or sometimes simply to survive it, oh, he can do that just fine.
And why the header for this review? Well, as much as it seems Trollope does not want us to admire the manipulative and grasping ‘wildcat’, the American Winifred Hurtle, as Americans, we beg the right to differ.