“If one wants to keep one’s self straight, one has to work hard at it, one way or the other. I suppose it all comes from the fall of Adam.” – The Way We Live Now
Whoever originated the writerly advice, “Show, don’t tell,” a commonly touted golden rule of fiction writing, apparently never read a Victorian novel. The Victorians are master story tellers, and the intense, psychological study of character is one of the defining features of Victorian novels (particularly the hefty ones). Rarely does a character act (“show”) first before an in-depth description of his personality, and all the vices and virtues such a personality induces, as well as the influence of his history or upbringing, are set before the reader. Before the character acts, we already understand him, and his words and deeds become plausible. The Way We Live Now, a long, critical commentary on the moral ills of Victorian society by Anthony Trollope, exemplifies this feature as the narrator spreads out an array of Londoners for the reader’s consideration, but mostly for her disapproval. Trollope’s narrator delineates his characters like an omniscient, god-like authority who sees into the very heart of a person. But the narrator does more than just reveal characters; he also judges him or her – also like God. Frequently, Trollope tells us what opinion we should have about a character’s behaviour.
Victorian literature fans may often be tempted to look back wistfully at Victorian society’s high standards of modesty, virtue and propriety; however, reading a little bit of Trollope is like a bucket of cold water on the head reminding us that sin pervades every society and culture and has since the dawn of time, since sin germinates in the heart of every person, quickly curing us of “good old days” syndrome. Whether it is marriage, the family, religion, the treatment of women, racism, the government, the economy, or vocation, there is hardly an area of society that escapes Trollope’s scathing reproof. What’s worse is that Trollope fixes his critical eye mainly upon the genteel class, where we would expect to find the best representation of Victorian values, but the vice hiding therein reduces our beloved propriety to a charade, and we are forced to swallow the uncomfortable truth that that which we admire so much in the Victorians was sometimes simply a veneer for vice. The lowest criminals are honest, at least, about their dealings. Of course, as Christians we should know that virtue has nothing to do with class or appearance. This is one of the plainest teachings in the Bible about human character.
Trollope’s epic novel follows a wide cast of characters whose lives and fortunes are greatly affected by an illustriously wealthy newcomer to the London scene. From the beginning the narrator strongly hints that Augustus Melmotte is duplicitous; he attracts other unscrupulous characters to him, while repulsing those who are honest and principled. The novel chronicles the sad story of his daughter Marie as she tries to gain some agency in her life both in love and in money, the parallel love story of Hetta and Paul and all of the obstacles in the way of their marriage, and the pathetic exploits of Hetta’s brother, Sir Felix Carbury, an utter profligate with no hope of reform.
Although Trollope is not forthright with his religious beliefs in The Way We Live Now, he was an Anglican and the opinions that he sets forth in the novel can be understood through a Christian worldview, particularly his view on marriage and the sexes, which I would like to take up in another post. Clearly, if Trollope’s depiction of marriage in the novel was representative of nineteenth century society, the treatment of marriage as a kind of prostitution of women is a corruption of the model of marriage proscribed in the New Testament. In the little bit of research I did on Trollope’s personal life I learned that he, among many other Anglicans, did not appreciate the boldness of the evangelical movement, which burgeoned in the nineteenth century, seeing it as almost brash and annoying. This surely explains the understated Christian beliefs in his novels, as well as in Jane Austen’s (Jane Eyre is quite an exception to this, however, as well as Elizabeth Gaskell‘s works), and the explicit gospel and devotional themes in today’s typical Christian evangelical novel, which many of us have grown up with and thus have come to expect as the norm for Christian fiction. It’s why some people are surprised to find or feel skeptical that Austen was actually a Christian, and why she is so easily co-opted by feminist scholars.
I feel it is incumbent upon one when reviewing an eight-hundred-page novel to comment on its readability to help one decide whether to attempt such a herculean endeavour. For those who have given up halfway when slogging through some of Dicken’s massive tomes, take heart. I don’t think Trollope has the genius or wordsmithery of Charles Dickens, but I also think that makes him a little more accessible and less bewildering, at least in The Way We Live Now. I also don’t think that Trollope’s work delves as deeply into the good and evil of humankind or presents such a hellish or angelic view of people as Dickens does. Rather, The Way We Live Now is more a commentary on the lamentableness of Victorian society in terms of all of its hypocrisy, two-facedness and double-standards; there are no murderers or starving children in the gutter in Trollope. I personally found that The Way We Live Now is quite readable and it was one of the easiest large tomes I have read in a long time. There is just enough scandal and drama balanced with a light intellectual commentary to make picking up the novel something to look forward to each time.