Times change. Human behavior? That’s another story. For those who think they’ve never seen anybody like Donald J. Trump, think again. There have been others, at other times, and British novelist Anthony Trollope wrote about one of them, Augustus Melmotte.
Trollope’s novel,The Way We Live Now, was published in serialized form and, later, as a book in 1875. Ranked #22 on the list of the 100 best novels written in English, The Way We Live Now is a magnificent piece of socio-political satire—as relevant today as it was nearly 150 years ago.
For context, 1870’s Britain was ripe for Melmotte, a financier who valued money and status above all else. Melmotte’s quest was to become a ‘proper English gentleman’ with considerable standing and influence. He succeeded. Melmotte gained name recognition by establishing a public company dedicated to building a railway from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Veracruz, Mexico. He hawked the company’s shares, and, as share value rose, Melmotte’s influence expanded as well. He cashed in by winning a seat in the British Parliament.
“Public confidence is the essence of these things,” Melmotte explains, “Once you have that, you can do everything.” (Source of quote and quotes to follow: 2001 BBC teleplay, Andrew Davies, screenwriter). Public confidence rose as Melmotte talked about what he was really selling. At an election rally, he told prospective voters: “There will be riches for all of you, and all of you will have a share in it! You need a kind of man (sic) for how we live now!” In private, he told a confidant: “I am indispensable to the nation’s prosperity. I shall be a national treasure.”
Slowly, but surely, the public acquiesced. “He’s a genius!” an associate told another. During a lavish banquet with the Emperor of China attending, host Melmotte proclaimed: “What is the engine of this great work? Profits, not charity. It is your obligation to make yourselves rich. Invest. Invest. Invest. And it will be returned to you a hundredfold!”
More people voted for Joe Biden than for any other presidential candidate in U.S. history. While true, who (I wonder) occupies second place? It’s Donald J. Trump.
There are doubters, of course. Paul Montague is one. A company board member, he was enthusiastic early on but, then, begins to wonder. Concerned, he asks to see the company’s financial records. Melmotte tells him, “In due time.” But when ‘due time’ never arrives, Montague travels to Mexico to inspect the scene first-hand. There he finds the situation worse than he had imagined: Melmotte never allocated construction funds.
Another skeptic is Melmotte’s defeated political rival, Mr. Alf, who is an activist and newspaper publisher. Montague and Alf work independently to uncover the fraud. When confronted by Alf with ‘the fact’ that there is no railroad, Melmotte responds incredulously: “But the great fact is … I will!” (emphasis added)
The recalcitrant Melmotte has no trouble justifying his behavior. “To get the job done for the good of others,” he tells Alf, “a man (sic) is obliged to cut corners a few times.” But Melmotte laments when ‘others’ raise questions and concerns. “I’m tired of keeping it all going for them,” he tells Mr. Croll, his closest associate. “They’re like a pack of snapping dogs. A little gratitude wouldn’t be amiss now and then.”
Melmotte continues plodding ahead. At one point, seeking to exonerate himself with Parliamentary peers, an inebriated Melmotte stumbles to his seat in the House of Commons, tries to speak, but collapses. Soon thereafter—thwarted in an attempt at forgery (seeking to access funds he had set aside for his only daughter)—Melmotte retires to his study. There, he consumes a decanter of brandy, imbibes a vile of poison, and dies.
Even though I have focused exclusively on Melmotte, The Way We Live Now is more than a chronicle of his emergence and fall. In 100 chapters and 680+ pages, Trollope satirizes British high society—just as he did in an earlier novel,Doctor Thorne, published in 1858. In a series of rich sub-plots, he follows a variety of characters, many of whom embrace exactly what Melmotte values—the pursuit of money and standing. Those who value honesty, justice, and truth are exceptions. But—to be sure—in a sea of chicanery, their presence is both notable and valued.
Wondering why Trollope decided to write The Way We Live Now, I found the answer in his autobiography (online courtesy of The Gutenberg Project). In the final chapter (XX), you will find these words:
“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. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.”*
But satire can exact a steep price. It’s painful to acknowledge. Today, Trollope and his book are held in generally high regard but, back then, judgments about novel and novelist were often something less.
The serialized version didn’t sell well, and the publisher rushed the book into publication for financial reasons. Critics evaluated Trollope variously, often negatively. Because he wrote nearly 50 novels over 30+ years, some thought Trollope was ‘too productive’ to be taken seriously. Contributing to that thinking was the circumstance that Trollope wrote as a sideline, primarily for income purposes (his ‘day job’ was in the postal service). To make both pursuits feasible, Trollope wrote daily in the wee hours before ‘departing for work.’ To many critics, Trollope’s assembly-line approach seemed droll, misaligning with their preference that novelists ‘be inspired to write.’
While I can understand that perspective, I also know that it’s much easier to dismiss a message if you first deprecate the messenger. What commentator or activist hasn’t experienced that fate? Besides, there’s a larger storyline associated with The Way We Live Now.It’s relevant.
The crowds that cheered Melmotte are akin to crowds at Trump rallies. Melmotte was elected to Parliament, Trump to the U.S. presidency. Melmotte stiffed laborers and clients repeatedly. Sound familiar? Melmotte fabricated a fraud at the expense of shareholders. Trump led multiple public companies into bankruptcy. Melmotte denigrated the press, arguing that it played loosely with ‘the facts.’ Trump speaks incessantly about ‘fake news.’
Trollope wasn’t prescient. Neither were other novelists of the time, including Charles Dickens, who also wrote about the tenuous relationship between money and morality. For Dickens, an example was financier Mr. Merdle, a character in Dickens’ serialized novel,Little Dorrit (1855-1857). Britain’s upper crust proclaimed Merdle to be “The Man of the Age,” and they flocked to invest in his bank. A Ponzi scheme it was, though, and investors lost everything. Merdle, you see, was a 19th Century version of that well-known contemporary character, Bernie Madoff.
How did they get it so right? Trollope and Dickens dutifully observed human behavior and, then, penned what they saw. Today, as then, there are Augustus Melmotte’s as there are Mr. Merdle’s. Then, as now, you’ll find Paul Montague’s and Mr. Alf’s, too. That’s the way we live.
I hear repeatedly that more people voted for Joe Biden than for any other presidential candidate in U.S. history. While true, who (I wonder) occupies second place? It’s Donald J. Trump. This year, seventy-three million Americans voted for Donald J. Trump—11 million more voters than four years ago.
Anthony Trollope wouldn’t be surprised … not one bit. It’s the way we live now.
*The eBook,The Way We Live Now, is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org.
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