The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Way We Read Now: Surmounting the Stereotypes

I missed George Packer's well deserved paean of praise to Anthony Trollope's magnificent The Way We Live Now. Packer praises Trollope's book for man of the right reasons; this, for example, is admirably well put:
Trollope’s London is a satirical distortion of the city that he found upon returning from eighteen months of overseas travel: the luxurious center of a vast empire floating on limitless credit, a society defined entirely by commercial interest, a hothouse of financial speculation and status competition, a place where relationships have become purely transactional.

The mysterious figure looming at the center of “The Way We Live Now” is Augustus Melmotte, a financier (the term had just been coined) of obscure origins—French? Irish-American? Jewish?—and unsavory reputation. No one knows how Melmotte made his fortune—there are rumors of jail time in Germany and fraud in France—but he’s rich, unimaginably rich, maybe the richest man in the world, and that’s enough for almost everyone in London society to swallow their blue-blood prejudices and distaste for his upstart manners. City investors beg to buy shares of Melmotte’s newly incorporated South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a murky project for a rail line from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz that has all the signs of being a fraud. A lucky few are given seats on the company’s board; young aristocrats chase after the hand and income of Melmotte’s unlovely but unexpectedly tough-minded daughter, Marie; socialites trade favors to score scarce tickets to his sumptuous dinner in honor of the emperor of China; the Conservative and Liberal Parties vie to put Melmotte forward as their parliamentary candidate for Westminster (the Tories win). Whether or not he’s a fraudster doesn’t matter, as long as the music keeps playing.

Just about everything in this money-soaked world is false. Love and marriage, for example. The female characters in “The Way We Live Now” are sold off in marriage to the highest bidder like horses at a bazaar. Marie Melmotte’s prospects turn so decisively on up-to-the-minute appraisals of her net value that, after being wooed and dropped by several suitors, she finally abandons her romantic fantasies and comes to a clear-eyed conclusion: “I don’t think I’ll marry anybody. What’s the use? It’s only money. Nobody cares for anything else.” The man who finally wins her hand, a California businessman named Fisker, does so by pitching marriage as a straightforward deal, minus the pretty words: “Let us go in for life together. We’ve both done uncommon well.”
But then Packer hits a sour note. He writes:
One character tries to stand athwart the tide of finance and falsehood. Roger Carbury, Lady Carbury’s cousin, is a bachelor in his late thirties, doomed to love a much younger woman (Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta) who can’t bring herself to reciprocate. He’s an old-fashioned country gentleman with disdain for just about everything that England, with its stupendous new wealth, is becoming. He’s the only character who isn’t dazzled by Melmotte and his money: “A miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

Trollope always complicates the moral starkness of his portraits. Carbury—the closest thing in the novel to an authorial stand-in—is not only a man of unshakeable principle but also a self-righteous prig who never hesitates to tell friends and family how to live their lives.
He's also a borderline stalker, harassing Hetta, and aching to quarrel with his protégé Paul Montague who has committed the unutterable sin of winning her love. More to the point, Trollope has missed the moral center of the novel. It's Roger Carbury, in part. But Roger shares that role with it's also a character Packer describes in distinctly unflattering terms:
A pronounced streak of xenophobia and anti-Semitism runs through “The Way We Live Now”—mostly attributed to Trollope’s high-society characters, but the author doesn’t completely escape the taint. He describes a Jewish financier named Brehgert as “a fat, greasy man of fifty, conspicuous for hair-dye.” When Brehgert proposes to a young Englishwoman who’s overestimated her own worth for too many years to be picky, the reaction is nearly universal horror, but she’s more pragmatic: as long as the man is rich, why should anyone care about his religion? Greed can be the leading wedge of freedom.
Yes, Breghert is at first sketched in profoundly unflattering terms, but he and Roger Carbury are the only thoroughly honest men in the book. In fact, Breghert treats those around him with equity and kindness, even when they treat him with contempt. As the book progresses, these two men--the old fashioned Tory whose day has passed and the seeming stereotype--are the only ones who try very hard to render to every one about them their due. And they're both outsiders, in a very real way--Roger has outlived his time; the High Victorian virtues he admires have been lost in the corruption of the age, and his embittered nature strips them of some of heir value. Breghert takes insult, scorn and polite contempt from his social "betters" and returns it with decency, but firmness.

I couldn't resist bringing Breghert back in Phineas at Bay, to explore that kindly, subfusc decency a little more, to spend a little more time with the nicer of the two honest men our Diogenes found in his search through a profligate London.


Ellen said...

Packer has not read carefully -- I'll go out on a limb and ask if he has read TWWLN through? Yes the man is introduced with descriptions that confirm the worst anti-semitic stereotypes. But where are the quotations from the letter of Breghert? I see none in the essay. Where is there any mention of Breghert's response to Melmotte for more cash; the way Breghert gives Melmotte time? how about Melmotte's Jewish assistant? He flees but only after a line of forgery has been crossed.

Sometimes one has to say that a character needs no defense and risk challenging the person directly.

Anglocat said...
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Anglocat said...

Regretably, that's so. Here, Packer gets Breghert completely wrong, and misses Roger Carbury's dark side. Pity; the appreciation has its good points.