by Brenda W. Clough
For professional reasons I find myself these days contemplating a huge TBR stack of Victorian triple-decker novels: Dickens, Trollope, Gaskell. This is intimidating; one cannot speed through these things. But where eyesight and time fail, technology comes to the rescue. My new filter: BBC TV dramatizations! One can get the substance of a huge novel in a mere several hours on a 54-inch vision-friendly screen, with the added benefit of corsets, silk gowns, grand town houses on Gloucester Square, and images of barouches and hansoms in action that are otherwise utterly unobtainable. And, if the TV drama is sufficiently gripping, to then slide into the novel itself is easy.
To this end I got my hot little hands on a DVD of The Way We Live Now, which was Anthony Trollope’s longest and possibly most acclaimed novel — at more than 420K words, a huge brick of a thing. The television dramatization came out in 2001. It stars the superb David Suchet, the go-to actor on public television when there is a weird little foreigner role. And the production must have cut like a razor in 2001, the height of the go-go years.
Shady financier Augustus Melmotte arrives in Victorian London and takes the town on your standard Enron ride, getting the gullible and greedy aristocrats to invest in his faux company and then skimming the money to pump his lifestyle and become upwardly mobile. He even runs for public office — Donald Trump, I hear your song. Of course the bubble pops and it all comes to ruin in the end, leaving all the other characters sadder but wiser, dragging themselves out of the social and financial wreckage. The entire story resonates tremendously with the modern reader, as many have noticed. If everyone at Lehman Brothers had been forced to read this novel as a condition of employment, the history of the early 21st century might have been very different.
And to watch Trollope weave his other themes is fascinating. All the female characters struggle to find the right man, and to marry for the right reasons. All the men struggle for money. Money and its ambiguous role, for good as well as evil, is examined — it was money that build the railroads, the telegraph lines, the infrastructure of modern life. He trots out the Victorian cliches — the daughter desperate to marry, the dissolute baronet and his overindulgent mother, the whore with a heart of gold, even the crass but useful Americans — but they were new then, and smell new. They were not cliches then! I sat in the family room watching this with my husband, and we were perpetually crying out to each other, “Noooo, don’t do that. Is it going to work out well? No it is not!” And of course the characters did do whatever idiocy they were contemplating (do you need Anthony Trollope to tell you to never kite a check from your dad’s desk and use it to elope with a jerk?), and yeah, it was a total disaster, a slo-mo pile-up in a Victorian drawing room.
This is a beautifully orchestrated dramatization of what is clearly a well-constructed novel. I was unable to resist. The moment it was done I hopped onto Project Gutenberg and downloaded the book.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.