The Way We Live Now: A Very Short Review

by Brenda W. Clough

Novels 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.

The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe. And it is available now in an audio book edition which is read by Bronson Pinchot!

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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The Way We Live Now: A Very Short Review — 7 Comments

  1. Boom and bust — too much credit boom, withdrawal of credit bust — is how the colonial and U.S. economy has always worked. This was particularly so with the slave economy of the antebellum south, which the Lehman Bros. began by factoring to in Alabama (where I just was, yesterday!). The slave economy was in fact an enormous ponzi scheme, which was going to leave somebody holding the bag, which the first Lehman Bros. knew very well, so they’d already expanded part of the family into NYC before the Civil War that burst the slave price and credit ponzi in the first place.

    In fact, going by the study of U.S. financial history, the only time the boom and bust cycle didn’t operate was in the decades post the FDR rules and regs. Now they’re gone and we’re back in boom and bust, which always works with the bust taking out most of the competition, and the biggest sharks eating them and getting even bigger, i.e. yet more of the wealth concentrated into fewer pockets.

    We never learn — because that’s how capitalism operates — we can even see it the merchants of the Hansa back at the end of the so-called Dark Ages, medieval, early Renaissance. They answered to no monarch, no state control of any kind. They existed for one thing only, to make profit. They were dangerous, and finally, the state and monarchs having come stronger, they were taken out.

  2. I see it rather as the combat between the rich (who very naturally want no regulations whatsoever) and the poor, who need the protection of laws because they do not have the shelter of big bucks. The advent of democracy has forced the rich to at least sometimes consider, or pretend to consider, what the poor want. The very latest wrinkle is an exceptionally clever one: to persuade the poor to want what the rich would like — union busting, deregulation. Even when it is clearly and visibly against their interest, the poor may be persuaded to vote for it. Amazing!

    • The BBC have just started their latest Victorian adaptation – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So far (2 eps in) it’s excellent.

        • Now that one I did read, cover to cover. (It was before my eye surgery.) But I know the dramatization will be good. They will be forced to squeeze it down and move the plot right along.

  3. The Trollope is riveting. I reread it a few months past. Not certain I want to see it on screen, but the book itself is one of his best.