Trollope's The Way We Live Now was published in twenty monthly parts between 1874 to 1875 (serialization in parts was, by this time, anachronistic). The title references contemporary discussions on whether society was improving from a moral point of view or degenerating. Trollope's Autobiography situates his own commentary alongside that of contemporaries like Carlyle and Ruskin. Also in the Autobiography, Trollope writes that as he "ventured to take the whip of the satirist" in writing The Way We Live Now, he found himself satirizing more than just the "iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody," but also "intrigues of girls who want to get married, the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single, and...the puffing propensities of authors who desire to cheat the public into buying their volumes." Reception of Trollope's novel was actually fairly negative, critics often charging it with poor form, despite current views of the work as possibly his best--more on this in the critical analysis section (Source: Lindsay Sullivan, LitEncyc).
The novel begins with three letters written by Lady Carbury to three editors: Mr. Broune of the "Morning Breakfast Table," Mr. Booker of the "Literary Chronicle," and Mr. Alf of the "Evening Pulpit." She has recently completed a book called Criminal Queens and wishes for favorable reviews. Lady Carbury is a widow, whose son Sir Felix squandered away his inheritance, spending much of his time gambling and dining at the Beargarden club. Lady Carbury has high hopes, however, that Sir Felix will marry Marie Melmotte, the daughter of Mr. Augustus Melmotte, a wealthy financier of foreign origins with a "Bohemian Jewess" as a wife, and who had settled comfortably into the society of Grosvenor Square within a single year. Although it seems that the Melmottes have come to their money in shady ways (there were rumors of their being kicked out of Paris), all the important members of the aristocracy (including the Prince himself!) attend Madame Melmotte's ball. At the ball, Sir Felix makes some overtures towards Marie, though he isn't particularly enthusiastic: Marie is rather plain and unremarkable, after all. After the ball, Lady Carbury berates her daughter, Henrietta, for dancing with Paul Montague, a young man without immediate fortunes, but who is a partner along with his uncle and an American named Mr. Fisker at an investment firm. Lady Carbury wants Henrietta to marry Roger Carbury, a forty-year old cousin who owns a large country estate--in a word, a figure of "old money" who finds the wealth of "new money" like Melmotte's to be of disreputable character.
Roger Carbury and Paul Montague are also distantly related, and Roger has been something of a guardian figure for Paul in the absence of his deceased father and mother. The two are both in love with Henrietta, and so their relationship became strained. Henrietta has not admitted to loving Paul, but she steadily refuses Roger, telling him that she only likes him as a cousin. Meanwhile, Lady Carbury tries to get Roger to help her to regulate Felix's reckless gambling, but Felix is disrespectful to both his mother and Roger. Paul's partner Fisker has suddenly come to England, having decided independently of Paul that he wished to engage Melmotte in an investment scheme for a new railroad from San Francisco to Vera Cruz. Fisker uses Paul to get an invitation to see Melmotte, who ends up agreeing to putting his name to the scheme, since it is understood that he would not really be investing in the railroad per se but merely aiding in floating the shares of the railroad. Melmotte inspires confidence amongst other investors, and the scheme takes off, and ostensibly, the men will make money by puffing up the railroad and selling their shares for profit. Before leaving to go back to San Francisco, Fisker attends the Beargarden club and wins some money from gambling. Because Fisker clearly doesn't take the claims of I.O.U.s very seriously, he is happy to leave without collecting money from his English friends, but many of the Englishmen are anxious to send him off with something more than I.O.Us. The English lords manage to get together some money nevertheless.
Lady Carbury soon receives some bad news: Mr. Alf has allowed one of his staff to write an exceedingly crushing review of her book (this is, however, what Mr. Alf does because only bad reviews sell). The review points out all of the historical inaccuracies of her work. Mr. Broune and Mr. Booker, however, have done their duty and praised her book. To keep up appearances, Lady Carbury still extends an invitation to Mr. Alf to come to her house along with other literati. Mr. Alf makes as if he didn't know that such a review would be published, but this too is keeping up appearances. Lady Carbury writes to visit with Roger Carbury at Whitsuntide, largely because she has heard that the Melmottes will be visiting the Longestaffe's who live in an estate near Roger's. It seems that the Longestaffes have run into some money troubles, and are trying to get the Melmottes to buy one of their properties, the Pickering Estate. Dolly (Adolphus) Longestaffe, Mr. Longestaffe's son, is resistant to the idea. We find out later that the Longestaffes are in a much worse position than might be supposed at first; Mr. Longestaffe says they must give up their London townhouse. When Georgiana Longstaffe, his younger daughter, throws a fit because she will not be able to participate in London life during the "season" and hence will not be able to secure a husband, he agrees that she may go live with the Melmottes when in London (even though she declares them "vulgar").
When Roger's relatives arrive, he gives a dinner party, his choice of guests showing something of his independent character--he tries to bring together a Protestant Bishop and Roman Catholic priest. Sir Felix arrives at the Carbury estate as well, urged on by his mother to make inroads with Marie. Though Felix does in fact make some progress as far as winning Marie Melmotte goes, he also takes the opportunity of being at Carbury to meet up with Ruby Ruggles, a previous love interest who lives with her grandfather at Sheep's Acre nearby. Her grandfather wishes her to be engaged to John Crumb, a sort of country bumpkin but a good man whom Ruby shuns in favor of the good-looking, city-mannered Sir Felix. When Sir Felix gets up the courage to ask Melmotte for Marie's hand in marriage, Melmotte shoots off a barrage of questions at Felix as to his financial matters, and the conversation does not go well for Felix because he has nothing more than his baronet title. Melmotte has decided his daughter will be engaged to Lord Nidderdale, son of a Marquis. When Felix finds out that others involved with the railway are selling shares in order to profit, he thinks that he too would like to do so, perhaps by using the I.O.U.s he won from gambling to purchase shares.
Though Paul Montague is partial to Hetta Carbury, he has had a prior relation with one Mrs. Hurtle, an American widower, who causes trouble for him because she has followed him to London. It turns out that Paul had once been engaged to her, before hearing rumors about her having shot a man in Oregon, and of her husband potentially still being alive. Mrs. Hurtle is clearly a savvy woman, and she manages to guilt Paul into spending time with her. Marie, her heart won by Felix, tells him that even if her father resists the marriage, she actually has some money of her own that he had put in her name for his own financial security. She is confident that should they run away, she might draw from this stash. Meanwhile, Lady Carbury also trues to make inroads with Melmotte by introducing him to her editor friends trying to suggest that she might of help to him in making these introductions; Melmotte pays very little attention to her machinations. Lady Carbury, though, gets her own proposal from Mr. Broune, whom she rejects (on second thought, Mr. Broune is relieved when he sees just how dissipated and irresponsible Sir Felix is). At Sheep's Acre, Ruby rejects John Crumb's proposal for marriage, and her grandfather beats her, resulting in Ruby running away to live with her Aunt Pipkin in London. There, she has further liaisons with Sir Felix.
Meanwhile, Melmotte's financial success means that he will welcome the Emperor of China to his house for dinner and a party. People fight for tickets to these events, and Melmotte is pretty much at the apex of his power and influence, though some still consider him "vulgar," including Lady Monogram, who snubs her friend Georgiana for living with them. At a Board Meeting, however, Melmotte's shady dealings are underscored when he doesn't let Paul speak out his objections and reservations about the ethicality of their investments. He even tries to bribe Paul but this scheme fails. After the meeting, he gets Felix to sign away rights to Marie, promising that in return, he would help make Felix some money. The Longestaffe's Pickering Estate is sold to Melmotte, which he intends for Marie and Nidderdale after they get married. Back, briefly, to the Hetta, Paul, Mrs. Hurtle storyline, Paul finds Ruby Ruggles when he goes to visit with Mrs. Hurtle--it turns out that both women are lodging with Mrs. Pipkin. Paul reports Ruby to Roger Carbury, and resolves to himself that he will let Mrs. Hurtle go. This turns out to be ineffectual because Mrs. Hurtle is really good at guilt-tripping him; instead, Paul agrees to take her to Lowestoffe, a seaside town, on account of her health. Unfortunately, at Lowestoffe, they run into Roger Carbury, who is angry at Paul for Hetta's sake.
Marie soon convinces Felix to run away with her to New York; Felix agrees, despite the waiver he has just signed. The plan is to meet in Liverpool after getting their separately. Marie and her maid, Didon, make it onto the train to Liverpool, but they are intercepted--Marie is sent home and Didon takes the opportunity to continue onwards and move on from the Melmotte family. Felix, on the other hand, doesn't keep his side of the bargain because he got drunk and gambled the night away. Melmotte's success continues to grow, to the point where he actually runs for the Westminster Conservative seat in Parliament against Mr. Alf, the editor of the "Evening Pulpit." At Melmotte's dinner for the Emperor, however, several important attendees cancel at the last minute, largely because of some fresh rumors circulating of a potential forgery he had committed. These rumors were precipitated by Dolly Longestaffe, who has employed a new laywer, Mr. Squercum (his father's lawyers are Bideawhile and Sloe, not unexpectedly, rather useless), to look into a title-deed for Pickering which he did not sign but which yet had his signature on it. At the party following the dinner, the Emperor leaves early, and other guests take the cue and do so as well. Melmotte's downfall now seems impending, but he maintains his cool.
Georgiana Longestaffe is busy meanwhile, engaging herself to a Jewish banker named Brehgert. Mr. and Mrs. Longestaffe are horrified, and they forbid her engagement. In the end, Georgiana loses Brehgert. Montague finally having cast off Mrs. Hurtle, proposes to Hetta, but unfortunately, when visiting Ruby at Mrs. Pipkin's, Sir Felix learns about Paul's prior engagement to Mrs. Hurtle, and tells Hetta before Paul has told her. Sir Felix soon runs into his own troubles, however, when he goes out with Ruby again, and encounters John Crumb, who, fancying Ruby in trouble, beats Felix to a pulp. Crumb is arrested, and Felix carted off to recover at his mother's home. Hetta seeks advice from Roger, who tells her to go ask Montague herself. In an exchange of letters, Paul tries to explain himself to Hetta but to no avail--Hetta rejects him. Ruby, finally, is forced to accept Crumb, finally, when her aunt and Mrs. Hurtle contrive a plan in which she either accepts Crumb, or has to seek service as a nursemaid and live off of her own means
A rather humorous scene depicts Melmotte's first time in Parliament, in which he breaks a bunch of procedural rules and is clearly unfit for the role. Feeling the crunch from Dolly's investigations, and the fall in the value of his railway stocks as a result of plummeting confidence in his schemes, Melmotte tries to convince Marie to sign over her money to him. She refuses, and Melmotte commits yet another set of forgeries, signing for Marie and his own clerk, Herr Croll. People start defecting from Melmotte, and despite the greater and greater certainty that he will be arrested for his forgeries, he remains adamant about keeping up appearances in an almost heroic fashion. Marie, her father's daughter, also perseveres, visiting Lady Carbury and Felix to see if Felix might still marry him even when it is fairly clear that Melmotte's ruin would soon be a reality and not a rumor. The Carburys snub her. In Melmotte's final "performance" before the House, he gets up to address Parliament, but being drunk, falls over. Later that night, he is found dead, having ingested Prussic acid. Nidderdale is one of the first outsiders to find out about Melmotte's death because Marie asks him to come over. Dolly and the lawyers, Squercum, Bideawhile, and Sloe, find out about death when they arrive for a meeting with Melmotte. Nidderdale helps Marie and mother get in contact with lawyers, but everyone else pretty much leaves the two of them to fend for themselves.
Paul appeals to Roger for help with Hetta and Roger begrudgingly gives it. Hetta decides in the end to see Mrs. Hurtle, who, in speaking badly of Paul's treatment of herself, actually vindicates him to Hetta. This is her giving in, and a testimony to her strength, since Paul hasn't really been fair to her, shunning her primarily because of rumors in the first place. The rest of the novel feels like the tying up of "loose ends." Mr. Melmotte's debts are settled, Hamilton Fisker returns for a visit and makes inroads with Madame and Marie, eventually asking Marie to marry him. Paul decides to dissolve his share of the partnership with Fisker, and finally reconciles with Hetta and are engaged. Ruby and Crumb get married, and Georgiana finally settles on running away with a clergyman. The Bear Garden Club is closed for good. Mrs. Hurtle does manage to have a final interview with Paul, in which she again demonstrates her continuing influence on him--it is clear, at this point, that Paul isn't really capable of handling someone as complicated as Mrs. Hurtle, the innocent Hetta is probably the better match. Madame Melmotte engages herself to Herr Croll, Melmotte's clerk, and the whole lot of them--Marie, Fisker, Madame, Croll, and Mrs. Hurtle set sail for New York. Marie, having learned her lessons in love, makes sure to tell Fisker that their engagement is contingent on how she feels about his financial situation once she has seen his houses in San Francisco. Back in London, Lady Carbury finally accepts Mr. Broune when he proposes again. In a sort of odd chapter which seems to stand entirely on its own, apparently Lady Carbury has been writing a novel called "The Wheel of Fortune" this entire time. Mr. Broune reads it and encourages her not to continue writing. Mr. Broune really seems to have taken over everything for Lady Carbury at this point, even arranging for Felix to go abroad with a clergyman to Germany so that he will stay out of trouble. The novel ends with the happiness of Hetta and Paul, and Roger's decision to settle his estate on the couple, promising Hetta's son Carbury as his willful act of continuing to love her, though as a father-figure.
John Sutherland does a detailed analysis of The Way We Live Now's serialization and Trollope's writing schedule (Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37:3). A few of the key points are that Trollope worked on a really tight calendar (pretty much completing the entire manuscript in approximately 30 weeks), didn't go back to for revision as a result, and that although he kept to strict metrics (unlike Dickens and Thackeray) in that he wrote exactly 100 chapters, with 5 to each number, and later 50 per volume, a comparison between his plans and the eventual publication shows Trollope's flexibility in decisions as far as plot and character development go.
With respect to this last point, one particularly striking example of his improvisational methods was his decision, fairly late in his writing process, to kill off Melmotte. Sutherland shows Trollope's decision as not only having to do with considerations of dramatic or novelistic effects but also plot considerations, in this case, whether or not to avoid a trial scene. Overall, the flexibility evident from a work that came out so quickly offers an interesting view into what plot lines and characters Trollope takes up, even if not part of the original plan. Sutherland points out that there were originally three main theaters for Trollope's social commentary, but that the third one ended up overshadowing the other two. They are: 1) the publishing and literary world, kicked off by the novel's beginning with Lady Carbury and her "scene"; 2) the religious and political landscape of the countryside, as represented by the long section on the Carbury and Longestaffe estates during Whitsuntide; and finally, 3) the corrupt world of social climbing via the new professions in finance in London embodied by Melmotte. If there is a "hero" (or anti-hero) of The Way We Live Now, it has to be Melmotte because he is hands down the most psychologically complex and interesting character in the novel, and it seems Trollope knew it, in allowing Melmotte's theater to overshadow the others. Trollope's decision, when commissioning a cover for the monthly issues, to have the picture illustrate Melmotte's rise and fall seems to show a clear awareness of Melmotte's imaginative impact. (Roger, by contrast, seems hopelessly and disturbingly bland, even if meant as the most moral agent in the work).
I want to focus then, on a couple of passages on Melmotte that struck me as particularly revealing of how Trollope generates interest in him beyond his serving as an object of his "satirizing whip." The first is from the narrator's psychological explication of Melmotte as he contemplates his nearly certain downfall:
"Judging of himself, as though he were standing outside himself and looking on to another man's work, he pointed out to himself his own shortcomings...No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man. Though he was inquiring into himself as closely as he could, he never even told himself that he had been dishonest. Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them."
This description of Melmotte says that he possesses a completely different and radical system of morality than everyone else and that he simply cannot think himself out of his warped system. "Fraud and dishonesty" are so ingrained in him that they are normal, everyday operations. As far as such operations go, Melmotte actually does a pretty good job of being objective about how well he performs these operations; he's able to "stand outside himself" and "point out to himself his own shortcomings." This reflexivity is a trait which most other characters sorely lack. Though Melmotte's reflexivity is limited to his warped outlook on what constitutes the norm for morality, it works rather well as far as the operations of his own out-of-joint system go. This internal portrait of Melmotte as essentially different from everyone else seems strongly suggestive of madness, a concept which the narrator ponders in an extended passage on madness and suicide later on. Essentially, the narrator points out that no one says Melmotte is "mad," only because they don't find the reasons that he kills himself to be sympathetic from a conventional point of view (because, in this view, he brought about his own downfall). But what if, as I think the description of his radical difference (and even embodied difference, as suggested by the blood and bones) in orientation towards morality suggests, his madness is this difference, which he has no power to control or get outside of? Thus, the passage above seems in a way to exonerate more than condemn Melmotte. And finally, is there not something clearly seductive and heroic (yet full of pathos) attached to Melmotte's death, as depicted by the following lines? "Drunk as he had been,--more drunk as he probably became during the night,--still he was able to deliver himself from the indignities and penalties to which the law might have subjected him by a dose of prussic acid." In the words I have italicized, the narrator seems to go into free-indirect discourse, directly sympathizing with Melmotte's sense of "indignities" and "penalties," rather than with everyone else who would probably call these things "justice."