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Russell Baker [imagemap with 7 links]

Russell Baker on The Way We Live Now

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.

Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4

Episode 1

For everybody who loves money, we have a glorious treat tonight: Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Trollope's story is about a world consumed with money. Parents connive to marry their children into money. Titled young idlers gamble away their money at the card table while titled old idlers spend themselves into poverty to keep servants in fancy livery.

Trollope set this huge novel in the 1870s. In America, that is the age of the robber barons, when go-getter capitalists are building and looting the country, and wallowing in money.

In the British aristocracy, the money fever has become epidemic. Their wealth is based on land, and the farm economy is sinking. Men with titles are having trouble paying their bills. Everyone is desperate for money, and everyone, it seems, will do absolutely anything to get it -- even visit Mr. Augustus Melmotte, who is terribly vulgar. He is even widely thought to be a crook -- but never mind that. After all, he is incredibly rich, and he has just taken a house in Grosvenor Square.

First of four episodes, The Way We Live Now.

Somewhere in literature there must be a doting mother more devoted to a worthless son than Lady Carbury, but I can't think where.

Trollope was very good at drawing female characters -- much better than his contemporary, Charles Dickens -- and he seemed especially interested in Lady Carbury. Much of her charm comes from the fact that he makes her a hack writer struggling to earn enough to support her family.

In this she is like Trollope's own mother, who also wrote to support her family. As a writer himself, Trollope knew what Lady Carbury was up against, and his book contains some bitterly funny passages satirizing newspapers and book critics. When we meet her she is 40 and happily widowed out of an abusive marriage. Felix has inherited his father's title, thus becoming Sir Felix, and she is besotted with him -- even though he has squandered her inheritance and forced her to take up writing to make a living.

The trouble with her writing, says Trollope, is that she doesn't believe success comes from writing good books, but from persuading the right people to say that her books are good. At least she works hard for her money. In this respect, she seems the least dishonest of all the money grubbers in Trollope's huge cast.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 2

At the center of our story sits the mysterious financier Augustus Melmotte. Some think him a swindler, but never mind that, because everyone thinks him the richest man in London -- and so everyone wants to be associated with him.

Well, not quite everyone.

Roger Carbury, who sometimes seems to be the last incorruptible man in England, detests Melmotte, regarding him as the symbol of everything that's deplorable about "the way people live now" -- in 1870s England, that is. But there are plenty of other deplorable characters in Melmotte's circle of sycophants, greedy old aristocrats, and silly young dandies gambling fortunes away at the Beargarden club.

Melmotte has a pathetic daughter, Marie, on the marriage block. She comes with a fortune, supposedly, and Sir Felix Carbury -- desperate for money -- has pretended so successfully to love her that Marie is ready to elope with him. Actually, Felix prefers a farm girl named Ruby, who is under the illusion that he will marry her.

There is another knot in this tangle of lovers. Sir Felix's sister Hetta has two men who love her. One is upright Roger Carbury. Hetta prefers Roger's great friend Paul Montague but Paul, as we saw last time, has a past: Her name is Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, and she is an American with a reputation. Once shot a man in Oregon, rumor has it.

Now, second episode, The Way We Live Now.

Anthony Trollope never left any doubt about his personal feelings toward his characters. It's obvious he despises Sir Felix -- such a hypocrite that he can betray two women simultaneously, then become outraged about being cheated at cards. Trollope doesn't much like the other members of Sir Felix's club either. Mr. Melmotte's avarice is one element that appalled Trollope about the Victorian age; the cynicism of Sir Felix and his friends is another.

When he titled his book The Way We Live Now, Trollope suggested that he was painting an objective portrait of the age. But it's clear from Chapter One that this is a highly critical satire on a society he believes is corrupted by the decline of old moral values. It was one of the last of Trollope's 40-some novels -- written when he was 60-- and though it's now considered one of his finest books, it wasn't much admired in its day.

It's tempting to suggest that it reflected an old man's sour view of a modern world that's passing him by, but Trollope's life was too complex to be explained in the usual cliches. It's conceivable that his contempt for Sir Felix and the Beargarden set goes back to his poor boyhood, when he was a charity student among the sons of the aristocracy at Harrow and Winchester.

His autobiography uses words like "misery" and "horror" to describe those schooldays. He was despised by students and teachers, he writes. "What right had a wretched farmer's boy, reeking from a dung-hill, to sit next to the sons of peers ... or big tradesmen? The indignities I endured are not to be described."

Perhaps some of those memories surfaced again when he created the boys at the Beargarden club.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 3

Augustus Melmotte has undergone a serious transformation since we first saw him arriving in London.

He originally planned to make a killing in the market, then clear out with the swag. Last time, though, we saw him giving way to vanity. The elegance of London life has given him notions about becoming an elegant figure himself. He is no longer content to skip town burdened with other people's money. Now, suddenly, he wants to stay -- wants to be somebody. He's having his portrait painted, planning a country estate, buying a seat in Parliament. He entertains the Emperor of China.

Two minor nuisances stand in his way. One is the incorruptible Paul Montague. He suspects the money Melmotte is raising to build an American railroad is not being used to build a railroad. The other nuisance is Melmotte's poor, love-starved daughter Marie. Melmotte is trying to make her marry the oafish Lord Nidderdale for his title, but Marie has a very tough mind of her own. She refuses to marry anyone but Sir Felix Carbury, an utterly worthless lout who's persuaded her he loves her madly, though, in fact, all he loves is her money.

Now, third episode of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

The habit of looking down on alien people and races was commonplace among Victorians of the ruling class. Lord Longestaffe's anti-Semitic rage about Georgiana's Jewish fiancé seems barbaric nowadays, but it's consistent with the Victorian sense of superiority to all foreign cultures.

When Victorians looked out on the world, they saw a deplorable state of affairs which needed the civilized blessing of English rule, even if it had to be imposed at gunpoint. Europeans were not spared. France was regarded as the home office of immorality. And though Italy was loved for its climate and landscape, it was considered outrageous that it should be populated with Italians.

Anthony Trollope was not entirely free of prejudice himself. His two darkest characters, Mr. Melmotte and Winifred Hurtle, are both foreigners. Melmotte comes from Frankfurt, Paris, and Vienna. Mrs. Hurtle is an American. Nothing, however, is easily explained about the Victorians. Openly anti-Semitic they surely were, but in Mr. Melmotte's time, their prime minister was Benjamin Disraeli -- a Jew.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 4

Augustus Melmotte, the great financier, or possibly great swindler -- in any event, the antihero of our story -- is on the edge of ruin. Paul Montague, who thought Melmotte was selling stock to build an American railroad, has discovered that none of the money has gone into the railroad. Suspecting Melmotte of a swindle, Montague sets out to ruin him by taking the story to a newspaper.

Montague himself is a complicated case. In the past he's had an affair with an American widow, Winifred Hurtle, and asked her to marry him, then left America -- and Mrs. Hurtle -- and came back to England, where he met and fell in love with Hetta Carbury. He's asked Hetta to marry him, and she'd accepted, until she learned of the affair and ordered him out of her life.

At the close of our last episode, Hetta was about to call on Mrs. Hurtle -- who, it should be said, still has the pistol that made her a widow, when she used it to shoot her husband.

Concluding episode, The Way We Live Now.

Anthony Trollope wrote dozens of books, mostly novels, but one of the best is his autobiography. One of its pleasures is the candor with which he criticizes his fellow novelists. He thinks Dickens is not as good as Thackeray, for instance -- not as good as George Eliot, either.

He's especially interesting when reviewing his own books. Now, it's against house rules for Masterpiece Theatre to offer literary criticism of books we dramatize, but when the author himself does it, we may be permitted to quote him.

For a satirical book, he said, The Way We Live Now was "powerful and good." "The character of Melmotte is well maintained," he wrote. "The Beargarden is amusing, and not untrue...." "The young lady with her two lovers" -- he means Hetta here -- "is weak and vapid...." Hetta, Roger, and Paul were all "uninteresting," in Trollope's view. "The interest of the story," he wrote, "lies among the wicked and foolish people -- with Melmotte and his daughter, with the American woman Mrs. Hurtle, and with John Crumb and the girl of his heart." Why he omitted Sir Felix is puzzling. "Upon the whole," he wrote, "I by no means look upon the book as one of my failures."

Modern critics consider it one of his triumphs.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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