Augustus Melmotte sits like a giant spider at the heart of a web of rogue trading, insider dealing, press investigation, and sleaze in the corridors of power.... With central themes of sex and money running through the interweaving stories, this drama about the Victorian world that Trollope inhabited has startling similarities to our life at the beginning of the 21st century.
London in the 1870s must have been a thrilling, bewildering experience. The capital had become the most powerful city in the world and was spearheading the transition to a new world order.
The word "financier" had just entered the English language, and people were discovering they could make money out of money without having the bother of manufacturing something first. Credit began to flood the City, and the capitalist cycle of boom and bust was born.
New technologies -- the railways and the telegraph in particular -- had opened up a new era in communications. Suddenly Britain was no longer an island. International trade blossomed on an unprecedented scale, London became a cultural melting pot, and the wheels of globalization started to turn.
The Way We Live Now explores this new and modern world in all its complexity and color. The novel shows a society in turmoil. The old aristocracy had been bled dry by the demands of its estates and was swiftly becoming beholden to new financial masters. The establishment was forced to reevaluate its blinkered approach not only to class but also to foreigners, as businessmen arrived in London from all corners of the earth. Realization dawned that in this new world, money, rather than class, race, or sex, now held sway.
Award-winning producer Nigel Stafford-Clark says: "The Way We Live Now is the best account I've ever read of the Victorians at the height of their power. And it's very striking how the impact of new technology, the social upheaval it caused, and the speculative fever it spawned offer an extraordinary resonance between how they lived then and how we live now."
The role of women was also changing. As their opportunities for earning money increased, so, too, did their opportunities for independence. The female characters in the novel have a strength and sense of purpose that feels surprisingly modern. Impoverished single mother Lady Carbury courts literary success to support her family. At the same time, her daughter Hetta throws caution to the wind and embarks on a passionate love affair with penniless engineer Paul Montague. Marie Melmotte's secret trust fund gives her the confidence to defy her father and make her own choice of husband. And one of Trollope's most electrifying characters, the dazzling American Mrs. Hurtle, is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon when he displeased her.
Even within the family, things were changing. The generation gap had never felt so wide, and throughout the novel, rebellious, headstrong children shock their parents with disobedience, wild behavior, and independence.
The world of The Way We Live Now was a far cry from the one bishops and curates inhabited in Trollope's earlier novels. Here he was writing here about a society in which morality was a far more complex concept. Adapter Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, Take a Girl Like You) explains: "Trollope wrote this story when he'd just come back to England after a trip abroad. He was disgusted with what he saw -- an England dominated by greed and money." Trollope's own thoughts are echoed in Roger Carbury's complaint in the novel, "People live now in a way that I don't comprehend."
Trollope's sense of unease is famously captured in the most powerful and enduring of all his characters, Augustus Melmotte. Melmotte sits like a giant spider at the heart of a web of rogue trading, insider dealing, press investigation, and sleaze in the corridors of power. Today he would be a Robert Maxwell figure: a larger-than-life celebrity, a global speculator with friends in high places and an image powerful enough to scare off anyone who dared question his integrity. He is a man prepared to corrupt and manipulate the great, the good, and the greedy of British society -- the very same people whom he hopes will finally accept him as an English gentleman and send him to Westminster as an MP.
Within weeks of his arrival in London, Melmotte has announced a new company to build a railway from Salt Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico and enticed some distinguished members of England's land-rich, cash-poor aristocracy into his web. Womanizing young wastrels, families eager to sell their ailing country seats to afford the London season, and naïve speculators are all lured in with promises of an instant fortune.
The great British railway boom started in the 1840s. The railways earned fortunes for early speculators, but many smaller investors would lose millions when the inevitable slump followed. By the time The Way We Live Now was published in the mid-1870s, British expertise and investment was heavily involved in ambitious railways schemes around the world.
There were several characters involved with railways and other late Victorian speculative projects that Trollope may have used to help define Melmotte's character:
"The viewers are in for a lively journey with this drama. The story starts with some funny and almost playful elements, but then it becomes very dramatic, dark, and moving. It's got something for everyone."
Screenwriter Davies sums it up: "People ask me why I keep doing these 19th-century novels, and the reason is that they are just better than a lot of 20th-century work. They are great stories with terrific three-dimensional characters who belong to the real world. And Trollope really knows how to tell a story."
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