Okay guys, so, I don’t know if I told you, but the theme of this year’s reading is 19th Century English Literature (the theme of last year was Proust and the theme of the year before that was The Russians, okay). And in keeping with said theme, I recently read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. This book is really, really long. And it wasn’t until I was about 60% of the way through (maybe 700 pages, if I’d been reading a paper book), that I decided I liked it.
The book is basically an all-encompassing indictment of the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the social, business, political, and personal mores of British society. The plot revolves around this financier who’s basically running a Ponzi scheme involving stocks of an American railroad company. But all of that is completely unimportant.
The amazing part of the book was a subplot involving the rapidly aging 29-year-old gentlewoman Georgiana Longestaafe and her engagement to a 50 year old, widowed, Jewish banker named Ezekial Brehgert. Basically, all Georgiana wants is a husband who’ll be rich enough to give her both a townhouse in London and a house in the country. And to get those things, she’s even willing to marry a Jew. But she definitely regards it as a pretty major concession on her part.
However, to her family, this is totally beyond the pale. But Georgiana holds firm against them, and, slowly, begins adopting all this egalitarian rhetoric about how Jews are just like everybody else and what does religion matter, it’s not like anybody goes to Church anyway. She actually does her best to hold out against some fairly determined opposition from her family. And she slowly comes to realize that they don’t really care about her quality of life. They want her to be respectable, but she wants to be rich. It’s a slow sort of emancipation.
I thought it was delightful. Anyone can write a story where True Love overcomes prejudice, but it takes a genius to write Greed overcomes prejudice.
Beware, though, lest anyone think that this book is not anti-Semitic, that is absolutely not the case. The book repeatedly implies that the aforementioned shady financier is Jewish. Trollope suffers from that weird Dickensian anti-Semitism where he hates the Bad Greedy Jews but is willing to point out some Good Honest Jew and say, “Oh, look, some Jews are honest and don’t love money.” (It’s kind of like how some straight guys who don’t like feminine gay men will go out of their way to try to prove their lack of homophobia by pointing at a more masculine gay acquaintance and saying, “Oh, he’s a real man, even though he’s gay”).
Anyways, I am not sure I can recommend this book. But it has lots of things in it that are really interesting. The book is not nearly as comedic and exaggerated as most 19th century British classics, and it’s much more concerned with actualities: money and the practical mechanics of things like earning a living or proposing marriage. Thus, it many incidents within it provide a sort of counterpoint to Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray.