The Way We Live Now ~ Chapters 43-56

Trollope Society Online Conversazione on 24th May 2021

An Introduction to Chapters 43 to 56 of The Way We Live Now
by Paul Jabore

Faced with a thicket of plotlines, I’m going to take three paths through them: firstly, Felix and his entanglements with Ruby and Marie; then Melmotte’s election campaign and money matters; and saving the best till last, Paul and Mrs Hurtle.

I set myself a challenge in writing this presentation: to find something good to say about Felix.

Ruby has been having a good time in London- whether at the theatre or the dancehall, she’s had fun and is proud to be seen out with such a handsome, distinguished man. But the pressure is building. Mrs Pipkin’s babies are becoming burdensome, her leniency ever more doubtful and, worst of all, Roger Carbury is on the way. She needs Felix to declare himself and in pushing him to do so, she reveals that Mrs Pipkin’s tenant is engaged to Paul Montague. Does Felix know him? Felix does – I wonder if he will keep that news to himself. But what about her engagement? Just as Mrs Hurtle did to Paul, she throws Felix’s own words back at him. Come to London, he’d said. I love you, he’d said. I’ll get you anything you want, he’d said. What does she want? Can she say it?

I want you to say whether you mean to marry me. There!

Moment of truth. Test of character. Does he lie? Let the heavens fall! No, he doesn’t. Not because he wouldn’t, but because he is offended that someone like Ruby should even think of it. The “confounded impudence” of her. He’s not going to marry, he says, leaving unsaid, especially not someone like you. Ruby is crushed but stands her ground. By running away from him.

Next day she is not nearly so strong. Might she have been too hasty, demanded too much and now lost all? At this moment, Roger visits, and talks to her of Felix Carbury and John Crumb. Of course, she holds her own but is struck by the contrast he draws between the baronet and the baker – the former is dust beneath his feet; the latter is “noble”.

Hard times for Ruby. The dream of marriage to her occasional Adonis had sustained her – can she bear this life of drudgery without the prospect of coming glory? She weakens and writes to him. Effusive as ever, he sends to say that he’ll be at the music-hall on Tuesday evening. Tuesday evening finds Ruby in her silks, but she does not make it past the front door. Mrs Pipkin, reinforced by Roger Carbury’s words, bars the way and will not let her pass. There is an altercation, though not nearly so violent a one as the aunt had feared, and Ruby is defeated, confined to quarters. Mrs Pipkin rushes to Mrs Hurtle, whom she had forewarned of the imminent clash, to report on the outcome and justify her actions. She laments her niece’s temerity and foolishness in chasing a man – “Girls as knows what they’re about should let the gentlemen run after them”. Mrs Hurtle mounts a weak defence and feels keenly that Mrs Pipkin’s words apply all too closely to herself.

Ruby has exited stage left. Marie Melmotte occupies the limelight. It is Sunday. The elopement is immanent, this coming Thursday, in fact. Marie has organised every aspect of it, the trains to Liverpool and the ship to New York, not to speak of the wedding dress, and she has got her hands on a cheque for £250 intended for her mother. Didon will cash it and bring the money to Felix at the Beargarden. This will more than double their kitty – he’s also had another £200 from Melmotte. But he wants out – the risks of ending up impoverished and stuck with a woman he cares little for are too great. He repents of the whole business but does not act. Typically, while lacking the courage to go through with it off his own bat, he also lacks the courage to pull out, much as he’d like to, and so, as he would at the card table, he outsources the decision, to chance, as he sees it. It’s all up to Didon – if she turns up with the £250 on the Monday, he’ll go; if she doesn’t, then he’s released.

Damn the woman, she brings him the money. Trapped! Almost as an afterthought, he tells his mother of the elopement, thus bringing home to her the foolishness of her previous advice to do just that. Yet she too gives him money she can ill afford. He must catch the 5 o’clock train on the Wednesday, as Marie has planned it. The night before, he goes out for a final fling with Ruby, and is unaccountably stood up. Furious he falls back on the Beargarden, and that night and the following one, when he should have been in a Liverpool hotel room, proceeds to lose every penny of the money so painfully scraped together by other people.

Marie does do what has been agreed, and with Didon, makes her way to Liverpool. She doesn’t make it out of the train station. A policeman, alerted by the telegraph (which, according to Trollope, has “destroyed the very soul of intrigue”) has come to arrest the thief of the £250 cheque and escort her back to London. This he does. Marie is remarkably sanguine about this turn of events and her laugh as they approach Grosvenor Square is enough to convince the policeman that she’ll manage and convince this reader that she is worth ten of her erstwhile paramour. He had disgraced himself at the club, and needed a policeman to bring him home and his mother to undress him.

Now he can find no better place to be than bed. His mother does squeeze some information, mostly fallacious, out of him, enough to know about Melmotte’s cheque and that he is in big trouble. Mr Broune is by her side, however, and not only promises help, but deliveries on it at once by paying Melmotte the £250.

You will observe that I have brought Felix’s part in the story up to date and have yet to say anything good about him. There is still time, but we must move on to Melmotte’s election campaign and his various business dealings.

The campaign quickly becomes a heated affair. The heat is generated first in Melmotte’s favour by his new party’s political messages depicting him as a merchant prince, a commercial genius inaugurating a new era, on which message the rumour mill works its gargantuan fantasies, which have Melmotte conducting schemes from Moscow to Egypt, from China to Mexico and among the great lakes of Africa. But this is just hot air; real heat requires friction, and that comes from his liberal opponents, who, presented with a God of Business, counter with a devil of fraud. For reasons not revealed, the Evening Pulpit takes this line, stating outright that, far from being the magus of money the Tories were depicting, the man was a monster of deceit whose wealth is derived from cheating an Austrian insurance company. Then the name of Melmotte’s opponent is announced: to the surprise of all who know him, it the editor of The Evening Pulpit, Mr Alf.

The campaign grows feverish, the assertions and accusations ever more extreme. The Grendalls are worn out and a little nervous that the balloon will burst. Is their man the real thing? What are his beliefs, his political convictions? They do not know. Nor do we. Nor does the electorate. Melmotte does not speak of such things, and is given only to repeatedly assertions that “they can’t prove anything”. He’s a sphinx – is he a hollow one?

There follows a chapter of hurry in which nothing satisfactory is achieved by any character except Melmotte. Both Felix Carbury and Paul Montague try to withdraw the money they have invested – Felix does manage to get the £200 we mentioned above; Paul is ever more uncertain what he should do. Mr Longstaffe is moving in the opposite direction – he takes out shares, not by buying them as such, but by reducing the amount owed to him for the sale of Pickering Park. It is yet another deal made by Melmotte in which he doesn’t have to part with cash. As Trollope comments,

It was a part of the charm of all dealings with this great man that no ready money seemed ever to be necessary for anything…. As for many years past we have exchanged paper instead of actual money for our commodities, so now it seemed that, under the new Melmotte regime, an exchange of words was to suffice.

Dolly Longstaffe is not content with words – he wants his money, and we hear that he has engaged a lawyer, Squercum, to get it for him. I can’t put my finger on what that name suggests, but it’s nothing pleasant. Again, Dolly shows that stubbornness and backbone in his affairs that is never seen anywhere else. He hounds his father into approaching Melmotte about it. “Then he’d better pay up, like anybody else”. Just the words we have heard so many times at the Beargarden.

His father does make the attempt to get the money owed for Pickering Park and exerts enough pressure that Melmotte engages Cohenlupe to collect a portion of it – Cohenlupe makes it clear that it will be difficult.

That Melmotte has made his mark on society in a very short time is undeniable – lords and ladies dance attendance on him, he is an icon of financial success, he has an ancient political party bursting its sinews to have him elected to the greatest chamber in the land, and he will soon host the Chinese emperor in his own home. It is not enough. At a ceremony at India House to welcome the Chinese emperor, he finds that he will not be introduced. He feels entirely within his rights to make a scene to bring that about. After much unpleasantness, he gets his way, but can then say not a word when brought before that august personage. He is tongue-tied. A moment to remember. Miles Grendall, who is completely dependent on him, is disgusted and comes away muttering “Beast! Brute! Pig!”

It has long been recognised that there is no better time to make charitable donations than when you are seeking election. Two institutions, one Anglican, the other Catholic, are thus touched by Melmotte’s political generosity, throwing both the Bishop of Suffolk and Father Berham into the excited belief that the great man is ‘one of them’. Both disgust Roger Carbury with these avowals, but Father Berham is so energised by the possibility of regaining a lost sheep that he travels to London to assure himself of the prize. He is treated abysmally but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm at all.

As a character, Fr Berham, is, I think, a waste of fictional space. Nonetheless, this chapter (56) does serve a purpose. It shows the mechanism of M’s rise, the fact that given a certain demeanour and circumstances, a man can become in the eyes of others whatever they wish to project onto him. The polished idol reflects the desires that come before it.

And now, the passages that I enjoyed most but feel most incapable of giving their due: Paul Montague and Winifred Hurtle.

After finding Ruby, Roger heads back home, where he fills in John Crumb on what he has discovered. Crumb submits to Roger’s call for patience, but can’t hold back a threat to the “baronite”. Roger has church business with the bishop, which he concludes and then takes a walk on the beach at … Lowestoffe. Of course, he comes across Mrs Hurtle and Paul. Of course, he is cold to her and severe to him. Left to consider how he might use the knowledge of this meeting against his rival for the love of Hetta Carbury, of course he decides that he could never do it. “Never!”.

In approaching what are the climactic scenes between Paul Montague and Mrs Hurtle, it is right that we do so in the company of Roger Carbury who, though not present, provides the electric charge of shame Paul needed to say what he must, and is the avatar of the social order Mrs Hurtle cannot overcome. She makes good use of his image as well to demean Paul’s manhood (“I thought you were a man capable of managing his own actions”). But she does much more than that. Each of the stories about her that Paul has picked up from others is dealt with. The man from Oregon, the duel with her husband, the regaining of her property – each a case of self-protection sanctioned by the law and applauded by the society around her. It is a wonderful speech, and the peroration is magnificent:

Is it because I protected myself from drunken violence that I am to be rejected? Am I to be cast aside because I saved my life while in the hands of a reprobate husband, and escaped from him by means provided by law – or because by my own energy I have secured my own property? If I am not to be condemned for these things, then say why am I condemned?

And yet she knows full well that it is not because of these things that he now rejects her. She can know nothing really about his feelings for Hetta Carbury, but she is fully aware that marrying her would cut him off from the society he has been part of all his life. The position he aspires to, that of an English gentleman, would be closed off to him, just as the position of an English lady is already closed off to her.

After she has imperiously dismissed him and cried away her anger, what is left is disappointed love and much more understanding than she had betrayed to him. She writes a noble letter of renunciation but does not send it.

They reach London separately. He had promised that he would come one more time to her if she insisted upon it. Now he writes that, although he will indeed come if requested, he thinks it will be of no use. Now her anger dominates. She is ready to sacrifice herself for love – she is not ready to be tame. She writes another letter, longer than the other though its main thrust can be stated briefly – she wants to horsewhip him – she wants revenge.

This letter too she keeps by her, and sends merely two words, “Yes. Come.”

He does. And the scene pivots on the two letters, like two arrows, nocked, but held back. The letter of renunciation; the letter of vengeance. First to be released in the message of violence. Wisely, he avoids her invitations to reply to it. Almost dismissively, she hands him the softer letter, and he is on his knees at her feet, where she has wanted him from the start. She tears up one letter but puts the other in her pocket. Paul has prevailed, and Mrs Hurtle has surrendered, though what a part she has played and what a presence she is. I have not tried to render the drama of this scene – I know my limits. But this and the scene at Lowestoffe are, I think, the most dramatic and vivid of the novel so far. I wonder if they will be excelled.

To finish, a question. In the dining room at the Lowestoffe hotel, after Paul has gone, Mrs Hurtle reflects, and Trollope notes that there is often in the minds of American men and women “an almost envious admiration of English excellence”. What do you think he is referring to?

Oh, my challenge, to say something good about Felix. I failed.