Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Trollope Trolls The Way We Live Now

A couple of months ago, I read Anthony Trollope's novel, The Way We Live Now. Even though the novel was written and set in England in 1870, I consider this post to be about contemporary American politics.

Are any of the characters in the novel sympathetic? Maybe Lady Carbury, to a certain extent, and her cousin Roger Carbury. But I want to focus on Augustus Melmotte.

Melmotte is successful in business, but is initially considered vulgar by elite socialites in London. His business success seems to be mostly a matter of a succession of cons, with a lot of juggling of accounts and debts, which he tries to avoid paying. For example, in the past he has driven a company into bankruptcy with he himself ending up with the bulk of what the stockholders had invested. (Unlike a contemporary analogue, he starts out without an inherited fortune; Melmotte is self-made.)

Melmotte decides that even though he knows nothing about what politicians are arguing about, he should run for office. In his case, he campaigns to become a Member of Parliament. Somewhat arbitrarily, he decides he is a Tory.

But there was still much to be done in London before the Goodwood week should come round in all of which Mr. Melmotte was concerned, and of much of which Mr. Melmotte was the very centre. A member for Westminster had succeeded to a peerage, and thus a seat was vacated. It was considered to be indispensable to the country that Mr. Melmotte should go into Parliament, and what constituency could such a man as Melmotte so fitly represent as one combining as Westminster does all the essences of the metropolis? There was the popular element, the fashionable element, the legislative element, the legal element, and the commercial element. Melmotte undoubtedly was the man for Westminster. His thorough popularity was evinced by testimony which perhaps was never before given in favour of any candidate for any county or borough. In Westminster there must of course be a contest. A seat for Westminster is a thing not to be abandoned by either political party without a struggle. But, at the beginning of the affair, when each party had to seek the most suitable candidate which the country could supply, each party put its hand upon Melmotte. And when the seat, and the battle for the seat, were suggested to Melmotte, then for the first time was that great man forced to descend from the altitudes on which his mind generally dwelt, and to decide whether he would enter Parliament as a Conservative or a Liberal. He was not long in convincing himself that the Conservative element in British Society stood the most in need of that fiscal assistance which it would be in his province to give; and on the next day every hoarding in London declared to the world that Melmotte was the Conservative candidate for Westminster. It is needless to say that his committee was made up of peers, bankers, and publicans, with all that absence of class prejudice for which the party has become famous since the ballot was introduced among us. Some unfortunate Liberal was to be made to run against him, for the sake of the party; but the odds were ten to one on Melmotte.

Melmotte can find some to recognize his qualifications.

The new farthing newspaper, "The Mob," was already putting Melmotte forward as a political hero, preaching with reference to his commercial transactions the grand doctrine that magnitude in affairs is a valid defense for certain irregularities.

He cannot campaign on issues, since he knows nothing about them.

There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England's glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century,—nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century. Of such names as Hampden, Somers, and Pitt he had hardly ever heard. He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality,—had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment's trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.

His campaign is mostly petty personalities. The discourse in the press is just as elevated:

Now the "Evening Pulpit," in its endeavor to make the facts of this transaction known, had placed what it called the domicile of this company in Paris, whereas it was ascertained that its official head-quarters had in truth been placed at Vienna. Was not such a blunder as this sufficient to show that no merchant of higher honor than Mr. Melmotte had ever adorned the Exchanges of modern capitals? And then two different newspapers of the time, both of them antagonistic to Melmotte, failed to be in accord on a material point. One declared that Mr. Melmotte was not in truth possessed of any wealth. The other said that he had derived his wealth from those unfortunate shareholders. Could anything betray so bad a cause as contradictions such as these? Could anything be so false, so weak, so malignant, so useless, so wicked, so self-condemned, - in fact, so "Liberal" as a course of action such as this? The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds - of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers - was that Mr. Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.

He continues in his ignorance after he gets elected. He neither understands nor wants to know the conventions governing parliamentary debate. He does not address the chair, nor refer to his fellow members as "the honorary member from" wherever. Instead, all he can do is blurt out, "He's wrong", in dealing with the previous speaker. He stands up because of some petty dislike. But Trollope says that, in this case, Melmotte actually knows something about the topic, it being foreign exchange rates. But Melmotte is almost completely inarticulate.

He continues his business. He had hoped that his political eminence would contribute towards his financial interests. On the contrary, it leads to exposure of his shenanigans:

How would things go with him? What would be the end if it? - Ruin; - yes but there were worse things than ruins. And a short time since he had been so fortunate; - had made himself so safe! As he looked back at it, he could hardly say how it had come to pass that he had laid down for himself. He had known that ruin would come, and had made himself so comfortably safe, so brilliantly safe, in spite of ruin. But insane ambition had driven himself away from his anchorage. He told himself over and over again that the fault had been not in circumstances - not in that which men call Fortune, - but in his own incapacity to bear his position. He saw it now. He felt it now. If he could only begin again, how different would his conduct be!


Blissex said...

David Cameron, the previous english Prime Minister, is currently a fantastically well paid front-man for a key piece of the chinese communist party foreign policy strategy, and as to this a well known english journalist (A Chakraborty) commented:

So the old Etonian married to the daughter of a Baronet now appears to be fronting a private equity fund full of Chinese state-capitalist money. Truly, 21st century Britain is Anthony Trollope's daydream.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks. I had domestic American matters in mind. But I have no problem believing things are bad all over.