Trollope's novel of that name is a masterpiece of plotting based on the interaction of characters and character discrimination. There are about 12 major characters in this long book, around 450,000 words, and you are never confused, for one reason because Trollope introduces each person one by one in short chapters.
The central plot is applicable to our time when foolish knaves sell impossible mortgages to knavish fools; when “financiers” package the shaky mortgages as “securities”; and the London bankers collude at teatime on Facebook to fix the LIBOR rate. It is based on a murky stock promotion of which we never understand the details. What we understand is how interaction of characters, usually in pairs, sometimes in triplets, moves the action and in some cases alters the movers.
What you think about when you think about this book is the characters. The most interesting are: First, Augustus Melmotte, a "financier" of murky background who dazzles London by flashing wealth, perhaps more than he really has, founds a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Nadoff, and even gets himself elected to Parliament, before his ultimate fall. He is charismatic and a bad guy. He has no notion of honesty and beats his daughter. Yet he is a sort of tragic hero, and his downfall is moving and telling. Trollope even grants him a helping of tragic insight:
“He had not far to go round through Berkeley Square into Burton Street but he stood for a few moments looking up at the bright stars. If he could be there, in one of those unknown distant worlds, with all his present intellect and none of his present burdens, he would, he thought, do better than he had done here on earth. If he could even now put himself down nameless, fameless, and without possessions in some distant corner of the world, he could, he thought, do better. But he was Augustus Melmotte, and he must bear his burdens, whatever they were, to the end.”
Second, Mrs. Hurdle, an American widow, except her husband is not actually dead, although she has shot and killrd another man. She is beautiful, sensitive, passionate, wealthy on her own initiative, and, in the crises we witness in the book, highly moral. Trollope makes clear that she and another major character, Paul Montague, a priggish vacillating Englishmen, have been physically lovers in the past when he was traveling in America. This is not the shy, 2-dimensional flower of so many 19th century English novels. In a way she is Henry James’ free-spirited American girl carried far beyond what James would care to undertake.
Third is Marie Melmotte, the daughter of Augustus Melmotte, who begins the novel by falling in love with a handsome ne'er-do-well because she is enchanted by stereotypes from novels. She progresses through several fiancés or near-fiancés including an English Lord, and evolves to choosing a husband from a position of cynicism but not malice.
Most of the action of the book does involve the marriage plot, but the outcomes are complex and ambiguous. Unlike in, say Jane Austen, it is thinkable for women to choose other careers than marriage. Nor does Trollope hand out good and bad marriages simply as a reward for being moral or immoral characters. The relentlessly bad mother, Lady Carbury, probably gets what is for her the best marriage. Paul Montague's chooses a bland and timid ingénue over the complex and passionate Mrs. Hurdle. They will settle in the country with her obsessive one-time admirer living a cottage in the back. Not a happy prospect.
This novel explores ant-Semitism. It was published in 1875, a time of change in the standing of Jews in English society. For one thing Disraeli was Prime Minister. A fully developed secondary character has reached the age of 30 and is losing in the marriage game. She chooses to marry a banker who is 20 years older than she is, fat, ugly, a Jew, and the most decent human being in the book. Her immediate family reacts like Nazi’s. Her fiancé is also a of foil for Marie Melmotte first admirer, Sir Felix, who is wellborn, handsome, youthful, but an utterly worthless drunk and compulsive gambler. So Trollope is telling us something about his attitude towards prejudice against Jews. But he also accepts without comment the general knee-jerk prejudice that was of course commonplace in his time. I have seen it stated by critics that Melmotte himself is Jewish, and characters sometimes assume that. His pitiful wife (not Marie’s mother) certainly is. But I found no clear-cut statement to that effect in the text; the most unambiguous description of his origin is that he was Irish-American and grew up in New York.
Another prejudice is against Americans.
Trollope's prose is always sound, clear, readable, and supple but is never thrilling in sustained passages. Trollope is a master of summarizing complex human situations, both in decisive paragraphs and in telling bon mots. There are paragraph-long summaries of characters’ previous lives that could serve as scenarios for whole novels by Henry James, and on which David Foster Wallace or Karl Ove Nausgaard could build a career. For example this summary of the situation in the Carbury family at the beginning of the book. Note that the situation has developed through the interaction of three characters:
“Sir Felix was then 25, had been in a fashionable regiment for four years, had already sold out, and, to own the truth at once, had altogether wasted the property which his father had left him. So much the mother knew, – and knew therefore that with her limited income she must maintain not only herself and daughter, but also the Baronet. She did not know, however the amount of the Baronet’s obligations; – nor, indeed, did he, or anyone else. A baronet, holding a commission in the guards, and known to have had a fortune left by him left him by his father, may go very far in getting into debt; and Sir Felix had made full use of his privileges. His life had been in every way bad. He had become a burden on his mother so heavy, – and on his sister also, – that their lives had become one of unavoidable embarrassments. But not for a moment had either of them ever quarreled with it. Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother’s evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it all together as it affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed, because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men of that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.”
One of Lady Carbury’s vices is bad writing. She is the author of a dreadful piece of popular history called Criminal Queens. Her efforts to publish and promote it show that the vices of her publishing world, like her financial world, are much like those of our own.
Where Trollope's prose really shines is in bon mots. The little word or phrase that cunningly sounds the depths of what's before us. Here is a little summary of Lady Carbury’s thoughts rejecting someone's proposal of marriage:
"But mixed with her other feelings there was a tenderness which brought back some memory of her distant youth, and almost made her weak. That a man, -–such a man, – should offer to take half her burdens, and to confer upon her half his blessing! What an idiot! What a God! She had looked upon the man as all intellect, alloyed perhaps by some passionless remnants of the vices of his youth; and now she found that he not only had a human heart in his bosom, but a heart that she could touch. How wonderfully sweet! How infinitely small!”
It is that last, small word "small" that nails so much about both Lady Carbury and her admirer and stimulates and shapes our feelings about them.
There is a subplot that involves a country lass and her bumpkin admirer. It's loosely related to the main action and is amusing, but it constantly reminded me of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, which is both a kind of complement, and a kind of distraction.
Trollope's energetic but orderly ability to generate plotting for his characters sometimes gets a bit tedious. There is a whole sub subplot of the relations between an Anglican bishop and a Catholic priest that is really unnecessary and never goes anywhere. After Melmotte’s, fall, Trollope spends probably another 50,000 words tying up loose ends. Tying up loose sends is satisfying, but maybe not every i in every marriage contract needs to be dotted.
A note on punctuation: I read the free version that comes from the Apple Store which I assume, partly from some of the errors that electronic scansion is prone to, is an unedited presentation of the original text. Punctuation is interesting. It is filled with dashes, almost a sort of prose version of Emily Dickinson, the dashes frequently proceeded or follow by semicolons, commas, or colons. On the other hand, there are many occasions where we would expect a carefully punctuated text to have commas, such as examples or introductory adverbial phrases of time, where they are lacking.