Chris Harman


Trollope: Similar story now and then

(24 November 2001)

In my view, Socialist Worker, No.1776, 24 November 2001.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Harold Macmillan, the Tory prime minister of the late 1950s and early 1960s, put me off Anthony Trollope. He said that reading the Victorian novelist was his favourite pastime, and that was enough to create a reading block.

Time might have weakened the block, but then another Tory prime minister, John Major, rushed in to praise Trollope as well. That was the limit. Macmillan, after all, was capable of the occasional reactionary sparkle. Major was as boring as anyone could be (except, of course, Iain Duncan Smith).

So I could lap up Thomas Hardy and the Brontés, get a stimulus from George Eliot’s megatomes, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and manage to break through a youthful aversion and enjoy Jane Austen. But Trollope remained literally a closed book (an unopened second-hand copy of The Warden).

Hence the shock I got from the first episode of The Way We Live Now on BBC the Sunday before last. The adaptation of this Trollope novel is magnificent – and timely. Most classic serials on TV are flashy but ponderous attempts at “period charm”. Expensive sets and colourful costumes are used to present us with the dramatic equivalent of Ye Olde English teashops.

Even the best actors with the best scripts have difficulty in giving any life to their characters, caked in make-up and squeezed into elaborate garments.

The makers of The Way We Live Now have taken a different approach. The “now” means now, the beginning of the 21st century, even if the setting is 125 years ago. The story centres on the impact on the London upper classes of Melmotte, a financier recently arrived from abroad.

No one knows much about his background. There a distaste for him that combines snobbishness and anti-Semitic racism. “We could not possibly have him in the house,” says one character.

But he seems to have immense amounts of money. And so the cream of London’s aristocracy crowd around him even while their faces display ill-disguised contempt. His great scheme is a railway venture in Mexico. He knows the railway itself has no future.

But he also knows it can be promoted as a source of instant wealth for upper classes drones. And he knows too that their snobbishness hides their essential stupidity. They rush to join his board of directors and put their savings into his company as its shares soar in value.

None of them listen when the one upper class character who is not completely idle questions whether the railway is really being built. The portrayal of Melmotte is clearly modelled on Robert Maxwell, the fraudster newspaper owner who committed suicide ten years ago.

Like Maxwell he is a bully who rejoices in the grossness of his own behaviour. Like Maxwell, he finds the high and mighty prepared to extol his virtues so long as he seems likely to line their pockets.

Remove the central European accent from Melmotte, add a touch of public school finesse, and he could be Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken. His aspiration, after all, is to be an MP – “Conservative, of course.”

It does not take much imagination to see the similarities between railway shares in the 1880s and shares in the year 2000. This is not really a period drama. It’s a parable for today (and compulsive viewing). It may even persuade me to open that copy of The Warden.

Last updated on 9 December 2009