At first blush, Anthony Trollope's expansive novel is about the speculation obsessed culture of Victorian England; here we are confronted with an entirely different sort of superfluous man. While Oblomov was too lazy to decide whether or not to get out of bed and allowed his friends to openly rob him, this generation of men take a more active role in their destruction, gambling away their inheritances whenever they are given the chance. For a moment Oblomov was roused enough from his stupor to momentarily fall in love, but here, in this world of apathy, love is an emotion too troublesome and vigorous for our young men. In an era of primogeniture it is the job of the eldest sons to marry an heiress and save the family estates from bankruptcy; these sons, as ineffectual and caddish as they are, have but one simple job, to make love to an heiress, and yet anything that takes them away from the whist table is seen as an awful and tedious bore.
Mr. Melmotte enters the scene as a brusque entrepreneur with an opaque past that is quickly forgiven by his vast and seemingly infinite fortune. Mr. Melmotte, with the help of Paul Montague and Mr. Fisker, becomes the director of a new and exciting railway scheme, a scheme that has no pretension of being a reality; this he hopes will be the biggest and most successful of a life of fraudulent enterprises.
"Mr. Melmotte may have been held to have clearly proved the genuineness of that English birth which he claimed by the awkwardness and incapacity which he showed on the occasion. He stood with his hands on the table and with his face turned to his plate blurted out his assurances that the floating of this railway company would be one of the greatest and most successful commercial operations ever conducted on either side of the Atlantic. It was a great thing, - a very great thing;- he had no hesitation in saying that it was one of the greatest things out. He didn't believe a greater thing had ever come out. He was happy to give his humble assistance to the furthermore of so great a thing,- and so on. (p. 81)
His board is quickly assembled out of the most disreputable young men, all with titles and a certain amount of prestige despite their overwhelming incompetence. Most of these men don't even pretend to try and understand their position or alleged duties.
"There was not one of them then present who had not after some fashion been given to understand that his fortune was to be made, not by the construction of the railway, but by the floating of the railway shares." (p.82)
Another quick and potentially even more successful way of making one's fortune would be to marry Melmotte's daughter Marie, the presumed heiress of an incomprehensible fortune. Melmotte has been "floating" his daughter about in a way not unlike his new railway company looking for the highest title he can buy. Two of the board members, Lord Nidderdale and Sir Felix are both eligible fortune hunters, both with acceptable titles and rank; while Nidderdale leaves the matchmaking to his father, Felix rouses a modicum of energy to woo Marie and thereby in a race of two despicable choices becomes the favorite. Melmotte, upon learning that Felix is not only destitute but a gambler and a drunk, the first of course being the biggest hurdle, pays Felix not to marry his daughter. Felix for a moment believes he has thrown in the towel, but when Marie persuades him to run away with her; she'll organize everything and provide a great deal of ready money...what does he have to lose? So he takes her money on the understanding that they will meet a couple days later on the boat to New York, only to immediately gamble it all away and end up a drunken mess in a gutter rather than a fiance on a ship to America.
He is momentarily chastened by his acts of stupidity, but only momentarily. Felix has been taking advantage of the innocence and naivete of Ruby Ruggles who is currently acting as housemaid and nanny for her aunt. He persuades her to go out with him until all hours of the night, knowing that this will sully her reputation and potentially damn her. Ruby has previously been engaged to John Crumb, whom she considers to be drastically beneath her. She deserves a baron at least, and when Sir Felix visits his cousin's estate and happens to find a young maiden ready and waiting for him to sweep her off her feet, he finds there is actually very little sweeping involved. He gets used to having her around as a plaything, and she tells herself that he has only honorable intentions for her. When her aunt promises to lock her out of the house if she goes to another dance with Sir Felix unless he can put in writing his intentions to make her his wife, he refuses and she goes along anyway, his beautiful face being too genuine to hide any malfeasance.
Felix's sister Hetta has found herself smitten by one of the original railway board members Paul Montague. Like all women in love she believes him to be true and genuine in his love for her and is shocked to learn that while making love to her, Paul has been unscrupulously making love to an American woman named Mrs. Hurtle. It is a trifecta of horror. Paul has been seeing another woman, that is married and an American! What could possibly be worse? In her agitation, Hetta is beside herself, and Felix takes it upon himself to defend his sisters honor, but unlike the days of Eugene Onegin, when such heated issues could be quickly if not irrevocably settled with a duel, the Victorians had outlawed dueling, making matters of honor a little more complicated.
"There is no duty more certain or fixed in the world than that which calls upon a brother to defend his sister from ill-usage; but at the same time, in the way we live now, no duty is more difficult, and may we say generally more indistinct. The ill-usage to which men's sisters are most generally exposed is one which hardly admits of either protection or vengeance,-although the duty of protecting and avenging is felt and acknowledged. We are not allowed to fight duels, and the banging about of another man with a stick is always disagreeable and seldom successful." (p.558)
Although Felix has every intention of showing Paul a lesson or two, he quickly decides maybe its more bother than its worth and decides instead to go find Ruby Ruggles. But while it is not appropriate for the gentry to go fist-to-cuffs over every question on honorable intent, the lower classes are not above a good beating or two, and when Ruby's betrothed finds that she is out with another man, late into the night he goes in search of them and gives Felix a pounding that leaves him mostly cowed and much less beautiful.
Despite being jilted, despite the fact that Felix is now missing most of his teeth, again Marie Melmotte pledges herself and her vast fortune to him, or rather to his mother, since Felix can't be bothered with someone he assumes to be a destitute impostor or perhaps is too vain to show himself to even someone he despises, if he could truly work up gumption for such an emotion.
When Melmotte dies, and Marie does become the heiress of a vast fortune, Nidderdale wants nothing to do with her because of the impropriety of her father's death. He is still uncertain of Marie's wealth and assumes its better to be safe then sorry, that is sorry that you actually don't inherit the fortune you were hunting even if it means you have found a soul mate.
Nidderdale is back to the drawing board with his father:
'They tell me,' said the old man, 'that one of those Goldsheiner girls will have a lot of money.'
'A Jewess,' suggested Nidderdale.
'What difference does that make?'
'Oh no;-not in the least;-if the money's really there. Have you heard any sum named, sir?' The old man only grunted...
'They say the widow of that brewer who died the other day has about twenty thousand a year'
It's only for her life, sir.'
'She could insure her life. D*** me sir; we must do something. If you turn up your nose at one woman after another how do you mean to live?'
'I don't think that a woman of forty with only a life interest would be a good speculation. Of course I'll think of it if you press it.' The old man growled again. 'You see, sir, I've been so much in earnest about this girl that I haven't thought of inquiring about any one else. There always is some one up with a lot of money. It's a pity there shouldn't be a regular statement published with the amount of money, and what is expected in return. It'd save a deal of trouble.' (page 683)
While I loved this book and devoured all 830 pages without barely a breath, the endings felt a little too neat and tidy. Perhaps that's part of the zeitgeist of Victorian literature though and not to be held against Trollope. While true love exists only rarely in the way we live now, and then only if it can be gently cared for and provided for by distant relatives, as is the case with Hetta and Paul - love often requiring a pension of some sort unless it is to be hastily outgrown - love can be learned as we see in the case of Ruby and John Crumb. Others have no capital to deal in romance and must take whatever options present themselves, weighing the pros and cons of a poor match and disinheritance- but a house in the city, with the bleak prospect of eternal spinsterhood. I say spinsterhood, because this book is more about the women than the men. The woman are the ones forced into creative forms of entrepreneurship, like Felix's mother who becomes a writer, producing one poorly accepted and low paying novel after another to keep her caddish, reprobate of a son solvent. They are the heroines, taking as much of an active role in their fates as contemporary culture would allow. It is ultimately Marie who is the true heroine of the book. She emerges triumphantly wealthy and alone with no one to control her destiny, until she realizes that that is actually a precarious position for any woman in the 1870's and decides with as much practicality as fortitude to marry Fisker and live happily ever after.
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