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The Way We Live Now

Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?

Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?

Everyone reads Dickens in high school. Trollope not so much.

As an English major, I read a lot of literature. But somehow the works of Anthony Trollope never made the must-read list. I would pick up one of his dozens of classic novels and glance at the hundreds of pages of dense text and think, maybe some other time.

That time finally arrived last month when I was looking for a good long book to provide a portable door (thanks be to Tom Holt) through which to find respite from the exhausting realities of current problems. I was intrigued by the title: “The Way We Live Now.”

Anthony Trollope was born on April 24, 1815. The “now” in which his characters strive and scheme and pine is a far cry from the “now” of 2015. Thus, in some ways reading “The Way We Live Now” now was, for me, rather like watching one of those soporific BBC series in which a rigid sense of propriety locks all the characters into their places on the social scale.

Trollope’s writing style, however, offers surprising turns of wit and wisdom delivered with unhurried grace. Published in 1875, “The Way We Live Now” is driven by issues which remain relevant today: women’s rights, entrenched economic disparity, and the power of audacity to sway public opinion regardless of evidence. The story bustles with life. And there’s a good bit of romantic foolishness as well, with young women pining for handsome cads while worthy heroes suffer in silence.

The contrasts between the now of Trollope’s world and the now in which we live are too numerous to count, and perhaps modern people living in the First World feel secure enough in the embrace of technology to ignore the ideas of a writer so two centuries ago.

We moderns think we’re so free.

Yet in spite of all our jets and handheld gadgets and security surveillance, freedom remains a complex challenge. Freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of speech — these concepts we cherish must be rooted in respect for the dignity and worth of all life on Earth, regardless of gender or ethnicity or religion or age. Without compassion for each other, all our so-called sophistication is worse than meaningless. It’s a fraud.

Thus wrote Anthony Trollope, and he wasn’t wrong.

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