Could you explain me the significance of Augustus Melmotte's unknown past (if it is possible with quotations from The Way We Live Now)?

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pearlepratt eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In “The Way We Live Now,” Anthony Trollope portrays Augustus Melmotte as a wildly wealthy individual with a questionable past. In a society where ancestry and heritage meant everything, the uncertain lineage of Augustus Melmotte, Esq., his wife and his daughter presented a range of problems for people who wished to remain in respectable society. His sudden arrival in London was quickly followed by rumors of a dishonesty and treachery. In short, he was not character who was to be trusted or admitted into decent society.

Augustus Melmotte reported that he was an Englishman, but both his accent and his mannerisms spoke to the contrary. Moreover, his wife was clearly a foreigner of poor breeding.

“He admitted that his wife was a foreigner,--an admission that was necessary as she spoke very little English. Melmotte himself spoke his 'native' language fluently, but with an accent which betrayed at least a long expatriation.”

Melmotte’s money purchased his entry into London society at a time when many who held strong social positions lacked fiscal solvency. Still, many were skeptical of forming close ties with him. In fact, some even believed that social contact with him was corrupting, as indicated here:

“The old-fashioned idea that the touching of pitch will defile still prevailed with him. He was a gentleman;--and would have felt himself disgraced to enter the house of such a one as Augustus Melmotte. Not all the duchesses in the peerage, or all the money in the city, could alter his notions or induce him to modify his conduct.”

Melmotte’s problems were many, but the most troublesome were his marriage to a seemingly low-class foreign wife and the possibility that he was a blatant crook who robbed people through the use of deception and fraud. Nonetheless, his enormous wealth proved too tempting for many to ignore and he was briefly allowed into respectable London society.

Read the study guide:
The Way We Live Now

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