Manual The Australians: The Way We Live Now

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When the Carburys are invited to a grand ball given at Melmotte's Grosvenor Square mansion, Felix, an experienced ladies' man, meets Marie, a trusting and inexperienced girl, and sweeps her off her feet.

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Roger, the Carburys' cousin, is a kind and decent country squire. He has been in love with Henrietta for years but has never said anything, as she has only recently come of age. Paul Montague is a young engineer, formerly Roger's ward. Newly returned to England from America with plans to build a railroad from Utah to Mexico, Paul meets Henrietta when the Carburys visit Roger's estate.

Roger visits London and proposes to Henrietta, who explains that her fondness for him can never become the love he hopes for. Roger refuses to give up, but when he meets Paul later and reveals what happened, Paul discloses that he too is interested in Henrietta.

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The men's long friendship cools. Paul and his American partner meet with Melmotte, who agrees to arrange a stock offering. He invites Sir Felix and a number of his aristocratic friends to join the railroad's board of directors; none of them knows or cares anything about the company's business, but they are delighted at the chance to profit from it.

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The stock offering proves a huge success and the share price goes up and up. Melmotte's prestige and influence are greatly enhanced and he begins to be accepted in English society. Paul is anxious to go to America to begin construction, but for some reason Melmotte keeps putting off the financial arrangements that are necessary for the work. Paul learns that Mrs Hurtle, a woman he was engaged to in America, has come to London. She vanished before the marriage and he assumed that she had thrown him over. Now she tells him that she means to enforce his promise of marriage. Through a combination of bullying and pleading, she keeps a hold on him.

The 100 best novels: No 22 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

Sir Felix continues to woo Marie and finally approaches Melmotte, who is doubtful of the idea because Felix has no money. Marie convinces Felix to elope, that her father will eventually support them financially. To pay for the trip to New York, she steals a cheque from Melmotte's desk. At the docks Felix fails to board, hung over from a night at his club, while Marie is stopped by constables investigating the stolen cheque and is forced to return to her father's house.

Marie is visited by Felix's sister Henrietta, who informs her that Felix doesn't have the courage to defy Melmotte and has no interest in marrying Marie without a dowry. Marie's feelings for Felix soon change from love to hatred. Melmotte has had himself elected to Parliament, and on the strength of the successful railroad stock offering, has borrowed huge sums of money and begun other ambitious projects.

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Only Paul seems to know or care whether the railroad exists. When he returns to London to confront Melmotte, Melmotte warns that if the truth is revealed, Paul and everyone who has invested in the railroad will be ruined. Paul, unwilling to be involved in a fraud even if it makes him rich, tells the whole story to Mr Alf, who promptly publishes it in his newspaper.

The railroad company's stock begins to plunge. Sir Felix is aware of his sister's interest in Paul, and when Henrietta reproaches him for abandoning Marie, he spitefully tells her what he knows about Paul. Henrietta visits Mrs Hurtle, who makes Henrietta believe that her affair is still going on.

Yet, if a reader tried to understand a specific suburb using these conceptual maps, he or she would be hopelessly lost and quickly disappointed. It is more helpful to approach suburbs and suburban culture from specific places and at particular historical moments. Technological, economic and occupational changes have had a differential impact on suburbs. Over the past quarter of a century, the secure jobs in manufacturing that were once found on the outskirts of our post-war cities have been replaced by more insecure service employment and higher unemployment.

The information-rich inhabitants of the inner cities now have more in common with their counterparts in other global nodes than with their fellow citizens on the peripheries of their home cities. This illustrates the growing inequalities within Australian cities that both Wark and Latham observe.

Contiguous suburbs experience these processes in contrasting ways. Latham is right to berate those who view the western suburbs of Sydney as a place laid waste by globalisation. Many households within the area have benefited from the changes and those who "depict the region as an endless flatland of fibro homes and fringe dwellers do so from a position of ignorance". Yet, at the same time, other studies have shown that within this region there are concentrated pockets of marginalised households for whom a post-industrial landscape symbolises the withdrawal of opportunities rather than the allure of new aspirations.

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As most Australians still live in suburban areas, or aspire to, then the concept is susceptible to misuse and abuse as a euphemism by politicians and cultural commentators claiming to speak "for all of us". During the mid— to lates, it was commonplace to hear that the suburban "heartland" was "hurting". This suburban "pain" was often used to explain the rise of Hansonism. We should treat all portrayals of "the suburban sensibility" with caution and be as wary of people who speak for suburbia as we are of people who speak "for all of us".

In this sense, it serves the same linguistic function as the Middle Eastern term "the Arab street", referring to grassroots opinion. But once "suburbia" is juxtaposed with other Australian cultural value systems, we are asked to accept a false dividing line that supposedly explains political behaviour.

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There are simply too many counterfactuals to give credence to the suburban over-generalisation. Within a generation, the same suburban electorate can swing from representing the heartland of Whitlam to Keating to Howard. Their platforms differed considerably and each leader recognised that he couldn't represent all of suburbia all of the time despite his best rhetorical flushes.

Suburbs are in a state of constant demographic flux. Anyone who has walked down his or her childhood street will experience a range of emotions associated with demographic and physical changes. Sometimes the street might be transformed beyond recognition as the houses deteriorate; new replaces old to make way for more palatial abodes. Alternatively, while the street might look the same, there may be signs of gentrification or downward mobility.

Suburbs also change as families pass through life cycles. Memories of noisy streets filled with children are replaced with silenced schools and the noise of birds in now taller trees. The suburban street I now live in has changed over the past 45 years from dwellings built for young public-service families with one breadwinner, on to ageing empty nests, then to university-student rental accommodation and now young professional dual-income renovators' delights. Its description has also changed from "outer suburban" to "inner suburban" as more new suburbs have grown beyond its perimeter.

Even writing this, I am aware of gross over-generalisations within one street as these different residential cohorts interact. To suggest that one's address determines shifts in cultural outlook strains the malleability of the personality structure beyond credulity. This range of variables suggests suburban heterogeneity.

Abstract binary oppositions between the inner city and the suburbs have always been spurious and cannot be employed as a useful explanation for understanding the culture of "the suburbs" or its political behaviour. These economic, political and demographic observations also suggest that there is no "suburban sensibility" that can be teased out of the experience of living in the suburbs.