Anthony Trollope was a successful Victorian writer, publishing 47 novels from the early 1850s until his death, but after the posthumous publication of his autobiography, which gave a prosaic description of his working routine - assiduously writing so many words per day every day, seeming to treat writing as a mundane business - cheapened him in the eyes of his readers, violating their romantic conceptions, after that his reputation fell sharply, not to revive until the 1940s when Britons, spending long hours in air raid shelters, immersed themselves in his long, leisurely novels, and today, his work is more highly regarded than at any time since his heyday in the 1860s.
Beginning in the 1970s, considerable critical attention has been paid to Trollope, and the interesting thing about it is that it's all over the place; there's very little agreement about what he was doing and how he did it. Just as interesting is the fact that, judging from contemporary reviews, it's clear that his work was not deeply understood at the time. Readers enjoyed his books, but they weren't sure why. Of course, the inability of readers to explain why they like or dislike an author is not uncommon, but usually literary critics, people whose business it is to be sensitive to such things, are able to enlighten us. So Trollope was elusive from the start, and he remains so. Let us see what we can make of him.
Trollope is best known for the Barsetshire novels (listed at the end of this essay), which begin as a series about clerical life in a cathedral town but go beyond that to encompass the lives of the squirearchy and nobs living in the area. There is much comedy in these novels, both of character - Mrs. Proudie, the archbishop's wife, is one of the great comic figures in English fiction - and of outlook; Trollope regards his characters with an unobtrusive irony reminiscent of Chaucer's. The plots of these novels tend to be stereotypical, centering around star-crossed lovers who finally overcome all obstacles to marry at last, but Trollope was quite conscious of what he was doing; that sort of plot was a requirement of the three-volume novel. beloved of the circulating libraries, which were so important in the trade, but he hoped readers would see beyond that:
Nay, take the last chapter if you please - learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
There is another notable series, the Palliser novels, ostensibly about political life, but as with his other novels, they are really about the characters and their interactions.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter to his publisher, had this to say about Trollope's novels:
They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going
about their daily business, not suspecting that they are made a show of.
That final clause is especially perceptive. Think for a moment about the characters of Dickens and Thackeray: they are vivid, dramatic, known by us almost in an instant. By the time the few pages of the first chapter of Vanity Fair are done, we know a great deal about Becky Sharp - her scornful attitude toward the headmistress, the way she flings Johnson's dictionary out of the coach window - just as the first pages of Great Expectations - Pips's encounter with Magwitch in the churchyard - impress us with Pip's ingenuous nature. Thackeray and Dickens see heir characters dramatically and so present them. As the books open I always think of a curtain rising in a darkened theater, revealing a brightly lit stage full of moving and declaiming people. That is not Trollope's way. He can and does write dramatic scenes that reveal character, but they are embedded in a narrative that describes the lives of the characters in cumulative detail, painting them, stroke by stroke, in solitary moments, in soliloquies, in letters, in conversations, turning them this way and that, showing them in different lights until we know them as thoroughly as their creator does.
This is the key to Trollope, the reason he is and was read with pleasure: he creates characters of a breadth and depth unusual in fiction, and we are pleased to follow them through the novel to learn more and more about them. The novel, after all, is preeminently about characters. There is solemn talk about the "novel of ideas," but we care far more about Pierre and Natasha than we do about Tolstoy's theory of history, just as Melville's Manichean ideas about God and evil interest us much less than the characters aboard the Pequod.
To show how this works, I shall discuss an excellent later novel, Ralph The Heir. The movements of the characters, which at first seem stereotypical, turn out quite otherwise, and the irony, always present in Trollope, is here very strong.
We first meet Ralph, the heir, the unheroic hero of the novel, when he drops in at the Underwood's house where he does a little flirting with Clarissa Underwood, harmless in his eyes but not in hers.
She knew that he was idle, extravagant, fond of pleasure, and - unsteady, as she in her vocabulary would be disposed to describe the character which she believed to be his. But in her heart of hearts she liked unsteadiness, in men, if it were not carried too far.
Having been her father's ward, he is understandably familiar with her, so when, just as he is leaving:
"Dear, dear Clary - you know I love you." Then he put his right arm around her waist . . . and kissed her.
Of course, as a well brought up Victorian lady, she resents the kiss even as she cherishes the man, and she will carry away from this scene a wholly unwarranted devotion to Ralph for far too long.
Meanwhile Ralph, who has wasted his fortune and is in debt, is tantalized by a scheme initiated by a breeches-maker (for men who ride to hounds), Mr. Neefit: if Ralph will marry Neefit's daughter Polly, he will give him 20,000 pounds. Polly is a fine girl far superior to Ralph (as it turns out), but her father wants to make her a lady. When the idea is first hinted to Ralph this is his reaction:
. . . the girl herself is so pretty, that upon my honour I don't know which is prettier - she or Clary. But fancy old Neefit for one's father-in-law! Everybody is doing it now; but I don't think I'd do it for ten times the money. . . . One has to get used to these things, and I am not used to it yet. I soon shall be - or to something worse.
But then Trollope shows him in a different light:
Ralph Newton passed hardly a day of his life without a certain amount of remorse in that he had not managed himself better than he had done, and was now doing.
. . . as for changing altogether the mode of his life - that was more than he had vitality left to perform. Such was the measure which he took of himself, and in taking it he despised himself thoroughly.
He tries to go through with the Polly bargain, much against his inclination, but she rejects him, pointing out that by marrying him she would be cut off from her family - she has her pride and it is stronger than Ralph's. Neefit, however, keeps pursuing his cause, persecuting and embarrassing Ralph. This is both comic and grotesque and we feel some sympathy with Ralph. Then he inherits Newton Priory, a considerable estate, and decides to propose to Mary Bonner, Clarissa's cousin. As he begins his attack, Trollope remarks:
There was an ease and grace always present in his intercourse with women, and a power of saying that which he desired to say - which perhaps arose from the slightness of his purposes and the want of reality in his character.
This is a sharp insight that makes us look back to recognize Ralph's smoothness throughout the book - he was certainly graceful in his dealings with Polly - to see the shallowness from which it arises.
By the this time, Clarissa has finally seen enough of Ralph and his facile proposals (she has turned him down after her cousin did):
This young man to whom she had devoted herself possessed no power of love for an individual - no capacity of so joining himself to another human being so as to feel . . . that one should be esteemed by him superior to all others - because of his love.
Finally, Ralph is maneuvered into proposing to another woman:
. . . previous to his offer he had been aware that Lady Eardham had been angling for him as a fish, that he had been as a prey to her and her daughter, and that it behooved him to amuse himself without taking the hook. . . . He had taken the hook, and now had totally forgotten all those former notions of his in regard to a prey, and a fish, and a mercenary old harridan of a mother . . . he thought he had exercised a sound judgment, and had with true wisdom arranged to ally himself with just the woman most fit to be his wife and the future mistress of Newton Priory.
My point is to show you how Trollope interests the reader in character, and we are interested in Ralph's course even as he arouses our contempt, but that only grows slowly. Remember: I have selected key revelatory passages scattered over more than 400 pages. And we have been interested in other characters and their development. We have been following other plots, too. So it is only upon reflection that we realize we have been absorbing, almost without thinking about it, a complete picture of his character. And that is true, too of all the major characters, even poor frustrated Mr. Neefit. This is Trollope's great skill, to create characters we gradually get to know so subtly that it is only at the end, when we look back at the whole novel that we see how we have grown to know them, just as we learn about people in our daily lives. With Thackeray and Dickens we learn everything (or nearly so) at once - the interest lies in seeing how the characters will carry out their lives. Trollope seems very plain and open; as he himself said, "Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other." But in fact his method is very subtle, which is why readers can enjoy his novels without exactly knowing why.
The Barsetshire novels:
The Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset
The Palliser Novels:
Can You Forgive Her?
The Prime Minister
The Duke's Children *