Generations of high school students have been raised on a rich diet of the works of 19th century novelists: Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Hawthorne, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy. If this is still the case it may well be because the works selected have been dramatised by the BBC, sometimes in compelling series lasting for weeks, and are available on DVD.
It is, alas, usual for a major British 19th-century writer, Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels, to be omitted from this list of greats. But in recent years, following popular BBC dramatisations of his celebrated Barsetshire and Palliser series, each of which contains six novels, there has been an almost imperceptible change in critical attitude. Once the first Barsetshire novel, The Warden, appeared on television two decades ago, everyone I knew began reading or re-reading Trollope’s fiction. Like all of these friends, I found him so engaging that I decided slowly to buy second-hand as many of his novels as I could afford.
Although Trollope’s most highly regarded novels were extremely popular in his lifetime, from about the mid 1850s until the early 1880s when he died, there were major literary critics whose response to his total output did not do him much good. One such critic was Henry James, whose own prolific fictional output was never as well received as Trollope’s. When I was starting out as a university student in the 1950s, James’s criticism of Trollope led the members of English Departments who chose our texts to omit him. Yet many of the parents of students whom I have taught literature in recent years have begun reading Trollope after conversing with me. Not one has regretted this.
Henry James’ reservations, expressed when Trollope was churning out a remarkable number of novels while trying to earn a living as a postal worker, did not destroy — for those of us who read him, anyway — our sense that his finest books were enormously entertaining. Despite the contemporary addiction to technology that has resulted in much less familial reading aloud than was usual in my own youth, there are still well-informed adults who thrive on this old-fashioned activity. To my delight, those who do read this author aloud often find that spontaneous conversation about what has been depicted by Trollope takes off in familial contexts, temporarily interrupting the narrative that promises to provide continuing pleasurable surprises.
Over the past few months, re-reading Trollope’s Barsetshire series after re-watching The Warden, I’ve been struck above all by his versatility in depicting typical social activity among the British gentry in 19th century England during a period of immense growth and change. Whether he is concentrating primarily on young heroines whose prospects are uncertain, or on unlikely male protagonists like the inimitable middle-aged clergyman Mr Harding, whose unflagging goodness never makes his ordinary comings and goings uninteresting, Trollope rewards close attention.
Typically, what is most engaging about Trollope’s fiction is drawing room banter followed by the intimate one-on-one conversation that furthers every key individual’s fortunes, whether the persons involved are fully aware of this or not. Long walks, horseback rides, family meals, and dinner parties, so ubiquitous in his characters’ lives, involve us as fully as if we were the people engaged in them. The author’s Christianity, while obvious, is never obtrusive; and his depictions of faithless rogues are as convincing as his portraits of virtuous souls who do what is right no matter what the pressures are that encourage them to do otherwise.
There is, of course, much that is moving in the reversals of fortune that afflict Anthony Trollope’s key figures. But this time around, nothing has made a deeper impression on me than what can happen to young persons whose dreams collapse when the objects of their fondest hopes prove to be utterly unworthy of them. Predictably, such reversals of fortune also occur in the novels of brilliant writers like Dickens or Eliot; but this does not make them more moving or more memorable.
The critic David Skilton, who has written numerous introductions to paperback editions of Trollope readily available at university campuses, seems to me curiously obtuse about the lasting effect of betrayal on one young protagonist of the Barsetshire series (in The Small House at Allington). As if there were no such thing as enduring love, however misplaced it may be, he calls “perverse” the failure of one of 19th-century fiction’s most loved heroines, Lily Dale, ever to love again once she is jilted by her opportunistic fiancé for a hollow woman of rank. Yet the relevance of such treachery to the present, when it is probably more pervasive and of greater concern to dutiful parents because of the sexual permissiveness of modernity, continues to be embarrassingly obvious.
What Trollope makes utterly real is the meaning of heartbreak when an impressionable, innocent young woman gives herself utterly to a dream of complete, shared fulfilment that turns out to be a species of fantasy. In life, of course, there are people who recover from betrayals of this type; but there are others, both male and female, who don’t. Those who do recover may well find mates with whom they can experience a different form of contentment. But it is the stuff of classical tragedy that nothing fully assuages the grief experienced by a young person whose complete trust is met with coldness, weakness, or blind incomprehension. Anthony Trollope understood this perfectly—and his depiction of it seems to me as profound and authentic as anything found in 19th century novelists widely considered superior in penetration.
On such commonplaces of Victorian life as jockeying for power and influence, raising young children, handling unforseen debt, managing to retain a congregation in a rural parish beset by economic woes, or entering political life without prior experience of the ins and outs of governance, Trollope is wonderfully instructive. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter a whit that in today’s world of global uncertainty, dramatised daily on our television and computer screens, “getting on” requires skills anchored in other experiences of worldly knowhow. What does matter is that the feel of the struggles rendered in an older historical context is so authentic and, in its broader outlines, so pertinent.
To young people starting out in life, and to more mature folk who’ve forgotten how much we have in common with older generations, Anthony Trollope can encourage a joyful burst of reading energy unrivalled by anybody on our own best seller lists. What he teaches, above all, is the virtue of restraint and forbearance in the face of disappointments and villainies that nevertheless manage to elude some fortunate souls. At the same time, he encourages all of us to retain in memory remarkably vivid portraiture—especially, portraits of social climbers like the celebrated Mrs Proudie or Dr Slope, whose appearance on celebrated BBC serial dramas does their creator proud.
For 50 years, starting at Harvard, Dr Susan Reibel Moore has written about great fiction, drama, and poetry in scholarly journals, books of literary criticism, and newspapers. Her most recent book is the third edition of What Should My Child Read? (Australia, Five Senses Education).