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Spring... when a young man's thoughts lightly turn to Trollope

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


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