Living with Trollope

Trollope: Living With Character

by Stephen Wall
Holt, 397 pp., $35.00

There is an amusing scene in Anthony Powell’s roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which a brigadier demands of a very junior officer what he thinks of Trollope. It is wartime, 1940, and the novelist has suddenly become popular again. The junior officer is the narrator: in fact the author himself. After a difficult moment wondering whether truth or respectfulness would be more in order he replies that he has never found Trollope “particularly easy to read.” An explosion follows, and he is required to produce the name of a novelist whom he does like. “Well, Sir, there’s Balzac.” Another explosion.

Bus drivers and brigadiers were in fact reading Trollope during the war, as they were reading War and Peace. The atmosphere of crisis and boredom in the Battle of Britain made a red-letter day for the classic novelists, offering the comfort and relaxation of a complete and credible alternative world. That was what counted, and made the classícs during that time more acceptable than romances or junk novels. There was also no doubt a general feeling, encouraged by skillful BBC propaganda, that the crusade against Hitler required, during its moments of relief, a correspondingly elevated class of reading matter. Whatever the reason there is no doubt that Trollope’s reputation and sales rose greatly during those years, and his reputation has remained high ever since. Academia is now prepared to take him as seriously as it takes Dickens, though the Trollope industry is not yet on the same scale.

But does the Balzac addict find Trollope as easy to read, or as profitable? At a big dinner Trollope once made a speech toasting Balzac. “I am told that he was the man who invented that style of fiction in which I have attempted to work. I assure any young men around me who may be desirous of following the same steps that they cannot possibly find any style easier.” Hmm. R.H. Super quotes that in his elegant and scholarly biography, and goes on to wonder whether it may be referred to Trollope’s amusement, a year or so earlier, when he overheard two clerics at the Athenaeum Club depreciating Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife in the Barsetshire series. According to his Autobiography Trollope revealed himself on that occasion, telling the clergymen that he would go home and kill off Mrs. Proudie. Which he did.

It would be agreeable to imagine Henry James, the attentive eavesdropper of Max Beerbohm’s cartoon, hearing some fellow clubmen criticizing the Princess Casamassima (who had, after all, appeared in two of his novels) and vowing to go home and do her in straightaway. Agreeable but, alas, impossible. James’s sense of the novelist’s calling was too high, too august: he could never have compromised it by so brutally vulgar an attitude as that which Trollope took pleasure in revealing to the public who read his Autobiography. James, who revered Balzac, expressed a fearful admiration for Trollope …

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