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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, like a visitor to the zoo admiring the carnivore’s appetite. He was amazed by the majestic insensitivity of Trollope’s work habits. Why, he even wrote in his cabin at sea, and James admitted that the man who could close his eyes to the discomforts of “a pitching Cunarder,” and open them on the loves and sorrows of Lily Dale, had a faculty that could take to itself wings. James’s wonder hints, nonetheless, that this remarkable process passes beneath the reader’s gaze like the conveyor belt of a soap opera.

The Autobiography made Trollope his own worse enemy in advancing his literary reputation, yet its no-nonsense attitude impressed other writers and even spurred them to emulation. Henry Adams wrote that after seeing how Trollope “can destroy the last vestige of heroism in his own life, I object to allowing mine to be murdered by anyone except myself.” Henry James thought it “one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature for its density, blockishness, and general thickness and soddenness,” but he too began in consequence to think seriously of writing about himself. Trollope had an unsettling but secretly inspiring effect upon those who practiced High Art. Yeats adored him, but furtively, his official love being Balzac. It may indeed have been Trollope’s example that prompted the division of the novel by the critics, about the time he died, into highbrow and lowbrow, a distinction that would have meant nothing to Dickens, or to his readers. And yet Trollope soon ceased to be a popular taste. What made him “not particularly easy to read”?

James may supply the answer when he spoke of his “great, the inestimable merit” being “a complete appreciation of the usual,…a delicate perception of the actual.” These are not qualities that make a popular novelist. Ordinary novel readers expect more fantasy, and what James calls “a strong grasp of the possible,” rather than of the usual. Balzac’s grasp of society’s workings strongly applied to his readers because of its fertile spawning of monsters, male and female, and the vivid detail in which he created their customs and habitat. Many readers wish to feel that their novelist is himself an extraordinary man, and the extraordinariness of Trollope was not the kind that readers require. It is the kind that makes ordinary people seem infinitely surprising when you get to know their little ways. But there is no drama about it, none of the sibylline authority of George Eliot, or the tremendous invention of Dostoevsky. Interestingly it was not the reading public but other writers who showed themselves most aware of Trollope’s true singularity. James’s tribute speaks for itself; George Eliot both admired and envied him; and Tolstoy—even more surprisingly—once exclaimed that “Trollope kills me, kills me with his mastery”—an ambiguous compliment perhaps, but a very positive one.

Trollope specializes in our “little ways.” He sees that they are the most important thing about most of us. But they are also the hardest thing to make continuously interesting and absorbing to the reader. Trollope had the knack, however he got it, of converting our little ways into a tale, a story of ourselves that has both the truths of monotony and the compulsions of an increasing momentum. His most obvious triumphs in this genre are the Reverend Crawley, the clergyman in The Last Chronicle of Barset who is accused of stealing a check; or Louis Trevelyan, the obsessed and jealous husband of He Knew He Was Right. The latter has more than “little ways,” it is true, yet his trouble is essentially a small habit grown to infernal proportions.

In a perspicacious study from a feminist angle Jane Nardin comes near to suggesting, perhaps without quite meaning to, that Trollope became a kind of protofeminist as an author because it suited his method better. Social determinism bears harder on women than on men, and “little ways” develop as a means both of circumventing and coming to terms with it. Hardy, of all nineteenth-century novelists the most inclined to make drama out of determinism, has Elizabeth Jane in The Mayor of Casterbridge find that the only way to be happy in this world is to cultivate minute forms of contingent gratification, the kind that offer themselves daily to the humble heart who accepts a subordinate position. One of his characters makes this discovery but the rest of them, and his novels too, don’t act on it. Homely Hardy is surprisingly inept at conveying the actual homeliness of existence on a daily basis, although he can suggest it indirectly in moving and imaginative touches.

But Trollope can do it continuously and brilliantly. Perhaps it went with that unfailing daily session at his desk, from five to seven-thirty each morning. If women have the drudgery of habit forced upon them, he elected it as a personal literary method and made it the basis of a lifetime’s success. Perhaps because he understood the art of the possible so well he saw the best scope for it in his female characters. Nardin’s He Knew She Was Right suggests that “in a society where power is largely reserved for the male, men may wilfully seek tragedy” (the reference is to Louis Trevelyan) “but are far less likely than women to have it thrust upon them.” That puts the matter very well. Trollope is always at his best with characters who have things thrust upon them.

Jane Nardin has also written an excellent study of Barbara Pym’s novels; and in a memorable image Barbara Pym compared a woman’s usual experience of life to having a large white rabbit thrust into one’s arms. Halfway between Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, the picture is certainly a potent one for half of human experience. It is comic too, and comedy is never far away from Trollope’s exact sobrieties, beneath which lurk in dëmure seclusion the small comforts and incongruities of life chronicled in the world of Barbara Pym. The bishop in bed with his wife in the Barsetshire series is a surprising Victorian emblem, but one as significant for Trollope as the rabbit to Pym. Neither the bishop nor his lady quite knows how he and she got there. For the bishop bed stands both for comfort and for exasperation: for his wife it is the center for scheming and for the enjoyment of power; but also, we intuit, for the reassurance and support which this masterful woman unreflectingly takes from her supine spouse.

Stephen Wall’s study is subtitled “Living with Character,” and this seems to me to go to the heart of the matter. Trollope is always in bed with his characters, metaphorically speaking; he seems not to have invented them but to have found himself in their company. Wall’s is the most unpretentious but also the most original study I have read on Trollope’s novels, and does more to explain their true appeal than does anything previously written on the novelist. Living with his characters in what Trollope called “the full reality of established intimacy,” a quaint but highly suggestive phrase, Trollope knows them as a wife was once said to know her husband, or a valet his master. He knows them from the inside out, from the weak, uncertain interior to the armored persona that has grown up for public use.

John Grey, in Can You Forgive Her?, is a characteristic figure here, and Wall produces a telling example from the Palliser novels. Trollope understands Plantagenet Palliser as a political animal but also as a vulnerable creature, with little ways that are an endearing aspect of his vulnerability. He and his wife, Glencora, are talking one day about Rosina de Courcy, a decayed old aristocrat come down in the world. Plantagenet is sententious about her. “Perhaps there is nothing so sad in the world as the female scions of a noble but impoverished stock.” That is the kind of pontification we might expect of a politician off duty, and Palliser is not only a politician but prime minister. But Trollope is not just “placing” the tone and personality of one of his specimens: that would not go with the way he lives with them. Certainly the remark is sententious, fully meriting Glencora’s sharp retort—“Nothing so dull certainly.” But Trollope then goes on to show how a politician’s armor of sententiousness can overlay genuine human feeling and touching personal need. “People are not dull to me, if they are real,” replies Palliser.

What he means by “real” here goes both to the inside of his own nature and the inside of Trollope’s process. “Reality” of being in these novels is something both internal and involuntary, something the human actor cannot will for himself, or cultivate. Role playing in Trollope subtly and invisibly contrasts with the way we actually are, the little ways which make us real. Women in particular disclose them. Right at the beginning of The Eustace Diamonds we are introduced to Lady Linlithgow, the heroine’s aunt.

Lady Linlithgow was worldly, stingy, ill-tempered, selfish, and mean. She would cheat a butcher out of a mutton-chop, or a cook out of a month’s wages, if she could do so with some slant of legal wind in her favour. She would tell any number of lies to carry a point in what she believed to be social success. It was said of her that she cheated at cards. In backbiting no venomous old woman between Bond Street and Park Lane could beat her—or, more wonderful still, no venomous old man at the clubs. But nevertheless she recognised certain duties, and performed them, though she hated them. She went to church, not merely that people might see her there—as to which in truth she cared nothing—but because she thought it was right.

In Trollopian reality Lady Linlithgow rivals her niece Lizzie Greystock, the heroine of the novel, and the contrast between them is a telling one. It is also typical of Trollope, as it is not of Dickens, that the major character should be just as “real,” in his peculiar sense, as the minor one. But he establishes the nature of reality in a manner very different from that of Dickens, as becomes clear if we go back to the odd relation between Palliser and Lady Rosina. Accustomed to the behavior and pretenses of politicians, Palliser is soothed by the genuineness of the old woman, but Trollope manages to make it clear that this is only because she is a genuine aristocrat. Palliser could not—unlike Wordsworth’s characters, or Kipling’s—have found anything elevating or soothing in the society of common folk; but he enjoys conversing with Lady Rosina about cork soles.

I always have thick boots—I am very particular about that—and cork soles.”

Cork soles are admirable.”

I think I owe my life to cork soles,” said Lady Rosina enthusiastically. “There is a man named Sprout in Silverbridge who makes them. Did your Grace ever try him for boots?”

I don’t think I ever did,” said the Prime Minister.

Then you had better. He is very good and very cheap too.”

Whatever they think he means by “real,” philosophers like A.J. Ayer, the distinguished author of Language, Truth and Logic, read Trollope with passion and precision, in a way they would never read Dickens. Connoisseurs of legal and political theory relish him too. Shirley Letwin’s lively study, The Gentleman in Trollope, suggests that Trollope’s ladies—notably Madame Max in Phineas Finn—fit supremely well into his category of gentlemen. Feminist as she is Jane Nardin allows that. She is brilliant on Lily Dale, the popular heroine of The Small House at Allington, about whom Trollope shocked the readers of his Autobiography by calling her a “female prig.” And like all good Trollope critics, such as James Kincaid and A.O.J. Cockshut, she is more concerned with questions of human nature than with literary theory.

Once or twice she cannot resist a modish pronouncement, as when she claims that The Claverings“offers a commentary on the kind of comedy it pretends to be,” but her normally shrewd and penetrating discussion of Trollope’s characters shows that she must have found analyzing him in formalist or structuralist terms a singularly barren exercise. He is still unfashionable with the higher criticism, which explores metaphysical light and darkness in Dickens or Joyce or Melville, but which has a horror—almost a pudeur—about discussing the actual quirks of human beings. The great merit of Stephen Wall’s book is that it is as uncomplicated as Trollope’s own approach to fiction, and as illuminating. The way in which people are judged and talked about by their fellow men and women is far more important in relation to Trollope’s world than the ways in which novels are written.

The “established intimacy” in which Trollope lived with his characters is less commonplace than the idea of it, promulgated by Trollope himself, might suggest. Many novelists talk of “getting to know” their characters, and popular romances try to persuade their readers that their heroes and heroines act, as it were, freely and spontaneously. The element of popular romance in Trollope associates with a lonely childhood in which he compulsively told himself stories; and also with the fact that his vivacious but usually absent mother had herself become a prolific novelist, and on occasion a best-seller. Frances Trollope is seldom read today, but the formulas of romance were in the blood and there are times, both with Trollope and his mother, when they are all too obviously on the page as well. Trollope’s father was ineffectual, but perhaps taking up his mother’s gift was for the neglected son a way of regaining, and monopolizing, her affection?

The lonely child’s stories ended happily; and with that can go a sentimentalization of women’s feeling about themselves, as in the touching but also distinctly soppy Miss Mackenzie. Such winking made Anthony Powell’s young narrator claim rather desperately to the incensed brigadier that Trollope had no true sense of woman at all. If that were the case it would indeed make him “not particularly easy to read” for the fastidious; but in fact his women, like his men, divide very positively into those he can live with, and those with whom he does not try or bother to do so. The striking thing about Trollope’s familiarity with his characters is the way it can alternate the cynical ease of popular romance with sudden shrewd insights and piercing sympathies.

The lonely child telling himself stories grew into a hard and masterful tycoon who quickly learned how to exploit their market value, and became as well a resourceful and hard-working post office executive, who had much to do with that institution’s early success. In his capacities for multiple employment, hard work, and hard play, Trollope was the yuppie beau ideal. Writing before dawn, riding to hounds four times a week, incessant traveling to check on offices and employees, running magazines and organizing literary society, finding the wholly suitable wife, and raising the good family—this paradigm of complete living would conceal, were Trollope the protagonist of a modern novel, some desperate inner vacuum, longings corrosive and unfulfilled.

But there is no evidence that it did anything of the sort. There are no dramas or disclosures in Trollope’s life, and yet Professor Super’s biography manages to give it as much fascination as that of Dickens or Tolstoy, if not more so. Super’s mastery of the period, its details and its dailiness, makes his chronicle the perfect accompaniment to one of Trollope’s own novels, and he is as comprehensive about plots and sales as he is about dinners and travels and the vast circle of friends.

Not everyone liked Trollope; many found him repellent. His voice was loud and harsh and his manner could be overbearing and aggressive. He made up to the great and the useful, and was not always nice to servants. But of course he could be charming, and he had a special tendresse for vivacious and vigorous women, particularly American women. In 1860 he met an American girl, Kate Field, with whom, as Jane Nardin puts it, “he was to carry on a Platonic love affair for the rest of his life.” He was frank about this in his Autobiography, remarking that he could “always strike a spark by thinking of her,” and in a letter to a friend he admitted that the relationship sometimes “teased” his wife. But his wife, Rose, was a sensible woman, although at parties and receptions she could seem to onlookers a little absurd, sometimes coquettishly wearing a rose in her prematurely white hair. Kate Field was in any case too busy acting, writing, lecturing, and advocating women’s rights to want to set her cap at Trollope. She was a kind of muse to him all the same: his portraits of women who possess and can use power owe her a great deal.

In the speech honoring Balzac and advocating the “style of fiction” in which he had himself attempted to work, Trollope went on to say that “the carrying on of a character from one book to another is very pleasant to the author; but I am not sure that all readers will participate in that pleasure.” Trollope need not have worried (if indeed he did), as Wall’s study most effectively demonstrates. Not only recurring characters, as with Balzac or Barbara Pym, but recurrent situations directed and explored in different ways, are Trollope’s greatest strength as a novelist. He loves to see how the same people will respond to a different challenge, and new characters to a familiar one. It is a familiarity that seldom palls, and that for his admirers is easy to appreciate. If he finished a novel during his early morning stint he immediately began another, as if he were his own Scheherazade. It was well for him that he died of a stroke when he did, aged sixty-seven, for life without a novel going would have been death to him. Such a compulsion is itself awe-inspiring. Henry James, who in his own way shared it, may be allowed the last word. As a twenty-two-year-old reviewer of Miss Mackenzie when it appeared in 1864, he observed magisterially: “We have long entertained for Mr. Trollope a partiality of which we have yet been somewhat ashamed.” Trollope has survived that embarrassment. No one need feel ashamed of reading him today.

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