Thursday, April 30, 2015

Trollope at 200: An Appreciation of Dickens’ Undervalued Contemporary

About a quarter century ago, I briefly belonged to a chapter of a Charles Dickens Society that met in an area public library. Once in a blue moon, for the sake of variety, they might throw in another 19th-century British novelist such as Jane Austen. But, with  more than a dozen novels (not to mention A Child’s History of England and American Notes), Dickens usually offered more than enough meat for our literary diet.

But, for all the fecundity of his imagination, Dickens was a slacker compared with contemporary Anthony Trollope, who was born in London 200 years ago last week. Trollope had 47—count ‘em, 47—novels under his belt when he died in 1883.

I’ve read only 3 ½ novels by Trollope: The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), the magisterial dissection of speculative finance, The Way We Live Now (1873), and the novella “Christmas at Thompson Hall.” Four other exquisitely bound and illustrated Trollope novels stare out balefully from my groaning bookshelves at home.

But I am not ashamed. After all, these weren’t those anemic fictions we designate by the word “novel” today, but instead veritable Victorian doorstoppers that can dislocate your toe if you drop one. In terms of getting to them: all in good time. And I will get to them. The ones I’ve finished have been so much fun to read.

I’ve managed to read eight works by Dickens, but I had an earlier start with him, since childhood, and was encouraged to plunge in further by unforgettable movie adaptations (e.g., David Lean’s Great Expectations) and by the books’ presence on virtually every available high school and college reading list. I came to Trollope as an adult and had to discover him on my own.

I think my experience with Trollope has been fairly typical. Although he may have been the major bestselling Victorian novelist beginning in the mid-1850s, he has fared less well with posterity. He has not benefited from readers seeking weighty philosophy in their books, as has George Eliot, or stormy romances with brooding heroes, like the Bronte Sisters, nor from feminists rediscovering them (both Eliot and the Brontes).

Most especially, he has suffered by comparison with Dickens, for these reasons:

*He gave no evidence of a gaping psychic wound.  Such wounds have the power to make readers identify with a writer who returns obsessively to a subject, such as Ernest Hemingway’s (literal) wounds after returning from WWI. Trollope might have been beset by a sense of inferiority compared with his mother, a prolific and successful writer at a point when the profession was not a female pursuit, and his older brother, who bullied him with his superior mind as well as fists. He might have felt out of place at the famous school Harrow because of his father’s indebtedness. But he did not suffer as epicly as Dickens, who, in his 12th year, was forced to work at a blacking factory and to withdraw from school when his father was imprisoned for debt. You would hardly get any sense from Trollope that he had once been what a schoolmate called “without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I ever met….He gave no sign of promise whatsoever.”

*He focused not on the traumas of childhood, but on the compromises of adults. Dickens deals almost obsessively with children—the boys and girls left orphans, or at the mercy of financial reverses to a father. Even a grown-up protagonist will have adventures involving children (e.g., Nicholas Nickleby, when the young hero’s adventures begin as a teacher in a horrible school). In contrast, Trollope returns repeatedly to marriage and courting. Blessed with a long—and, from what we can tell, a largely happy marriage—Trollope treated the institution with a distinct lack of sentimentality, regarding it as a realm that had to be continually negotiated and renegotiated, by adults who were rarely all good or all bad. Such plots certainly were well-done, but they can’t engage the hearts of a wide readership the way that at-risk children can.

*He did not possess Dickens’ theatrical flair. John Dickens had propped up his young son to sing before company, and, in adulthood, the novelist would not only mount amateur theatricals but also stage highly lucrative solo readings in which he acted out all his principal characters. He took full advantage of the serial format in which his novels first appeared by ending each section with a cliffhanger. Trollope, on the other hand, placed a premium on an ironic narrative voice (“It is ever so much easier to proffer kindness graciously than to receive it with grace”). Dickens’ novels have not only been adapted numerous times for the stage, but for the screen as well. Not so Trollope, who has had to wait for the slow, stately rhythms of multiform, episodic television to be adapted.

*He wrote true-to-life, not larger-than-life, characters. Dickens’ characters appear in bright, bold colors, with the lines between good and evil starkly drawn. Thus, Ebenezer Scrooge is not merely rendered isolated and lonely by excessive devotion to business, but also so miserly that he  requires visits from three Christmas ghosts to turn his life around. Trollope’s financial manipulator Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, in contrast, might be so slippery that he can pose a threat to individuals and even entire institutions, but he is at least blessed with a kind of energy that those around him don’t have. One difference between the novelists is in nomenclature. Trollope shared with Dickens an instinct for satire but without resorting to such extremes of caricature. (Trollope’s names for his fictional counterparts to Prime Ministers Lord John Russell and Benjamin Disraeli were Lord Mildmay and Sir Timothy Beeswax; two of the most characteristic and memorable monikers of Dickens’ characters were Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Guppy--names which, just by their sound, convey the characters' respective hardness of heart and ridiculousness.)

*He was a Burkean conservative, not a liberal, let alone a radical. Trollope was not filled with the “generous anger” that George Orwell once hailed in Dickens. He might not like how an institution such as the aristocracy might react to a parliamentary election, but he believed in incremental reforms, not in sweeping, wholesale challenges to the old order. Feckless young Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now represents the decline of the aristocracy into uselessness and dishonesty. But standing opposite him as a credible alternative is not a working-class hero but his uncle Roger, a throwback to old-fashioned aristocratic virtues.

*He told readers far too much about his working methods in his autobiography. In one sense, Trollope was too innocent for his own good in his memoir. He admitted to writing three hours each day before breakfast, itemizing how many words and pages he produced each hour as well as how much he was paid for his various works. It all sounded so philistine—hardly the attitude that artistic creation is supposed to take--and critics held it against him. The result: he does not, by comparison with other Victorian novelists, get on curricula that expose students to him and get them to think about him.

*He did not disclose enough about his personal life in the same book—or, indeed, anywhere else. His marriage in 1844, Trollope believed, was “the commencement of my better life.” At the same time, it was “like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to anyone except my wife and me.” That sense of discretion leaves no room for literary chroniclers who, when it comes to their subjects, are fascinated less by biography than by pathography. Clearly, Trollope was fond of a young American feminist, Kate Field—but did that fascination stay quasi-avuncular or turn romantic? In the case of Dickens, there was no doubt—he even published an open “Personal Statement” to readers in the journal he edited, Household Words, in which he confirmed his separation from his wife, but denounced anything improper with an unnamed “innocent person” with such vehemence that everyone knew he was conducting an affair with a much-younger actress, Ellen Ternan. The whiff of scandal makes an author infinitely more intriguing, doesn’t it? But an author without one seems so bourgeois, so—well, boring.

For years, Trollope paid dearly for all of this. More recently, though, his stock may be rising. All his books are now back in print. My own interest was piqued by the 1982 BBC mini-series The Barchester Chronicles, an adaptation of the first two of his “Barchester” novels, The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857). And, amid the financial machinations of Enron and the too-big-to-fail institutions that produced the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09, The Way We Live Now came to seem completely contemporary.

And just this week, it was announced that Julian Fellowes, creator of Downtown Abbey, would be adapting one of Trollope's novels, Doctor Thorne, for the U.K.'s ITV network. If this adaptation gets even half the viewers that Downton Abbey has had, booksellers will want to make sure they carry enough copies not just of this but of all Trollope's work.

Although Trollope’s six Palliser novels covered the rise of a politician, he seemed more engaged in how the exercise of power affected domestic relations than the issues of the day. It is ironic, then, that one of his works dealing with marital relations would affect not just policy, but even the fate of the world.

I’m talking here about the so-called “Trollope Ploy” that became a much-debated part of the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. At the height of the crisis, the Kennedy administration tried to make sense of two different messages emanating from Nikita Khrushchev: one, pleading for a way out of the nuclear standoff, the other evincing bellicosity. JFK decided to go with the more conciliatory of the two, as diplomats likened the Soviet Chairman’s tone to one of Trollope’s damsels who interpreted the squeezing of a hand as a marriage proposal.

Adam Gopnik’s ruminations on Charles Darwin and G.K. Chesterton were such rubbish that I seriously weighed confining him to my permanent doghouse. But his essay on the recent upsurge of interest in Trollope in the current issue of The New Yorker is good enough to make me consider allowing him out for a day or two.

In one sense, Trollope’s may have fallen behind Dickens in terms of posthumous interest, but in life he was fully a match for him in almost demonic energy and productivity. Where Dickens sought to supplement his income by editing magazines, Trollope did so by serving as a highly competent General Post Office administrator. While Dickens took long nocturnal walks in London, Trollope got his exercise in fox hunting. In fact, novelist Willkie Collins—on familiar terms with both—called Trollope “an incarnate gale of wind.”

By this time, a complete transformation had taken place in the once-timorous schoolboy. James Russell Lowell likened Trollope at the height of his fame to “a big, red-faced, rather underbred Englishman of the bald-with-spectacles type. A good, roaring positive fellow who deafened me.”

The great change in his life, in fact, took place when Trollope moved from England to Ireland early in his professional life as a civil servant to help direct Ireland’s postal system. The experience did more than provide him with a steady income and an opportunity to wield a hitherto undreamed of sense of competence. (He is generally credited with popularizing in the U.K. post boxes that he had come across in France.) The influence of the island with its myriad political, religious, economic, and personal tensions, informed his first completed novel (The MacDermotts of Ballycloran, 1847) and his final, uncompleted one (the posthumous The Land Leaguers, 1884), as well as a number of others in between.  John McCourt has written a fine article on the importance of Ireland to his fiction.

Novelist Amanda Craig, writing in the U.K. paper The Telegraph, speaks for many of us in explaining why we have so enjoyed the experience of reading Trollope—and why we will go back for more:

“There are many great geniuses of English, American, French and Russian literature whom I love, re-read and revere, but none who makes you feel as if you have found someone who understands how ordinary people are a mixture of frailties – admirable, amusing, weak or brave but deserving compassion rather than censure.”

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