This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the English novelist Anthony Trollope, and maybe the fourth decade of the Trollope boom that has put him back into the most-read ranks of the English novelists. The metrics of such things are shaky; still, one professor has discovered that as many books were published about Trollope in the five years between 1976 and 1981 as had appeared in the entire near-century since his death, in 1882. That scholarly industry goes on, and now includes books called “Reforming Trollope: Race, Gender, and Englishness in the Novels of Anthony Trollope” and “The Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope’s Novels”—stern studies in sex, race, and colonialism, with modern academics enforcing the orthodoxies of our time as Trollope’s Barsetshire clergymen enforced the orthodoxies of theirs, with as much spirit and approximately as much effect.
More important, all of Trollope’s books have been back in print. (There are forty-seven novels and many volumes of stories and reportage.) Amateur readers have taken up Trollope as a cause and a favorite in a way that they have taken up perhaps no other nineteenth-century English novelist except Jane Austen. George Eliot has passionate readers, but they tend to concentrate on her one great book, “Middlemarch,” without rushing toward “Romola.” The fun of Trollope lies in his endless multiplicity: people who like “Rachel Ray” turn to “The Three Clerks,” and fans of “The Three Clerks” ask their friends about “Orley Farm.” Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.
“Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to a friend, knowing that his correspondent would be startled by the disclosure, since Trollope was so far from Hawthorne’s own dark, allegorical style. “Just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.” Yet Henry James, in a long obituary tribute, complained that Trollope’s work lacked irony, and, for all his mastery of daily life, was not realistic enough. Trollope’s light, intrusive narrative voice, James thought, “took a suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, make-believe.”
Words change meaning over time, and the quality of irony that we value today is omnipresent in Trollope—and that is the habit of turning objects and values upside down, of seeing big and little inverted. Trollope’s people are all doing things that are small: getting on committees, making sermons, writing to newspapers, finding misplaced checks. Even Prime Ministers end up obsessed with trivial actions and tiny disputes. (Trollope’s Prime Ministerial hero is obsessed with decimal coinage.) Yet these acts are hugely important to them, and become so to us. His mother, the travel writer and novelist Fanny Trollope, wrote volumes on “domestic manners,” but “domestic politics” was her son’s preoccupation. Novelists of manners, like Thackeray, die as their manners age; in Trollope, we see the social forces that make manners happen, and these—the permanent appetite for power and prestige—change much less. That’s why, despite the dated subjects, the books don’t date. If we want to understand why e-mail arguments are dangerous (“The word that is written is a thing capable of permanent life, and lives frequently to the confusion of its parent. A man should make his confessions always by word of mouth if it were possible”), or if we want to understand why professional politicians hate “principled” stands (not because they hate principles but because they believe that the cost of the principles is already priced into the politics), or if we want to know how scurrilous gossip can eat away at its subject without actually damaging his reputation—for all the permanent, practical questions of the politics of existence, Trollope remains the man.
Tonally, there are at least three distinct Trollopes: the Trollope of the Barsetshire (or Barchester) novels; the Trollope of the Palliser, or political, novels; and the Trollope of the odder, one-off books. The Trollope of the Barsetshire novels is a master of the mock epic. Nothing in the little world of Barchester’s clerics really counts for much; everything in it is high drama. The Trollope of the political novels is a master of the anti-epic: we’re in the big world of power—it’s Parliament toward the height of the Victorian empire—and everything ends up being about matters of personality, temperament, and chance. The Trollope of the independent novels is more hit or miss: some of them (“The Three Clerks”) are top of the line, others (the dystopian science-fiction novel “The Fixed Period”) are eccentricities. Part of the appeal of his books is their consistency of spirit. A handsome new edition of “The Duke’s Children,” the last novel in the Palliser series, has just been published by the Folio Society. Much matter that had been cut by Trollope for practical reasons has been restored, but the truth is that the editing does not actually change the contents significantly. Trollope is not a sentence-by-sentence writer, or even a scene-by-scene writer; really, he is a character-by-character writer. We finish his books with portraits of people, and a few sentences added or subtracted don’t alter our feelings about the book.
Trollope’s autobiography, which he left to be published posthumously, superintends all his other stories, and was one of the things that got him, or his reputation, in trouble. Although he narrates his own tale well, he seems to paint himself in coarse colors. He outlines his very Victorian pleasures (he loved foxhunting, though he doesn’t seem to have been terribly good at it), his very Victorian politics (he tried for office as a Liberal and failed, feeling like a fool while doing so), and his very Victorian work ethic: he wrote for money, and he wrote to schedule, putting pen to paper from half past five to half past eight every morning and paying a servant an extra fee to roust him up with a cup of coffee. He made a record of exactly how much each of his novels had earned, and efficiency and economy, taken together, got him a reputation as a philistine drudge.
Trollope was, in truth, merely being practical about the problems of writing: three hours a day is all that’s needed to write successfully. Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours. Writers talking about time are like painters talking about unprimed canvas and pigments. (Nor is there anything philistine about writers talking money. Inside the ballroom at the PEN banquet, it’s all freedom and dignity; outside, it’s all advances.)
More important is what Trollope’s autobiography reveals about the liberating moment of his career: Trollope became an artist only after being sent to Ireland as a mid-level civil servant in the British post office. After an unhappy and isolated childhood—his mother, Fanny, was off in America; his remote, depressive father, a failed barrister, was merely absent—he was generally regarded as a hopeless case. Even in the post office, at first, he was considered a loser. But then, in 1841, he was packed off to Ireland. He fell in love with a woman there and married her, and there was something about the high-spirited mischief of Irish life that appealed to his essentially warm and energetic nature, and he soon became an exemplary employee. He experienced the post office as a form not of indenture but of emancipation. He introduced the postal pillar—the now bright-red postbox that still decorates British streets—even if he didn’t invent the thing, as myth has it. The post office also made him cosmopolitan, sending him around the world—in 1858, to Egypt and Palestine, then to Malta, Gibraltar, and Spain. He went on business to the West Indies and Central America, coming home through the United States; he got sent back to the United States in 1868, after the Civil War.
Trollope became the poet of the clerical classes—Anglican priests (who were state employees, spiritual bureaucrats), civil servants, members of Parliament, and solicitors. Even his aristocrats are Whig politicians, men who have, to use their own pet phrase, “gotten into harness,” surrendering freedom of action to the dull daily work of good government. The faceless bureaucrats of large organizations are his special love. No novel has a more delightful opening than “The Three Clerks,” which describes the work and the men of the Weights and Measures, the government bureau of standardized measurement. Trollope, were he alive today, would be in Brussels, writing comedies about the European Parliament.
Trollope’s eureka moment came in 1852, when, walking in the cathedral city of Salisbury, he had an idea for a church-centered story. He had already written a couple of middling novels set in Ireland, and had gained a small, unexceptional reputation, but the idea of a clerical novel was new to him, and came without much special knowledge of the English Church. The six Barsetshire novels that began in that moment are as much a triumph of the sympathetic imagination as Tolkien’s books: it is an entirely invented world, which Trollope entered by transposing his broader knowledge of how the world works onto the inner workings of a cathedral town. The beauty of the idea, though, was that it gave him a way to condense into comedy the crisis of his time: in an age of reform, what would happen to the most conservative and settled institution in England when reform arrived for it, too?
The main burden of “The Warden,” the short novel that Trollope’s epiphany first produced, is the reform of an ancient charitable legacy that is meant to guarantee the welfare of pensioners in an almshouse in the imaginary cathedral town of Barchester, in the county of Barsetshire. The legacy has been diverted over time to provide a large sinecure for the clerical warden of the place. John Bold, a young man of radical turn, witnessing this misuse, sets out to reform it. In a Trollopian touch, he is also falling in love with the warden’s daughter, and, in a second Trollopian touch, the warden, far from being a parasite on the old men, is shown to be doing as good a job as imaginable in the circumstances. Mr. Harding, the warden, is within corruption without being corrupt, as the young man is battling for reform while admiring the old institution and the gracious women it produces.
In Trollope’s fiction, even the most small-scale and homely stories have as a background this special crisis of modernization—not the crisis of industrialization and mass immiseration, seen by Dickens, but a crisis of institutions, produced by reform and standardization. Trollope sees that the agents of reform are often ugly, that the beneficiaries of corruption are often graceful, that the effects of reform are often dubious, but that reform in a liberal society is nonetheless as inevitable as the standardization of measurement. A society with gross inequities of measure, whether of inches or of incomes, cannot sustain itself. If the warden shares unequally with the pensioners, it may be a small sin, but inequality cannot be passed over too indulgently in any one case, for fear that it may be passed over in every case. Efficiency demands set standards; set standards demand equality of measure; equality of measure demands reform. It is a simple formula but is at the heart of modern change, whether benign or tending toward the totalitarian.
What makes Trollope a novelist rather than a polemicist is that, although he is on the side of reform, he is capable of empathetic engagement with its victims. Mr. Harding is a very good man who is in an unfair position, and eventually, heartbreakingly, he recognizes this. It is, in an odd way, the same kind of empathy that Roy Blount, Jr., shows in his essays about the American South: there’s no doubt that the civil-rights struggle was morally essential, but that doesn’t mean that all the Southern white people suspicious of it were devils, or that their lore and culture didn’t have a soulfulness of its own.
It’s a sign of Trollope’s gift for imagining the internal politics of large, self-approving bureaucracies that every one of his Barsetshire character types can be found in any American university. Trollope’s Low Church Bishop Proudie would today be a newly appointed university president, eager for online courses and increased enrollment; the High Church party of the Arabins would be found in the humanities faculty, distraught at having to prove that esoteric comp-lit studies are in any sense “profitable.” The Reverend Dr. Stanhope, the clergyman called back from a long holiday in Italy, is a professor summoned from a sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome and ordered to start teaching freshmen again. Even the condition of Trollope’s curates, like poor Mr. Quiverful, is exactly reproduced by those long-term adjuncts who teach semester to semester and live contract to contract.
Politics are possible in the church, as in the university, because power is dispersed and the combatants are protected from dismissal. Trollope understands with eerie accuracy the dispersal of power in an institution with prerogatives: Mrs. Proudie, the Bishop’s wife, has immense power because she has the Bishop’s ear, and all the rest of him, but also because she has a reputation for integrity backed by consistent tough-mindedness. She scares people. When the insignificant Reverend Mr. Crawley stands up to her, she dissolves. Her power depends entirely on the uniformity of her façade. By contrast, Dr. Grantly, the old archdeacon, has limited administrative power but considerable real power, because it is rooted in a set of wide, deeply entrenched clan-family ties. He’s one of those people who could be fired, but firing him would use up so much capital that there would be little left over for productive action. This division of power, Trollope understands, is not just an aspect of politics—it is a precondition of politics. (This is why there are, in almost every American business, no “office politics” properly so called; there are merely court intrigues.) For Trollope, the human hum of gossip and backbiting in Barsetshire is not simply a silliness to be mocked. It is the sound of power, safely diffused into many hands and mouths.
The Barsetshire novels can be terrific—perhaps the single book of Trollope’s that achieves old-fashioned greatness as a tale of moral testing is “The Last Chronicle of Barset.” Its central figure, that Reverend Mr. Crawley, a fiercely good, cold, impoverished cleric, faces an accusation of theft that he knows is false but cannot disprove, even to himself. Still, these novels, by their nature, remain locked in British provincial life. It is the Palliser series, the metropolitan novels that Trollope wrote in the eighteen-sixties and seventies, that make him an entirely modern writer.
“Phineas Finn” may be the best novel in English about a young man’s ambition and ascension in the city. The first volume in an informal series within the six Palliser books, it has three sequels, “Phineas Redux,” “The Prime Minister,” and “The Duke’s Children.” Together, the four books tell of how a poor Irish lawyer becomes, against all odds, first a member of Parliament—this in the day when Irish members were the odd, rogue piece in British politics—then a London man of the world, and, finally, after many travails, including being put on trial for murder, a respected member of the British Cabinet.
The sexual politics in the books are amazingly frank: Phineas rises because he is a good and able man but also because he is devastatingly attractive to women. All his relationships are essentially erotic: Lady Laura Standish falls in love with him because he is so good-looking, and rejects his proposal of marriage only because he isn’t rich enough for an ambitious woman. Later, Madame Max Goesler saves him from the scaffold by using the money she has inherited from a wealthy Continental husband to travel with a detective across Europe on his behalf; her reward is to bed him as a husband. Violet Effingham, whom Phineas pursues out of a mixture of lust and social ambition, rejects him, reluctantly, in favor of a man more reliably of her own class and tastes. Phineas is by turns shrewd about his power over women and ashamed of it.
Trollope, quite uncynically, understands both what’s necessary to make the world go round and which way the world ought to be made to turn. The Palliser books have a complicated politics. Trollope is a reformer, at times a radical, who also knows that radical reform made without some kind of social consensus is dangerous. He has Mr. Monk, a prominent radical parliamentarian, say:
“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”
The movement for gay marriage is almost a textbook case of Trollope’s idea of how political reform happens: an impossible idea becomes possible, then becomes necessary, and then all but a handful of diehards accept its inevitability. The job of those trying to bring about change is not to hector it into the agenda of the necessary but to move it into the realm of the plausible. Once something is plausible in a semi-democratic society, it has a natural momentum toward becoming real. (Even decimal coinage happened eventually.)
Trollope understood that redefinitions of the norm can cut both ways; bold tax reductions, seen as reckless in Eisenhower’s day, were made by Ronald Reagan into expected electoral loot for the wealthy. The sexism of 1960 is now hard to imagine, but so are its top marginal tax rates. In “Phineas Redux,” Mr. Daubeny, the Conservative Disraeli figure, decides to keep power by proposing the radical idea of disestablishing the Church of England. This runs against everything his party and his own politics seem to stand for. But, by seizing control of the debate, and redefining disestablishment for Conservatives as a possibility to be argued over rather than as a taboo to be shunned, he disarms his opponents, who are forced to support him in the key vote. His followers, meanwhile, have to forsake yesterday’s fixed principle in order to keep their power and their places. Politics, in Trollope’s view, is less a fight for the middle than a constant struggle to define the ordinary.
Trollope could be stirred, a little peevishly, at times, by speculative capitalism, his bête noire. (He is a big-government liberal, in the sense that he prefers bureaucrats to stockbrokers.) The only truly illiberal novel Trollope wrote on this theme, in the midst of the Palliser series, is, by a familiar paradox of taste, the one that has had a recent vogue: “The Way We Live Now.” It tells the story of the evil Melmotte, a foreign financier, presumed to be Jewish, and of his rise to Parliament and power. Not truly racist, it still shows the corruption of England by intruders—Melmotte is in league with an American named Hamilton Fisker—in a style that the cosmopolitan Trollope would usually have rejected, or deepened. It is a surprisingly bad-tempered work, and has gained popularity, one suspects, mainly because of its all-purpose title and its very atypical spleen. You could write a book about books by good writers that draw people who don’t really like that writer—Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend,” Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” If “Seize the Day” is your favorite Bellow (as it is mine) for its compact clarity of action and dramatic directness, then you are not a major Saul Bellow fan (as I am not), philosophical prolixity and narrative bagginess being part of the Bellow point. “The Way We Live Now” is the Trollope novel for people who don’t like Trollope novels.
Trollope has a consistent politics, and it is that of the Whiggish Liberals represented by the aristocratic Plantagenet Palliser. Planty Pall, as he’s known, is one of the most moving heroes in all the world’s writing because he is slowly but certainly pressing for a world in which his own power will be inexorably lessened. And he does this because he knows that the forces of democratization are right, and that those of inherited privilege are wrong. Trollope’s own political manifesto is neatly succinct: “Liberals think it to be for the welfare of the people and the good of the country that distances should be reduced and gradually annihilated. The Conservative thinks it to be for the good that he should maintain the great ‘distance’ or degree of difference which divides the Duke from the laborer.” Trollope is also clear that these “distances” to be reduced are not merely the hereditary ones that filled his England: “Accumulating wealth will re-create the distances almost as fast as they are dissolved by popular energy.”
“Gradual annihilation”: it’s a clever phrase, with the “gradual” as reassuring as the “annihilation” is absolute. Change should be gradual, but distance should be annihilated. The quiet and sardonic but real moral climax of “Phineas Finn” comes when Phineas’s mentor and ally Barrington Erle begs Phineas not to vote with the radical Mr. Monk in favor of Irish tenant rights:
“Upon my honour, in the whole course of my experience I have never known such good fortune as yours. . . . But, for God’s sake, don’t go and destroy it all by such mad perversity as this. They mean to do something next session. Morrison is going to take it up.” Sir Walter Morrison was at this time Secretary for Ireland. “But of course we can’t let a fellow like Monk take the matter into his own hands just when he pleases. I call it d—-d treachery.”
“Monk is no traitor, Barrington.”
“Men will have their own opinions about that. It’s generally understood that when a man is asked to take a seat in the Cabinet he is expected to conform with his colleagues, unless something very special turns up. But I am speaking of you now, and not of Monk. You are not a man of fortune. You cannot afford to make ducks and drakes. You are excellently placed, and you have plenty of time to hark back, if you’ll only listen to reason. All that Irish stump balderdash will never be thrown in your teeth by us, if you will just go on as though it had never been uttered.”
It’s part of Trollope’s realism that Phineas rather curses himself for his abnegation before principle, but in the climax of “Phineas Finn” Phineas—against the tide, before the cause is ripe, only because it is the right thing to do—votes with Mr. Monk and helps to bring down his own government. This decision costs him his place and his role. He goes back to Dublin quietly, and, after all his electrifying flirtations with brilliant English aristocrats, has to marry his insipid Irish sweetheart. The vote will scar his later, renewed career. But politically Phineas is not only a fool but a hero—a real-life hero.
The life of politics, Trollope thinks, is one of compromise. The principles have been priced in to the politics in the sense that no one would be engaged in politics if he didn’t have a set of norms and values that guided him, and, since they have to be shared to be acted on, it isn’t at all shameful to have them altered by the party: Barrington Erle is right about this. The wise politician may be a trimmer (the metaphor is from sailing), who shapes his sails to the wind. But Phineas does the right thing when he stands by the Irish farmers. For Trollope, the boat goes in only one direction, and that is toward greater equality, greater democracy—equality of fortune and circumstance, as Palliser himself maintains. Trollope was not a radical. Yet he was unquestioningly a liberal of an ideologically rigorous kind—exactly what we mean by a “progressive.” The idea of progress is at the heart of his vision: that liberal Victorian faith in perpetual progress in lessening distances, with the understanding that a new proximity of peoples, however welcome, will always be as strange for the encroaching as for the encroached upon.
This is Trollope’s real greatness. The liberal imagination, as Lionel Trilling once reminded the world, can seem weak in art. Sanity, sympathy, worldliness, broad-minded ambivalence about change—these are the usual attributes of a major administrator, rather than of a major artist. Trollope is that rare thing: a strong writer with a trustworthy imagination. Dickens is a far greater sentence shaper, but his view of the world is a poet’s, painted in violent and unnatural colors. George Eliot has a nobler mind, but her sympathies are so broad that they are essentially planetary: she sees, beautifully, from high above.
Trollope is right here where we are. His subject is always politics and his material is always gossip. Politics (the competition for status and power) and gossip (the shared information about who has it) remain the mostly benign stuff of human existence. Societies that have eliminated politics and gossip usually run instead on blood and betrayal, as Shakespeare reminds us. We are still post-Romantics, and politics seems to us less majestic a theme than psychology, gossip a less worthy subject than the search for love: we expect the subjects of our poems to rage, die, doubt, and worship, but not to vote or appoint adjuncts or go to committee meetings. But politics and gossip are still the essential life of the world, as every moment on Reddit reveals, and any writer who can turn them into art will survive. Trollope may never seem to us a seer or a poet. But he’s here, and for good. ♦