One of the reasons for keeping this blog is to tackle novels that I would otherwise not even consider attempting. Trollope definitely falls into that category – not only have I never read any of his work before, but I had no intention of doing so. Trollope treated writing as a job, studiously putting in his three hours a day, and eventually produced 47 novels. I find this volume of output oppressive – you could read Trollope for a decade and still be reading.
However, in recent years Trollope has enjoyed a renaissance, with the two hundredth anniversary of his birth last year not doubt being a factor. He is also, inevitably, a favourite of the Sunday afternoon television adaptation. His inoffensiveness and blandness, large casts and sedate plotlines suit this genre perfectly.
There is a Trollope Society (John Major is one of its Vice Presidents; the President himself is the Bishop of London) which has very smart website. In introducing its subject the site adopts a slightly defensive tone:
“Trollope wrote forty-seven novels – three times as many as Dickens – and many have long preferred Trollope for his subtle delineation of human character and middle class”
So Trollope is a better writer than Dickens because he wrote more? Not the strongest of arguments – an appreciation of quantity over quality would venerate Catherine Cookson over Jane Austen. I could also argue that “subtle delineation” is a tautology – delineation is by definition an act of precision. In any event, Dickens doesn’t need defending by me, but the test is in fact a simple one – can you recall any character from Trollope?
Which brings me to the over 900 pages of the Victorian soap opera that is ‘The Way We Live Now’. The plot is relatively simple for such a long novel – a series of characters attempt to arrange mutually satisfactory marriages, and after a long series of frustrations and rejections, finally most of them are successful. The central character, Auguste Melmotte, a financier, embezzles money, apparently, and when exposed commits suicide. His death precipitates a slightly frenzied tying up of plot lines as Trollope realises that with Melmotte gone, much of the interest of the novel has also expired. The large supporting cast are reasonably well delineated, to be fair, although many of the rich young men who gather at the BearGarden, an early incarnation of the Drones Club, are interchangeable, and the young women seem happy enough to swap one suitor for another as their financial positions change.
As a commentary on the way Victorian society encouraged dishonesty, in romance, finance, and public affairs, the satire is wooden and uninteresting – bad people do bad things, are exposed, and disposed of. Poor people are virtuous and stupid, and only happy when they learn to accept their place in life. It’s hardly surprising given the 100 chapters Trollope had to fill that he finds it necessary to repeat himself endlessly, recycling situations, recapping each time a storyline is revisited, and showing events from different points of view. To cap matters off, there is some deeply unpleasant anti-semitism in the closing chapters of the novel – it could be argued these attitudes are shown in order to expose them, but the only rebuttal offered is that times have changed, and what was once unacceptable is now less abhorrent.
Trollope is comfort food for those who like to think they have an appreciation of literature, but who actually enjoy having their prejudices confirmed. It really isn’t worth your time.
P.S. In an interesting article in the New Yorker last year, entitled “Trollope Trending – Why he’s still the novelist of the way we live now”, Adam Gopnik claimed that “The Way We Live Now” is the Trollope novel for people who don’t like Trollope novels.” Gopnik had a couple of other insights worth mentioning. He describes Trollope as
“not a sentence-by-sentence writer, or even a scene-by-scene writer; really, he is a character-by-character writer.”
He also claimed that
“Amateur readers have taken up Trollope as a cause and a favourite in a way that they have taken up perhaps no other nineteenth-century English novelist except Jane Austen.”
I have no idea if the concept of an amateur reader is intended as a joke – it must be, surely?