Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pick Up a Trollope*

I’m not on Facebook, I’m not Linked In and I’ve never been all aTwitter, but when it comes to 19th century novels, I’m on the cutting edge. It’s Anthony Trollope’s 200th anniversary and people are falling all over themselves to describe how wonderful his novels are. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote an article on “Why Trollope is Trending” and talked about how many “amateur readers” (I guess that’s me) share their enthusiasm for their favorite novels.

The Guardian had a feature in which famous Brits discussed why they loved Trollope and named their favorite novel. Antonia Fraser picks the first of the Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? She was introduced to his novels during WW II when all of her relatives read his work because Trollope cheered them up.

I never faced WWII or the London Blitz but I have read Trollope to similar effect.

Many years ago there was a book club called The Reader’s Subscription. One of its offers to new subscribers was a free set of the six novels that make The Barsetshire Chronicles. This lovely set of books sat on my shelves for some years and gathered a film of dust.

Then one day a friend got me an interview for a new job. The interview didn’t go especially well. The people interviewing me spent more time talking to each other than they did to me. They announced that they wanted to see other people. Having heard this from any number of men I dated, I assumed that I and the interview team were quits.

I thought no more about this until my friend called to say I had gotten the job.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “They seemed unimpressed.”

She hesitated.

“What aren’t you telling me? I asked.

“Well, you weren’t anybody’s first choice, but nobody objected to you.”

So I had not been voted Most Likely to Succeed. I was either The Least Offensive or The Most Innocuous. At the job I held at the time, I was adored. My boss dressed in black on my last day.

I spent my first days on the new job traveling with someone I knew not at all. I returned to the office and found people to be generally indifferent.

When I got home from work one night, for some reason never very clear to me, I picked up The Warden, the first of the Barsetshire novels, and fell in love with that cathedral town and many of its inhabitants. The atmosphere at work was tense but the cathedral close was cozy.

The Barsetshire novels are not about religious practice and theology. They’re about family and getting ahead. Each clerical position comes with its own degree of status, housing and income and the clerical men in black spar and scheme to get the very best positions they can. That said, Septimus Harding, the gentle man who oversees the religious life of the twelve elderly men at Hirarm’s Hospital, is the best Christian I’ve come across. His right to so much money (800 pounds) for so little work is questioned by a young reformer and subsequently by The Jupiter (a fictional stand-in for The Times of London). Harding is convinced by what he reads in the paper that he is doing the twelve elderly men a disservice, so even though the legal case is dropped, he decides to leave his position and take two less remunerative church posts.

Mr. Harding is surrounded by much more ambitious clergymen and we see more of them in Barchester Towers. His son-in-law is the archdeacon and son of the current bishop. The son wants his father’s job but the bishop doesn’t die soon enough and a man inimical to the archdeacon’s interests becomes Prime Minister and makes Dr Proudie the bishop. Dr. Proudie comes with a strong minded wife (known as the she-bishop) and his own chaplain, the greasy, fawning, odious Obadiah Slope. (Can you tell I don’t like him?) The struggle among these people to attain power and wealth is hugely entertaining and one of the big questions is who will take over the position abandoned by Mr. Harding. Will Mr. Harding be offered the job of warden again or will it go to Mrs Proudie’s favorite, Mr. Quiverful, who must provide for a wife and 14 children?

While Dickens and his characters are better known (and don’t misunderstand me, I love Dickens as well) I would argue that Trollope’s characters are more subtly drawn. Dickens characters are either unspeakably evil (Fagin, Ralph Nickleby) or incredibly good (Little Nell, Little Dorrit).

Trollope gives his good people weaknesses (Septimus Harding spends a large amount of money self-publishing Harding’s Church Music) and can be sympathetic to his less likable characters. When Mrs. Proudie finally gets her comeuppance in The Last Chronicle of Barset, the reader feels sorry for her.

With regular doses of Trollope I was able to get through the rough patch that was the start of this new job. I went on to read many other Trollope novels, but when after 11 years I left this job to find another, I once again spent time with the people of Barsetshire. I have found them fascinating many times since.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

* I’m sure this joke grew stale quickly in the 19th century. Later in the twentieth century it was said that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “liked to go to bed with a Trollope.”


  1. You can see what WW 2 was like in my blog May 3. tjstraw

  2. Steph, I have been a Trollope fan since high school. I read them all. And then read them again when David and I were driving around England on several trips. Thanks for reminding me. I am in the throes of rereading Edith Wharton. (I have a TBR list AND a TBRR--to the reread--list) Anthony the Great will be next on my TBRR.