Trollope Trending

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.

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