Reading Anthony Trollope


“Complete Appreciation of the Usual”: Reading Anthony Trollope

Like the now-ubiquitous pillar post box he championed, Anthony Trollope was solid, upright, and eminently practical. For most of his adult life he worked full-time for Her Majesty’s Post Office, often in positions requiring extensive travel. He nonetheless managed to write forty-seven novels, most of them in the category fondly known as “doorstoppers,” as well as numerous essays, short stories, and an autobiography.How did a man with other work to do create such an enduring literary legacy? The answer – provided by Trollope himself in his Autobiography – tells us as much about the man as about his art:

According to the circumstances of the time, … I have allotted to myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about forty…. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went … a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month, so disgraced, would have been a sorrow to my heart.

Trollope had little patience for less workman-like approaches to the novelist’s art:

There are those who would be ashamed to subject themselves to such a task master and who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till — inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting…. I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.

Most writers will probably, ruefully, admit there is some truth in this pragmatic recipe for success. But Trollope’s brisk insistence that writing is a trade like any other was anathema to both Romantic and modernist sensibilities, and thus he dealt his own critical reputation a serious blow from which it recovered only recently.

Readers, however, have always cherished Trollope’s presentation of a world which seemed, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.” Of his fictional county of Barset, Trollope himself declared that to him, it had “been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.” He felt most strongly about his characters:

I have wandered alone among the rocks and woods crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.

As a novelist, he sets out to engage us in the same way—his narrator “seizes” us, as he says, “affectionately by the arm,” and in his companionable company we meet people who become, over the course of many pages and volumes, as vivid and distinct to us as our friends and family. Like their creator, we enter vicariously into their pleasures and sorrows, puzzle over their difficulties, scoff at their folly, and rejoice in their happiness.

The ease with which we recognize and identify with Trollope’s characters is a tribute to Trollope’s most particular gift: what Henry James called his “complete appreciation of the usual.” Trollope’s world, like our own, is populated, not by heroes and villains, but by mixed and imperfect human beings, muddling through the equally mixed and imperfect conditions of their lives with mostly good intentions but uncertain results. They have few opportunities for dramatic action but rather face, every day, the small decisions about what to say or do that, individually insignificant, are cumulatively the stuff of which our social, political, and moral lives are made.

Trollope’s artistic method reflects this commitment to the real and the ordinary. He paints in shades of grey, without the vivid hues and strong chiaroscuro of his great contemporary, Charles Dickens. He does so self-consciously. The Warden, the first of his Barsetshire novels, actually includes a parodic account of his own story as Dickens would have told it. Acknowledging the power of Dickens’s “absurdly strong colouring,” Trollope concedes that “the artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colours,” and he credits “Mr. Popular Sentiment” with having inspired more sweeping reforms than “all the true complaints which have escaped from the public for the last half century.” Nonetheless, Trollope’s own artistic conscience demanded that he do otherwise. Writing about The Warden in his Autobiography, he declares:

It was open to me to have described a bloated parson, with a red nose and all other iniquities, openly neglecting every duty required from him, and living riotously on funds purloined from the poor—defying as he did so the moderate remonstrances of a virtuous press. Or I might have painted a man as good, as sweet, and as mild as my Warden, who would also have been a hard-working, ill-paid minister of God’s word, and might have subjected him to the rancorous venom of some daily Jupiter, who … without any true case, might have been induced by personal spite to tear to rags the poor clergyman with poisonous … leading articles. But neither of these programmes recommended itself to my honesty.

Writing honestly was an aesthetically risky program, one that committed Trollope to avoiding striking highs and lows in both character and action. James considered that Trollope’s “flatnesses” would “keep him from standing on quite the same level as the masters,” though he acknowledged that if Trollope’s novels can be “as flat as a Dutch landscape,” there are “a vast number of excellent Dutchmen for whom this low-lying horizon has infinite charms.”

Interestingly, while the Barsetshire novels were still appearing, another of Trollope’s contemporaries made an eloquent case for just such a “Dutch” realism:

It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions.

“Let us always have men ready,” she goes on, “to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.” Like Trollope, George Eliot was to devote most of her own novelistic career to chronicling such “unhistoric acts.”And, like Eliot, Trollope’s “representations of commonplace things” turn out to have ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions. Again, The Warden helps us to see why, and how, artistry and morality shade into each other in Trollope’s oeuvre.

The Warden is a little book (by Victorian standards, at least) about a little man with a little problem that, ultimately, means everything. Its eponymous protagonist Mr. Harding finds his right to his salary called into question by the aptly named John Bold, an ardent reformer preoccupied with abstractions such as “justice,” “duty,” “the poor,” and “the right.” While acknowledging Bold’s sincerity, Trollope lightly mocks his uncompromising idealism:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

Bold, we are told, “hurls his anathemas against time-honoured practices with the violence of a French Jacobin”—an analogy which clarifies Trollope’s concern that such absolutism, however good its cause, might prove more destructive than progressive.

Still, in our particular case, Bold may well be in the right. Mr. Harding receives a generous salary for the light duties of overseeing a charity hospital established, generations ago, through a bequest from John Hiram. The precise terms and intentions of Hiram’s will are (and remain) obscure, but Bold argues that the Warden receives an undue share of the property’s income, at the expense of the hospital’s impoverished residents.

Mr Harding’s claim is vigorously defended by his son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, not because the Archdeacon knows it to be just, but because he believes in his own abstraction, “the church”—though perhaps a rather worldly version. “He did not believe in the Gospel with more assurance,” we are told, “than he did in the sacred justice of all ecclesiastical revenues.”

Fixated, then, on abstract principles, both men disregard the human elements of the case. Bold, though he respects Mr. Harding, and loves and is loved by his daughter Eleanor, “is not the man to flinch from his undertaking from personal motives,” though the likely result of his victory is that Mr. Harding will lose his home and most of his income. Determined in his turn to withstand any impious assaults on “the church militant,” Archdeacon Grantly has no regard for the possible truth of Bold’s charge or for the burden the case and the attendant publicity has placed on Mr. Harding’s conscience and comfort. While the Archdeacon enjoys the “contented mind and unruffled spirit” of one wholly satisfied with his own course of action, the Warden suffers, for himself and for those whose welfare he guards:

Was his humble name to be bandied in men’s mouths, as the gormandizer of the resources of the poor, as of one who had filched from the charity of other ages wealth which had been intended to relieve the old and infirm? Was he to be gibbeted in the press, to become a byword for oppression, to be named as an example of the greed of the English church? Should it ever be said that he had robbed those old men, whom he so truly and so tenderly loved in his heart of hearts?

“As he slowly paced, hour after hours,” we are told, “he became all but fixed in his resolve that some great step must be taken to relieve him from the risk of so terrible a fate.” But what, really, what step can a man take under these circumstances? To stay on is to compromise his conscience and expose himself to further censure—and perhaps to divide Eleanor forever from the man she loves. But if he resigns, he and his daughter are impoverished, his dear friend the bishop embarrassed and the Church undermined. As for the bedesmen, Mr. Harding’s departure may improve their lot financially, but they will lose “that treasure so inestimable in declining years, a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world and the world to come.” As Dickens’s Stephen Blackpool would say, “’tis all a muddle.” No wholly satisfactory outcome would be realistic, and true to his commitment to honesty, Trollope does not provide one.

The petty crisis of conscience of an obscure clergyman is not the stuff of which epic drama is made—and yet, after all, it is just such muddled circumstances in which we do most often find ourselves. Trollope’s genius was to see the universe in these grains of sand. The debate over Hiram’s will, for instance, ultimately illuminates the vexed relationship between individuals and larger social institutions, including the family, the community, the church, the law, and the media; his great series of Palliser novels will extend this investigation to the government and nation. Though these organizations provide crucial and often hampering contexts for his characters’ lives, Trollope reminds us that, in the end, they are not wholly external entities but are constituted by human beings whose personal choices determine their quality, their ethos.

In this context, though neither John Bold nor Mr. Harding can effect great changes or win a heroic victory, their struggles to do what is right contributes to what George Eliot in Middlemarch calls “the growing good of the world.” And in adopting a form of realism that insists on the interest and value of their modest efforts, Trollope is helping his readers to explore, vicariously, the possibilities of virtue and heroism in their own ordinary lives.

Further, because each private individual is shown to be part of a the vast network of social relationships, each private action turns out to have widespread repercussions, and so the small-scale battles of everyday life are indeed worthy of—even demand—epic treatment. Thus we get novels like the great Last Chronicle of Barset, over eight hundred pages initiated by some confusion over how the Reverend Josiah Crawley came by a particular check, or He Knew He Was Right, nine hundred pages tracing the consequences of a husband’s conviction that his wife has been indiscreet.

To be sure, making our way through these massive volumes is quite an undertaking. Fortunately we travel in the company of Trollope’s narrator, always ready with his frank but sympathetic commentary to enhance our own perspective on his story and characters. “Here we must take leave of Archdeacon Grantly,” he says near the end of The Warden; “it is a matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.” Henry James considered these narrative intrusions “suicidal,” as they remind us that “the story he was telling is only, after all, a make-believe, … an arbitrary thing.” James missed the point. In so reminding us, in breaking frame and reaching out directly to his readers as readers, Trollope ensures that we are not passive consumers but engaged participants in both his aesthetic and his ethical projects. We know we’re reading a fiction, after all. We might as well be asking ourselves what kind of fiction it is, and with what intentions and effects.

Trollope’s novels have never had quite the mass appeal as those of Dickens or the Brontës. It’s easy to see why: they offer none of the thrills, few of the guffaws, little of the wonderment or shock. They are not haunted, and they will not haunt us. Yet in their persistently unassuming way, they offer pleasures at least as enduring and important. They show us a virtual reality of great breadth; they offer us friendship and guidance in navigating it. If, as Kazuo Ishiguro has proposed, a novel is essentially an “appeal for companionship in experiencing life,” it’s hard to imagine a more affable companion than Anthony Trollope.

Originally published in Open Letters Monthly, October 2009