You know how people sometimes ask you who your favorite writer is, and the names of all authors immediately vanish from your head? Usually in that situation I’ll say something like, “Well, it’s so hard to pick just one, but I really love Anthony Trollope.”
Memo to self: henceforth, just say, “Anthony Trollope.” He’s my desert island author.
Are you rolling your eyes? So retro, so predictable, so…. English. So Victorian. So dull?
Yes. Trollope can be dull and the quality of his output varies. But even if you just count the six Barsetshire novels, the five Palliser novels, He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now, that’s a lot of fine fiction. Thousands of pages of excellent reading. So maybe you skim some of it, as I intend to do when I embark shortly on Phineas Finn. You’ll still be left with Trollope’s remarkable assemblage of humor, social observation, and astounding perception about the emotional lives of human beings.
Take, for instance, Can You Forgive Her. The young lady who requires forgiveness is Alice Vavasor and when I tell you that she has decided not to marry her fiancé — and that’s what requires forgiveness — Trollope is going to sound like a twit. But in 1864-5 when he was writing, a lady’s choices were limited and her behavior strictly monitored. Alice, by edging out of her engagement to the perfectly eligible John Grey, strays well beyond what’s acceptable.
What makes Trollope a genius is that we see Alice’s point of view. Mr. Grey is so… perfect. So handsome, so educated, and so considerate that he brushes aside Alice’s doubts with a patronizing assurance that she is just having a womanly (i.e. irrational) moment. And you want to shake him.
Then there’s Alice’s cousin George in the wings, the bad boy with whom she had an earlier understanding, who tells her that she is too fierce for Mr. Grey, that life with him would stifle her. In a brilliant scene set on a hotel balcony in Basel, George and Alice sit up together late at night as the Rhine rushes past beneath their feet and young men swim through the rapids in the moonlight… young men who are free to swim through rapids.
Of course, in 600 pages you’re going to get much more than one story. There’s the nail-biter about Lady Glencora Palliser and her feckless but beautiful suitor Burgo Fitzgerald: can he entice her away from the marriage she assumes to be loveless? There’s earnest, clueless Plantagenet Palliser who wants above all else to be Chancellor of the Exchequer and takes his wife Glencora for granted. There’s fox-hunting; there’s a comic subplot about a jolly widow and her competing suitors. It is all quite reassuring on the macro level: no nuclear holocaust, no economic malaise, no existential dread. But on the micro level, Trollope shows us, empathetically, humans experiencing both grief and glory. And maybe it’s his empathy that impresses me most.