Saturday, January 12, 2013

Trollope is Wonderful

Some time before Christmas I started reading The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope, and (being a slow reader) I finished it a few days ago. Now I have moved back to the first novel of the Barsetshire Towers series, The Warden.

Is not readability a most mysterious thing? What is it about a writer that, even when he is not being funny or clever or suspenseful or deep, keeps us reading?

My interest in this writer recently roused, I came across this description of his appeal (from some well-known literary figure, I can't remember which): He satisfies us in the same way that looking out a window at an incident in the street below satisfies us.

His plots are fairly contrived, of course-- he was a Victorian novelist, after all-- but nothing that happens in his books is especially improbable. (Personally, I can accept the impossible much more easily than the improbable. I will happily admit telepathic powers or portals to another world, but when character X turns out to be character Y's long-lost brother, I lose all patience.)

Though Trollope stood (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Liberal, this was at a time before liberalism had gone stark raving insane. He was, in fact, deeply conservative, and this is one of the many contrasts between himself and Dickens. (It is impossible to avoid comparing Dickens and Trollope; Trollope himself took swipes at his great contemporary. Personally, though I like Dickens, I always struggled with his grotesqueries-- flaming red noses and exaggerated eccentricities and so on-- and the many occasions where he passes from sentimentality to mawkishness. Trollope's portrayal of life is more measured and recognisably real.)

Through Trollope's works show a deep sympathy with the poor, he was a status quo conservative by nature, obviously delighting in the customs and traditions of English life and the slow pace of provincial life.

I love this passage from The Warden, an excellent description of the two different attitudes towards radical reform; one that sees it as a necessary evil to be sometimes allowed, and the other which itches to change everything to fit some ideal vision. (The story concerns a hospital-- more like an old folks' retirement home than what we would call a hospital-- which was established centuries before by a charitable bequest. Over time, the land has radically increased in value, but the occupants of the home have not benefitted from this; all the surplus has gone to the warden of the hospital. Now a local radical is attempting to stir up dissatisfaction amongst the old people.)

"Poor old men: whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? all their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and above all, 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!

John Bold sometimes thinks of this, when he is talking loudly of the rights of the bedesmen, whom he has taken under his protection; but he quiets the suggestion within his breast with the high-sounding name of justice: 'Fiat justitia ruat coelum.' These old men should, by rights, have one hundred pounds a year instead of one shilling and sixpence a day, and the warden should have two hundred or three hundred pounds instead of eight hundred pounds. What is unjust must be wrong; what is wrong should be righted; and if he declined the task, who else would do it?"

A very recognisable portrait, I think.

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