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Anthony Trollope: ‘Not so exceedingly benighted after all.’

By Wilfrid L. Randell.

A man of monthly parts.

THE BOUNDARY SET TO the life of man is responsible for a great deal of mild disappointment. We feel, at times, that it would have been extremely interesting to have lived a century ago; we express, at moments when the desire to prophesy is strong within us, a longing to see the developments of science or the alterations on the map a hundred years hence; but the vague vision of threescore years and ten — maybe, with care and good hap, fourscore — stretches like a dense mist across our path.

From the backward view we take more cheer, for we can at any rate watch vicariously the slow evolution of the “old days” into that indefinite period known as “the present day.” It may be difficult to fix the date when a custom becomes “old-fashioned,” but it is fascinating to see the varied process in pages still fresh enough to escape the exclusive devotion of professors of literature. Precisely as fifty years hence unborn critics, charting the seas of fiction, will note the emergence of “taxi” and “wireless” and “motor-bus,” “aviator” and “aerodrome” and “cinema,” as unprepossessing islets thrust up by the volcanic forces of science, we to-day may perceive in the works of the mid-Victorian era the beginning of similar changes. We hear, in those amiable and truthful records of English life, the novels of Anthony Trollope, of the pleasure of reading a story as it appeared in monthly parts; we read of “sending a message by the electric telegraph,” which is thus defined in our regard as an occurrence slightly unusual at that time; and the old stage-coach has been only partially superseded by the railway.

IT IS NOT EASY at first sight to find satisfactory reasons why the works of Trollope fail to attract more than a very limited circle to-day – for in spite of some pleasing and inexpensive reissues of the Barsetshire series his readers appear to be few. If we freely admit that Charles Dickens was the finer artist, there yet seems not such a great gulf between the two as to account for the immense difference in popularity. Dickens dealt chiefly with the life of the “people,” Trollope principally with the life of those who in greater or less measure were leaders and governors of the people – those who, if not gifted with more brains, owned houses and horses and lands and administered estates; but both took advantage of the possibilities of humour and sentiment in their respective spheres, and both were competent writers. We must look deeper for the explanation. The secret, we are able to perceive, partly lies in the extraordinary clearness with which we can define that mysterious element, style, in the one author, and note the lack of it in the other. Trollope, as nearly as possible, succeeded in avoiding a marked and recognisable style completely. He told the story; he actually set himself to tell it at the rate of two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour, watch before him; and it is permissible to conclude that such a hard, relentless process of “turning out” his “copy” would quite naturally horrify beyond remedy any muse whose wings might be hovering near. For him no waiting for the “mood,” no thrill of inspiration, no dashing down of the irresistibly right phrase; for him, even, no patient amending and recasting; only the steadfast determination to “produce” at a certain speed the necessary developments of the plot upon which he happened to be engaged. If, then, his works succeeds in holding the reader’s attention – and that it does so is sure – it is not by reason of his manner. From cover to cover of his best novels there is hardly a passage that can be called beautiful or memorable. Two things attract us: the interest of his story and his undeniable power of drawing life-like, delightfully human characters; attributes the more astonishing when we recollect his machine-like method.

The grip of interest which the reader begins to feel when he takes up Barchester Towers, the second novel of the Barsetshire series, is surprising. This, Trollope’s best known and perhaps finest book (though honours may be divided among at least three), will serve as a good example of his skill and of his defects. It carries on from The Warden the story of Eleanor Harding, the warden’s daughter, and brings into prominence with a far surer touch than its predecessor the intrigues, the social movement, and the varied personages of a provincial cathedral city. Ecclesiastical, of course, is the general atmosphere, and the author smilingly shows that in even the most exalted exponents of doctrine very human passions burn; that questionable motives, schemes, and counter-schemes may mingle with high aspiration and endeavour; and that bishops, deans, and dignitaries have wives and worries like ordinary people – and about as much wisdom. Mrs Proudie, solemn and majestic, ruling the local affairs of the church with an iron hand, petting her husband, the Bishop, when he acceded to her wishes, and making him most uncomfortable whenever he showed symptoms of having a mind of his own, ought to live, if only for the grim humours of her constant battles; the one drawback being that her reverend partner is so weak and vacillating that the reader can hardly help a slight contempt for him. Nothing would please us more, we are conscious of feeling, than that he should, in one tremendous moment, resolve to act the man, come to a decision and stick to it, and order her out of his study – for even that usually safe retreat was never free from the domineering lady’s intrusion. This satisfaction the author refuses to give us; but we have happy interludes when Mrs Proudie is defied by Obadiah Slope, the ambitious, unscrupulous chaplain who cares for little but his own advancement; also when that peculiar person, Madeline Stanhope, the “Signora Neroni,” treats her with cool insolence.

The Stanhope family is not a great success. The introduction of the theatrical invalid, Madeline, strikes us with a sense of incongruity, as though in visiting some green, northern fernery we had suddenly come across a crimson, highly-scented, tropical bloom. The book as a whole, however, is a wonderful picture of an aspect of English life which no other writer has limned with such skilful touches; Cranford and Scenes of Clerical Life are in a quite different category. It is obvious that Trollope’s assumption of rôle of satirist was no priggish boast. Satirist he was, yet his characteristic outlook was sociable and smiling; he never descended to cynicism or bitterness, nor yielded to the temptation of caricature, nor passed the limits of justice. Most carefully did he note the good points of his bad characters, and he seemed to take an especial pleasure in drawing such people as Mr Harding, the kindly Warden; Miss Dunstable, the sensible, strong-minded, rich spinster in Framley Parsonage; Mr Crawley, the warped, rather surly, yet not repellent clergyman of The Last Chronicle of Barset; the charming Lily Dale of The Small House at Allington, and her irresponsible, boyish suitor, Johnny Eames. Eleanor Harding, too, is evidently one of his favourites. “You might pass Eleanor in the street without notice,” he writes, “but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.”

Julia Cameron's 1864 portrait of Trollope. (National Portrait Gallery)

THE CONSTRUCTION OF TROLLOPE’S novels is so good we might think them drafted and planned as a spacious building is by a thoughtful architect; and since we know that most of them appeared as serials and had a definite length settled for them, it is no matter for wonder to find him, on his own admission, spacing and measuring and fitting the parts to scale. He has, however, one sad habit for which nothing can wholly atone – a fault which chastens our best desires to claim for him the title of artist: he persists in showing himself as the clever author, as the one who is pulling the strings and controlling the movements of the figures. Quite admirably would his many characters work out their own mild destinies – they are living enough for that; but he is not content to let them do so. From the novel which we have taken as representative, one or two examples may be given of this lapse from good taste into a clumsy sincerity – upon which, no doubt, he prided himself. It is truly amazing with what callousness he can ruin an excellent conception. Bertie Stanhope’s affairs are being discussed by his two sisters in quite a lively scene. “’Then, in God’s name, let him marry Mrs Bold,’ said Madeline. And so it was settled between them.” Then comes the destruction of all sense of reality: “But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales.” Follows a page and a half of argument to the effect that “the author and the reader should move along in full confidence with each other”; let there be no mystery, no gracious deceptions, no exhilaration of wonder or suspense. And then the story, with the reader thoroughly annoyed, is continued. An even more lamentable instance occurs farther on in the same novel. One of the spirited love-scenes between Eleanor Bold and Dr Arabin is in its full tide. The reader is interested almost to the point of excitement; and this passage suddenly baulks him : –

“As she spoke she with difficulty restrained her tears; but she did restrain them. Had she given way and sobbed aloud, as in such cases a woman should do, he would have melted at once, implored her pardon, perhaps knelt at her feet and declared his love. Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr. Arabin! But then where would have been my novel?  She did not cry, and Mr. Arabin did not melt.”

Could anything be more discordant, more indiscreet, than the unfortunate clause we have emphasised? It comes like a blaring false note in a symphony. Trollope seems constantly on the alert for an opportunity to nod and smile and remind us that he is there in charge, that nothing shall go wrong, and that it will all be settled satisfactorily in the end – consequently his men and women, until we recover the sense of illusion and charm, collapse into mere puppets, limp and blank and without volition. In The Warden we have another slip of the same order. Eleanor Harding proposes to visit John Bold, her lover, to plead for her father, and the author proceeds: –

“And now I own I have fears for my heroine: not as to the upshot of her mission – not in the least as to that; as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt.”

This intercalation, entirely superfluous, with its two damning words which we have again italicised, deprives the whole of the approaching interview of its dignity.

IT IS WELL TO remember that the appearance of the author among his characters, though theoretically a fault, being disruptive and harmful to the dramatic effect, is not always unpleasing; but uncommon discretion and delicacy, and a sure sense of humour, are required if the plausibility of the story is to remain unimpaired. Dickens – since we have mentioned him in comparison – managed the personal note occasionally with results that triumphantly vindicated him; for an instance, take the whimsical opening of Chapter XXVII in Oliver Twist: –

“As it would be by no means seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting, with his back to the fire, and the skirts of his coat gathered up under his arms, until such time as it might suit his pleasure to relieve him; and as it would still less become his station, or his gallantry, to involve in the same neglect a lady on whom that beadle had looked with an eye of tenderness and affection, and in whose ear he had whispered sweet words, which, coming from such a quarter, might well thrill the bosom of a maid or matron of whatsoever degree; the historian whose pen traces these words – trusting that he knows his place, and that he entertains a becoming reverence for those upon earth to whom high and important authority is delegated – hastens to pay them that respect which their position demands, and to treat them with all that dutious ceremony which their exalted rank, and (by consequence) great virtues, imperatively claim at his hands. Towards this end, indeed, he had purposed to introduce, in this place, a dissertation touching the divine right of beadles, and elucidative of the position, that a beadle can do no wrong; which could not fail to have been both pleasurable and profitable to the right-minded reader, but which he is unfortunately compelled, by want of time and space, to postpone to some more convenient and fitting opportunity; on the arrival of which, he will be prepared to show that a beadle properly constituted, that is to say, a parochial beadle, attached to a parochial workhouse, and attending in his official capacity the parochial church : is, in right and virtue of his office, possessed of all the excellences and best qualities of humanity; and that to none of those excellences, can mere companies’ beadles, or court-of-law beadles, or even-chapel-of-ease beadles (save the last, and they in a very lowly and inferior degree) lay the remotest sustainable claim.”

These two long sentences, taking up nearly a page, may not be necessary, strictly speaking; but they certainly do not hinder the story, nor do they irritate the reader by plunging him into the chill atmosphere of disillusion; on the contrary, there is a warmth about them which persuades us that the author thought of his people as real, living persons. Trollope, when he steps forward, is simply disastrous; Dickens, when he shows himself, is exhilarating.

Thomas and Anthony.

WHEN ALL THE DRAWBACKS have been noted, however, the critic turns to the more congenial task of praise. The various characters compose a picture – they are not merely associated individuals mechanically arranged; to use a worn phrase, they form “a slice of life.” This Hawthorne recognized. “Have you read the novels of Anthony Trollope?” he asked in a letter. “They precisely suit my taste – solid and substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and 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 being made a show of. And these books are just as English as a beefsteak.” This seems to predicate a certain amount of genius, bluff and hardy, but note over-selective or critical; and we find this view confirmed by sundry flashes which illuminate our theme from other quarters. Alfred Austin, who was intimate with Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the novelist’s elder brother, found Anthony “in no accurate sense of the word intellectual, and as unhelpful and impatient an arguer as I ever met”; though he admits, one is inclined to think contradictorily, that Anthony was “a delightful companion and brimming over with active intelligence.” Perhaps, however, Austin’s criticisms were not particularly valuable or significant. Says another observer [Leslie Stephen]: “The first time I ever met him was in a low room, where he was talking with a friend almost as square and sturdy as himself. It seemed as if the roof were in danger of being blown off by the vigour of the controversial blasts.” From such glimpses, and from his Autobiography with its amusing insistence upon the excellent way in which he performed all his official duties, we gain a quite pleasing impression of an impulsive, thorough, capable Englishman, imaginative but not artistic, practical enough when fame arrived to put a high figure on his work. And the prices he obtained were positively astonishing; in twenty years he earned nearly £70,000 by his novels and a volume or two of travels, for a single book receiving as much as £3,000.

Many tempting bypaths open from the broad, critical high road if we consider the novels in lighter vein. The names of many of the people, for example, are constructed on a very old-fashioned, obvious plan, reminiscent of classic “morality” plays. Mr Pessimist Anticant; Mr Popular Sentiment; Dr Fillgrave; and Dr Rerechild; Slow and Bideawhile, Dry and Stickatit, Solicitors; Mr Nearthewinde and Mr Closerstill, opposition election agents; Mr.Neversayeadie, a barrister; Lady Longspade, Lady Ruth Revoke, Mrs Shortpointz and Miss Finesse, card players; Bolus, the apothecary, and Readypalm, the publican; these are some of the queer and rather labored tricks from which a keener sense of humor might have saved him. We are prompted to remember Fielding, with his Mr Arsenic, Dr Dosewell, and Bondum, the bailiff; Smollett, with Lord Trifle, Potion, Staytape the tailor, and Vulture, another bailiff; or Scott, who occasionally indulged in the same play of words. Dickens gave us Lord Frederick Verisopht, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mrs Leo Hunter, The Tite Barnacles, Dotheboys Hall, and some more titles of the same description; but he was frugal and cautious in the use of this risky method, and managed, as a rule, with delightful skill, to convey geniality, cunning, pomposity, frivolity, or imbecility in a name without spoiling the effect of naturalness – consider Mrs Whititterly, Bumble, Pecksniff, Chadband, Pyke and Pluck, Dodson and Fog, Smangle, Jingle, Mr Toots, Captain Cuttle, and a host of others.

TROLLOPE’S ATTITUDE TO LIFE, as shown in his literary work, is interesting, but so confused that it makes it difficult to obtain any clear mental picture. He definitely makes his confession of a high moral purpose, it is true. “I have ever thought of myself,” he writes, “as a preacher of sermons, and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience. I do believe that no girl has risen from the reading of my pages less modest than she was before, and that some may have learned from them that modesty is a charm well worth preserving. I think that no youth has been taught that in falseness and flashness is to be found the road to manliness; but some may perhaps have learned from me that it is to be found in truth and a high but gentle spirit. Such are the lessons I have striven to teach.” This is well and worthy; but elsewhere he falls into a sad tangle. “It is the business of a novel to instruct in morals and to amuse” – this, from the essay on “Thackeray,” harmonizes with the passage just quoted; but we find in the same book that “the primary object of a novelist is to please,” and “without the lesson, the amusement will not be there.” “I will go further,” he says, “and will add, having been for many years a most prolific writer of novels myself, that I regard him who can put himself into close communication with young people year after year without making some attempt to do them good, as a very sorry fellow indeed.”

Alfred Austin.

In other ways he presents contradictions which puzzle the student. He seems to have loved his work in a cool, rather calculating fashion. He need not have written a line of fiction, so far as money was concerned; we must remember that for the greater part of his life he held a position under the Post Office that brought him quite a respectable income. To Alfred Austin, he wrote, on May 5th, 1871: “My only doubt as to finding a heaven for myself at last arises from the fear that the disembodied and beatified spirits will not want novels. For your sake I will trust that there may be left enough of the prevailing spirit of our present nature to make satire still palatable.” Therefore, we conclude, writing attracted him strongly; yet he betrays no passion, no devotion as to an art that held him in sweet, unbreakable chains. Alluding to a trying period in his youth, he says: “It is now more than forty years ago, and looking back over so long a lapse of time I can tell the story, though it be the story of my own father and mother, of my own brother and sister, as coldly as I have often done some scene of intended pathos in fiction.”

Such a statement, deliberately offered, provides a hint as to the one thing lacking in this hearty, fertile soul. Gifted with the facility in the spinning of paragraphs, with skill in the devising of plots, with a deft and pretty touch in the delineation of men and women, and with extraordinary method and perseverance, what could he not have accomplished with the lovelier gift of inspiration – the power to regard his art as a thing of wonder, mysteriously vital, creative, permanent! He might not have satisfied the Post Office so admirably, but he would surely have become one of the splendours of the rich middle-Victorian circle. As it was, he realized dimly, distantly, and a little pathetically his own limitations. “I do not think it probable,” he observes, “that my name will remain among those who in the next century will be known as writers of English prose fiction.” Most of the critics are compelled to a dull, grudging praise, to a very qualified recommendation. “Trollope,” wrote Mr Frederic Harrison, “may have for our children the interest at least of a singularly faithful portrait of the society of fifty years ago.” Leslie Stephen balances himself on the fence with the rest of the scholarly crowd : “Nobody,” he said, “can claim for Trollope any of the first-rate qualities which strain the powers of subtle and philosophical criticism; but perhaps it would be well if readers would sometimes make a little effort to blunt their critical faculty…. If he was not among the highest intellects of his benighted time, he was as sturdy, wholesome, and kindly a human being as could be desired.”

WE CAN ALL ACHIEVE the easy form of criticism which consists in proclaiming that if a man was not this, at any rate that; but in truth Trollope deserves a more cordial tribute than these hedging attempts at valuation, and his novels are much more than a “very instructive document,” as Leslie Stephen loftily terms them. His “benighted time” produced, we may bear in mind, Charles Dickens, Thackeray, Kingsley, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Rossetti, and a host of minor lights, and saw the stars of Swinburne and George Meredith burn to brighter flame; seeming thereby not so exceedingly benighted after all. “I can only gather wood and lay it on the altar,” said Goethe; “the fire must descend from heaven.”

Trollope, let us admit, is not to be ranked with the great masters upon whose labours the heavenly fire descended, and who permanently influenced the course of criticism and the style of a nation’s prose; but for an age when our fiction is produced with perhaps less method, certainly with less care for cleanliness and truth, his quiet, kindly light shines with unfaltering gleam. It is not yet too remote to be disregarded, and it would be well if some of our much-praised novelists, who, though they claim to move the world, do not know how to tell a story, would spend a few thoughtful hours over the series of novels which brought to this typical Englishman wealth, pleasure, and fame.

THE PUBLICATION OF THIS evaluation of the work of Anthony Trollope is a mere prompt, occasioned by the looming deadline – the first of June! – for those graduates and undergraduates lured by the promise of generous cash prizes ($2000 and $1000, respectively) to the successful entrants in the Trollope Prize 2011 competition sponsored by The Department of English, in collaboration with the Hall Center for the Humanities, at The University of Kansas. For the graduate winner, the award also includes a small honorarium and publication of the winning essay here in our New Series.

Wilfrid L. Randell was an essayist, fiction writer, and biographer with a special fascination for electricity (Michael Faraday, di Ferranti, Electricity and Woman, etc.). Randell’s survey of Trollope, his work, and the estimation of his peers, is unavailable elsewhere online and appears here for the first time since its publication in The Fortnightly Review 91 years ago. It was chosen by the editors because it mirrors, approximately, the prevailing view of Trollope by most readers for most of the last century. Now an appreciation of Trollope’s work is on the rise at last – Leslie Stephen, George Meredith, and Frederic Harrison less so. Certainly, this would come as a surprise to a writer who, in the nineteenth century, said of himself, “I do not think it probable that my name will remain among those who in the next century will be known as writers of English prose fiction.” This was nearly true, but it’s a new century now.

This essay was published as “Anthony Trollope and His Work” in the Fortnightly Review, DCXLV [n.s.] (September 1, 1920), pp 459-467.

Transcribed manually for this New Series and published here with insignificant alterations to track any subsequent usage. Republication by written consent only. Please cite The Fortnightly Review [New Series] and For details, please see our copyright page.

Suggested reading: Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World, by Richard Mullen.

For more, visit the Trollope Prize website at the University of Kansas.

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