Tag Archives: trollope

Anthony Trollope’s preternatural power

Simon Winchester in today’s New York Times Book Review:

Traveling in China back in the early 1990s, I was waiting for my westbound train to take on water at a lonely halt in the Taklamakan Desert when a young Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I spoke English and, further, if I knew anything of Anthony Trollope. I was quite taken aback. Trollope here? A million miles from anywhere? I mumbled an incredulous, “Yes, I know a bit” — whereupon, in a brisk and businesslike manner, she declared that the train would remain at the oasis for the next, let me see, 27 minutes, and in that time would I kindly answer as many of her questions as possible about plot and character development in “The Eustace Diamonds”?

Ever since that encounter, I’ve been fully convinced of China’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight.

It doesn’t actually seem that preternatural to me that a young, presumably educated woman read a novel and liked it.  What he should have been convinced of is Anthony Trollope’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight people separated from him by vast spans of culture and time.  “The Eustace Diamonds” is ace.  Probably “He Knew He Was Right” or “Can You Forgive Her?” (my own first Trollope) are better places to start.  Free Gutenbergs of both here.  Was any other Victorian novelist great enough to have the Pet Shop Boys name a song after one of their books?  No.  None other was so great.

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That garment which is supposed to denote virile command

Just finished Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. I’ve read many of his parliamentary novels, but none of the clerical ones until now; this one, as the title suggests, is the last of his books centered on the clergy of Barsetshire, and thus functions as a kind of “whatever happened to…?” for characters I was unacquainted with.  But it functions well on its own, especially as a portrait of Mr. Crawley, yet another of Trollope’s acutely observed obsessives.  (The best of them, among the books I’ve read, is Trevelyan from the amazing He Knew He Was Right.)  On the whole it’s not as good as his best books; too much rests on coincidence and the denouement is allowed to denoue too long.  Trollope himself, though, writes in his autobiography:

Taking it as a whole, I regard this as the best novel I have written. I was never quite satisfied with the development of the plot, which consisted in the loss of a cheque, of a charge made against a clergyman for stealing it, and of absolute uncertainty on the part of the clergyman himself as to the manner in which the cheque had found its way into his hands…. Such fault I acknowledge,–acknowledging at the same time that I have never been capable of constructing with complete success the intricacies of a plot that required to be unravelled. But while confessing so much, I claim to have portrayed the mind of the unfortunate man with great accuracy and great delicacy. The pride, the humility, the manliness, the weakness, the conscientious rectitude and bitter prejudices of Mr. Crawley were, I feel, true to nature and well described. The surroundings too are good. Mrs. Proudie at the palace is a real woman; and the poor old dean dying at the deanery is also real. The archdeacon in his victory is very real. There is a true savour of English country life all through the book.

Trollope doesn’t mention that the book, like everything he writes, is funny.  Here’s a joke I liked.  Mr. Crawley is speaking with the more easy-going churchman Mr. Robarts:

“And I have, methinks, observed a proneness in the world to ridicule that dependence on a woman which every married man should acknowledge in regard to the wife of his bosom, if he can trust her as well as love her. When I hear jocose proverbs spoken as to men, such as that in this house the grey mare is the better horse, or that in that house the wife wears that garment which is supposed to denote virile command, knowing that the joke is easy, and that meekness in a man is more truly noble than a habit of stern authority, I do not allow them to go far with me in influencing my judgment.”

Crawley understands his companion’s nature and makes a game effort to express himself in the casual language of a country gentleman; but he can’t quite bring himself to utter the words “wears the pants,” and so has to resort to paraphrase.  Comic gold.

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