2009 was the year that I finally tackled Anthony Trollope. Well, perhaps I didn’t actually tackle him, but he was in my grasp for a while. Trollope had long intimidated me, both because he wrote so many novels (47) and because most of his books seem to weigh in at about 1000 pages or so. Even more intimidating, was the fact that so many of his best-known novels come in multi-volume series. His Chronicles of Barsetshire series comprises six novels, as does his later Palliser series. I am always reluctant to pick up a book that is the first in a multi-volume series. For much of my reading life, I tended to be a bit anal about books. I considered it a matter of pride to finish every book that I started reading. Rarely did I put aside a book, regardless of how bad or difficult or long it might be, before reaching the final page. Nowadays, I am not so dauntless. In my old age, I am more than happy to give up on a book if it commits the cardinal sin of boring me. Sometimes, I jettison a book after only a dozen pages or so. This newfound willingness to abandon books in mid-sentence, as it were, made reading Trollope no longer seem like such a daunting task. If I found myself not enjoying his work, I would simply put it aside and pick up something else.
But where does one begin with such a vast oeuvre to choose from? Although Trollope published his first novel, “The Macdermots of Ballycloran” (the title alone gives me the willies), in 1847, at the age of 32, most Victorian literature experts claim that it wasn’t until 1855, when he published his fourth novel, “The Warden,” that Trollope finally produced a work of greatness. I was tempted to begin with “The Warden” because it is an uncharacteristically short novel, comprising only about 200 pages in the Modern Library edition. But I am a huge fan of so-called “Victorian sensation novels,” particularly the masterful thrillers of Wilkie Collins (“The Moonstone, “Armadale,” “The Woman In White,” etc.), and so I opted to read Trollope’s sole attempt at the genre, “The Eustace Diamonds,” published in 1873 and clearly inspired by Collins’ tales of crime and detection. When it came to thriller writing, Trollope was no Collins. His sensation novel lacks the fast-pace, ingenious plotting, and excitement of Collins’ best books. But its characters were more lifelike than any of Collins’ and its social satire more trenchant. Like Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette,” “The Eustace Diamonds” is the kind of Victorian novel that people who don’t like Victorian novels mean when they say that they don’t like Victorian novels. It is incredibly long, slowly paced, has a ridiculously complicated plot, and is populated by about a dozen major characters and seemingly hundreds of minor ones. What’s more, because Victorian novels were generally serialized in periodicals before being published as books, each new chapter often begins with a redundant recap of what happened in the previous chapter. Trollope often tells the reader not only everything that his characters are doing and saying but also what each of them is thinking. Nowadays, it is fashionable for novelists to reveal a character’s thoughts primarily through his words and his actions. But Trollope doesn’t leave it up to the reader to infer his characters’ thoughts. He spells them all out, usually in great and wordy detail. But if Trollope’s novels are the type that haters of Victorian fiction most despise, they are also the type that lovers of Victorian fiction cherish most. When read in the right frame of mind, a Victorian novel can be a life-consuming experience. “Middlemarch,” “Bleak House,” “Villette,” “Armadale” – novels like these tend to commandeer your brain and blot out everything else going on around you during the numerous hours, days, and sometimes weeks that it takes to read them. I often find that I don’t want a fast-paced novel to read, or a well-shaped novel filled with short, finely tuned sentences. Sometimes I like to get lost in a great big baggy maze of seemingly endless words and characters and plot twists. And for a reader in that frame of mind, “The Eustace Diamonds” is just about the perfect novel. I would gladly give you a sketchy outline of the plot, but it is so complex that even as I was reading it I couldn’t keep track of it. Novelist E. L. Doctorow has said that writing a novel is like driving on a dark and twisted roadway. You can’t see any further than your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way. Reading “The Eustace Diamonds” is a similar experience. You can keep only a small portion of the plot clear in your head at any given time, but you can make it through the entire novel that way. I will admit that there were occasions when I turned off the headlights and parked the car for a week or more, so exhausted was I by the multitude of storylines, characters, and sentences. But not once did I consider abandoning the roadway before the journey’s end. I was so enamored of the conniving main character, Lizzie Eustace, that I never stopped caring about her fate.
Almost immediately after finishing “The Eustace Diamonds,” I ventured into “The Way We Live Now,” often hailed as Trollope’s best book, if not the single greatest novel of the Victorian era. Although it was published more than 125 years ago, TWWLN feels as if it were written six months ago as a sort of crypto-commentary on our current social and economic woes. One of the main characters, Augustus Melmotte, seems like a spot-on caricature of Bernard Madoff. He is a swindler who concocts a massive Ponzi-style scheme which victimizes half of London’s moneyed upper-crust. Mortgage fraud is another major plot element. The book is devastating in its critique of laissez faire capitalism, social climbing, the publishing industry, literary society, and everything else it takes aim at. I read it carefully to see if it provided any clues on how we might dig our way out of the current economic mess. Sadly, Trollope is better at diagnosing diseases than curing them. But his diagnosis is written with such wit and insight, reading it will make you feel better even as you nod your head in recognition of some foolishness or other that you yourself have been guilty of at some point in your life.
With two Trollopes under my belt (spoken out loud, those words sound like the beginning of a great porn novel), I decided I was ready to tackle one of his multi-volume series. The Barsetshire series is populated largely by Church of England clergymen and their family members. The Palliser series is populated by politicians and their ilk. As neither politics nor religion is a passion of mine, I wasn’t sure which series to begin with. Though not technically a newcomer to Trollope, I allowed myself to be guided by “The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Trollope,” which states: “newcomers to Trollope’s world are well advised to begin with the Barsetshire novels, which remain the most popular and most reprinted of his books.” The series begins with “The Warden,” perhaps the least digressive of Trollope’s novels. The set-up is fairly simple: John Bold, a liberal reformer, thinks that the Church of England pays the warden of a Barsetshire retirement home too much money for his light duties. Bold spearheads a campaign in both the press and the law courts intended to either shame or compel the Church to spend more money on the inmates of the institution and less on the warden. Theophilus Grantly, the conservative local archdeacon, believes that permitting either the law courts or the court of public opinion to determine Church financial matters would set a dangerous precedent. Septimus Harding, the good but timid man who presides as warden over the institution, is caught in the middle of this tug-a-war between Bold and Grantly. From this simple premise, Trollope wrings a great deal of complexity. Bold is the more likeable and noble of the two combatants in the tug-a-war, but his naivety helps create progressive reforms whose unintended consequences merely worsen the lives of the inmates he sought to help. Trollope clearly admires the liberal Bold more than the conservative Grantly, yet he also seems skeptical about the virtues of liberal reform campaigns. He seems to argue that sinners like Dr. Grantly, acting in their own best interest, can often be more beneficial to society than selfless saints like John Bold.
From the short tale of “The Warden” sprouted five additional and much longer novels. The first of these sequels, “Barchester Towers,” retains most of the main characters of “The Warden” but vastly expands the reader’s view of their lives and times and the community in which these unfold. As a reader, I am always looking for characters whose lives mirror my own in some way. I do this in order to find a design for living. In “Barchester Towers” I found myself identifying most with the character of Francis Arabin. On the surface, Arabin and I have little in common. He is an Oxford scholar; I barely made it through high school. He is 40 years old, unmarried, and has little interest in women; I have been married for 30 years and am keenly interested in women. He is a clergyman in the Church of England; I have no religion. Despite these differences, I found myself connecting with Arabin from the moment he was introduced. His calling is religion. But he dislikes the emphasis in Victorian England on the worldly aspects of his profession. He has no desire to get caught up in the heedless pursuits of lofty Anglican titles, prestigious positions of authority, and large “livings” (i.e. incomes), that seem to consume most of his fellow clergymen. He finds the Church of England far too materialistic and temporal and, as a result, he nearly bolted to the Catholic Church when he was in his twenties. In the end, he remained in the Church of England but his career did not flourish. His preference for spiritual matters over temporal ones is admired by his colleagues but has hindered his advancement in the Church. He thinks of himself as a stoic, a man who believes that wealth and worldly success are not worth pursuing. But, at age 40, he finds himself curiously dissatisfied with his lowly position in the world and wondering if perhaps he was wrong to look down upon those colleagues of his who, in their twenties, actively sought promotion and power and wealth. At forty, those wealthy and successful colleagues seem much happier with their lot in life than Arabin does. Was it a mistake for him to eschew worldly success? Were his high ideals merely a cover for a lack of nerve on his part?
Like Arabin, I have tried to pursue my own calling – creative writing – without completely selling out to societal notions of success. I have never made much of an effort to cull favor with the rich and mighty of the publishing world. I did not attend a prestigious university writing program (or even a nonprestigious one). I have not heeded the siren call of any of the big-city media centers – L.A., New York, etc. – where most of the publishing venues conglomerate. For years I persisted in the belief that a dogged devotion to literature and language, to reading and writing, would eventually bring me all the career satisfaction I could desire. My dream was to make a name for myself simply by writing so well for small, outsider publications that eventually the world would be forced to take notice of me despite my humble credentials. Obviously, this dream has not come true. Despite my hard work and devotion to craft, I have not made a name for myself as a writer at all. And now, like Arabin, I find myself in middle age wondering if I was a schmuck whose lofty refusal to accept success on any terms but his own was really nothing more than vanity or cowardice, or a combination of both. Thus, when I first met Arabin in the pages of Trollope’s novel, I felt a thrill of recognition and was eager to see what would become of him in Trollope’s hands. Trollope was a far wiser man than I. It occurred to me that perhaps, by studying Trollope’s treatment of Arabin, I might learn something useful about myself.
Here is how Trollope describes Arabin in “Barchester Towers”: “In his period of stoical rejection of this world’s happiness, he had cast from him as utter dross all anxiety as to fortune. He had, as it were, proclaimed himself to be indifferent to promotion, and those who chiefly admired his talents, and would mainly have exerted themselves to secure to them their deserved reward, had taken him at his word. And now, if the truth must out, he felt himself disappointed – disappointed not by them but by himself. The day-dream of his youth was over, and at the age of forty he felt that he was not fit to work in the spirit of an apostle. He had mistaken himself, and learned his mistake when it was past remedy. He had professed himself indifferent to mitres and diaconal residences, to rich livings and pleasant glebes [properties], and now he had to own to himself that he was sighing for the good things of other men, on whom, in his pride, he had ventured to look down.
“Not for wealth, in its vulgar sense, had he ever sighed; not for the enjoyment of rich things had he ever longed; but for the allotted share of worldly bliss…for that usual amount of comfort which he had ventured to reject as unnecessary for him, he did now feel that he would have been wiser to have searched.”
Trollope makes it clear that it was wrong of Arabin to have rejected the careerism and ambitiousness of his colleagues in the hope of attaining some sort of counterbalancing psychic rewards. He writes: “Is not the state at which he has arrived the natural result of efforts to reach that which is not the condition of humanity? Is not modern stoicism…as great an outrage on human nature as was the stoicism of the ancients? The philosophy of Zeno was built on true laws, but on true laws misunderstood, and therefore misapplied. It is the same with our Stoics here, who would teach us that wealth and worldly comfort and happiness on earth are not worth the search. Alas, for a doctrine which can find no believing pupils and no true teachers!
“The case of Mr. Arabin was more singular, as he belonged to a branch of the Church of England well inclined to regard its temporalities with avowed favour, and had habitually lived with men who were accustomed to much worldly comfort. But such was his idiosyncrasy, that these very facts had produced within him, in early life, a state of mind that was not natural to him. He was content to be a high churchman, if he could be so on principles of his own, and could strike out a course showing a marked difference from those with whom he consorted. He was ready to be a partisan as long as he was allowed to have a course of action and of thought unlike that of his party. His party had indulged him, and he began to feel that his party was right and himself wrong, just when such a conviction was too late to be of service to him. He discovered, when such discovery was no longer serviceable, that it would have been worth his while to have worked for the usual pay assigned to work in this world, and have earned a wife and children, with a carriage for them to sit in; to have earned a pleasant dining room, in which his friends could drink his wine, and the power of walking up the high street of his country town, with the knowledge that all its tradesmen would have gladly welcomed him within their doors. Other men arrived at those convictions in their start in life, and so worked up to them. To him they had come when they were too late to be of use.”
Despite the differences between Arabin and me (he lacks a wife; I lack religion), I felt as if Trollope were writing about me in this passage. And I found myself eagerly turning pages to see if some lesson useful to me might be written in Arabin’s story. Sadly, as mentioned above, Trollope is much better at diagnosing problems than prescribing remedies. When we first meet Arabin he has just been put in charge of a small and insignificant church called St. Ewold’s. He is 40 years old and by all accounts a failure in both his personal and professional lives. Within a few short weeks he will gain the lofty rank of Dean of Barchester, an important and high-paying position, and he will find himself engaged to a rich and beautiful and loving widow. All his problems will be solved – but not as the result of his own initiative or imagination. The deanship lands in his lap from out of the blue – a pure piece of authorial intrusion that arrives, like a deus ex machina, in a manner that defies logic and verisimilitude. His winning of the young widow is nearly as far-fetched. Despite the fact that two of Arabin’s rivals are actively seeking her hand in marriage, Arabin winds up engaged to her without ever asking her to marry him. Even “The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Trollope” finds Arabin’s fate difficult to justify. It notes: “At the end of ‘Barchester Towers’ his foes have been vanquished, though not through his efforts, and he becomes Dean of Barchester.”
With the resolution of Mr. Arabin’s story, Trollope seems to be saying that happiness and worldly success will eventually come to those who eschew happiness and worldly success. But this assertion completely contradicts Trollope’s earlier observations on contemporary stoicism as a misunderstanding of human nature. At one point, a character named Mr. Slope thinks to himself: “How easy is success to those who will only be true to themselves.” It’s a nice piece of wishful thinking, but Trollope obviously intends it to be ironic. Slope’s minor success eventually turns to utter failure.
I would like to think that professional success will come to me eventually so long as I remain true to myself. As a realist, however, I have difficulty believing this will happen. I am a religious skeptic and therefore I cannot say for certain who the author of my being is, but I devoutly wish that it had been Anthony Trollope. Currently I am 51 years old, broke, facing foreclosure, and unable to find a publisher for most of what I write. On the plus side, I have a strong and loving marriage. If Trollope were the author of my being, I would probably be on the verge of a great professional success right now, something that would allow my wife and me to live out our remaining days in comfort and contentment. But my anonymous author is prickly and unpredictable. Death is my only certainty. What happens between then and now is more or less up to me to determine. I'd be happy to sell out my ideals and go for the big score, but I doubt that I could find any buyers at this late date.
‘Barchester Towers’ did not show me a way out of my own professional doldrums. But there are four more volumes of Barsetshire Chronicles for me to read. Maybe I’ll find an answer in one of them. In the meantime I remain For Sale. Inquire Within.