Actually, Anthony Trollope doesn’t come in dollops. He comes in great long sprawling novels with hundreds of characters and often five or six sequels. Which is wonderful if you love Trollope because you know there is always more of him to love. Full disclosure: I’m shockingly late to Trollope appreciation — especially for an English Literature major. My first brush with Anthony Trollope was the old 1974 BBC series, The Pallisers, which was the Downton Abbey of its day on PBS. Sadly, I wasn’t interested as, at the time, I was probably more attuned to the Rolling Stones and The Who. Once in college, I studiously avoided Trollope thinking he wrote long tiresome multi-volume novels about the minutiae of Victorian manners. I’ve never been as big fan of Austen as you would think and I was uninterested in a male version of Austen who was ten times as wordy. Silly me. If Anthony Trollope bears any resemblance to Austen he is Austen with an MBA, a seat on the Stock Market, the Victorian equivalent of a Super PAC, a harder edge and a more poison pen. Yes, Trollope has some female characters who scheme to make matches as the only way to advance their situations, but he’s just as much concerned with high finance — especially of the dubious kind — and political machinations.
My gateway drug to Trollope was actually another BBC series, the four parter The Way We Live Now. I think you’ll remember the canning frenzy I was in last year when my overplanted tomato beds came ripe and I was performing 24 hour stints of jam, chutney and ketchup making. I started picking out multipart BBC series off of Netflix just to get me through the tedium. One of them was this one. It was riveting. Still, it took me a full year to get around to actually reading Trollope. Well, not actually reading him, but downloading him on audiobook. But I hit the jackpot. The Way We Live Now from Audible, as read by — actually acted by — the inimitable Timothy West, is one of the most gripping books I’ve read or listened to. For example, I’ve had the book on my iPhone and have been listening to it while I run or powerwalk. Twice I’ve set out to go 4 miles and have ended up continuing for 10K simply because I was in an exciting part and didn’t want to wait for the next run to pick it up. I’m also realizing that, as great as that BBC mini-series version was, it only covers about a tenth of the breadth and complexity, humor and scandal of the original.
First, let me tell you that there are more differences between Austen and Trollope than the Regency and the Victorian period. While Austen’s worlds were small and confined to a few country families, Trollope’s worlds are as large and varied as Dickens. But Trollope is also surprisingly modern. As I read about the main scoundrel in The Way We Live Now and the details of his great railway scheme, I realized I’d heard it all before. More than one hundred years before Bernie Madoff, this was the same Ponzi scheme. Trollope also has a much harder edge than Austen and even Dickens. And he realizes a sad truth: the good and noble people in these novels come off as being kind of dull and boring. It’s the villains we want to hear more about. The clever villains we secretly cheer. With the stupid villains, we eagerly anticipate their dreadful comeuppance. Then just when I think it can’t get any better, Trollope introduces the San Francisco femme fatale, Mrs. Hurtle, an alleged “widow” who is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon, but not suffered any consequences because it is generally agreed that the man deserved to be shot. Is this the Victorian version of shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die? I hope so. And I hope Mrs. Hurtle and that other shady San Francisco character, Mr. Fiskar, get even more “air time” as the novel progresses.
It’s the wickedly wonderful Mrs. Hurtle who gives the best description of Augustus Melmotte, whose fortune all London wants to get close to, but who all London says is a swindler:
“You mean that he is bold in breaking those precepts of yours about coveting worldly wealth. All men and women break that commandment, but they do so in a stealthy fashion half drawing back the grasping hand praying to be delivered from Temptation while they filch only a little, pretending to despise the only thing that is dear to them in the world. Here is a man who boldly says that he recognizes no such law. That wealth is power and that power is good and the more a man has of wealth, the greater and the stronger and the nobler he can be.”
I think more than one hundred years later, we had Michael Douglas echoing those sentiments not quite as articulately as “Greed is Good”. And we’ve certainly heard the same justifications in this election from certain quarters where “trickle down” is still the mantra.
Yes, that’s right. I’m not even halfway through my first Trollope and I’m already planning to download the full six volume Palliser Series and the equally long Barsetshire Chronicles — all of which I can get from Audible narrated by Timothy West (accept no substitutes!) Once I make it through those, I’ll have dozens of Trollope novels still to read or listen to.
Sadly, it was just that prolific output that caused Trollope’s reputation to suffer after his death. That’s when his autobiography was published and revealed that he resolutely wrote for five hours each day to meet a daily word and page quota. Even in the energetic Victorian society, this was suspect. Critics felt he should have written only when the Muse appeared to him. That approaching his writing like a job was, well, a little bit grubby and clerk-like. Hmmm, that’s what the layabout aristocrats said about the energetic Augustus Melmotte, the Madoff-like financier of The Way We Live Now, and halfway through the novel and he’s already making monkeys out of all of them!
Sir Alec Guinness famously never traveled without a Trollope novel. For myself, I’ll be powerwalking with an audio version on my iPod. Yup, Anthony Trollope is now my personal trainer.