A Load of Old Trollope
I have no idea where this British saying came from. I suspect, like “give you the Dickens”, it refers to a popular Victorian writer, in this case Anthony Trollope. But it still doesn’t make sense. As near as my British husband and British friend, Rob, can explain, “a load of old Trollope” is a bunch of nonsense. But if Anthony Trollope wrote anything — and he wrote loads and loads and loads including several multi-volume sagas — he certainly didn’t write nonsense. I’m a huge Trollope fan these days, nearing as I am, the finish line of the six volume Palliser Series. For my money, he is one of the most modern — and certainly one of the most exciting of the early English novelists. I know this will bring down the wrath of the Jane Austen aficionados, but I’ve never been a huge fan. I’m with Charlotte Bronte, who found Austen precise but bloodless:
“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”
Not so with Trollope. Like Austen, there are plenty of women angling to get married advantageously, reprobate gentlemen looking for the main chance and lots of victims of gossip. But in Trollope, people go insane, attempt assassinations, ruin themselves, murder, steal jewels, and topple governments.
If I can call myself a Trollope expert at this point, I’d say Trollope is one of the most modern of the Victorian writers. Augustus Melmotte, the shady financier of The Way We Live Now might as well be Bernie Madoff. As for the Palliser Series — it’s been suggested that a basic grounding in British mid-Victorian politics might be helpful for background. I find this totally unnecessary. There is nothing happening in today’s Congress that you won’t find presaged in Trollope, especially in his great political novels in the Palliser Series. In fact, during the recent election and on-going fiscal cliff debates, I’ve found Trollope more illuminating than the Internet news reports.
One of the major characters throughout the novels, Plantagenet Palliser, emerges as a Victorian Senator Claiborne Pell — aristocratic, remote, intellectual but with a driving honesty, Liberal policies and sense that with his great privilege comes great responsibility to effect the public good. At one point, his son, through no reason other than peer pressure and fashion, joins a radical arm of the Conservative party that is analogous to the Tea Party. You don’t need an acquaintance with British political history to understand the conflict that sets up for
Pell …er… Palliser. One of the themes of the novels is whether a highly principled man such as Palliser can survive the dog-eat-dog world of politics and the scandal-mongering of the Media. The not so high-minded, but more pragmatic Irishman Phineas Finn seems to fare much better. Not much has changed in 150 years. Then again, the politics are the backdrop. You’ll be much more concerned about who’s going to marry whom, if the reprobate will get away with his scams and whether the Lady who is a pathological liar will succeed in absconding with the family jewels.
Another benefit Trollope offers, to this prejudiced reader, is Americans. You’d barely know there was an America in Austen or Bronte novels. But when Trollope brings an American into the mix — and for my money, he does it too infrequently — they are a breath of fresh air in a stuffy London drawing room. There’s Mrs. Hurtle in The Way We Live Now — a San Francisco widow (maybe) who was reputed to have shot a man in Oregon. Although a man most believe deserved to be shot. She crosses an ocean to reclaim her stolen money and to threaten to horsewhip the man who promised to marry her and backed out. There is another San Franciscan, Hamilton Fisk, (and I love Trollope that he understands how uber American San Franciscans are) who snatches victory from the jaws of the Madoff-like fallout that is devastating fortunes across London. I suspect Trollope secretly loved Americans and wished he could be one, or at least marry one. Nowhere does he make the case better than when he compares the charms of the two society beauties, the aristocratic Lady Mabel Grex and the pert new money American heiress Isabel Boncasson through the eyes of their common suitor, Silverbridge Palliser:
“…then he compared her to poor Lady Mabel and in doing so did arrive at something near the truth in his inward delineation of the two characters. Lady Mabel with all her grace, with all her beauty, with all her talent was a creature of efforts or, as it might be called, a manufactured article. She strove to be graceful, to be lovely, to be agreeable and clever. Isabel was all this and infinitely more without any struggle. When he was most fond of Mabel, most anxious to make her his wife, there had always been present to him a feeling that she was old, though he knew her age to a day and knew her to be younger than himself. Yet she was old. Something had gone of her native bloom, something had been scratched and chipped from the first fair surface. And this had been repaired by varnish and veneering. Though he had loved her, he had never been altogether satisfied with her. But Isabel was as young as Hebe. He knew nothing of her actual years. But he did know that to have seemed younger, or to have seemed older, to have seemed in any way different from what she was would have been to have been less perfect.”
And there you have it. American spontaneous genuineness wins over jaded European manners every time.
I will caution new readers to one aspect of Trollope that will seem shocking. A surface reading might lead you to conclude that he is an anti-Semite. There are a lot of characters, through almost every one of his novels, who are denounced and condemned with the accusation of being Jews. That accusation is hurled at just about any character who is slightly foreign in an “English is not my first language” sort of way. So the Bernie Madoff character, Augustus Melmotte, is assumed to be Jewish, although it is only known that he was, at an earlier time, native to Vienna and lived for a time in Paris. But so is Ferdinand Lopes accused of being Jewish, although he says he is half Portuguese and therefore most likely to be Catholic. In a closer reading of Trollope, the characters who throw out “Jewish” as if it were an insult are uniformly nasty, prejudiced and not admirable. Much like the people who call Jim “nigger” as an insult in Huckleberry Finn are the charlatans, crooks, hypocrites and fools who are portrayed by Twain as much less admirable than the escaped slave. Likewise, the only character who self-identifies as a Jew, Mr Brehgert, is portrayed as honorable, honest and kindly. A recurring character in the Palliser Series, Madame Marie Goesler, who may or may not be Jewish or may or may not have been married to a Jewish banker, but is certainly foreign and Viennese, is one of the wisest, most honorable and kindest characters. So I’m giving Trollope the benefit of the doubt and assuming he’s recording the prejudices of his day, but subtlely telling us that he doesn’t agree with them.
In any case, read Trollope. Former British Prime Minister Harold McMillan and actor Alec Guinness never traveled without a Trollope novel in their suitcases. I’ll paraphrase Samuel Johnson and say, “When one is tired of Trollope, one is tired of Life. For there is in Trollope all that life can afford.”
And he’s got a hell of a lot more action than Austen!
A much longer and more detailed deconstruction of the Pallisers can be found at this excellent site. This blogger also makes a good case for fans of the book NOT seeing the BBC adaptation which, it seems, is woefully miscast.
But don’t miss this BBC adaptation of The Way We Live Now which is fabulous! And it will all make more sense than trying to untangle the Bernie Madoff scandal.
If you can’t face reading six 70 plus chapter novels, do what I did: get the audiobook versions. But choose only the fabulous reading by Timothy West who acts out all the characters and brings the story to life.