Saturday, 5 February 2011

In which I aspire to be more of a Trollope

I expect I ought to have called this chapter 'In which I succumb to the temptation of a rather obvious and vulgar pun' but I am sure you will eventually forgive me.

I have been immersing myself of late in the works of Mr Trollope, particularly the lesser known (undeservedly in my opinion). I have always been a fervent admirer of his writings and it is many years since I was attracted to the cathedral city of Barchester and entered warmly into the feelings of Mrs Bold and Mr Harding, thoroughly enjoying my comic loathing of Mr Slope and Mrs Proudie. I suspect it was seeing the BBC adaptation of this great work that introduced me to Mr Trollope, as my parents hadn't read any of most enjoyable novels. Who could forget the superb performances of Mr Alan Rickman and Miss Geraldine McEwan?

Nonetheless on my latest ramble through the works of this most prolific author I have avoided some of his most well-known fictions. I have included two which were entirely new to me: Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and Mr Scarborough's Family. I have also reread several others, including The Vicar of Bullhampton, Dr Wortle's School, Cousin Henry, Is He Popenjoy? and The Three Clerks. I have now however given in to the siren call of Barsetshire and am immersed in Dr Thorne. I expect once I have got through the chronicles I shall revisit Orley Farm, renew my acquaintance with Rachel Ray and sympathise once more with Emily Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right.

One of the greatest pleasures for me in this is how complete a picture it gives one of mid-Victorian society. It is interesting to see how much has since changed, in regards to the rights of women, for example. Trollope is unhesitatingly hostile to increasing the rights of women (he gives a most unsympathetic portrayal of the movement in Is He Popenjoy?). Yet he is very sympathetic to the way many of his young female characters seek to find purpose and meaning in their lives. His answer of course is to find it in husband and family, but he is often very tender to the old maids of his stories. His own views notwithstanding, he does fully see how circumscribed is the life that he describes women living. Perhaps the long list of occupations he gives somewhat scathingly as those which women wished to pursue, and which we now do without one single exception, should be regarded as one of the great successes of the women's movement. From voting to buying and selling on the Stock Exchange.

Some things are more or less unchanged though - politics for example, an abiding passion of Mr Trollope's. The Prime Minister would make very salutary reading for the members of our current coalition government, not on their policies of which I personally despair. It might show them the impossibility of a coalition surviving and the practical difficulties of yoking two disparate parties together successfully. While the unsavoury financial activities of characters such as Ferdinand Lopez and Augustus Melmotte remind us that fraudulent speculation of the kind that we associate with names such as Enron, Arthur Andersen and Worldcom are in fact very old stories indeed.

We are in the habit in our modern world of thinking of the Victorians as a byword for stuffy prudishness. It is certain that their moral and social standards could be extremely severe - witness the distress of poor Mary Thorne and the difficulty of her position in the world when she discovers she is illegitimate. What I so much admire in Mr Trollope is that without even the faintest approach to sensationalism (which I do also enjoy, I might add) he tackles topics which would at the time have been considered extremely sensitive: illegitimacy, living together outside marriage, social mobility, the utter misery of genteel poverty and perhaps to me most surprising, unflinching studies of mental illness. The gradual growth of Louis Trevelyan's madness in He Knew He Was Right cannot but fill the reader with pity for him and those whose lives he blights. However the portrait of Mr Crawley's struggles with depression and his wife's attempts to help and shield him in The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire will always amaze me by its depth of perception and balanced sympathy.

I find that Mr Trollope wrote 43 novels. I also find that I have read a mere 28 so far. I will not set myself any time limits, but I do aim to have read them all at some stage. Thus will I become more of a Trollope.

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