You are hereNewspapers 1970-1979 / Anthony Trollope
An Appreciation of the Usual
By TOM SOTER
from COLUMBIA DAILY SPECTATOR
November 10, 1977; revised April 16, 2009
The Claverings by Anthony Trollope (Dover, 412 pp. with illus., $5).
Anthony Trollope is on a roll. The prolific Victorian writer (he wrote 47 novels, dozens of short stories, essays, and travel books) is as popular now as he ever was in his lifetime (1815-1882). Perhaps more so. The Pallisers have come to the television screen; Berkeley Books has reissued the six Palliser novels; Bobbs-Merrill has published The Way We Live Now in a well-annotated, definitive edition; and Dover has printed a beautiful facsimile first edition of The Claverings.
Trollope's new prominence is even more amazing because he was forgotten for a time. He hurt his reputation by decalring in his posthumously published autobiography: "There are those who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till inspiration moves him .... To me, it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting." This explanation of Trollope's systematic way of working was used by many Victorian critics to dismiss the author as a journeyman hack who mechanically and unfeelingly ground out trite stories.
Anyone reading any of the new paperback releases (or even looking further along in the Autobiography, where Trollope states that "the writer, when he sits, down to commence his novel, should do so, not because he has to tell a story, but because he has a story to tell") would see that this notion is as silly as it is false.
The Claverings, for example, published originally in the Cornhill Magazine between 1866-67, demonstrates why Trollope endures. The story deals with Harry Clavering, a vacillating, weak hero who can't decide between his first love, Julia Brabazon, who rejected him for a wealthy lover and a "practical" marriage, and his second one, Florence Burton, whom he is about to reject because his widowed first love wants him back.
The book's storyline and style may seem simple and straightforward, but there is a subtlety about the characters that is impressive. Henry James, who was adept at characterization himself, once remarked that Trollope's great gift was his "appreciatipn of the usual." Although they are an unlikely heroic couple, Harry and Julia both possess a believable humanity; they are not caricatures, but characters: flawed and sympathetic. Harry is weak because he wants to be popular with everyone; he cannot take the moral stands that would hurt others. Julia, however, is too strong; she makes all the hard, pragmatic decisions, but because she doesn't give in to sentiment and marries without love, has nothing to support her when she is widowed and ostracized by a society upset with her actions. In Julia's case, however, Trollope may condemn her scheming ways and says that "the punishment which comes upon her has been deserved," he also pities her. She is representative of the role that many women had to play in a world that denied them the opportunity to live independently. His condemnation is what his readers expected; nonetheless, the events of the story give it a hollow sound. "Love is not to be our master," Julia says to Harry at one point. "You can choose, but I have had no choice, no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle, and, therefore, I am going to be married well."
It is this understanding and sympathy for the strengths and weaknesses of people that makes Trollope's work so fascinating. As Ruth apRoberts points out in her book Trollope: Artist and Moralist, "What Trollope consistently does is treat women as human beings primarily. All the virtues he understands by the word 'manly' he will at times allow to women. This is a way of granting women firstclass citizenship in the human race; it may be a more humane course than taking sides for or against rights. It is at least not simplistic."
Trollope is never simplistic. His easy style masks the complexity of the subject matter, and its many characters are psychologically sound – neither black nor white, but gray – and the situations presented successfully mirror real life in that they are not all cleanly resolved. Trollope's comment that "I doubt now whether anyone reads The Claverings" might be true, but it is also a shame. It is a terrific book.
Dover has published a handsome new edition, with many illustrations and only slightly too small typeface.
A LOOK BACK
I discovered Trollope in my first semester in my first year at college when I took a course in Nineteenth Century English literature and read The Way We Live Now. I was mesmerized by it and went on, over the next ten years, to read all 47 of the great man's novels. For all that, this article has been one of only two pieces I've written about him. Possibly that is because when it appeared it was so heavily rewritten by one of the paper's editors – with opinions about Trollope ("his books give some people headaches"), Dickens, and George Eliot inserted that did not match my own – that I was reluctant to write about him again. Why it was rewritten is a mystery to me, while the sheer badness of the rewrite still amazes me ("Trollope is hardly immersed in the inks of obscurity"). Not having my original piece any longer, I simply rewrote it, trying to capture as much as I could the spirit, if not the language, of the first version.