On Reading Trollope: Simple Pleasures & Managing Expectations

Bowling for Jane just met to discuss our second Trollope read, The Warden. (Our first was Barchester Towers. Why did we do that backwards? No one knows.) I think it’s safe to say that, as before, the reaction was mixed. Speaking only for those in attendance, no one in the room appeared to actually dislike the book, and some went so far as to like it very much indeed and perhaps (am I putting words in their mouths?) even to love it. But from those who didn’t appear to actually dislike it, well, there was still plenty of criticism.

I think I see the appeal of Trollope, although I’m not one who particularly likes him. The Warden was enjoyable in a (to me) surface sort of way. Good characters with nice complexities, very human without drastic extremes, sympathetic and understandable. There was nice writing, some humor, some pointed opinions. As one person said, it’s a book that pushes and nudges. It’s gentle. It doesn’t burn down the house with drama. And I can easily imagine that Trollope’s world becomes a familiar and comfortable one to sink into with the entire six novels of the Chronicles of Barsetshire at your disposal. Not to mention the other 40+ books he wrote.

But you won’t find me there.

I don’t think Trollope is Great. And I think that’s very, very okay! I also think that it’s good and important to admit that sometimes what we love isn’t masterful, groundbreaking, genius, etc. Let me go on record right now and say that I do not AT ALL read books I only consider to be Great. Like anyone else, I read for many different reasons.

The fault lies with me when it comes to my fairly neutral reaction to Trollope. You see, somehow he got built up in my mind as being better or more than he actually is. And what is he actually? A very good (and apparently efficient) author, who wrote a lot of books that people really liked to read. He’s agreeable, not particularly deep or challenging, and he’s really quite skilled at what he does. But it has its limits, and I think it’s fair to acknowledge that.

As I was thinking about Trollope, Barbara Pym came to mind as a decent comparison. I LOVE Barbara Pym. She has been described—not by me—as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. Like Austen, her novels are primarily about women and the domestic sphere. Middle-aged spinsters volunteer at the church, cook meals for curates, and contemplate love and marriage. She is funny and witty, and her social commentary can be biting but delivered in a manner that makes it palatable. But her writing lacks the depth of Austen’s. She is wonderful! But she is not great. Her characters and their worlds are delightful, but in all honesty, many of them have blurred together in my mind over time. I have recommended Barbara Pym to countless people, given her books as gifts, and I’ll continue to do so. Frankly, I think most Trollope lovers should give her a try! Just don’t try to make her out to be more than she actually is, and I think you’ll really, really like her.

Okay, Trollope fans. Let’s hear from you!

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6 thoughts on “On Reading Trollope: Simple Pleasures & Managing Expectations

  1. Well now, Sarah, you will find me among those who do enjoy Trollope very much. I have experienced Barchester Towers three different ways – reading it, listening to it, and seeing a BBC production of it. It was the latter that I “met” first, and I was hooked. The role of the odious Mr. Slope was played by none other than Alan Rickman – my first encounter with his acting prowess, and he was PERFECT!

    I have listened to “The Warden” and seen the BBC production of “The Pallisers”, so I have not actually READ many of Trollope’s books. Maybe that’s cheating, in a way. I do think he is an excellent story-teller, and that he captures the “manners” of the period and human nature across the ages very well. I have no trouble believing that his characters are doing and thinking the way he describes them. They seem very real to me, and I can often think of modern counterparts!

    All that said, I guess I would agree that he is not GREAT. But then, there are a lot of so-called GREAT authors that simply leave me cold! (I won’t name names.)

    • Well, I don’t know if some of that is “cheating” or not! I do sort of suspect that watching Alan Rickman as Mr. Slope in Barchester Towers would enhance the pleasure of that particular story…

      But I agree that one of Trollope’s talents is to make his characters feel very realistic. In our discussion of The Warden, I also commented that the entire novel felt like it could be a slice out of a real life. The plot barely has a climax to speak of or a satisfying ending (in the way of most novels), just as life can sort of meander, and the crisis one moment fade into very little the next. I have to assume he intends it to come across that way.

      • We practically hissed every time he came on screen! He oozed unctuousness from every obnoxious pore. I would dearly love to get my hands on the program again, but have been unable to find it anywhere.

        I like your comment about how his novels are much like life, meandering along. But I was satisfied with the endings of both The Warden and Barchester Towers – the good guys came out on top. I was quite satisfied with Slope’s end, in that he fell out of favor with the Bishop’s wife and had to leave town. But Slope-like characters in real life often move right along to their next challenge, never really changing, never learning any lessons, blaming their (temporary) downfall on others who simply did not understand them – or who were just better at the game than they!

        What’s next for the group?

  2. Well, “I hear you” and totally agree, as well, on all your points: Trollope is perfectly good but not (IMHO) “great” (and that’s OK), and it’s OK too that not all books one reads have to be “great.” I’ll at times finish a book that really hits me, then intentionally read a rather more “mindless” book, just to give my psyche a rest. Or, more likely, I’ll read nothing at all for a period of time, so that I can absorb and savor the book that I liked so much. It’s similar to when, after a great meal, someone offers me a mint. I invariably refuse, saying that I want to savor the “remains of the meal” that linger on my palate. And now, I need to find something by Barbara Pym…

  3. Nice discussion here, hitting all the important points, including Alan Rickman as Slope! I am also an advocate for mixing reading up, one Great, one guilty pleasure, one non-fiction, etc. and I love the way Thierry likens this to giving the psyche a rest after a powerful read (Great or not).

    I also agree that part of the rub is the place Trollope has been given. He is a perfectly good read, but I don’t think he’s in the league of Dickens. It’s probably all about expectation. If I went into a Trollope expecting something mediocre, I’d be pleasantly surprised. But going in expecting Dickens, even with all his faults, makes Trollope seem like not enough.

    I’m still very annoyed with the central question of The Warden, about the rightful distribution of money. Even though Mr. Harding follows his conscience, the ending of the book seems to imply that his sacrifice and the impulse for moral change was not actually worthwhile. This is where it’s too lifelike for me, with things, as described before, meandering and changing with no clear resolution.

    One last thought. This Trollope image has stayed with me after reading about it long ago: a little girl would build castles in the study out of her father’s Trollope books because there were so many!

    Thanks for the discussion, all.

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