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!