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!

“Barchester Towers”—Not As Bad As I Expected

I promised a provocative post, but with a title like that, I’m afraid it’s going to be more along the lines of passive-aggressive. I’m also afraid it’s going to be long.

Before I proceed, I feel like I should point out two things that came to light during our book group’s discussion of Barchester Towers. One, I am possibly not a visual person. Some people might try to suggest otherwise, but I would disagree with them. I don’t clearly see the action of the book unfolding in my mind, and so I suspect some of its humor is really lost on me as I read. I do think it would make a good film adaptation, just as I enjoy watching, but not necessarily reading, Dickens. Two, I possibly have no sense of humor. Some people may try to suggest that this is true, but I would disagree with them. “I’m funny,” she said very seriously.

Also, for any readers of this blog who are members of my book group, I apologize for the repetitive nature of these comments. (As you’ll see below, that’s a pet peeve of mine when it comes to Trollope. Therefore, I am a hypocrite.) Except in the case of Michelle, to whom I make no apology, because she wasn’t at our meeting anyway.

So the truth is this: I liked Barchester Towers. Why didn’t I expect to like it? For one thing, my initial (very limited and so hardly fair) encounter with Trollope did not leave me wanting more. For another, the first dozen or so chapters dragged a bit for me, and that reinforced my previous impression. I did not find myself looking forward to reading it, and that’s a tough place to be in.

I’m glad I persevered, however, because I found the book’s rhythm at some point, or maybe Trollope found its rhythm, and I stuck it out long enough to bear witness.

Things I liked:

  • The narrator, very present, and very much a character. One of my favorite parts was the completely meta moment when the narrator tells the reader not to worry, that Mrs. Bold isn’t going to marry either of the two suitors we’ve just encountered. He really doesn’t want us to be disappointed or irritated by a prolonged mystery and its result. We needn’t even worry about going ahead and reading the last page of the book because knowing what happens won’t lessen our interest in the story. He writes: “Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.” Lovely!
  • The light tone of the book. It never takes itself too seriously.
  • I don’t feel like there’s a traditional hero or heroine in this book, and I like that deviation from the norm. With regards to the romantic pairing, I didn’t initially suspect the woman who would become involved, and the man doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the book! In fact, I don’t think I realized there would even be any romance for a while.
  • Many of the characters ended up being more nuanced than I gave them credit for at first. I was mislead by what I saw as Trollope’s broad strokes with regards to the depiction of his characters, and yet most of the main ones had significant depth, and without doing anything very dramatic, he changed my opinion of a few of them
  • The names! They are so very right. I find Dickens to be too over-the-top with colorful character names, whereas Trollope is just sheer genius. Mrs. Lookaloft, indeed!

Things I liked less:

  • All the “stage setting.” Trollope spends a lot of time describing people, and I find it unnecessary. He’s very good at it! There are some delicious and hilarious descriptions. However, after a paragraph or two describing a single character’s physical attributes in detail, we know exactly what to think of this person before he/she ever utters a word or interacts with any other character. It’s just a style that I don’t generally find myself enjoying, although again, I have to admit that he’s masterful at it. (See above for contradictory statement in which I said I was wrong to pre-judge and that Trollope changed my opinions more than once.)
  • Did I mention the “stage setting?” For example, there are an elderly brother and sister, Mr. and Miss Thorne, who make their entrance halfway through the book. They are minor characters who are very fully described in appearance and in personality. Miss Thorne likes ancient sports—ancient everything really, and the more ancient the better. How much does she like these ancient sports? Well, let me tell you! A lot! If I recall correctly, nearly an entire chapter is devoted to this topic. Later on at a party she has organized, we finally get to see some of these sports. Do they matter to the story? Not at all.
  • There is an occasionally repetitive quality to the book that I find heavy-handed and irritating. We know that Mrs. Quiverful has fourteen children. It’s one of the first things we learn about her. Mrs. Quiverful knows that she has fourteen children. Mr. Quiverful knows that, together with Mrs. Quiverful, he has produced and now has the care of fourteen children. Mrs. Proudie is fully aware that Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful have fourteen children. I forgot to mention that Mr. Quiverful is in the unenviable position of trying to provide for his large family—there are fourteen children in all—on a very small salary.
  • The scope of the book is very small. These are small people living small lives, and in the end they seem to represent nothing greater than themselves. I was intrigued to learn that Barchester Towers inspired George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and I can totally see that. But I feel like she takes Middlemarch to a much greater place. I can’t imagine the circumstances under which I would re-read Barchester Towers, but I’ve read Middlemarch two or three times, and I know I will read it again. As we were discussing in the comments on Michelle’s recent post about epic hero’s journey stories, Jane Austen can take a small world like Highbury with its practically homebound residents and make it feel like everything important in life takes place in it in all the smallest, most banal, and most beautiful ways. Common, everyday sort of people in Forster, like Lucy Honeychurch and Leonard Bast, struggle with the really meaningful things in life with all of their simplistic powers and short-sighted abilities. There’s truly absolutely nothing wrong with having a small scope in a book like Barchester Towers. (And here I will suggest that I might be wrong in my assessment, so please, argue away!) It’s only that it wouldn’t be my preference. With limited time for, well, everything, I just want more.

Question 1: Why isn’t Trollope widely read these days? At least, my impression is that he is not widely read. Most people I mentioned this book to had not heard of it, or of the author.

Question 2: What do you think are the important themes in Barchester Towers? I asked this during our book group meeting, and I’d still love to hear more thoughts on that.