Trollope carves a unique spot among the heavyweights of the 19th century novels. He doesn’t have the well crafted plots of Austen, the precision of character of Henry James, nor the social breadth of Charles Dickens. Yet he is often still loved as a writer. Why? I wanted to find out by tackling his perhaps second most famous set of works after the Barsetshire Chronicles, the Palliser Novels. The first is Can You Forgive Her (1864), that are to center around the social circle and parliamentary ambitions of Plantagenet Palliser.
The her in question is Alice Vavasor, who manages no fewer than four engagements to two very different men in course of the book. The origins of her self-flagellating indecision (“when at Rome she longed for Tibur, and when at Tibur she regretted Rome.”) we never learn. Much of the book’s dramatic heft is intended to center around whether Alice can forgive herself, a pretty uninteresting question since the reader can never really emotionally engage with the reserved Alice.
There are other subplots about suitors for the hands of various women which have a Victorian era soap opera quality to them, but made engaging by the convivial voice of the author, an almost 2nd person, gossipy perspective on the affairs as if you were living among them. An entire subplot I guess intended for comic relief about the pursuit of a rich widow between a sauve but bankrupt officer and a middling farmer (Cheeseacre!) could be removed entirely without loss.
Can You has the same unflinching eye about the role of money and social status I first saw in The Way We Live Now (1875). The rawness and even repetition of the writing does wind up giving the stories an authentic, unmannered feel but no character rises to the level of the anti-hero of The Way, financier Augustus Melmotte. The shady characters in Can You, George Vavasor (“He was a man who would bear no inquiry into himself.”) and Burgo Fitzgerald (“…no idea that it behoved him as a man to do anything but eat and drink,—or ride well to hounds till some poor brute, much nobler than himself, perished beneath him.”), are the most interesting. They are sadly dispatched over time to the periphery of the novel and indeed out of England with minimal hopes of returning in later works.
Plantagenet Palliser is seen mostly through the eyes of his young, impetuous and dissatisfied wife Glendora. She is close friends with Alice. By the ending of the work I was dragging to the finish but also ready to hear more of him and the man who would wind up marrying Alice, John Grey. himself going into the House of Commons and thus both having meaningful changes to their character. The Austen-like machinations around potential marriages are punctuated by two scenes of violence that at least briefly raise the stakes for the reader.
In expository writing, grammar school children are told to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. It’s tough to do this in fiction but if the story feels unmannered enough you can get away with it, and Trollope does. There is almost no description of landscape or setting, save for one countryside fox hunt.
Consider this low…
“He breakfasted upstairs in his bedroom,—in the bed, indeed, eating a small paté de foie gras from the supper-table, as he read a French novel. There he was still reading his French novel in bed when his aunt’s maid came to him, saying that his aunt wished to see him before she went out. “Tell me, Lucy,” said he, “how is the old girl?” “She’s as cross as cross, Mr Burgo. Indeed, I shan’t;—not a minute longer. Don’t, now; will you? I tell you she’s waiting for me.” From which it may be seen that Lucy shared the general feminine feeling in favour of poor Burgo. Thus summoned Burgo applied himself to his toilet; but as he did so, he recruited his energies from time to time by a few pages of the French novel, and also by small doses from a bottle of curaçoa which he had in his bedroom. He was utterly a pauper. There was no pauper poorer than he in London that day. But, nevertheless, he breakfasted on paté de foie gras and curaçoa, and regarded those dainties very much as other men regard bread and cheese and beer.”
and this deft high, while he is gambling in Baden:
The croupier who had paused for a moment now went on quickly with his cards, and in two minutes the fate of Burgo’s wealth was decided. It was all drawn back by the croupier’s unimpassioned rake, and the rolls of gold were restored to the tray from whence they had been taken…Burgo, conscious that he was the regarded of all eyes, turned round upon his heel and again walked the length of the salon. He knew well that he had not a franc left in his possession, but still he laughed and still he whistled. His companion, whoever he might be, had slunk away from him, not caring to share the notoriety which now attended him.
How much of the former repetition will the socially realistic gems of the latter be encased in for the next works? The shades and changes in Plantagenet are enough for me to continue on in the series but it is on thin ice.