Misconceiving both his own powers and the nature of fiction, Trollope fell an easy prey to the shallower notions of his age about the way novels should be written. It was his job, he supposed, as an honest professional man, to provide his customers with the commodity they expected; and what they expected, he was taught to believe, was 'realism', slices of life faithfully observed and entertainingly told, with a few touches of wholesome morality. When he first resolved to write a novel, the life that lay under his eyes was that of Ireland, so he Cut a few slices from it, observed them industriously, and wrote them down as best he could. His two Irish novels were failures, as they deserved to be. An historical novel followed, as dismally cluttered up with book-learning as the Irish novels had been by unimaginative reporting. Then he tried his hand at a guide-book, but the publishers to whom specimens were sent omitted to read them, and the project was dropped.
He was turned from these false starts, from his conception of the novel as a mere animated guide-book, not by any growth of literary perception on his own part, but by a lucky accident of his official career. In 1851 he was given the task of organizing country posts in South West England, and for two happy years he rode up and down and about in six or seven counties, visiting many places, meeting many people, but always in a hurry. It was his first experience of England outside London, and its combination of variety and hurry was exactly what his imagination needed to work upon; the materials offered to it were extensive, but he moved too quickly to become bogged down anywhere. From these wanderings, he got, not another careful slice of life, but a hazy, rich impression of towns and villages, of churches and country houses, of clergy and laity, and of the quietly intricate patterns of their manners and social life. It was upon this impression that he based his first truly imaginative novel, The Warden, the first of that Barsetshire series which has come to be regarded as his highest achievement. The book was conceived one summer evening in Salisbury, but the Barchester of the novels was never merely Salisbury, nor was the county round it any one of the counties through which he had travelled. It was pieced together from memories of them all, and though it grew to be so clear in his head that he once drew a very detailed map of it, its solidity was imaginative, not geographical. In the same way, the clergy who were its main characters were not of his acquaintance. 'I never,' he tells us in the Autobiography, 'lived in any cathedral city,—except London, never knew anything of any Close, and at that time had enjoyed no peculiar intimacy with any clergyman. My archdeacon, who has been said to be life-like, and for whom I confess I have all a parent's fond affection, was, I think, the simple result of an effort of my moral consciousness.... I had not then ever spoken to an archdeacon.' Similarly, the great journalist Tom Towers was thought to be very like an eminent man on the staff of The Times, and The Times itself, in its review of The Warden, mildly rebuked the author for indulging in personalities. But at that time, Trollope protests,
'living in Ireland, I had not even heard the name of any gentleman connected with The Times newspaper, and could not have intended to represent any individual by Tom Towers. As I had created an archdeacon, so I had created a journalist . . . my moral consciousness must again have been very powerful.'
This gift for the creation of character by the use of his moral imagination was revealed for the first time in The Warden, but it had been developed through those long years of day-dreaming, and in its own rather unusual direction. His private fantasies had not been adventurous, nor had they conferred upon him glittering social status. 'I never became a king,' he tells us, 'or a duke . . . a learned man, nor even a philosopher. But I was a very clever Xenon, and beautiful young women used to be fond of me. And I strove to be kind of heart, and open of hand, and noble in thought, despising mean things; and altogether I was a very much better fellow than I have ever succeeded in being since.' This passionate and genuinely imaginative concern with moral existence was the essence of his approach to the novel, from The Warden onwards. Above all, it was his chief means of insight into character and its depiction. The physical characteristics of his personages are rarely made clearly visible, though they are often conscientiously described. It is their moral physiognomies that are sharply drawn, through what they do and say, what they are said to think and feel, maker. and not seldom by direct comments upon them from their
In the type of moral character chosen for portrayal, The Warden set the pattern to which he kept in nearly all his later novels. There was no villain, indeed no character much below the middle range of the moral scale, nor was there anyone conspicuously above it, save the Warden himself. Trollope became exactly what he wished, the moral historian of men and women in the middle range, the usual run of humanity—'with no more of excellence, nor with exaggerated baseness—so that my readers might recognize human beings like to themselves, and not feel themselves to be carried away among gods or demons'.
Finally, The Warden was typical of all the novels that were to follow in its disregard for plot. It would, indeed, have been incompatible with his choice of the middle range of characters to have involved them in sensational and complicated situations: ordinary people commonly lead ordinary lives. But apart from this, the elaboration of remarkable incident was quite irrelevant to his main purpose—the depiction of moral character. It mattered little to him how his creatures were set in motion, for once they were on the move they had so great a capacity for living their own lives. In The Warden itself, he posed them a problem about the proper use of church endowments, a contemporary, if not a burning issue: just such a case had arisen in Winchester when he was at school there, and was still before the courts many years after he had written this book. But he himself had no clear view of its rights and wrongs, nor did he need one. All that he needed was the opportunity to let his imagination play upon its issues and cross-issues, as they would appear to differing modes and degrees of moral sensibility. And it was in the process of doing this that men and women—not issues—came alive under his hand.
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