The Barsetshire novels have come to be regarded as Trollope's chief, if not his only contribution to literature, both by the common reader and by the general run of critics and literary historians. They hold this position partly through their own merits of character and milieu, but partly because they can so easily be made to satisfy the common reader's most common weakness in his choice of fiction, his liking for some more or less adult fairyland where he can take a well earned holiday from the tougher and duller realities of his own life. 'Barset,'J. B. Priestley has observed, 'is a haven of rest.' It is natural enough that novels whose main setting was rural England, and whose main characters were so often country clergy, should have been appreciated in this way. But it is an injustice to this series of novels to perceive in them no more than pleasant placidity, and it can easily lead on to a still greater injustice in estimating Trollope's work. For the more solid qualities in this series are to be found in many of his other novels, where the milieu is less obviously fairy-like, but where his central virtue of moral imagination shows itself both with greater depth and with wider range.
These qualities are nowhere more massively developed than in the linked series of novels which ran through his later life, much as the Barsetshire series had run through his earlier years, the 'political' novels, whose central characters are Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Glencora: Can You Forgive Her? (1864), Phineas Finn (1869), The Eustace Diamonds (1873), Phineas Redux (1874), The Prime Minister (1876) and The Duke's Children (1880).
The main setting has moved from Barsetshire to London, and the main characters are men of wealth and high social status, leaders in their professions and in the House of Commons. The general impression is one of greater 'realism', at any rate in so far as this world is clearly more remote from any conceivable fairyland than Barsetshire had been. But, in following Trollope's achievement in this less idyllic milieu, it is even more necessary to realize how much it issued from his imagination. It had been the dread of his boyhood, as he walked to Harrow along the muddy lanes, that 'mud and solitude and poverty' would be his lot through his whole life. 'Those lads about me would go into Parliament, or become rectors and deans, or squires of parishes, or advocates thundering at the Bar,' he supposed; and he told himself that he would never live among them. But with the success of his middle years, he had after all risen to live among them. He knew Members of Parliament, thundering barristers, and the brother of his closest friend was Dean of Ely. And in 1868, he tried to rise still higher, by standing as a candidate for Parliament himself, at Beverley. He was defeated, and both the fact and the manner of his defeat left a very sore place in his spirit. But if he could rise no further himself, his imagination could go where it liked, and its expeditions were the main impulse of the political novels. This was his own view of them—and as usual he saw himself with accuracy:
By no amount of description or asseveration could I succeed in making any reader understand how much these characters (Palliser and Lady Glencora) with their belongings have been to me in my latter life; or how frequently I have used them for the expression of my political and social convictions. They have been as real to me as free trade was to Mr Cobden, or the dominion of a party to Mr Disraeli; and as I have not been able to speak from the benches of the House of Commons . . . they have served me as safety valves by which to deliver my soul.
In this way, his defeat at Beverley gave him a new imaginative impulse, and at the same time ensured that his imagination would not get itself bogged down in too much minute observation. His acquaintance with the political world, like his earlier survey of south-west England, was both wide and vague enough to give him precisely the kind of rich but hazy impression which left his imagination neither starved nor shackled.
In the political novels, as in the earlier series, there is a vast array of characters, and most of them are set and kept in motion by Trollope's usual forces, love and property. But in the central character, Plantagenet Palliser, the chief interest is subtler and deeper. It is a long, full study of a conscience, delicate in itself, and even more perplexed because its owner has wealth, a dukedom, political power, and a very thin skin. The close of The Prime Minister is a good example of what Trollope's 'moral consciousness' could make of this material. Palliser has been Prime Minister for three years, as head of a coalition Government. When it falls, his old friend and ally, the Duke of St Bungay, expresses the hope that he will take some office in the next Cabinet. 'I don't think I could do that,' Palliser told him, 'Caesar could hardly lead a legion under Pompey.' But when their talk was over, he found himself regretting 'that apparently pompous speech by Caesar.... Who was he that he should class himself among the great ones of the world.' In the days that followed, this moment of unintended arrogance irked him almost more than the end of his power and the formation of a new administration. A few weeks later, he was taming with his late Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the few political allies he respected, and by him he was given this assurance:
'If the country is to lose your services for the long course of years during which you will probably sit in Parliament, then I shall think that the country has lost more than it has gained by the Coalition.'
The Duke sat for a while silent, looking at the view, and, before answering Mr Monk,—while arranging his answer,—once or twice in a half-absent way called his companion's attention to the scene before him. But, during this time he was going through an act of painful repentance. He was condemning himself for a word or two that had been ill-spoken by himself, and which, since the moment of its utterance, he had never ceased to remember with shame. He told himself now, after his own secret fashion, that he must do penance for these words by the humiliation of a direct contradiction of them. He must declare that Caesar would at some future time be prepared to serve under Pompey. Thus he made his answer.
This is a more interesting process of the moral life than any studied in the Barset novels, and the observation is more penetrating: few moralists have noted so clearly the part which a small phrase, almost a chance phrase, can play in bringing the fluid confusions of the inner life to a point where they crystallize into decision.
But the fine conscience of Plantagenet Palliser is more than an individual study. It is also at the centre of Trollope's political world, and he finds in it the explanation of a process of change in England which was otherwise mystifying. He was himself a Liberal, though with many touches of the Tory in his temperament. He approved in general of the slow process of amelioration which was going on in his day, the gradual spread of democracy and of education to wider sections of the population. He even approved of the extension of the franchise, but at the same time he wondered at the fact that some of the great Whigs, especially those of wealth and title, should be willing to use their political influence for its own destruction, by encouraging it to pass into the hands of millions of men with votes to be cast in secret ballot. Palliser is the type of such a Whig, and in his exact and exacting conscience Trollope finds the explanation of this remarkable change. No other English novelist, and few historians, saw the problem so clearly, and advanced so convincing a solution for it.
It is this extension of his 'moral consciousness' to the whole pattern of English life that informs the political novels, and justifies to the full the remarkable tribute which Henry James paid Trollope a few years after his death:
Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself . . . His natural rightness and purity are so real that the good things he projects must be real. A race is fortunate when it has a good deal of the sort of imagination—of imaginative feeling—that had fallen to the share of Anthony Trollope; and in this possession our English race is not poor.
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