Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, and since few readers will wish to read them all, some answer is needed to the question, which are best worth readings it is not easy to find one, for quite apart from the large number involved, there are few that fall markedly below his usual level, and perhaps even fewer which rise much above it.
The verdict of the common reader has always been that the Barset series should be regarded as his best and most typical work, and that there is little point in going much further with him. His more serious and persistent readers, however, generally believe that the 'political' series is at least as good, and very probably better. Beyond this, there is confusion. Are the other three dozen novels merely an extension of the Trollopian world over a wider area, a repetition of his favourite themes and his familiar types of character under new names and against slightly shifted scenery? Or do some of them present qualities not to be found anywhere in the two central series?
The second argument has been urged with much force in a study by Mr Cockshut, which sets out to alter radically the accepted view of Trollope's whole work. It contends that Trollope's outlook was, especially in the later part of his life, much less superficial than has usually been supposed, less orthodox, less bluffly optimistic, and more prone to question the assumptions of the age about morality and property. In the light of this contention, the emphasis of attention is changed both within the two main series and in the novels outside them. In the Barset novels, it falls above all on the lonely agony of Mr Crawley, the clergy-man wrongly accused of stealing a cheque, but not sure within himself that he is innocent. In the 'political' series, it falls upon the madness of Mr Kennedy in Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, and the appalling loneliness of his wife, Lady Laura, who has married him for his money—or at least refused to marry the man she really loved because he had no money. And in The Eustace Diamonds, Mr Cockshut finds Trollope's first decisive movement towards satire, and to a view of goods and chattels not wholeheartedly Victorian. With this alteration of emphasis in the better-known novels, there goes the claim that what is most important in them was often more fully developed else-where. The gloom and loneliness of the individual, for example, was explored most deeply in He Knew He Was Right, which traces the degeneration of a husband from unreasonable jealousy of his wife into actual madness. The fullest development of satire is in The Way we Live Now, and of the attack on property and inheritance in Mr Scarborough's Family. These, and other of the outlying novels, Mr Cockshut would place in the forefront of Trollope's work, for these and such-like reasons.
This study has been usefully done; it provokes a more careful reading of some perhaps unduly neglected novels in the later period, and corrects some wrong impressions about those which have been widely read. Mr Cockshut, moreover, has drawn together very skilfully the evidence of Trollope's passionate interest in certain situations and characters: the almost inevitably bad relations between fathers and sons, the 'snarling intimacy of family life', the desperation of girls whose only future is marriage, and whose labour in life is to entrap a suitably endowed husband. And yet the direction of the emphasis is wrong; it runs too directly against the main current of criticism. In his own day, Trollope's reviewers constantly stressed his choice of the middle range of humanity, of the ordinary man or woman, even the commonplace; they only wondered at his power of making it interesting, without distortion and without much apparent imaginative heightening of colour. Henry James's phrase succinctly comprehends the whole contemporary impression: 'His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.' The judgement is the more weighty, because a writer's contemporaries very rarely mistake the nature of his merit, though they often misjudge its degree. In concentrating so much attention upon Trollope's handling of the unusual, the heterodox, Mr Cockshut has indulged in an exaggeration, even if a useful one.
My own conviction is that all the essential qualities of Trollope are to be found in the two central series, and that there they are balanced in their right proportions. Outside them, only two novels appear to me to have a really strong claim on the general reader.
The first is The Way we Live Now. It was written in 1873, and it savagely satirized the new power of financiers and speculators in English life. Trollope saw them compassing the ruin, or at least the degradation, of the landed gentry, literature, the press, social life, even the Court itself. It is a magnificently sustained piece of anger, imaginatively realized and dramatically presented. The last act of its great villain, Augustus Melmotte, ruined, drunk and defiant, trying to speak in Parliament, and glowering angrily but speechlessly round the House, has a force, both immediate and symbolic, beyond Trollope's usual range. In the previous year, The Prime Minister had appeared, and in it the new corruption of finance had been represented by a small-scale swindler, Lopez. Had Trollope but waited for his imagination to devise and select, he might have put the far greater figure of Melmotte in the same place. A novel in which Plantagenet Palliser was opposed to Melmotte, politically, morally and imaginatively, would in all probability have been Trollope's unquestioned masterpiece, his most complete comment on the values of his age. That it did not get written is the heaviest single penalty he paid for his precipitation in covering the daily stint of paper. But even so, The Way we Live Now deserves to be read more widely, and to be allowed a distinguished place beside the main political novels.
The second novel which I would specially commend is The Claverings, published in 1867. It is a work of a very different kind. It is short, and has a concentration of effect unusual in Trollope. There is no sub-plot to distract the development of the central situation, and all the characters play real parts in it. The main problem it explores, the hesitations and weaknesses of a young man between a beautiful but poor young girl to whom he is engaged, and an equally beautiful but rich widow whom he had loved before her marriage, is exactly of the kind to display at its best Trollope's ability to analyse the unheroic but not quite base man of common mould. But it is above all in its style that it is distinctive. For the most part, Trollope's manner of writing is adequate rather than eloquent, and so impersonal that one often feels it might have been practised by almost anyone else in the same period: though it is remarkable how surely, in fact, a fair specimen of his work can be recognized for what it is. In The Claverings, however, more than in any other book, he showed what he could do when he was neither writing against the clock, nor merely 'for length'—the dreadful phrase is his own. It is not merely that as a whole the book is better written than most of the others, but that it also shows some of his subtler qualities of style more clearly than the rest.
There is, for example, a turn of phrase almost peculiar to him, and very characteristic of his ironically intimate report of the inner life: it depends upon the addition of some slight qualification to a previous statement. An example has been given already from the Archdeacon's reflections:
He told himself that he had feared God,—but he was not sure that he was telling himself the truth even in that.
Here are others:
He thought that he could give up racecourses; but he was sure that he could at any rate say that he would give them up. (Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite)
Colonel Osborne knew that his visit had been very innocent; but he did not like the feeling that even his innocence had been made the subject of observation. (He Knew He Was Right)
It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself;—but he thought that he thought. (The Prime Minister)
In The Claverings, this characteristic Trollopian turn of phrase is used frequently, and especially in the depiction of the wavering hero. 'He told himself that he was an ass, but still he went on being an ass.' Thus he got himself into his trouble between the old love and the new, and in the midst of it, when he was being true to neither, Trollope concludes an address to the reader on the failings of his hero: 'He should have been chivalric, manly, full of high duty. He should have been all this, and full also of love, and then he would have been a hero. But men as I see them are not often heroic.'
Another of Trollope's characteristic devices was the repetition of a short phrase, at brief intervals but with such shifts of context, such exaggeration, that it acquired the ironic power conferred in the same manner on the phrase 'honour-able men' in Antony's speech in Julius Caesar. In The Claverings, there are two fine example of its use. one is in the twelfth chapter, describing the visit of the beautiful young widow to the splendid estate she had won by her loveless marriage, and the phrase woven through it is 'She had the price in her hands'. It gathers weight continually through the chapter, which ends upon the final bitter variation: 'She had the price in her hands, but she felt herself tempted to do as Judas did, to go out and hang herself.' Five chapters later, the same device is put to more openly comic and hostile uses, when the best mode of wooing this same rich young widow is discussed by Captain Clavering and Captain Boodle, after dinner at their club:
'Well, now, Clavvy, I'll tell you what my ideas are. When a marl's trying a young filly, his hands can't be too light. A touch too much will bring her on her haunches, and throw her out of step. she should hardly fell the iron in her mouth. But when I've got to do with a trained mare, I always choose that she shall know that I'm there ! Do you understand me?"
'Yes; I understand you, Doodles.'
'I always choose that she should know I'm there.' And Captain Boodle, as he repeated these manly words with a firm voice, put out his hands as though he were handling the horse's rein.
After the phrase has been relished a further half-dozen times, Boodle leaves his friend alone to mediate upon it:
He sat the whole evening in the smoking-room,very silent, drinking slowly iced gin-and-water; and the more he drank the more assured he felt that he now understood the way in which he was to attempt the work before him. 'Let her know I'm there', he said to himself, shaking his head gently, so that no one should observe him; 'yes, let her know I'm there.' Everything was contained in that precept. And he, with his hands before him on his knees, went through the process of steadying a horse with the snaffle-rein, just touching the curb, as he did so, for security. It was but a motion of his fingers and no one could see it, but it made him confident that he had learned his lesson.
And in this way the phrase is made to undermine these two men, to reveal all their coarseness, their monotony of mind, their pompous ineptitude.
An acquaintance with The Claverings, then, is worth making not only for its own sake; it is probably the readiest way for a reader to sensitize himself to the subtler aspects of Trollope's style, and above all to his characteristic modes of irony. Without this sensitivity, none of his novels can be read rightly, for even in his dealings with the characters he knew and loved best—indeed especially with them— this irony is never far away. But its quality is so quiet, its onset so unostentatious, that it can easily be missed.
For these reasons, then, these two novels seem to deserve attention. But it must at once be added that many of the others are as good, and very possibly better. Ralph the Heir, for example, has some fine political scenes, and at least one character, Sir Thomas Underwood, profounder in conception than any in The Way We Live Now. The Belton Estate is comparable with The Claverings in its compression, and has a parallel theme, the hesitations of a young woman between two lovers, developed with all that power of creating a dramatic scene which has been illustrated above in the encounter between the Archdeacon and Miss Crawley. Others of the lesser-known novels which certainly deserve to be much better known are Orley Farm, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Is He Popenjoy?, Dr Wortle's School and Ayala's Angel. The list could easily be made much longer, but the reader who wishes to explore these novels further has no lack of guides. If he is interested in the gloomier and less 'usual' aspects in them, he cannot do better than follow Mr Cockshut; if, on the other hand, he prefers a more orthodox and central view, he should consult the Commentary of Mr Michael Sadleir, to whom this generation owes much for defending and explaining a writer who seemed on the very point of slipping into oblivion.
But whatever he may choose to read, he should guard against two misconceptions which can prevent him from giving both himself and Trollope a fair chance. He should not, under the impression of length and weight of circumstance, mistake what is before him for mere photography, and so miss the real, though unostentatious imagination which has moulded it; nor should he let the apparent uniformity and directness of the style lull him into a hypnotic automatism, insensitive to those subtler turns of phrase which are so characteristic an expression of Trollope's 'moral consciousness', of his kindly but ironic perception of the gap between what we are, and what we ought to be, wish to be, or believe ourselves to be.
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