The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 7. Anthony Trollope; The Barchester series
Anthony Trollope, after a wretched boyhood and youth, of which he gives some glimpses in his Autobiography and in The Three Clerks (1858), entered upon a doubly prosperous career as a civil servant in the post office and as a man of letters. He had behind him, in the work of his mother, Frances Trollope, an incentive to literary fertility; from her, he inherited some prejudices, but little of his art. The two Irish stories The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847) and The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848), and La Vendée (1850), were out of accord with his natural aptitudes, which fitted him rather for the treatment of material like that of Jane Austen or Thackeray, for both of whom his admiration was unbounded. The monograph on Thackeray falls below the level of its subject; but the resemblances in essential points between Trollope’s best work and Thackeray’s show that he understood more as an artist than he could express as a critic. In The Warden (1855), a scene from clerical life which precedes by two years those of George Eliot, the individual quality of Trollope’s genius first comes to light. Echoes of Titmarsh are heard in the passages satirising Dickens and Carlyle; the characterisation and the creation of a locality show complete originality. In both respects, the novel is the nucleus of the Barsetshire series on which the fame of Trollope most securely rests. Round about Hiram’s hospital, the scene of The Warden, is built up in Barchester Towers (1857), the cathedral city with all its clerical hierarchy. Beyond the city, in successive tales—Dr. Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicles of Barset (1867)—come into view the episcopal see with its outlying parishes rich and poor, its houses of middle class folk and gentry, and, looming large and remote, the castle of the duke of Omnium—a country of the imagination which gives the illusion of actual life by the completeness of its visualisation. Clearly as he knows its topography, he has few pages of description, except in his lively hunting scenes. His foremost concern is with people; and the people in his books come to our notice in the natural fashion of acquaintanceship; with the passage of time, characters are hardened or mellowed; Trollope rivals Thackeray and Balzac in the skill with which he suggests changes due to lapsing years. Following the fortunes of Septimus Harding, the one poetic figure Trollope created, we come into contact with the old bishop and his son archdeacon Grantly, the new bishop and Mrs. Proudie, Mr. Slope, dean Arabin, lord Lufton, the Thornes, the Greshams, the Dales, the Crawleys, the whole multitudinous population of the county. In the main, Trollope delineates quite ordinary types, though, curiously, some of the most famous are drawn larger than life-size—Mrs. Proudie, Obadiah Slope, the signora Vesey-Neroni and, in later novels, the famous Chaffanbrass. Trollope was a Palmerstonian, and his predilection was for the middle and upper middle classes, for clerical dignitaries who have more of Johnson’s principles than of his piety, for the landed gentry, the county representatives and the hunting set. For intruders in church and state, the evangelical Slopes and Maguires, and for upstart millionaires and speculators, Melmotte and Lopez and others, Trollope has nothing but contempt.
No other writer of fiction has had so keen a perception of the mœurs of a distinctive class as Trollope; his triumph is that, like Chaucer, he preserves the traits of common humanity seen beneath professional idiosyncrasy. In his ecclesiastical portraits—he knew little of their prototypes at first hand—inference has the validity of apparent observation; only less lifelike are his civil servants, ranging from Charley Tudor to Sir Raffle Buffle, manor house inhabitants, as in Orley Farm, journalists, London clubmen, electioneering agents and the varied figures of his political novels from Phineas Finn (1869) to The Duke’s Children (1880). The rather chilly Plantagenet Palliser and the philandering young Irishman Phineas Finn link the series together. These novels suffer by the inevitable comparison with Disraeli’s; for, except in the person and intrigue of Mr. Daubeny (a sketch of Disraeli himself), Trollope lacks Disraeli’s power of piercing to the core of a political situation, and his insight into politically-minded character.
Trollope went on his way very little distracted by passing literary fashions; he was just touched by the example of Dickens, as when he describes the Todgers-like boarding house in The Small House at Allington or the Dickensian bagmen of Orley Farm; forgeries, murders and trials appear after the date at which Wilkie Collins had made them popular, in Orley Farm, for instance, and in Phineas Finn. In The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), the story of the outcast Carry Brattle, he ventured upon the problem novel; but, for the most part, he upheld the Victorian idea of wholesomeness, which included sexual impropriety among the sweeping omissions which it exacted from the novelist. In later novels, he unfortunately forsook his earlier practice of holding himself altogether apart from his characters and letting the story convey his moral (he set as much store by the moral as any Victorian) without challenge or comment; The Way We Live Now (1875) drifts continually into satire and criticism of no great pertinence; on the other hand, he scarcely ever used the novel for the exposure of specific abuses.
These occasional departures from his accustomed practice affected very little the lifelikeness with which character and occupation are presented, or the unlaboured precision of detail with which the interiors of households, deaneries, newspaper offices, lawyers’ chambers, clubs and the like are described; the future social historian will regard Trollope as a godsend—a Trollope of the Elizabethan age would be invaluable. His best stories preserve the even texture of average experience; he excels in imparting interest to commonplace affairs, to hopes and fears of clerical or political patronage, to minor financial worries, to the working out in various lives of some initial blunder, or to love affairs in which one of his staid, but attractive and very natural, girls has to decide between two ardent suitors, or one of his youths has two minds in his amatory devotions. In virtue of the verisimilitude of his tales, Trollope has been called by some a photographer, by others a realist; he was neither. He was a day-dreamer who could so order his dreaming that it partook of the very texture and proportion and colour of ordinary life; his genius resides in this. He had but to give some stimulus—the view of Salisbury from the little bridge, for instance—to his dream faculty, and it would improvise for him—effortlessly and without the need of constant reference back to life—places, people and events, having an animation and atmosphere denied to photography, but, at the same time, lacking in the sense of sharpness and solidity which is the first care of the realist. A dreamer has little concern with the profounder causes which underlie action. This view is confirmed in his Autobiography, where he speaks of “constructing stories within himself,” of “maintaining interest in a fictitious tale,” of “novel-spinning.” “I never found myself,” he says, “thinking much about the work I had to do till I was doing it.” What further supports this idea, is the exception, when he created out of starved flesh and blood, and out of anguish, pride and humility of spirit, the figure of Josiah Crawley, perpetual curate of Hogglestock. In this character, there is a quality different even from such unforgettable strokes in his other manner as bishop Proudie’s prayer “that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.”