In the last half a decade a detectable hum of intellectual activity has arisen around the figure of Anthony Trollope. Readers curious about this developing phenomenon could do no better than to consult this anthology, which was developed from papers presented at a conference at the University of Exeter in 2006. The conference attracted a wide audience and made it clear just how many serious readers and writers were becoming occupied with Trollope’s capacious and much disputed oeuvre. Those not in attendance there, and especially those puzzled by the rising energy of Trollope studies, could do no better than to begin at the end of this book with Regenia Gagnier’s essay, which serves as an Afterward to the collection as a whole. There’s nothing lacking, I should point out, in the volume’s introduction, co-written by Margaret Marwick and Deborah Denholz Morse, who along with Gagnier edited the collection. The Markwick/Morse essay provides a highly compressed account of Trollope’s critical reception, highlighting the most provocative and influential views of the last century, and so laying out a history of the debate which the volume seeks to enter, and to change. Gagnier’s Afterward, on the other hand, renders this debate in an especially potent way, spurred on by the sharp angles so characteristic of her prose. She begins by noting that fully half of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet were members of the Trollope Society (235). Mrs. Thatcher herself, judging from a letter Gagnier quotes, once gave serious consideration to joining, and John Major remains the Society’s Vice-President. However, while conservatives throughout the era of conservative resurgence have professed strong allegiance to Trollope, “in North America … [Trollope’s] liberalism on issues of gender, race, reform, sexuality, and so on, is subtly appreciated by scholars” (235).
Trollope’s fiction has forever been accused of complacency, of accepting or celebrating the society whose moral norms it so exactingly charts. It is the complacent way of reading Trollope which seems to prove so comforting to English readers under certain embattled conditions: Elizabeth Bowen’s short radio play, broadcast by the BBC in 1945, lays out this phenomenon, showing how younger readers during the Second World War felt hungry for the England that Trollope depicted, to the great surprise of their parents and grandparents. Cultural conservatives in an era of neoliberal market expansion may find themselves similarly soothed. On the other hand, readers from the beginning have found in Trollope a scrupulous analysis of English narrowness and bigotry. Gagnier finds the dual warrant for these antithetical ways of reading in Trollope’s fiction itself. Taking The Prime Minister as her sample text, Gagnier argues that “Trollope’s plot affectively recuperates the world that his politics rationally repudiate” (243). She is referring to the way that, although readers loathe the prejudice surrounding Lopez, they loathe Lopez as well, and in this way become focused on the social force of this loathing, and the ensuing resentment that shapes Lopez’s actions. She identifies this kind of double movement as typical of Trollope’s work, concentrated on the disruptive effects of liberalism’s own internal logic. Liberalism’s reliance on rational debate and rational choice always seems to produce a chaotic remainder, which Gagnier calls “passional” (246), and this affective by-product becomes the focus of much of Trollope’s work.
Many of the essays in this volume look specifically at Trollope’s engagement with movements of economic, political, or social liberalization. Kathy Psomiades’ chapter positions He Knew He Was Right within a Victorian debate about the sexual contract, a debate that persistently uses marriage—and especially marital violence—as a means of theorizing the political. In her analysis, the novel emphasizes the irrationality and tyranny that are liberalism’s necessary others. Elsie Michie’s essay looks at the historical figure that seems to stand behind Trollope’s Miss Dunstable, with her immense “Oil of Lebanon” fortune: the patent-cure magnate Thomas Holloway. In Trollope’s portrait of merchant (as opposed to speculative) wealth, Michie suggests, the Barsetshire novels depict a “complexly ambivalent awareness” of the power of capital. Jenny Bourne Taylor, in a splendidly-researched piece, shows several later novels to be fixated on the “legal undecidability of personal legitimacy,” in plots relating to inheritance and family descent. In one of the volume’s richest and most complex pieces, Lauren M. E. Goodlad argues that The Eustace Diamonds achieves a “sensitive capture of an evolving politico-imperial governmentality” (103). Goodlad takes what has often been presumed an inert appendage of the novel—its occasional references to the Sawab of Mygawb, and his legal claim for payment from the British crown—and discovers there the threads of a Parliamentary debate over the rights of so-called native princes, Indian royals whose sovereignty was in dispute. Eustace’s Sawab, Goodlad concludes, is a “blank screen who marks the novel’s geopolitical unconscious,” while making possible its “uncanny metropolitan return” (116). These pieces all in varying ways highlight the characteristic double logic that Gagnier attempts to theorize. Each in different ways discovers an ambivalence or a reversal of energy produced out of the process of legal, political, and economic liberalization.
But the book’s essays are more varied than these categories might suggest. There are a number of pieces by established scholars who extend their previous work in new directions. Mary Jean Corbett expands on the subject of her book Allegories of Union (2000), considering the treatment of Irishness and masculinity in the Palliser novels that feature the character of Phineas Finn. Margaret Marwick extends her work on masculinity to consider Trollope’s representation of male homoeroticism. And Robert Polhemus pursues the analysis he developed in Lot’s Daughter (2004), examining, among other things, Trollope’s own relationship with Kate Field, “the young, charismatic American woman barely half his age who would have a major effect on his imagination and art” (18). Newer voices in the field are also well represented in the book. Nathan Hensley’s provocative chapter reads the feminine coding of speculative capital in The Way We Live Now, looking backward to the eighteenth-century motif of “Lady Credit,” and forward to the rhetoric of capital speculation in the present. Helen Blythe studies conceptions of class and gender in the late story “Catherine Carmichael.” Steven Amarnick looks at Trollope’s original manuscript for The Duke’s Children, showing how the cuts demanded by Charles Dickens Jr., then editor of All the Year Round, dramatically altered the novel’s presentation of the young Lord Silverbridge.
Many of the volume’s essays focus on the female characters that have attracted so many readers to Trollope. Deborah Morse’s chapter builds on her pioneering work in this area. Here she presents Trollope as a “conflicted imperialist,” arguing that the treatment of women in He Knew He Was Right takes on particular significance in relation to the Governor Eyre controversy. Christopher Noble’s engaging piece on widows suggests that “unlike maids and spinsters, Trollope’s widows are culturally authorized to exhibit what the Victorians would have recognized as ‘manliness’” (179); he works out this argument in a discussion of two of Trollope’s best-remembered characters, Eleanor Bold and Madame Max. Anca Vaslopolous’s essay reads two late texts, the short story “Mary Gresley” and the novel Sir Harry Hotspur, arguing that “Trollope means to show the dire effects of strict Victorian propriety on the best of young womanhood” (220). A standout contribution from David Skilton brings to bear that author’s characteristic erudition. It returns to the Victorian periodicals that he first studied in Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries (1972), this time focusing on how Victorian critics understood the proper depiction of motivation and action in female characters. Trollope, he finds, was frequently condemned for presenting female characters mainly through their action and engagement with the external world, rather than through the kind of “inward portraiture” felt to be more appropriate to the feminine soul. He finds that the “mental processes” of female and male characters “are more similar in Trollope than many of his critics could approve” (220).
This conclusion of Skilton’s returns us to the double impulse that Gagnier theorizes and that much of the volume sets out to understand. Skilton frames one aspect of the question with admirable directness: “How does it happen that an author who mocks systematic feminists and repeatedly has his narrator assert that marriage and child-rearing is the best career for a woman, is also thought by both non-academic women readers and by feminist commentators of the late twentieth century to present his female characters in a very acceptable way” (210)? How can Trollope provide comfort to both cultural conservatives and their opponents? To both neoliberals and Marxists? (At least some Marxists: Terry Eagleton’s great discomfort with Trollope has been on record since his Criticism and Ideology . See Marwick and Morse’s Introduction .) Part of this volume’s considerable accomplishment is that it approaches these questions from different perspectives, each informing and illuminating the others. It is a fine book, one that will bring new readers into an evolving conversation, and mark a chapter in that conversation.
Gordon Bigelow is T. K. Young Professor of English Literature at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Fiction, Famine and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (2003) and co-editor with John O. Jordan of Approaches to Teaching Dickens’s Bleak House (2009). He wrote a chapter on Trollope and Ireland for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope, and he is currently working on Trollope’s Irish fiction.