As the 200th anniversary of Anthony Trollope’s birth approaches, other significant numbers loom: 47 novels and dozens of other texts—among them An Autobiography (1883) and biographies, travel books, and short stories—produced over three and a half decades, at a rate of roughly 250 words every fifteen minutes, 2,500 words each morning by 8:30 a.m. Such prodigious energy has always won Trollope respect as an emblem of Victorian industry, but has not benefitted his reputation as a major writer.
It is the immense accomplishment of The Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope, edited by Carolyn Dever and Lisa Niles, that it helps dispel a view that Trollope was too driven, too rushed to ever be much of a thinker. Of course, a number of scholars, in the last four decades (most recently in Regenia Gagnier, Margaret Markwick, and Deborah Denenholz Morse’s The Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope’s Novels, published in 2009 by Ashgate) —some of them represented by new work in this volume—have been making such a case. But the combination of so many different voices here, in essays of consistently high quality, makes this book an important contribution to Trollope scholarship. As the editors say in their introduction, Trollope “is an artist of the dialectic. His writing stages encounters between the polarities of the day. It drives toward a synthetic vision that holds opposing terms continuously in frame” (2). By venturing widely through his work, often to obscure corners, the sixteen essays in this volume reveal a Trollope admirably difficult to pin down, whose fertile mind is on display in almost everything he wrote.
Niles makes a strong argument in a chapter on Trollope’s short fiction that the stories “offer almost limitless possibility in their creativity” (83). Indeed, one of the pleasant surprises of the Companion is how often other writers discuss these texts as well. Kate Flint, for instance, ends her provocative account of “Queer Trollope” with an exploration of several stories and shows how the genre itself “was especially amenable to the presentation of queer relationships” (110). On the other hand, the four pieces on Trollope’s extensive travels—by James Buzard, Nicholas Birns, Gordon Bigelow, and Amanda Claybaugh—make it clear that he was not attempting anything too original, or exciting, in the travel books that emerged from these journeys. But these essays also explore the many important short stories and novels that emerged from Trollope’s trips; we see too how the travels offer rich territory for ongoing debates about his politics. Buzard, for instance, claims that “nowhere in Trollope’s travel writings do we come across a substantial alteration of perspective; very nearly nowhere does prejudice falter; repeatedly we encounter expressions of bigotry and narrow-mindedness wholly conventional in Trollope’s culture” (171). By contrast, Birns argues that his trip to Australia and New Zealand in his mid-fifties “not only gave him perspective on England but, more crucially, extended his idea of what a social body could be” (184). And Mark W. Turner, in a chapter on Trollope’s life and times, talks about the author’s keen awareness of the global marketplace and how “Trollope—so often thought of in connection with the genteel landscape of rural England or the social politics of the drawing room—also embraced modernity and explored and wrote about the changing world open to him….In short, Trollope made the most of his travels” (12-13). The inclusion of such well-argued disparate views in addressing what the editors call the “bimodality” of Trollope’s work is one of the volume’s strengths (2).
Needless to say, with 47 novels to choose from and so much space going to other works (including a fine essay by Victoria Glendinning on Trollope’s autobiography and biographies of Caesar, Cicero, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Lord Palmerston), this volume does not provide in-depth treatment of the main body of his fiction. But that is not to say that the treatment is superficial, either. Jenny Bourne Taylor, writing on Trollope and the sensation novel, takes as a starting point his statement in An Autobiography that “a good artist” should be both “sensational” and “realistic” (85). She goes on to explore in impressive detail Trollope’s “hybrid” form of realism, “combining overt authorial intervention with the detailed ethnographic representation of the minutiae of daily life and the investigation of consciousness and subjectivity, and also drawing on Gothic and melodramatic modes” in a number of novels (88). And David Skilton, whose 1972 Anthony Trollope and His Contemporaries is a landmark, employs a commanding range of examples to show in his chapter on masculinities how there is not one but “a dozen different views or voices competing for attention” in a typical Trollope novel (128). The cumulative effect of those voices, Skilton argues, “suggests that conformity to masculine society will not entail uniformity of standards or opinions, but sufficient agreement on values to allow the constant negotiation of all these things” (132). This nuanced essay shows just how nuanced a writer Trollope was.
Another superb essay, Elsie B. Michie’s “Vulgarity and Money,” concludes: “It is the precision with which he depicts what the Victorians already knew about the monied nature of their culture that made his writing so unsettlingly accurate” (152). As enlightening as Michie is on the subject, her essay would occasionally benefit from more fine-tuned distinctions. For instance, while she is correct to say that Trollope’s mother Fanny’s “writing was also stigmatized for its vulgarity” (142), she gives the impression that the stigmas were equally unfair to both. Yet Trollope himself (in his autobiography, and the opening pages of North America ) essentially called his mother’s writing vulgar as well. Indeed, one wonders if the seemingly purposeful dullness of North America came from an overly dogged attempt on Trollope’s part to respond to what he saw as his mother’s lively, but vulgar, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832).
As might be expected, the Barsetshire and Palliser series are given special treatment in two excellent essays with very different aims. Mary Poovey’s discussion of the Barsetshire books looks at The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-67) in comparison to the previous novels in the series and is notable for being the only essay in the volume devoted to technical issues of craft. She raises a potent question: “what features did The Last Chronicle so emphasize that the discordant aspects of the first five novels seemed to disappear as the six coalesced into a single whole?” (32), and suggests a number of answers, including “more consistently interpretive or provocative” chapter titles (40), increased free indirect discourse, increased dialogue, and, especially, a far less intrusive narrator. Though her argument is persuasive, I would have liked to see Poovey take into account two glaring ways in which the narrator is in some ways more intrusive than in previous books: the title The Last Chronicle of Barset itself, which announces Trollope’s arbitrary decision to end the series at the height of its popularity, and the elegiac ending, in which Trollope bids a lengthy, memorable farewell.
William A. Cohen, in exploring the ideology of the Palliser series, argues that “a minor adaptation of norms permits the established order to perpetuate itself” and that “some play in the system is convenient to maintenance of the status quo” (51). Let me suggest that a twenty-first century issue—the growing support for same-sex marriage—is a useful lens for considering Cohen’s argument. In an oft-quoted speech from chapter 75 of Phineas Finn (1869), the exemplary Mr. Monk explains how debate about a taboo subject can set in motion a process of change:
Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed.
I am not embarking on the thorny errand of guessing what Trollope would have thought about same-sex marriage—though one might use Flint’s chapter to construct such a hypothesis. Rather, the New York State legislators who argued that equal marriage rights had become absolutely needed used similar words to explain their recent vote. Is same-sex marriage a case of the system making minor adaptations to maintain the basic status quo, fortifying an age-old institution, or is it a radical alteration in the rights of one minority that could have profound effects on the larger society as well? The answer helps us to understand what Trollope meant when he called himself an “advanced conservative Liberal” (qtd. in Cohen 45).
The “Further Reading” section at the end of the book is, perhaps, too abbreviated, with puzzling omissions. For example, given how frequently these writers refer to Trollope’s definition of the gentleman, it is surprising that Shirley Robin Letwin’s essential study is missing from the list. Far more problematic is the chronology at the beginning, which neglects such novels as Castle Richmond (1860), Rachel Ray (1863), Nina Balatka (1866-67), He Knew He Was Right (1868-69), Ayala’s Angel (1880-81), and Mr. Scarborough’s Family (1882-83). I do not see why any of Trollope’s books should be left out of this chronology, but if some logic subtended these particular choices, it remains mysterious. Framley Parsonage (1860-61) is the fourth novel in the Barsetshire series, not the third as Niles writes in her essay on the short stories (71). And Flint is too bold in stating flat out that Trollope’s young friend Kate Field was a lesbian (105). Field may or may not have been (for what it is worth, not in Gary Scharnhorst’s recent biography); but though it is intriguing to consider, I am skeptical that Trollope would have maintained his intense attachment to her, and written to and about her in quite the way he did, had he known her to be a lesbian as Flint contends.
Finally, as refreshing as it is to see Trollope’s capacious mind explored in this volume, there is something missing: critical judgment about him as an artist. Trollope’s mother was prolific as well and was certainly not dim-witted; it would be fascinating to see her extensive work combed through, too. But we shall never get a Cambridge Companion to Fanny Trollope for the simple reason that she was a dreadful novelist. Anthony Trollope presumably merits this collection because he was an excellent novelist, but there is little help here in figuring out which of those novels may be more or less excellent than his others and why. That said, what this volume does say is substantial, and welcome for seasoned Trollopians and newcomers alike.
Steven Amarnick is Associate Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York. He curated the exhibit “Anthony Trollope: The Art of Modesty” at the Fales Library, New York University, and is currently working on a new edition of The Duke’s Children that will restore several hundred pages of cuts that Trollope reluctantly made.