Deborah Denenholz Morse. Reforming Trollope: Race, Gender, and Englishness in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. ISBN 978-1409456148. Price: $99.95/£55.00.[Record]

  • Ayelet Ben-Yishai

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  • Ayelet Ben-Yishai
    University of Haifa

Trollope’s politics have been the subject of much scholarly and critical debate since the early days of his writing career. Master chronicler of the landed gentry, aristocracy, and clergy, of London politics and society, and of those who found themselves (willingly or unwillingly) within the ambit of one of these groups—was Trollope a conservative or a liberal? Or maybe a little bit of both? Was he content with the present state of affairs, or did he advocate for reform? Perhaps he was a reformist against his better judgment? Or was it the other way around? Considering that Trollope’s career spanned almost five decades and produced more than 47 novels and many other works of shorter fiction and non-fiction, coming up with a definitive answer for this question might seem impossible. Surely one can find several different versions of Trollope and his politics within such a prodigious oeuvre, and surely every bottom line about his politics can be refuted with another, contradictory example from another novel. And yet, the debates have persisted, generating an impressive amount of scholarship. The latest iteration of these debates comes from one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable Trollopians working today, Deborah Denenholz Morse. Reforming Trollope takes up this subject—and the entire corpus of criticism it has generated—with fervor and erudition, arguing with great clarity that Trollope was a reformist not only in his political world view, but also in his practice as a writer. While Morse does not define what she means by reformist—at times it seems to be akin to liberal, at others, to modern—she uses it consistently to describe Trollope’s thinking and Trollope’s fiction as “experimental and innovative” (1). In other words, Morse argues that Trollope is an innovator both in his understanding of race and gender in Victorian Britain and in his form, rewriting the pastoral and the marriage plot. Morse’s writing on these questions is passionate and urgent, perhaps, because another concern altogether seems to be at stake—that of Trollope’s value as a writer, and especially as a writer worthy of scholarly attention and reflection. Indeed, questions regarding Trollope’s politics have consistently been tied up with his somewhat tenuous place in the canon of the Great Victorian Novelists. In this Trollope is hardly alone; many other writers have gone in and out of critical fashion because of their politics. And yet Trollope’s focus on the well-off, well-born, and well-connected, and the relative dearth of lower-class characters (or concern for them) in his fiction, have sometimes seemed especially problematic to critics because these themes are expressed in what they (unfavorably) regard as the conservative form of his realist fiction. In other words, the question of innovation in his work is tied both to his politics and to his assessment as a great writer. Morse thus takes up her project with two implicit interventions in mind: to establish Trollope’s rightful place on the political map, and in so doing, to ensure his place on the literary map. The book addresses the three arenas of reform—genre, gender, race—in its three parts, ultimately establishing a clear trajectory in Trollope’s writing, which, Morse argues, moves from conservative to increasingly liberal. Each one of the book’s three parts consists of two chapters that provide a thorough reading of one of Trollope’s later novels, showing the ways in which Trollope extends and reforms contemporary discourse on each of these three concerns. But the book excels precisely because it refuses to separate out these categories: Trollope’s ability to rewrite the pastoral form in The Small House in Allington (1864), as shown in the book’s first chapter on “Reforming …