The bicentennial of the birth of Anthony Trollope is this year. A Tablet magazine critic has decided to mark this epoch with an essay arguing that Anthony Trollope was, in some mystical sense, a Jew. A writer for The New Yorker, not to be outdone, makes the – if possible – even more bizarre claim that Anthony Trollope was a cosmopolitan. If Trollope were alive today, we are confidently informed, he “would be in Brussels, writing comedies about the European parliament.” Since, as a proud Jew and and a most wretched cosmopolitan, I may hope for some immunity from charges of prejudice and xenophobia, I will most respectfully beg to differ with both writers.
The claim that Anthony Trollope was a Jew or a philo-Semite barely needs to be addressed. No, he was not. He certainly acknowledged, along with Shakespeare, Scott, and other celebrated Judeophobes, that Jews were human beings with human feelings. And — as evidenced by the quotations in the Tablet article itself — he clearly did not like them.
The distinction between cosmopolitans and regular “politans” — or what Wendell Berry calls “placed people” — is perhaps less distinct than that between Jews and Gentiles, but the Englishness of Trollope — many of whose novels contain extended fox hunting scenes — is quite unmistakable. While most of Trollope’s novels take place in England, he does have many shorter stories set in other lands. These stories, however, are hardly written in the spirit in which the truly cosmopolitan George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda or Romola, in which books she makes an effort to enter into, respectively, the cultures of the Victorian Jews and of the Renaissance Italians. Trollope’s “foreign” tales, by contrast, are mostly just stories of the English being English, however exotic a setting they may find themselves in. Some of the most memorable ones involve uproarious gags in which Englishmen make fools of themselves with their rudeness abroad while the locals – from Father Giles of Ballymoy, Ireland, to a Spanish Marquis aboard a riverboat- respond with perfect good humor. Others, such as ‘Returning Home,’ in which a young Englishwoman, weighted down by her inappropriately heavy clothes, drowns in a South American river, are tragic tales of the hardships of exile.
The unpleasant truth is that any sane person who has a passing familiarity with Trollope’s corpus knows that that fox hunting, beef eating, deeply humorous civil servant was not only an insular, if amiable, English snob, but even an English class snob. His lower class characters, when they appear at all, are usually, like those of Shakespeare, brought in for comic relief, and are never, like those of many other Victorians, given the dignity of moral agency. Unlike Shakespeare’s clowns, however, Trollope’s less fortunate folks (who usually come from the lower-middle-class) are not allowed the graces of wit, goodness, or pathos. We are meant to laugh at and not with such congenitally ungentlemanly or unladylike souls as Mr. Slope, Mr. Moulder, and Mrs. Greenow.
Trollope may have been the greatest English man of letters to unironically subscribe to the doctrine that
If thou never wast at court, thou never saw’st good manners; if thou never saw’st good manners, then thy manner must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation.
The finest of Trollope’s short stories, “The Spotted Dog,” is a cautionary tale, the moral of which is that no gentleman should condescend to take a wife from among the lower classes (one of the subplots in Orley Farm is essentially the story of such a tragedy averted). Although it must be admitted that Trollope’s novels are positively brimming over with aristocratic young men who are interested in marrying young women whose rank and fortune are not quite equal to their own, the argument in favor of the marriage is always that the woman in question is, her relative poverty notwithstanding, “a lady.” This is how, in his posthumously published autobiography, Trollope explains his opposition to open and competitive examinations for candidates for Civil Service employment:
As what I now write will certainly never be read till I am dead, I may dare to say what no one now does dare to say in print,—though some of us whisper it occasionally into our friends’ ears. There are places in life which can hardly be well filled except by “Gentlemen.”…it may be that the son of the butcher of the village shall become as well fitted for employments requiring gentle culture as the son of the parson. Such is often the case. When such is the case, no one has been more prone to give the butcher’s son all the welcome he has merited than I myself; but the chances are greatly in favour of the parson’s son.
The obvious question — of how Anthony Trollope, the snob, could possibly have come to be held up as a model Jew-lover and cosmopolitan — is not a question that is entertained for long, because the answer is more obvious still. Our two journalists are only interested in finding in Trollope’s books those ideas and sentiments which correspond to their own. Trollope certainly identified as a political progressive and liberal, as they do. He certainly wrote a novel in which the handsome hero conveniently forgets about his “insipid” girlfriend back home in the country while, in the big city, he pursues – and is pursued by – ladies with more prominent worldly status, as men of any era might fondly imagine themselves doing. He also, presumably, finds common ground with the modern journalists, in, as mentioned earlier, acknowledging that Jews are human beings.
However, these superficial similarities are surely recognizable as red herrings to those who, when they open up a book, neither expect nor desire to find a mirror. If Trollope voted for (and even tried to become) a Liberal MP, the actual political goals of the Liberal party of the time were mostly about removing protections from special interests and scaling back the Empire — a far cry from the modern welfare enactments — and it is impossible to know what Trollope would have thought about our latter day Liberals. What we do know is that, although a Liberal voter, he had a staunchly conservative personality, and that he broke with his party to oppose not only Civil Service examinations, but the Secret Ballot measure as well (he considered it to be an “unmanly restraint” upon the poor conduct of those who would exercise inappropriate influence upon voters, which he felt ought to be regulated by culture and not by the State). Of course, Trollope’s tendency towards nostalgia and loyalty to antiquated institutions is nowhere more evident than in his novels themselves. In The Warden, the first of his novels to achieve popular success, he is famously unable to take a side in a question of Church reform (the Church of England, is, of course, part of the government establishment of England), and is equally appreciative of both the beauty of the old ways of doing things and the seemingly inevitable practical necessity of adopting more utilitarian policies.
And if Phineas Finn, the handsome Irish member of Parliament, was not the most loyal in love, most of Trollope’s other heroes, such as Johnny Eames, Lord Lufton, and Frank Gresham, do stick by their ladies through thick and thin, and even Phineas finally does what Trollope couldn’t help but consider to be the right thing, and returns home to his Mary.
Trollope’s modern admirers have fallen into a great pitfall faced by lovers of literature, against which C.S. Lewis warns in Preface to Paradise Lost:
A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere L.C.M. is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself. If we are in search of the L.C.M. then, in every poem, we are tempted to treat as the most important those elements which belong to the L.C.M. which remain when we have finished the stripping-off process. But how if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief.
A common response to this argument is some formulation or other of the deconstructionist idea that what the author originally intended does not actually matter. Lewis is dismissive of this objection in the introduction to one of his other books, The Discarded Image:
There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind which brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness,’ and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.
Lewis’ analogy may bring comfort to the contemporary journalists, as it illuminates yet another quality which they share with the great Victorian whom they admire: their literary attitude, like his general attitude, is profoundly insular and incurious.
As interested as we may be in perceiving an author’s original meaning, the option of not reading the books of an author whose perspective is profoundly distasteful to us, is, of course, always on the table. If Lucius Malfoy were gifted with the ability to tell a story as well as Trollope, and it was he who wrote the Chronicles of Barsetshire, many of us would probably opt not to read them. There are, however, qualities in Trollope’s work which have endeared him and which will continue to endear him, even to those who do not share his “gentle culture,” for generations to come. We do not necessarily possess these special qualities ourselves. We like them because we think think that they are good, and we think that Trollope is good because he has them.
He is one of the great English humorists, in the tradition of predecessors and contemporaries whom he admired, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Thackeray. The haughty, loud, and domineering “female bishop,” Mrs. Proudie — a recurring character, and one of Trollope’s most celebrated — is certainly at the receiving end of her fair share of clever quips and situational comedy, — for example, she is humiliated by a torn dress and forced to retreat just as she has worked herself up to a climax of rudeness and tyranny towards her guests — however, the funniest thing about her is just,– herself, whether in action or at rest. She is so minutely described, realistic, and known, that the reader may sit back and simply bask in the unique idea of her. Many of Trollope’s more likable characters, such as the sweet and perplexed cleric, Mr. Harding, or the rigid but kind old mother and patron, Lady Lufton, are similarly amusing. They are amusing, just as every person in real life has an infinite potential to be amusing — whether intentionally or not — by virtue of his or her wild and beautiful idiosyncrasies.
The atmosphere of Trollope’s mind is very similar to that of Jane Austen’s: it is one of breezy, philosophical, happiness, punctuated by the occasional period of consternation or elation. It is not at all like the giddy highs and crashing lows of Shakespeare or Dickens, and still less like the solid, clever, pessimism of Thackeray.
The final quality of Trollope’s of which I wish to write is the hardest to describe, probably because, unlike the others, it is not at all common. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope’s capacity for really disliking other people — as groups or as individuals — was strong and vigorous. His dislike, however, though it pops up often enough, is, like all of his other feelings, not given to extreme expressions, and manifested by dry satire and sarcasm without a hint of vitriol or actual hatred. It is also tempered by true Charity, a concept which, as a gentleman and a Protestant, Trollope tended to favor more as a faith than as a work. This is how, in his Autobiography, he describes his feelings about the “killing” of Mrs. Proudie
It was with many misgivings that I killed my old friend… I have sometimes regretted the deed, so great was my delight in writing about Mrs. Proudie, so thorough was my knowledge of all the little shades of her character. It was not only that she was a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her; but that at the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors. And as her tyranny increased so did the bitterness of the moments of her repentance increase, in that she knew herself to be a tyrant,—till that bitterness killed her. Since her time others have grown up equally dear to me… but I have never dissevered myself from Mrs. Proudie, and still live much in company with her ghost.
As we read through Trollope’s novels, we often get the sense that he really loved even where he thoroughly disliked. Insular though he was, he was far removed from bigotry after all.