Last year, I read Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and almost broke up with him; as it was, just taking a break helped me to fall back in blissful love with him. In the last few months, I’ve read the first two novels in his most famous series, the Chronicles of Barsetshire: The Warden and Barchester Towers. I enjoyed The Warden very much; I wanted to scoop up Mr. Harding and place him protectively in my pocket; I wanted to give Archdeacon Grantly a good, hard shake even when I found myself agreeing with his self-righteous fussiness; I rolled my eyes forgivingly at Eleanor. Bless them, I fell for the whole lot of them.
But this wasn’t mere forgiveness or a second honeymoon. While The Warden read like the first novel in a series—there was a great deal of groundwork visibly being laid down—it smacked of something great. I finished it and moved on to other books, but I kept thinking about it. I found myself missing Mr. Harding et al as though they were real people; I was desperate for another visit. My inclination to ration out excellent reads was completely scuppered by my inability to stay away. Within just a month or so of reading The Warden, I found myself reading book two in the series.
Barchester Towers is nothing less than superlative. It is one of the best novels I’ve read; and Trollope more talented than he or anyone else realized, because who else could possibly have made a novel about church patronage and succession an entirely irresistible page-turner? Not even Charles Dickens, I think. Not even David Mitchell! Okay, maybe they both could—but would they have (had) the chutzpah to even try? I think we all know the answer to that question. (Hilary Mantel obviously could and might; there’s nothing that woman can’t do, literarily.)
Mrs. Proudie, Mr. Slope, a widowed and dukes-up Eleanor Bold comprise three of the best, most engaging characters I’ve come across. Mr. Harding continues to be adorable and worry-inspiring. Archdeacon Grantly rises high in offended propriety and comes back down to earth with a gentle but very human thump. I’ve already purchased, against my 2012 book embargo, the third in the series, Doctor Thorne. I already miss these characters the way I missed my family after I’d been several months an exile in rural South Korea. No Victorian (in my limited but ever widening experience) created such entirely memorable and unique characters completely sans non-Dickensian hyperbole the way Trollope did. Mrs. Proudie is as irritating as Dickens’s most irritating busybodies without, somehow, being clownish or cartoonish—not something Dickens was always guilty of, but he often was and he frequently skirted the line.
I don’t see Trollope in the context of a Dickensian universe, contrary to how things may seem to be shaping up here. Indeed, I rankle at the thought of anyone comparing the two at all except to note how they’re different, in large part because so many seem to assume Dickens’s superiority. The cliché is correct and applicable here—apples and oranges cannot be usefully compared except in the most general terms.
The reason I bring these authors up together is that Trollope thought about Dickens a lot. A lot. It’s not surprising that he had things to say about Dickens (or his other most prominent authorial contemporaries) in An Autobiography. Indeed, that’s one of the aspects I most enjoyed about that unfortunate book. But he certainly wasn’t an adherent of the Victorian canon as it’s been defined in the 20th and 21st century!
In the Autobiography, Trollope acknowledges Dickens’s popularity but confesses himself immune to Dickens’s charm, noting tersely that
I do acknowledge that Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, and others have become household words in every house, as though they were human beings; but to my judgment they are not human beings, nor are any of the characters human which Dickens has portrayed. It has been the peculiarity and the marvel of this man’s power, that he has invested his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature. (p. 248)
Nothing could be worse for Trollope the novelist or Trollope the reader than to have to dispense with human nature; for him, that was the whole point. And why, of course, readers (not just me; I know there are many for I’ve met some of them on the interwebs) miss Trollope’s characters as though they were once bodily present and now are gone. I love Dickens; Bleak House is one of my other favourite novels, but the characters in this and his other lesser novels didn’t make my heart ache when the book was done. (Except for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Oh, Sydney! Sydney!!) Even Dickens’s most memorable characters are mostly shadows—showy, loud shadows sometimes. Or, to use Trollope’s own analogy, like the puppets in Vanity Fair, brilliant and compelling but unable to withstand the harsh light of reality. I don’t read Dickens when I’m interested in reality, nor should anyone else.
Trollope also objected to Dickens’s signature writing style, pronouncing it to be “jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules” (p. 249). None of this should be very notable—many of us scratch our heads in either bemusement or offense when writers of questionable ability become immensely popular.
But it’s that Dickens keeps coming up in Trollope’s stuff. I’ve noted references in The Warden and Barchester Towers and wonder if I missed some in the Palliser novels I’ve read just because 1) my Palliser editions aren’t footnoted, and 2) I had read very much less Dickens when I read the Palliser novels than I have since.
In The Warden, Trollope goes for Dickens’s jugular, barely disguising the latter under the charming pseudonym of Mr. Sentiment. Pages and pages of buttoned down vitriol address Dickens’s perceived sacrifice of plot and character for moralistic sensationalism:
Of all reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing left for him to do. (p. 206)
I don’t know if it was Dickens’s perceived social agenda or the fact that he used fiction to further his causes that offended Trollope, but maybe it doesn’t matter as the result is the same—puppets rather than people arguably fill the pages, and for Trollope that’s game over.
In Barchester Towers, Trollope damns Dickens’s with faint praise (and I only know it’s damning because of the Autobiography):
A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge, or in compassing his wishes by all honest means. A young diplomat entertains a fair ambition when he looks forward to be the lord of a first-rate embassy; and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish. (p. 9).
Clever and mean, my dear Trollope, clever and mean. While I don’t think Trollope was fair to Dickens—he, like everyone else, made the mistake of comparing his own kind of art to Dickens’s when they’re barely cousins!—I do love Trollope for being just a bit snarky. He’s never pretended, either in his Autobiography or through the voice of his narrators, to be any more or less human than he insists the characters in novels be.
I wonder if Trollope would have admitted to what’s obvious to me: that even if he didn’t like Dickens’s books, he was clearly fascinated by them. He couldn’t dismiss Dickens but he also doesn’t seem to have questioned the legitimacy of his own dissatisfactions. He admitted to a certain real power in his rival’s works even if he perhaps thought it shouldn’t have that kind of power in the first place.
My biggest question is this: was the fascination mutual? I’ve read a great deal of Dickens in the past while and I don’t recall any references to Trollope which, as I’ve said, mightn’t mean anything. But if Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens is reliable, there wasn’t much to miss. The only reference he identifies is one of the Christmas Stories, “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”, as being a possible response to Trollope’s Mr. Sentiment. I am happily possessed of the Christmas Stories and so will read it and report back to you. In the meantime, if you’re still reading this post, which I can only imagine you’d do if you adore Dickens AND Trollope the way I do, you’ll give me any tips you have on this exciting literary cage match.