Anthony Trollope mails it in

Anthony Trollope is known for many things: he (appropriately) invented those handy red postal boxes, so we could all mail it in when necessary; he wrote almost 50 novels in his lifetime; he worked full-time for the British post office while writing all those books; he penned an autobiography that consigned him to the hell of obscurity (luckily, not permanently) by closeted Romantics posing as twentieth-century literary critics; he had a complicated relationship with Charles Dickens; actually, he had a strange view of all his contemporary writers–he didn’t think George Eliot was the best writer ever to grace English with her pen, and he thought Thackeray’s best novel was that unreadable Henry Esmond business! (If any of the above interests you, you could read his Autobiography; but you’ll like him better if you read Rohan Maitzen’s essay about him at Open Letters Monthly instead.)

Anthony Trollope was not known for either science fiction or extended satire. Why? I’m not sure, but The Fixed Period suggests that he was pretty bad at both of them.

As for the satire, two things, briefly: You’d better know what you’re on about when you undertake to write a sustained satire, given that there’s no way your work won’t be compared to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. And I will admit that I wasn’t even thinking of satire in relation to The Fixed Period until David Skilton, in his fine introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, told me to. The target of the satire being, maybe?, where all this shit about Darwinism and selection might lead people when dealing with their “useless” old folk; but also about Victorians’ squeamishness about cremating bodies, in spite of serious issues of burial (and hell, living) space in urban centres like London. Skilton admits, and I admire him for it, that it is not clear which of these two subjects meant most to Trollope–or, if they were of equal importance, how he meant to reconcile them, given that enfeebled old age was a real social problem that needed addressing and cremating bodies was still considered by the majority to be a desecration.

Trollope crankily told some friends, confused by what this little book was supposed to be about, that he “meant every word” of it. An ironic obfuscation for the ages, that!

The Fixed Period is also a sci-fi romp set circa 1979, in a former British colony that has so far advanced in its civilizing processes that it’s abolished capital punishment and has instituted mandatory euthanasia for anyone who reaches the terribly useless age of 67! The story begins the year before the first citizen is due to be “deposited” in the “college”–the latter being a grim dormitory/prison of enforced idleness in which the elderly will have to spend an entire year thinking of how someone’s going to come bleed them out on a certain set day.

It’s all very gruesome but not unfamiliar; such stories are found in the Renaissance, especially in the drama (I kept thinking of Rowley, Middleton, and Massinger’s The Old Law while reading this novel, and apparently Trollope had read it too). Trollope perhaps intends the futuristic setting to function as a warning of sorts, imagining that about one hundred years is what it would take for social Darwinism to reach its full practical potential. But the satire doesn’t work because the connection between present theory and future practice isn’t clearly enough made.

Also, because the novel is written in first person, it comes across simply as the writing of a reasonable-sounding madman with a taste for blood. The narrator, the subtly named Mr. Neverbend is, of course, accused of this and it hurts his tender heart. But this sensitivity simply makes him seem more mad. I don’t think we’re supposed to see him as entirely mad–we’re supposed to see him as someone who is unafraid of following “good” theories through to their natural conclusions.

But there isn’t one moment in the novel in which this seems even vaguely possible. Mr. Neverbend is supposed to be popular and trusted, but I think this might be a perception arising more out of his madness than out of reality; also, he’s so damned dull. It’s surprising, really, how boring fanatics can be. How do they ever get followers?

One of the reasons Swift’s satire works so well is that his initial reasoning and laying out of “the Irish problem” is irresistible. It does really seem like he’s about to lead you into discussion of a legitimate project of benevolent relief for extreme and widespread poverty. Then, of course, comes the baby-eating.

But Trollope’s narrator is never compelling, his reasons never portrayed in such a way that anyone could be trapped into momentarily agreeing. For this reason alone, Trollope’s satirical endeavour is a failure.

The science fiction elements of The Fixed Period make this failure worse, unfortunately, because Trollope so clearly could barely be bothered to think of what life in one hundred years might look like, technologically speaking. We know it’s 1979 almost entirely because Neverbend mentions that his friend’s date of deposition is due to occur in June of that year.

But there are also steam-powered bicycles. There are wireless capabilities set up, which convey information across the ocean in an hour or less. But such things aren’t integral to the story, and they’re so awkwardly included that they read like impatient afterthoughts. Example: there is a good old-fashioned cricket game played between colonists and British visitors, and this passage is meant to remind us that we’re dealing with a strange and unfamiliar future, even in the midst of a game that couldn’t be more familiar:

The Britishers were mad with dismay as Jack worked his way on through the last hundred. It was piteous to see the exertions which poor Mr Brittlereed made in running backwards and forwards across the ground. They tried, I think, to bustle him by the rapid succession of their bowling. But the only result was that the ball was sent still further off when it reached Jack’s wicket. At last, just as every clock upon the ground struck six with that wonderful unanimity which our clocks have attained since they were all regulated by wires from Greenwich, Jack sent a ball flying up into the air, perfectly regardless whether it might be caught or not, knowing well that the one now needed would be scored before it could come down from the heavens into the hands of any Englishman. (p. 77)

Awkward. Seriously. One could argue, I suppose, that this is intended–that it reminds us that the nightmare is nightmarish in part because the rest of the 1979 world is otherwise so similar to the (Victorians’) present. But it’s not convincing here; such insertions happens so rarely, and in such ugly ways (ugly in terms of the writing, of how random is the placement of the inventions Trollope imagines) that rather than drawing one up short in painful recognition, they merely irritate.

The Fixed Period is not a good book–not as a story, not as satire, not as a fearful imagining of the future. It certainly doesn’t have the sort of comfortably able and freshly compelling writing that distinguishes Trollope’s better books, like the Barsetshire novels.

Well, at least it was short. Actually, that was probably part of the problem. I think one of Trollope’s greatest talents was that of unpacking his characters’ lives. With the exception of The Warden, I have yet to read an excellent short Trollope novel; doorstoppers were his special talent, and he should have stuck to them.

That said, I will keep reading his short, crappy stuff as it presents itself to me. Those doorstoppers keep tricking me into thinking he’ll nail the novella, even if his hair phones and steam bicycles couldn’t trick me into think it’s a good idea to kill all the old people.

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2 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope mails it in

  1. I think I will be leaving this Trollope novel off the TBR list! It’s a good thing he didn’t decide his calling was satire or science fiction. Though with the steam powered bicycle he could have worked it and become the founder of the steampunk genre.

    • Good point re: steampunk. But it’s better that Trollope generally stuck to the drawing room and the cottage. But no, don’t read it, even just to find out how bad it is.

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