nthony Trollope was a late discovery for me, an author about whom I’d repeatedly heard the same assessment: that he belonged to the second-tier of Victorian novelists, alongside the likes of Mrs. Oliphant and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. A Time Magazine article of the mid-1940s observed that “as late as 1929 a student could win a master’s degree in 19th-Century English literature at Columbia University without being required to read a word of Trollope” (“Trollope’s Comeback”). My education was marked by the same lacuna. Trollope didn’t make the cut for the undergraduate survey of Victorian novels that initially piqued my interest in the period. When I started a doctoral program, I found that no one wanted to invest a graduate seminar in him either. He was dropped from my comprehensive exam reading list in favor of Mrs. Gaskell. It wasn’t until I began outlining my dissertation—a study of forgiveness in Victorian fiction—that Trollope at last proved inescapable, his Can You Forgive Her? too obviously pertinent not to be discussed.
My initial exposure to that plump paperback answered my lowered expectations. Where was the ubiquitous fog, the glaring afternoon sun, or the fetid Thames of Dickens’s opening pages? Where the wild syntax needed to describe such elemental oppression? Where were George Eliot’s scrupulous observations and the matching meticulousness of her sentences? Where the country bloom and tragic doom of Hardy’s Wessex? Measured against the Victorian authors whom I prized, Trollope seemed more than a bit dull. His characters, his plot, his diction all struck me as bogged down by conventionality. Who cared about Alice Vavasor’s impending marriage to John Grey? Certainly, I didn’t. Noticing the symptoms of ennui descending, I considered closing the book, mulled suitable replacements for Trollope and began contriving excuses to my advisors for deserting Trollope.
Then Mr. Cheesacre entered—or should we say, stumbled his way into the story. Eight chapters deep, Can You Forgive Her? sets aside Alice and her marital vacillations, the narrator turning to the great and weighty question of what is required for an outdoor luncheon to be properly labeled a “picnic.” We are told that the picnic about to be held by the newly arrived Cheesacre fails all such tests, being set on a beach, where there is neither grass, nor hills, nor a charming stream. Those elements of the setting, the narrator continues, are needed to facilitate flirting—the actual motivation for the absurd practice of eating lunch out-of-doors. Cheesacre’s choice of location is the first of many blunders in his pursuit of the rich widow Mrs. Greenow (which he’ll finally lose to the impecunious Captain Bellfield). This episode seemed at first to be an errant interpolation, mistakenly cut from some other, more humorous story. The pretensions of all the participants in the picnic are presented as ludicrous by Trollope’s narrator, beginning with Cheesacre, a newly wealthy farmer whose awkward manners undermine his social-climbing ambitions. The widow’s blemishes, too, are held up for our amusement, particularly her outlandish performance of mourning.
The farcical picnic by the seashore revealed to me not only that Trollope wasn’t dull but also that I had been misreading the novel. In particular, I had failed to appreciate the complexity of his irony, which had, in fact, been operating throughout the preceding chapters, albeit with greater restraint. I had taken the book as a superficial love story; now, I saw that it was my reading that had been superficial, concentrating on the plot when the interest lies in Trollope’s shrewd analysis of character, of customs, even of language. It all seems so conventional—and indeed, Trollope does believe in the old institutions like marriage and the church—but his means of arriving at, say, a marriage happens only after we are made to see the follies and inadequacies of his characters’ assumptions, politics, cliché-ridden vocabularies. That this all happens in what appears to be a polite, highly conventional style only adds to the effect.
Mr. Cheesacre’s picnic enchanted me and drew me back to the other plot threads with newly appreciative eyes. Trollope, I discovered, has a way of making the mundane world seem of the utmost importance, even while simultaneously poking fun at his characters’ sense of self-importance. His is an art form suitable for everyday life. Trollope knows the thoughts that our polite manners mask when seeing a friend’s garish and expensive home redecoration. He recognizes the difficulty of conversing with one’s mother-in-law. He observes that even the clergy (and sometimes in Trollopian fiction, it seems especially the clergy) worry about their retirement accounts. He acknowledges the discomforts—for guest and host—that belong to early arrivals to and tardy departures from a dinner party.
If, at first, it had been a struggle to finish a page of Trollopian fiction,—and the thought of hundreds more, agonizing—, now the pages began to disappear in scores. One volume in a series yielded to the next. Piles of further reading in his corpus began to amass around my house and in the back seat of my car. Although the particular cover often changed, Trollope became a permanent fixture on my bedside table. He found his way into my attaché case, carry-on item, and beach-bag.
I had contracted a condition that, as I read more of Trollope and about Trollope, I discovered is neither new nor rare. When interviewing for a faculty position, a Shakespeare scholar promised that if I got the job (I didn’t) I’d be welcome to borrow from the library of sixty-six volumes of Trollopiana that he’d amassed because, in his words, “I couldn’t stop reading him.” In his autobiography, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas muses that he cannot recall how many of Trollope’s novels he’s read, though he hopes he’s not read them all. A British scholar and blogger, Catherine Pope, once spent a year honoring a New Year’s resolution to finish Trollope’s forty-seven novels, having determined that January that she’d already read almost half the list. On a broader cultural scale, British publishers and booksellers during World War II couldn’t keep up with the demand for Trollope, making him, in the judgment of the then Archbishop York, the most popular author of the wartime period.
Trollope in fact understood that his works could generate strong forms of attachment, having experienced it in relation to his own characters. In his autobiography, he regularly speaks of “living with” them, the characters surprising him in their powers of self-determination. (Asked once why he let Adolphus Crosbie jilt Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, Trollope responded: “Why did I ‘let’ him? How could I help it? He would do it, confound him!” (The Sayings 33).) Unlike Dickens and George Eliot, Trollope is rarely praised for a specific masterpiece (as in, Bleak House or Middlemarch); instead, he is known for his fictional series—the clerical Barsetshire novels and the political Palliser books. Victorian readers bought these series to follow the fortunes of characters whom they had grown attached to, just as Trollope himself admitted at the close of The Last Chronicle of Barset:
To me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset. 
This passage is preceded by a request from Trollope (or, at least, from a voice that sounds authorial breaking through the narration) that the reader will allow him “to seize [the reader] affectionately by the arm” to make these farewells, as the reader has been a fellow traveler with Trollope, walking through the country lanes, riding through the wooded fields, sitting at table, standing in the cathedral nave and listening to its organ. These last words, then, represent a multi-layered confirmation of fellowship—between Trollope and his characters, between the reader and the characters, and between Trollope and his reader. In me, Trollope had found a happy buyer into the economy of fellowship that he imagined here.
A full explanation of why we enjoy our favorite authors will likely always elude us. But in Trollope’s case I’ve come to see that the pleasure I take from his fiction isn’t just a result of his engrossing technique. His books resonate with me because I so often find them to be true, even though he of course lived at a time that we now rightly view as socially backward in innumerable ways. I have read Trollope for delight and instruction on numerous subjects, including human nature (for example, “All our motives are mixed”) and public speaking (“The first necessity of good speaking is a large audience”). Trollope is a believer in polite society and social institutions, yet these beliefs are predicated not on humanity’s goodness but on his awareness of the need to contain our baser instincts. His characters never get quite what they hoped for, yet they are better for having learned something of the bitterness of worldly disappointment. Trollope understood the vocation of the novelist as a kind of modern preaching (“Works of imagination are the sermons of the present day”). I’m grateful that I found my way into his congregation.
Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her?. New York: Penguin, 1975.
Trollope, Anthony. The Last Chronicle of Barset. New York: Penguin, 2002.
Trollope, Anthony. The Sayings of Anthony Trollope. Ed. Richard Mullen. London: Duckworth, 1992.
Trollope, Anthony.“Trollope’s Comeback.” Time Magazine. 20 August 1945. Web. 20 March 2021.
Last modified 20 March 2021