Decorated initial T

he art of reading is, we may assert, a performance art, and involves the reader in accepting certain rules or guidelines for the nonce for the production of a performance. In return the reader enjoys certain privileges of entry into the world of the literary work. 'There is implied', wrote Charles Lamb on the process of understanding a novel, 'an unwritten compact between Author and reader' (201). The reader's pleasure will sometimes derive in part from a close identity with the assumptions built into the work about who should be reading it, and from this may follow a ready acceptance of the nonce rules; or, in the contrary case, a stimulating or amusing distance between these assumptions and the actual reading self, and an associated strangeness of the rules, may be a major source of gratification. We might speak of the distance between the actual reader and the work's assumptions about its readers - what, is often called 'the implied reader', though the bundle of qualities implied, as we shall see, more reasonably requires a plurality of addressees.

The object of this essay is both historically to establish something about the actual readers of Trollope, and to examine their representatives in his novels; and in the process to investigate the modern reader's relationship with these readers and their fictional counterparts. I shall deliberately concentrate on the 1860s, the period of Trollope's greatest popularity, when his style of fiction became established as one of the types of the age – a period too when, it seems, there was in respect to many of the greatest novelists an unusually well-sustained identity of standards between writer and public – a rapprochement well worth investigating for its own sake.

A novel-reader of the early 1860s, when Trollope was reaching the height of his market success, was blessed with a rich list of works to choose from. Prose fiction was, as the mid-Victorians never tired of telling themselves, the literary form of the period: this was indeed 'the age of the novel', just as Shakespeare's had been the age of the drama. At no time in our literary history were more good novels being published and read, and to some commentators it seemed that the public could not have enough of it: 'a novel-reader will go on reading novels to all eternity, and sometimes even will have several in hand at once – a serial of Mr. Trollope's here, a serial of Mr. Dickens's there, and the last three-volume tale into the bargain' (The Times, 18 November 1862, 8). At no time, moreover, was the middle-class public better served by the institutions designed to bring fiction into its homes. Recent advances in the techniques of printing, stereotyping and illustration had made the production of attractive books on a large scale easier. Various fiscal changes had helped a new wave of periodicals of all kinds, and an increasing number of novels now ran as magazine serials, alongside the still vigorous part-issue system by which most of Dickens's and Thackeray's great novels to date had reached the public. And the great circulating libraries, even if they had a damaging effect on book-prices and the trade discount system, certainly ensured a flood of fiction into middle-class homes.

The circulating-library giants, Mudie and W.H. Smith, and the lesser entrepreneurs who aspired to compete with them, such as the Library Co. Ltd. of Pall Mall, were not yet bitterly at odds with authors and publishers over the question of the moral tone of the works they would stock. The time would come in the 1880s and 1890s when George Moore's claim that the 'narrow-minded tradesman', Mudie, was responsible for 'an appallingly low ebb' in English fiction, would represent the mood of a large proportion of important novelists. Circulating Morals or Literature at Nurse (London, 1885), and his 'A New Censorship of Literature', Pall Mall Gazette XL (10 December 1884), p. 1. But many of the notable disputes in which the circulating libraries were involved in the early 1860s, such as Mudie's with John Blackwood and G.H. Lewes over the price of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, concerned the level of discount allowed by the publisher, and not the morality of the work of literature. M.E. Braddon's sensational Lady Audley's Secret, for example, a novel about bigamy, blackmail and murder, was so written that is could be stocked in large numbers in 1862 by Mudie and the Library Co. Ltd., who, according to Braddon's publisher, William Tinsley, competed to buy the greater quantity of the book (Griest 23). About Trollope's subjects and attitudes there was rarely much serious doubt: he was, said a contemporary critic in The Times for 23 May 1859, 'a writer ... born to make the fortune of circulating libraries' (12; see also Skilton, 17-18, and Saturday Review, XI (4 May 1861), 451-52).

Of course occasional works fell foul of the exacting standards of the guardians of public morality. In 1857 Trollope had been forced by Longman's reader to make a number of changes in the manuscript of Barchester Towers for the sake of delicacy, and consented to substitute 'deep chest' for 'fat stomach', and delete the phrase 'foul breathing' (Trollope: a Commentary 160-66). In 1861 he received what he described as 'A wonderful letter' from Laurence Oliphant, one of the proprietors of the London Review, complaining of the public's 'disapprobation' of two of his short tales, which were considered rather too 'strong' (Letters 140-41), but which seemed inoffensive enough to some of the author's other contemporaries. There was always someone to object to any fiction on some ground or other. In 1863 Rachel Ray ran into difficulties with the editor of Good Words, for whom it had been written, and who refused to print it. Trollope disingenuously reports that the trouble lay in 'some dancing in one of the early chapters, described, no doubt, with that approval of the amusement which I have always entertained'. In fact the problem probably arose came from the unsympathetic portrayal of an Evangelical clergyman, his faults stemming, Trollope makes clear, from his Evangelicalism. This was not well-calculated to suit a periodical 'in the field of cheap Christian literature', whose editor, Norman Macleod, was a Scottish presbyterian divine, and one of the founders of the Evangelical Alliance. (Autobiography 122). In fact, the rejection of Rachel Ray reinforces the claim that Trollope spoke for many middle-class members of the Church of England. In any case, the sorts of objections to fiction we most frequently meet with in the period give no impression of middle-class morality under real threat. Most authors, editors and publishers were operating a voluntary moral censorship or self-restraint which accorded happily with much middle-class public opinion, and there seems to have been a temporary, though surprisingly broad consensus – morally suffocating though it would later seem – about what should and should not go into a novel.

As so often, it is Dickens who first and most memorably expresses the absurdities of a particular phase of middle-class ideology. Mr Podsnap, the embodiment of bourgeois philistinism in Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), requires his literature to be 'large print, respectfully descriptive of getting up at eight, shaving close at quarter past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven'. He places, moreover, severe moral restrictions on what may be expressed in art or conversation:

A certain institution in Mr Podsnap's mind which he called 'the young person' may be considered to have been embodied in Miss Podsnap, his daughter. It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it. The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person? And the inconvenience of the young person was, that, according to Mr Podsnap, she seemed always liable to burst into blushes when there was no need at all. [174 and 175.]

What is striking is the variety and quality achieved in the early and mid-1860s without undue offence to the cheek of the Young Person. The Woman in White from Wilkie Collins, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend from Dickens, Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Romola from George Eliot, Sylvia's Lovers and Wives and Daughters from Gaskell, and Philip from Thackeray – these indicate an indisputable standard. And Trollope's novels of the period can stand beside them, including Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, Orley Farm, The Claverings and Can You Forgive Her?. Whatever effort of voluntary restraint was required to make fictional subjects and styles acceptable to the public and its moral guardians, seems for the time being to have been an aesthetically profitable one. This list is not, of course, intended to be exhaustive, but even allowing for the bias introduced by the particular interests of the present writer, it is striking that of the fourteen novels mentioned, no fewer than seven first appeared as serials in the Cornhill Magazine, a journal which has a special place in Trollope's career. It was through its pages that he first rose from the status of a well-read and successful novelist to the great fame and prosperity he enjoyed throughout the 1860s.

The story of how Framley Parsonage was commissioned in the eleventh hour as the first novel for the new Cornhill Magazine has often been told, and the records of its reception leave no question as to its popularity. Sales reached 100,000, and the novel 'ranked almost as one of the delicacies of the season' with the magazine's extensive readership (see Autobiography 136-44, and Miles and Skilton 7-28. For the reception, see Skilton 19-20). The Cornhill was aimed at an educated middle-class readership, with eclectic interests, but no particular pretensions to learning. Thackeray, as editor, expressed the matter clearly in 'A Letter from the Editor to a Friend and Contributor', which appeared in the first number of the Cornhill Magazine:

It may be a Foxhunter who has the turn to speak; or a Geologist, Engineer, Manufacturer, Member of the House of Commons, Lawyer, Chemist, - what you please. ... If our friends have good manners, a good education, and write good English, the company, I am sure, will be glad to be addressed by well-educated gentlemen and women. A professor ever so learned, a curate in his country retirement, an artisan after work-hours, a schoolmaster or mistress when the children are gone home, or the young ones themselves when their lessons are over, may like to hear what the world is talking about, or be brought into friendly communication with persons whom the world knows.

This passage not only defines the public aimed at, but promotes the important notion that the magazine made possible a personal association between its readers and celebrities in many walks of life. When Trollope was asked to write 'an English tale, on English life, with a clerical flavour' (Autobiography 94) it was to gratify this public's taste and to give it a fictional world with which it could comfortably identify. The novel he was already engaged on at the time was judged unsuitable, since, having an Irish subject and being set during the Famine, it could not be the vehicle for the easy social intercourse which Thackeray was looking for. Thackeray's 'Letter' explains that political and religious controversy was not to appear in his pages, and the broad tolerance of existing social, political and religious institutions this implies enables us further to recognise his readers as in many senses predominantly conformist; subscribers too to Mr Podsnap's standards of decency, who can be assured that '[a]t our social table, we shall suppose the ladies and children always present ...' It is no surprise to us to find marketing managers promising to flatter their customers' prejudices, but the generally unstrained acquiescence of so many literary producers – Gaskell, George Eliot, Thackeray and Trollope among them – marks the period from 1860 to about 1867 as a striking interval of harmony between all branches of the novel industry.

Most Victorian novelists construct and then directly address one or more fictional persons in their novels, who are outside the story, and who for rhetorical purposes stand in from time to time as the readers' representatives. The habit was old then – older than Fielding's conversational narrator, who had much of the discursive essayist about him, and at least as old as the 'Curious Reader' addressed in 1623 at the opening of James Mabbe's The Rogue. The differentiation between categories of readers, which Sterne carries to great creative lengths in Tristram Shandy, is a device in even the least self-conscious story-tellers, and Sir Walter Scott for one is often to be found explaining a point to a particular section of his audience. Here is a characteristic example from Chapter Nine of The Heart of Midlothian: 'The more youthful part of my readers may naturally ask, whether Jeanie Deans was deserving of this mute attention of the Laird of Dumbiedikes; and the historian, with due regard to veracity, is compelled to answer, that her personal attractions were of no uncommon description' (XI, 308). Scott's 'more youthful' readers are typical of the rhetorical lay-figures we are speaking about, and which are arranged in attitudes of novelists' choosing, and dressed in any prejudice or ignorance they may wish to have displayed. Actual readers will be able to take on the rules prescribed, or alternatively may assume an effortless superiority to the limited understanding thus implied. In either case they will then have been manoeuvred by the narrator into consciously considering a matter which might otherwise have been passed 'on the nod'.

In this unchallenging example from Scott no great effort is needed for any likely reader to adjust to the views required to understand the subsequent narrative, but two examples from Trollope's The Claverings (written 1864 and serialised in the Cornhill in 1866-7) will show how the same phenomenon can take us into an area of potentially problematic morality, where this rhetorical nudging of the reader may be a stage in his or her Trollopian education. Julia Brabazon has jilted Harry Clavering in order to marry the wealthy, dissipated and aging Lord Ongar, and, returning to London a rich and beautiful widow, she once more captivates Harry, who is now engaged to the quiet, modest daughter of a civil engineer:

The reader, perhaps, will hardly have believed in Lady Ongar's friendship [for Harry]; – will, perhaps, have believed neither the friendship nor the story which she herself had told. If so, the reader will have done her wrong, and will not have read her character aright. The woman was not heartless because she had once, in one great epoch of her life, betrayed her own heart; nor was she altogether false because she had once lied; nor altogether vile, because she had once taught herself that, for such a one as her, riches were a necessity. [129]

Implicitly what is challenged here is a set of assumptions about how human nature should be displayed in a novel, and hence a larger question about realism is raised. When Harry's emotions are examined, the aesthetic point is put more firmly:

I fear that he will be held as being too weak for the role of hero even in such pages as these. Perhaps no terms have been so injurious to the profession of the novelist as those two words, hero and heroine. In spite of the latitude which is allowed to the writer in putting his own interpretation upon these words, something heroic is still expected; whereas, if he attempt to paint from Nature, how little that is heroic should he describe! How many young men, subjected to the temptations which had befallen Harry Clavering, – how many young men whom you, delicate reader, number among your friends, – would have come out from them unscathed? A man, you say, delicate reader, a true man can love but one woman, – but one at a time. So you say, and are so convinced, but no conviction was ever more false.

The education of the reader does not involve any great change in mental attitudes as regards life, but a modification of the rules for incorporating the experience of life into art. The narrator of The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-67) makes the point clearly, in an example which is insistent in locating the reader in the same social circumstances in his or her world as the characters are in theirs:

People are so much more worldly in practice than they are in theory, so much keener after their own gratification in detail than they are in the abstract, that the narrative of many an adventure would shock us, though the same adventure would not shock us in the action. One girl tells another how she has changed her mind in love; and the friend sympathizes with the friend, and perhaps applauds. Had the story been told in print, the friend who had listened with equanimity would have read of such vacillation with indignation. She who vacillated herself would have hated her own performance when brought before her judgment as a matter in which she had no personal interest. Very fine things are written every day about honesty and truth, and men read them with a sort of external conviction that a man, if he be anything of a man at all, is of course honest and true. But when the internal convictions are brought out between two or three who are personally interested together ... those internal convictions differ very much from the external convictions. This man, in his confidences, asserts broadly that he does not mean to be thrown over, and that man has a project for throwing over somebody else; and the intention of each is that scruples are not to stand in the way of his success. The "Ruat coelum, fiat justitia," was said, no doubt, from an outside balcony to a crowd, and the speaker knew that he was talking buncombe. The "Rem, si possis recte, si non, quocunque modo," was whispered into the ear in a club smoking-room, and the whisperer intended that his words should prevail. [II 156-57. The then well-known words from Horace are often translated as “Get money, honestly is possible, and if not, by any means available”.]

The narrator's mild dissent from his readers' stock reactions is a world away from the accusing tone of Baudelaire's “hypocrite lecteur!”; he is not shocking them but benignly explaining that they are more closely linked to his realistic fiction than they are to novels which purport to reach towards human perfection. With motives quite different from Baudelaire's or T.S. Eliot's, Trollope would have been perfectly comfortable to recognise his reader as “mon sembable, mon frère” (my fellow, my brother). See T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land, The Burial of the Dead, l.36.

In Framley Parsonage, the novel whose first instalment opens the first number of the Cornhill Magazine, the narrator's relationship with his readers is at its closest. He treats them as acquaintances and social equals, and presents the image of a middle-class readership of modest means, earning (we may note) the sort of income Trollope himself had recently been earning, and defining a group he was fast leaving with the aid of promotion and a burgeoning income from his fiction. The narrator appeals to the class sense of his fellows not to imitate the titled and wealthy in adopting the new, aristocratic style of serving dinners:

And indeed this handing round has become a vulgar and an intolerable nuisance among us second-class gentry with our eight hundred a year – there or thereabouts; – doubly intolerable as being destructive of our natural comforts, and a wretchedly vulgar aping of men with large incomes. The Duke of Omnium and Lady Hartletop are undoubtedly wise to have everything handed round. ... But we of the eight hundred can no more come up to them in this than we can in their opera-boxes and equipages. [Framley Parsonage, 217.]

The style of service known as service à la russe had become fashionable in Paris during the 1850s, and spread across the Channel into those households able to field the army of servants required to dispense with all passing and serving of dishes by the diners themselves. The very wealthy, like the Russian aristocracy from whom the procedure was derived, might be able to afford one servant per diner, but it was not adaptable to more modest middle-class circumstances, as Trollope makes clear in a hilarious chapter of Miss Mackenzie of 1865, where a dinner is ruined by the attempt. “If hostesses of modest means feel that they must give such dinners,” the narrator says, “ordinary Englishmen must cease to go and eat dinners at each other's houses” He then goes on, half-humorously, to clarify that this “ordinary Englishman ... has eight hundred a year; he lives in London; and he has a wife and three or four children” (106). This is the ideal reader humorously imaged in most of Trollope's novels of these years.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote to her upper-class mentor, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, that she liked Miss Mackenzie 'very tolerably, especially that description of the dinner ... la Russe, which may be Greek to an inhabitant of Park Lane – but which is very true to the life of Bloomsbury' (Harvard Library Bulletin XII (1974): 133-34). Trollope's ideal reader for most of his novels of these years is 'Bloomsbury' and not 'Park Lane'. In contrast, his Autobiography reports that he consciously chose to aim more selectively at Mayfair and Parliament when he wrote his political novel, Phineas Finn (1867-69). This book sold less well than the Chronicles of Barsetshire: “But the men who would have lived with Phineas Finn read the book, and the women who would have lived with Lady Laura Standish read it also. As this was what I had intended, I was contented.” (Autobiography 202).

Few periods of fiction can demonstrate such a clear assumption that there exists a close social identity between narrators and readers as that which was commonplace in the 1860s. Trollope's narrators go further and insist on involving the principal characters too in the relationship, which is indicative of the identity of interest between writer and public which we have already noted. Whether writing Framley Parsonage in the character of a typical Cornhill reader, or writing Phineas Finn and its successors as a 'method of declaring myself' politically, after failing to get elected at the Beverley election of 1868 (Autobiography 201). Trollope was a middle-class gentleman addressing his equals. A later generation would be unable to understand the unproblematic relationship which was possible at this time between the writer and his society, and it is worth contrasting the attitude of Robert Louis Stevenson, in an essay composed in 1887-88 and published posthumously under the title 'On the Choice of a Profession'. Stevenson is clear not only that a parent would resist a son's desire to become a creative artist (this would have been true in the 1860s), but that to become an artist provided an attractive answer to the terrible alternative of being asked to become successfully middle-class. “You are now come to that time of life,” writes Stevenson's typical father to his son, “and have reason within yourself to consider the absolute necessity of making provision for the time when it will be asked, Who is this man? Is he doing any good in the world? Has he the means of being ‘One of us?'” (17). For Stevenson and many of his contemporaries, nothing worse could be contemplated than this “being ‘One of us'”. In contrast, Trollope's dearest wish, and one of his obvious motives in writing fiction, was exactly to be considered respectably bourgeois. He puts the matter poignantly in his Autobiography:

I have long been aware of a certain weakness in my own character, which I may call a craving for love. I have ever wished to be liked by those around me, – a wish that during the first half of my life was never gratified .... It was not till we had settled ourselves at Waltham that I really began to live much with others. The Garrick Club was the first assemblage of men at which I felt myself to be popular. [104-5]

He was 46 at this time. The social and economic estrangement – that feeling of being “something of a Pariah” – which would be the very stuff of the artistic life of many a later author, was precisely what Trollope spent half a lifetime fleeing from. His aim of “belonging” was triumphantly achieved during the 1860s, a period when he was an acknowledged leader among “realistic” novelists, and sought after by the editors and publishers of London. But he was typical of these years in a profounder way, in that his close identification with his public produced a first-class body of fiction.

Taken in a perfectly straightforward way, Trollope's plots during these years often propose the steady advance of the middle-class in their power-struggle with the aristocracy. Doctor Thorne (1858) elevates the doctor's adopted daughter as far financially as she already is morally above the aristocratic De Courcys. In Framley Parsonage the unglamorous, 'brown' Lucy Robarts, a physician's daughter, wins the heart of Lord Lufton, and, more importantly, that of his mother too, as a needful preliminary in obtaining his hand; while the conventionally beautiful Griselda Grantly sells herself into a cold, worldly and “successful” marriage in the higher reaches of the aristocracy. In Orley Farm Felix Graham deservedly wins his way to the judge's daughter by his brains and not his birth. In The Claverings Florence Burton is yet another example of the superiority of middle-class females as mates. The “second-class gentry” do well, indeed. Luke Rowan in Rachel Ray (1863) even succeeds in making a living from brewing beer in Devon (a county identified with cider). Such examples on their own might prove nothing; but added to the accumulation of other evidence, we can see a middle-class public sufficiently confident in its moral, financial and electoral power to enjoy tales which immortalise its successes. If Virgil celebrated the establishment of Roman civilisation by the force of arms, these new epics record Victorianism as the product of the middle-class virtues of work, moderation and sense, at a time when neither these qualities nor their success were in doubt. It is appropriate that Mowbray Morris, the manager of The Times, should praise Trollope after his death for accurately registering this world:

... By the clear light of sense
He drew men as they are, without pretence
To re-gild virtue, or to lash offence.

If we go further and look at the cultural heritage and experience Trollope assumes his readership to share, we find once more the image of his primary public as educated and middle-class (See Kristensin, I 13). An acquaintance with Shakespeare, stopping well short of scholarship, is taken for granted, and Shakespearean tags, like miscellaneous quotations from Milton, Pope, Gray, Burns and elsewhere, are rendered with no greater degree of accuracy than cultured conversational use would require. Many of the shared, acceptable references will have been familiar to the primary readership, even when it is unlikely that more than a handful of them would have known the source. Examples such as Trollope's habitual, almost proverbial quotation from Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry

'Tis merry in hall
When beards wag all

would be known to those who had not heard of the work, as was an equally familiar misquotation that he often uses from Nicholas Rowe's The Rival Queens,

When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war

and that was also quasi-proverbial. Such tags are habitual in Trollope. Meanwhile lower-status characters place themselves outside the privileged circle of the narrator and his chosen readers by uneducated mistakes and faulty references, such as Mrs Greenow's 'furious Orlando' (for Orlando Furioso) in Can You Forgive Her? (663). Biblical references are mainly fairly obvious, and such as an educated person or church-goer would know, who had no particular pretensions to devotion. The frequent allusions to the Book of Common Prayer, of course, tend to limit our ideal readers to adherents of the Established Church. There are numerous quotations from the liturgy, while the psalms are usually quoted accurately from the Prayer Book and not from the Authorised Version. (Hardy, who also learnt his psalms in Church, habitually quotes them from the same source, and, like Trollope, has been wrongly accused of misquotation in consequence.) Far from limiting the range of meanings of a Trollope novel by narrowing the permissible subjects to be treated, the common culture of the Church of England can enlarge it. Elsewhere I point out an example from the first paragraph of Chapter Four of Framley Parsonage where the narrator is found at once “making light of Mark's temptations and failings, and giving them a deeper resonance”, by using the word “naughty” so that it simultaneously has its modern, rather trivial and childish sense, and hints at Original Sin through an evocation of the word as it occurs in, for example, the Homily “Of the Misery of Man”: “We have sinned, we have been naughty” (17). It is not necessary to subscribe to Church of England doctrine or indeed any Christian beliefs at all, or even to posit in Trollope any consistent theological opinions, in order to identify a layer of meaning which depends upon these ecclesiastical resonances.

The case of Latin reference and quotation is fairly straightforward in the novels we are dealing with. As I show elsewhere, little active or scholarly knowledge of Latin language and literature is required in Trollope’s primary public, but a residue of school learning is implied – at least in male readers – and in the female, we may suppose, a willingness to accept quotations because they are part of the mental furniture of the men in the family. The males of the primary public have been through the ritual amount of classical education which has long been held in Britain to guarantee respectability. The point comes into prominence if we consider the title of the first chapter of Framley Parsonage, 'Omnes omnia bona dicere', and remember that these are the first words to greet the reader in the first number of the new Cornhill Magazine, which aims to be so welcoming to its consumers. Though perfectly simple to understand, the four words themselves – 'All men all things good to say' – do not form a complete message, and might provoke disproportionate thought or speculation, were it not that they are familiar not only to those who have studied and conned passages of Terence's Andria, from which they come, but to any schoolboy who has had to learn them off-by-heart (with a few words' extra context), as a grammatical example in such a text-book as the so-called Eton Latin Grammar (88). The chapter heading does not stand in the way of the novel, as a pedantic obstacle would, but is a gesture of class recognition – a sign that the narrator is, like the novelist, 'one of us'. Having thus greeted his fellows, the narrator goes on at once to give us a near translation of the whole passage as listed in the grammar: 'all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition', after which the reader and narrator can proceed together on a friendly basis. No inconvenient amount of learning has been called for, though it is useful to be able to remember that the father in the Andria is about to see his son go to the bad. Most of Trollope's Latin is as familiar as this example and, though we know that he was well-read himself, and read Latin authors for pleasure, he uses them in the novels we are discussing largely to form the desired link between his narrator and his readers. The example from the Andria, mentioned here in fact, is unusually rich in intertextual significance for this period of Trollope's work.

It remains for the modern reader to make contact with Trollope's fiction by negotiating with the implied readers in it. The chief resistance to the fiction of Trollope comes, one suspects, from a problem in the relationship of the present-day reader not so much directly with Trollope the author or his oeuvre as with his original public as represented so faithfully in his books. The works on which his reputation was to a large extent based seem so unchallenging or unproblematic, and the original public so undemanding, that a claim for greatness has usually been supported by those books in which he was least successful in captivating his contemporaries. Yet to value chiefly those of his works – such as He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now or The Prime Minister – which were least well received in his own day, may be to surrender (negatively) to the judgments of others – and, in such a case, to the judgments of a consuming public held nowadays rather in intellectual despite.

Some of Trollope's later novels continue in his sunniest vein, but many have challenging subject-matter and attitudes. The extreme example is The Way We Live Now of 1874-5, which shows a break-down in the shared confidence in the adequacy of the middle-class virtues, and an awareness of the powerful forces of international finance in moulding the world into inimical forms. The easy collusion of narrator, characters and readers has given way to a problematic recognition – expressed in the 'We' of the title – that all are in the same predicament, and that run-of-the-mill commonsense is inadequate to cope with the situation. The very rejection of standard Victorian optimism, and the fact that it was ill-received by its original reviewers, make the novel attractive to today's commentator. I am far from suggesting that this great novel should be ignored. Rather it should be seen in conjunction with other important fiction which, while less startling, is still insistently unconventional – such as Is he Popenjoy? (1878) or Lady Anna (1874)30 – and against other novels no less great in their way, written during the high season of middle-class confidence.

“There is no exaggeration in declaring it to be a law in the modern literature of every country that an author must cause offence to at least one generation of his contemporaries … if he is not to seem tiresome and narrow-minded to readers of the period immediately succeeding his own.” So proclaimed the great Danish critic, Georg Brandes, in his Naturalism in England in 1875 (IV, 124-25). While finding this statement too sweeping, we must nevertheless admit that we have habitual strategies for dealing with works which offended a good proportion of their original middle-class Victorian readers. We are suspicious of the Victorian bourgoisie and its attitudes to its own cultural consumption, remembering J.S. Mill's strictures about the middle-classes paying others to do their thinking for them, and finding in our backward look at such matters, the grotesque figure of Mr Podsnap uncomfortably prominent in the scene. We are so used to approving of literature which was at odds with a dominant ideology of the day, that there is still, through habit, a certain strangeness in looking at fiction which was received with enthusiasm and understanding by the consuming public. This very unease is surely needless now. Most of us can look at Victorian attitudes today without fear of being thought to subscribe to them, and it is the task of and editor or critic to bring sufficient information before the modern reader to enable him or her to become partly identified for the nonce with the bundle of attributes called the 'implied reader'. The adaption this calls for will be soothing for some – the escapists, among us, perhaps – and intellectually stimulating for others. It will in any case send us to read the Trollopian output from Framley Parsonage to The Last Chronicle of Barset with new pleasure, admiration and understanding.


Brandes, Georg. Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature 6 vols. London: W. Heinemann, 1901-05. (first published in Danish, 1875.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend . Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.

The Eton Latin Grammar, or an Introduction to the Latin Tongue. 11th edition. London, 1822.

Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington and London, Indiana Univ. Press, 1970.

Kristensin, S. Møller, Digteren og samfundet. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965.

Lamb, Charles. Lamb as Critic. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Macleod, Donald. Memoir of Norman Macleod, D.D.. London, William Isbister Ltd., 1882.

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Last modified 11 June 2022