Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) may be the best-kept literary secret in English—a secret hiding in plain sight. His collected works take up a long bookshelf: 47 novels and 18 works of nonfiction. Once, most educated English and American households owned some of those volumes; today, there are still plenty of Trollope boxed sets in bookstores—probably because his works are in the public domain so publishers needn’t pay royalties—yet he is culturally almost invisible. Unlike Charles Dickens, Trollope never created characters and phrases that entered popular culture; unlike those of his friend William Makepeace Thackeray, his novels have not been made into movies. Trollope enters the conversation every few years when a critic argues that the description of banking frauds in The Way We Live Now illuminates our own feverish plutocracy. (Yes, it does, but that’s the least interesting thing about it.)
His current eclipse would probably strike him as ironic. Even by the standards of the diligent Victorians, Trollope was fearsomely productive. His reputation suffered when his autobiography was published, as per his instructions, a year after his death: There he registered exactly how long it took him to write many of his works, as well as how much he was paid for them. The highly complicated Way We Live Now, chosen by the Guardian this summer as one of the 100 best classic English and American novels, clocks in at 425,000 words, and Trollope wrote it in 29 weeks—simultaneously with another, simpler novel, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil.
As the Guardian list suggests, Trollope is making a slow comeback. Nicholas Shrimpton’s introduction to the new Oxford University Press edition of An Autobiography celebrates “the creative capacity that produced more major novels than any other writer in English.” Shrimpton also makes the accurate observation that Trollope is “the Victorian novelist who worked most consciously and effectively in the tradition of Jane Austen.” But Trollope bowed to no literary deities: In notes never intended for publication, he criticized Emma on the grounds that “the dialogues are too long and some of them are unnecessary” and that “we hardly know why Mr. Knightley loves her.” Nathaniel Hawthorne spoke of Trollope’s novels as “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case”—a phrase Trollope liked enough to quote in An Autobiography.
Yet, tellingly, Trollope was slyly critical of Hawthorne. After reading him, he wrote, you “feel yourself an inch taller,” and his comment in the same essay—“No one will feel himself ennobled at once by having read one of my novels”—suggests what makes him a writer for our time. It’s the way Trollope manipulates his smooth realism to force the reader to moral thought. How, beneath the surface of pleasantness and cozy rooms, the mainly nonmortal problems of comfortable people are polished to a brilliance that makes the reader muse not only on a novel, but on life.
Trollope begins his novels matter-of-factly, introducing the setting and dramatis personae with some precision, evoking character as briskly as we come to understand it in our acquaintances. “Though rather small, and perhaps a little too apt to wear rings on his fingers and to show jewelry on his shirt front and about his waistcoat” is the description given to a pedestrian young Swiss merchant in The Golden Lion of Granpere. And brief as it is, it serves notice that this character is not our hero.
Sometimes his very clarity serves to put us on our guard, as in The Eustace Diamonds: “We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.” Suspense in Trollope is also served up plain, though again with such emphatic plainness as to suggest that the plot is beside the point. We are asked straightaway to interest ourselves in whether this girl will marry this young man, or whether this old rich woman will leave her estate to one or another possible heir.
Trollope addresses this method at the start of Is He Popenjoy?:
The plan of jumping at once into the middle has been often tried, and sometimes seductively enough for a chapter or two; but the writer still has to hark back, and to begin again from the beginning—not always very comfortably after the abnormal brightness of his few opening pages; and the reader who is then involved in some ancient family history, or long local explanation, feels himself to have been defrauded.
He also has the habit of addressing the reader openly, as in Barchester Towers: