Years ago, after finishing Trollope’s Barsetshire series (comedic stories, written in the 19th century, about the doings of rural clergy and gentry), I was like, “I want to try his other big series!” These are his Palliser novels, which deal with shit that’s way at the other end of importance: they’re all about big lords and members of parliament and the workings of the government.
But I started reading the first of those books, Can You Forgive Her? and found it to be a total snooze. Like, I simply could not keep reading it. Later on, I read the third of the books, The Eustace Diamonds, and while I loved the main character, the amoral Lizzie Greystock, I wasn’t too sure I was down with the book as a whole. It was too long-winded and circular for me (the plot is all about some diamonds that Lizzie refuses to give back to her husband’s family, or something like that).
And this is how it stood for a few years until, a week ago, I picked up the second of these books, Phineas Finn, and found it to be absolutely fantastic! I mean I loved it! This is a book about an up-and-coming young guy who, through a stroke of luck, ends up in Parliament. Everybody predicts he’s going to be totally ruined by the move. You don’t get paid for service in Parliament, so they think he’s going to be mired in debt and will end up disgraced. But none of that happens! He moves from strength to strength! And it’s just a very human portrait. Some people really are very lucky. They take risks, and things come out well, and it’s not necessarily because they’re wonderful (though Phineas is wonderful). And although Phineas cares about the country, he mostly cares about the glory of being in Parliament. It’s indescribable. There’s rarely been a political novel that was so human: a book that treated politicians not as monsters of ambition, but as human beings, just like you or I.
My good experience with that book inspired me to pick up Can You Forgive Her? again, and I have to say, this book is fucking fantastic. I mean it’s one of my favorite Trollope novels. It starts off perfectly, with a girl, Alice, who jilts her fiance because he wants her to go live in the countryside, and she just can’t bear the thought of such a quiet life. From there, we’re introduced to her caddish cousin, George, who is desperately trying to raise the money to run for Parliament. We’re introduced to George’s aunt, Ms. Greenow, who’s a wealthy widow who’s balancing two suitors that absolutely despise each other. We see Alice’s very distant cousin, Lady Glencora, who refused a suitor she loved and allowed herself to be married off to a powerful politican, Plantagenet Palliser, and who now finds herself stifled by his lack of…his lack of…well his lack of warmth. It’s not that he’s cold, exactly, but that he treats his wife just like he’d treat anyone else whom he knew. He’s solicitous of her needs, but he doesn’t give her any special acknowledgement or affection.
It’s very difficult to explain what is so good about the novel. But it’s just…it feels so very real. When I read the book, I am struck by the oddest feeling that I am reading about real people, sitting in real rooms, talking honestly about the things that really matter to them. I am struck by how…how desperate and chancy it must’ve been, this whole business of choosing whom to marry.
And that realness is such a rare thing. Not just with old novels. With new ones too. Oftentimes novels feel like they’re cartoons. They give the suggestion of reality, without actually resembling anything in reality very much at all. Not Trollope though. In his psychological acuity and in the depths of the emotions and the complexity of the relationships, his characters–at least in these novels (this is much less true in the Barsetshire novels)–feel like real people.