I spend a lot of time with nerds and geeks and hipsters–the kinds of people who get really passionate about pop-culture. And…that’s not me. At one point I attributed it to getting older, but I don’t think that’s it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as passionately consumed with my media choices as many people are. Even when I was twelve and reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Orson Scott Card and Anne McCaffery and Marion Zimmer Bradley (yes I know she’s a child molester, but that doesn’t change the fact that when I was twelve I liked her books!) and David Eddings and all that other stuff, I still don’t think I was obsessed with the worlds themselves. For instance, I never had much of a temptation to write fan-fiction.
My media choices don’t feel alive to me in that particular way. I don’t feel betrayed when a character dies. I don’t concoct fan theories or insist on my own headcanon. It’s just not the way that I approach books and movies and TV shows.
It does feel weird to me, at times, that I became a writer. Books have always been very important to me, but I’d be lying if I said that the social role of the writer wasn’t a huge part of my decision. Writers get to be different. We get to do what we want. We’re free, assuming we can hustle up the money, to live without a conventional job. And we also get a lot of social status. It’s great.
Without that, I don’t think I’d be a writer. I never made art for art’s sake. I didn’t write little stories just for myself. And I never drew or dabbled in music or did anything like that.
But I do really like books! I just think that I incorporate themselves into myself in a different way. They don’t get assimilated whole, instead they get torn to bits and thrown together into a big stew.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am really loving Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. This is his political series: six fat volumes (200-300k words each) about the lives and loves of a bunch of Parliamentarians in Victorian Britain. The novels are connected by Plantagenet Palliser, who you meet first as a dignified, but very young, Member of Parliament. He subsequently rises to become Chancellor of the Exchequer by the end of the first book. But sometime around the fourth book he must resign his post because his uncle, the Duke of Omnium dies, and Plantagenet inherits, and now he can’t be in the House of Commons anymore. In the fifth book, a turn of events has Plantagenet, now in his mid-forties, becoming Prime Minister. And the sixth book, which I’m not reading, deals with him as a retired politician who now has to deal with all of his feckless children.
Of course this is only one relatively small plotline in the series. Plantagenet is a more minor part of the first book, and he hardly appears in the second, third, and fourth books. Even then, his wife is a much more substantial character: Lady Glencora aspires at times to be a Lady MacBeth, but she’s so much more complicated than that. She’s ambitious, but only to a point. It’s all a game to her. Much of life is a game, but at the same time she’s kept in check by her stern, unemotive husband. Their relationship is truly one of the joys of the series.
Since it’s Trollope, the actual business of running the country takes a back seat to the issue of figuring out whom to marry. This is of course the theme, so far as I can tell, of almost all Victorian literature. It was a weird era in the history of courtship. Arranged marriages were falling out of fashion, and yet, as gentlemen and gentlewomen, there was still a strong imperative to make matches that would be financially, as well as romantically, successful. Usually Victorian novels sidestep these potential issues through, well, happenstance. I’m talking about all the time somebody inherits money at the last moment, for instance, and is able to finally wed the person they love. Or the times, most famously in Pride and Prejudice, where the boorish wealthy gentleman turns out to be the person of true worth, and the penniless man with good manners turns out to be a cad.
In his previous series of books, the Barchester series, I got a little bored with these kinds of incidents. Every single book, it seemed, was resolved in the end by a fortuitous coincidence of this sort.
But the Palliser novels are completely different! I mean they are so different that it’s like they were written by a different man! Where the Barchester series is comedic, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot or Thackeray, the Palliser series almost approaches realism! I mean it’s in these books that you can very clearly see the English novel groping towards a more psychologically real treatment of motivations, actions, and conflicts.
For instance, in one book, the woman marries a rich guy instead of the guy she loves…and the rich guy turns out to be totally incompatible with her, and her life is destroyed as a result! She’s forced to leave him and go live in exile in Dresden! Shit, that’s the kind of thing that’d never happen in Eliot (where he’d just conveniently die, a la Mr. Causabon). But in another book, the woman marries the rich guy instead of the guy she loves…and it turns out great! The guy she loves was a cad, and the rich guy becomes the love of her life (albeit in a quieter way). I can’t tell you how many times this book swerves and does the sideways thing.
In most Victorian novels, for instance, if there’s some looming risk (a person bets twenty thousand pounds on a race, for instance), you know it’s going to hit and ruin them. But not in Trollope! In Trollope sometimes the disaster just goes away. They win the bet and are saved! But then a few books later, someone will do something very similar and be ruined! It’s so good.
I can’t imagine how exciting it must’ve been to be a young writer in the late 19th century and to read authors like this (and Gissing and Zola and Howells and Henry James and Tolstoy and Chekhov) and to suddenly see a whole new way of writing. I mean Trollope’s novels would never be mistaken for modern novels. He doesn’t use much in the way of descriptions; they’re all in the third person omniscient, with heavy authorly editorializing; and they have very out of control, unstructured plots. But in his treatment of emotion, character, and psychology, he is absolutely modern! The modernest!