I read another one of Anthony Trollope’s bricks, and I enjoyed it quite a lot

Most of Anthony Trollope’s enduring work is bound up in two series. The Palliser novels follow the life of a fictional British politician. And the Barchester novels examine life (predominantly clergical life) in a fictional provincial town. Oh, and almost all of his novels are long. They are brutally long and have the kind of leisurely, digression-choked pace that was only permissible during the Victorian era.

After I read and loved the first (and fairly short) Barchester novel (The Warden), I looked with horor upon the 200,000 word behemoth that was the second novel. I didn’t really want to get enmeshed in a series of lengthy books. Instead, I tried the only one of Trollope’s stand-alone books that is said to be worth reading (The Way We Live Now). It was good, but it was also a long and brutal slog that was, in many ways, lacking in much of the softness and charm of the quaint provincial life portrayed in The Warden.

And that’s where I left things with Trollope for several months. I sensed that there was some goodness in the rest of the Barchester novels, but I wasn’t sure I could commit. But finally, after slogging through a dense, dreamy short novel (John Cheever’s Falconer), I looked at the second volume (Barchester Towers), and thought, “Sure it’s long, but it’s so readable. Wouldn’t it be nice to just sort of sink into a book?” Yes, this is the mindset that drives the sales of epic fantasy.

Well, I did read Barchester Towers. And it was nice. It was an extremely pleasant reading experience. The plot involves many of the same persons as the first novel. The kind, bumbling bishop has died and a new bishop who bumbles in a different way has been installed. And with him comes a prideful and avaricious chaplain who plots to marry a girl, and there’s alot of flailing about and maneuvering about who will get this preferment and that deanship. It’s not much of a plot at all, really. Nothing is at stake. Never do you get the sense that the girl is going to end up with either of the two villains who are plotting for her hand. Nor are the villains even that villainous. One is just kind of greasy and greedy. The other is a fop who’s in debt.

But the characters are all very well-drawn. They’re larger-than-life, like Dickens characters, but not nearly so farcical. There’s Mr. Harding, a beloved but kind of ineffectual curate who keeps worrying about whether he’s carrying out his duties well (but makes no effort to actually ramp up his energy-level in undertaking them). There’s the Stanhopes, a family of amoral dissipates, who are the subject of some of Trollope’s best descriptions, such as:

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness; but the want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature that their neighbours failed to perceive how indifferent to them was the happiness and well-being of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it were not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

There’s Archdeacon Grantly, who seems quite irreligious and primarily motivated by family pride, but who seems to so genuinely love his family–including his father-in-law (the aforementioned Harding) and his sister-in-law–that you can’t help but like him. There’s Mr. Quiverful, a clergyman who has fourteen children and desperately wants a better posting, but is unwilling to seek it dishonorably. And there’s his wife, who has no such compunctions, and of whom Trollope writes:

Whatever the husband might feel, the wife cared nothing for the frowns of the dean, archdeacon, or prebendary. To her the outsides and insides of her husband and fourteen children were everything. In her bosom every other ambition had been swallowed up in that maternal ambition of seeing them and him and herself duly clad and properly fed. It had come to that with her that life had now no other purpose. She recked nothing of the imaginary rights of others.

And there’s the secret main character of this (and all) Trollope novels: money. He’s one of the only novelists (other than perhaps Jane Austen), who seems to really care about money: what people will do get it and how they will use it. There’s a marvelous scene where he describes the difference between a social-climbing farmer whose wife spends his money on lace and school-lessons for his children and his solid yeoman neighbor–equally endowed with money–who saves up in order to buy farms for all his sons. Trollope can describe how clergyman will live and die with anxiety to move from a 200 pound a year posting to a 400 pound a year posting, and how another clergyman can easily give up an 800 pound a year posting. He is able to describe money as both a marker of status and a divider of social classes and a real, concrete thing that is used to purchase the things that people need (or desire so strongly that the desire seems akin to a need).

And finally, the novel has the wonderful Trollopean narrator, a first-person character that interjects itself into the novel and frequently runs away on its own awesome digressions, like this one:

‘New men are carrying out new measures, and are eating away the useless rubbish of past centuries.’ What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era; an ear in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at every thing that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.

Anyways, yep, it’s hard to recommend this book. The book I’m really recommending is the first book in the series. The Warden is half as long and twice as good. But if you like The Warden, you should not be shy about reading Barchester Towers. It’s pretty good too.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Okay guys, so, I don’t know if I told you, but the theme of this year’s reading is 19th Century English Literature (the theme of last year was Proust and the theme of the year before that was The Russians, okay). And in keeping with said theme, I recently read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. This book is really, really long. And it wasn’t until I was about 60% of the way through (maybe 700 pages, if I’d been reading a paper book), that I decided I liked it.

The book is basically an all-encompassing indictment of the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the social, business, political, and personal mores of British society. The plot revolves around this financier who’s basically running a Ponzi scheme involving stocks of an American railroad company. But all of that is completely unimportant.

The amazing part of the book was a subplot involving the rapidly aging 29-year-old gentlewoman Georgiana Longestaafe and her engagement to a 50 year old, widowed, Jewish banker named Ezekial Brehgert. Basically, all Georgiana wants is a husband who’ll be rich enough to give her both a townhouse in London and a house in the country. And to get those things, she’s even willing to marry a Jew. But she definitely regards it as a pretty major concession on her part.

However, to her family, this is totally beyond the pale. But Georgiana holds firm against them, and, slowly, begins adopting all this egalitarian rhetoric about how Jews are just like everybody else and what does religion matter, it’s not like anybody goes to Church anyway. She actually does her best to hold out against some fairly determined opposition from her family. And she slowly comes to realize that they don’t really care about her quality of life. They want her to be respectable, but she wants to be rich. It’s a slow sort of emancipation.

I thought it was delightful. Anyone can write a story where True Love overcomes prejudice, but it takes a genius to write Greed overcomes prejudice.

Beware, though, lest anyone think that this book is not anti-Semitic, that is absolutely not the case. The book repeatedly implies that the aforementioned shady financier is Jewish. Trollope suffers from that weird Dickensian anti-Semitism where he hates the Bad Greedy Jews but is willing to point out some Good Honest Jew and say, “Oh, look, some Jews are honest and don’t love money.” (It’s kind of like how some straight guys who don’t like feminine gay men will go out of their way to try to prove their lack of homophobia by pointing at a more masculine gay acquaintance and saying, “Oh, he’s a real man, even though he’s gay”).

Anyways, I am not sure I can recommend this book. But it has lots of things in it that are really interesting. The book is not nearly as comedic and exaggerated as most 19th century British classics, and it’s much more concerned with actualities: money and the practical mechanics of things like earning a living or proposing marriage. Thus, it many incidents within it provide a sort of counterpoint to Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray.