07.19.11

Murdoch Scandal’s Trollopian Turn

Perhaps no one could have scripted the lurid News of the World debacle better than British novelist Anthony Trollope—and in his version, no one would emerge unscathed.

A handful of British authors have passed into American English as adjectives: Shakespearean, Austenian, Keatsian, Dickensian, Woolfian, and Orwellian. But Trollopian? No, Anthony Trollope, author of 47 novels (at least 12 of them door-stoppers) is more of a specialized taste—for the Victorianist graduate student trying to carve out a space in an oversaturated job market, for a self-selecting group of attorneys and Anglophiles, and for David Brooks.

But who better than Trollope to turn to as we watch these lightning-speed developments in the News of the World phone-hacking case, which has now sent a newspaper executive to jail, the two highest-ranking police officer in the country into retirement, and the old empire-builder and his son to Parliament for questioning as they struggle to salvage their global holdings?

The prime minister is absent, away on his African visit, while calls for his head rain down. The scandal has an unlikely subplot in the heroic counter-hacking of Hugh Grant, and it has a strong-jawed, flame-haired auxiliary villain in Rebekah Brooks, whose devilish red curls are perhaps borrowed from that other Victorian, Wilkie Collins. The story also assumes a depth of tragedy with the death of the whistleblower Sean Hoare. Throughout it all, journalists voraciously eat their own, but this time, not without reason.

Trollope despised duplicity, backstabbing, and ugly dishonor.

In his entire oeuvre, and in the six Palliser novels in particular, culminating with the triumphant The Way We Live Now, Trollope looked at politics, the press, the police, literature, and the arts, men and women, England, and everything else in the landscape with an eye more conservative than we perhaps like to allow our Victorian novelists. Charles Dickens and George Eliot prevail in part because their sympathies are seen to have been in the right place (Dickens is also a better storyteller). In that scheme, Trollope becomes the bloated old man writing bloated old novels that lament the loss of English order to upstarts and social climbers. But Trollope, like Dickens and Eliot, and even like our own modern-day American Dickens, David Simon, despised duplicity, backstabbing, and ugly dishonor, and one imagines that no one, save the young girl to whose family the Murdochs have repeatedly issued an un-Murdochian apology, would emerge unscathed were Trollope to set pen to paper today.