David Frum

01.28.13

Trollope v Hardy

I was diverted from a task at hand this morning by a fascinating Twitter exchange with @jeetheer about the respective merits of the novelists Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy. I do love many of Trollope's novels. My own venture into fiction finishes with a favorite quotation from Phineas Finn. It occurs after Phineas has just suffered the defeat of his bill to improve the condition of Irish tenant farmers. Despairing, he is consoled by an elder statesman of his party.

"Such a debate and such a majority will make men think. But no;--think is too high a word; as a rule men don't think. But it will make them believe that there is something in it. Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;--and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

"It is no loss of time," said Phineas, "to have taken the first great step in making it."

"The first great step was taken long ago," said Mr. Monk,--"taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards."

But Trollope wrote a lot of crap too. By contrast, The Mayor of Casterbridge is an overwhelming work of art and the other major Hardy novels - Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles - invest the lives, loves and deaths of ordinary country people with a tragedy as grand as anything in Shakespeare. Maybe above all, though, I admire Hardy for this perfect poem of loss and mourning, written after the death of his wife:

WOMAN much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then, 5
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here, 10
You being ever consigned to existlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward 15
And the woman calling.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.