Victorian Literature

02.05.13

The Case for Trollope

I like Barchester Towers and the two Phineas Finn novels very much, but do tend to think that Trollope gets over-praised compared to other Victorians.

(My beloved Thomas Hardy, on the other hand, seems to me systematically under-appreciated: a victim of premature assignment of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by high school teachers who mistakenly imagine that the book's frank treatment of Victorian sexuality will compensate students for its pages of description of rural life. Tess only seems frank if you have not listened to any piece of popular music written after, say, 1972.)

Still, here is Jeet Heer to argue the converse:

Almost all the major works of political art deal with the extreme politics of monarchies (Shakespeare) or dictatorships (Dostoevsky, Orwell, Koestler). Trollope is almost alone in being the great bard of liberal democracy. Parliament is not just the backdrop to the Palliser novels but really their subject. Trollope delineates the workings of party politics in a liberal democracy in a way that is knowing and clear-eyed but without being cynical. He’s the classic Victorian conservative liberal or liberal conservative: the man who is trying to balance out the competing claims of tradition and reform, working to improve society without disrupting its functioning. It’s actually a bit odd that Frum is so anti-Trollope since Frum’s current project of trying to modernize conservatism seems like an eminently Trollopian enterprise. As I suggested on twitter, Frum’s novel Patriots is very much in the tradition of the Palliser novels. (I suppose it’s also strange that I like Trollope since my politics are far to the left of the novelist’s own. But I like writers who can make me understand worldviews I don’t share).

I don't disagree with any of that! And in fact Patriots ends with a quote from Phineas Finn that seems to me as beautiful a statement of practical reformism as ever found in literature. Phineas has just suffered the defeat of his bill to strengthen the rights of Irish tenant farmers. He is downcast, and a senior member of his party comforts him in these words.

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."