Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apologies to Trollope

After Friday's post that took issue with Trollope's complaint about Dickens's prose style, a reader wrote to argue that I was being unfair to Trollope. And he's right: Trollope's complaint was specifically about the idea of Dickens's prose as a model for beginning writers--which, even today, when the buzzing, wild genius of Dickens's descriptive energy is more widely recognized, it would be disastrous for a young writer to attempt to mimic. It would lead to pastiche at best; baggy, affected nonsense at worst.

But it was for the closing of my post that I owe Trollope the real apology: after he recommended Thackeray as a better model, I noted that at least he hadn't nominated himself. I was being flip on a Friday night, and Trollope deserves better. By all accounts, Trollope was a man of appropriate self-assessment, neither over- nor under-selling his achievements. He was a working writer who found success, and he was proud of that fact, but he didn't make claim to be a genius. In a piece on Trollope's autobiography, Michael Dirda quotes a couple of assessments from the book:
Above all, he is surprisingly harsh about his own creations. Take those two novels mentioned above, Doctor Thorne and The Bertrams. The first soon ranked among his most popular titles; the other long lay among his most ignored. Yet, says their author, "I myself think that they are of about equal merit, but that neither of them is good." His own favorites among his books are those about the politician Plantagenet Palliser, especially The Prime Minister--which the critics damned. Orley Farm, he observes, possesses his best plot, but "taking it as a whole," The Last Chronicle of Barset is "the best novel I have written."
Dirda also includes a great anecdote that I can't help but pass on:
Once, when he overheard two clergymen complain that the celebrated Mrs. Proudie of the Barsetshire novels had grown tiresome, he went up and told them that she would be dead within the week. And so she was.
Almost anyone involved, even peripherally, in the literary should also appreciate Trollope for being what he was: a writer who lived a life with relatively little drama, worked for the Post Office every day for decades while still finding time to write, and matter-of-factly turned out prose. No sturm und drang here. Dirda uses Trollope's own account to calculate that at Trollope's pace of 3,000 words per day, every day, he would have turned out a novel the length of Gatsby in a month. John Sutherland, in his magnificent new Lives of the Novelists, says that Trollope's reliability and speed ended up working against him:
He had produced too many novels too quickly for the public's appetite. Sales and payments fell--not catastrophically but palpably.
Crime fiction fans will recall that one of the reasons Donald E. Westlake always gave for writing under so many pen names was that he was writing too fast for his publishers' taste; they didn't want to flood the market with Westlake books. Trollope, one assumes, never considered that option--and wouldn't a Trollope novel be recognizable under any name, regardless?

Sutherland claims that the falling sales led to a "gloom [that] found magnificent expression in his mordant satire on the morals of his age an the decay of Englishness, The Way We Live Now." He goes on to point out something else that distinguishes Trollope from the best of his contemporaries:
The title [of The Way We Live Now] points to a salient feature of Trollopian art. Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot consistently antedated the action of their novels by decades. Trollope invariably writes about "now." Sic vivitur, as his favourite Latin proverb put it--thus we live.
And with that, The Duke's Children goes into my bag for my next trip. That's another point--and not a minor one--in Trollope's favor: he's reliable enough that, if pressed, you can pack nothing but a book by him for a trip and still depart with confidence. He's certainly not going to let you down.

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