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Trollope for Americanists

by Stacey Margolis, University of Utah

Shortly after the birth of my first child, a friend dropped off a box of murder mysteries. This was not your typical baby gift, but it was a gesture for which I will be forever grateful. Up every night with the baby, I spent the next few months reading these novels, one after the other, in a kind of sleepless but slightly less depressed haze. Blood and graphic violence bothered me not one bit since they paled in the face of the inevitable tidy ending. In a certain kind of murder mystery, everything makes sense and nothing remains mysterious. At the beginning of the story, someone commits a terrible crime; by the end, this person will be discovered, punished, and his or her motives unearthed. This kind of fiction has all the elegance of an algebraic equation, but is deeply satisfying in a way that algebra (at least for me) is not.

Of course, reading too many murder mysteries is like eating too many jelly beans—after a while one longs for something with a little more depth and complexity. It was around this time that I rediscovered Trollope. In many ways, the joy of readingFramley Parsonage (my favorite of Trollope's novels at the moment) is the same as the joy of reading Hamlet, Revenge! orThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or The Nine Tailors. Terrible things happen in Framley Parsonage—betrayal, poverty, failure, illness, disillusionment; one scholar sums it up by saying that the novel is about "the ways that time and the world crush the hopes of the young and the dogmatic beliefs of the old."This isn't entirely wrong as an account of the novel, but it sounds very unpleasant—one would prefer not to have hopes and beliefs crushed right before bed. And yet, like the violent crime I found strangely soothing on sleepless nights, the terrible things in Framley Parsonage are at least partly redeemed by the fact that they take place in a world that can comprehend them; the messiness of life seems less messy when it is so deeply organized by strict, if unspoken, rules. There are any number of examples of how such rules work in Trollope, but I think the response of the Robarts to Lucy's heartbreak over her rejection of Lord Lufton is a good one: "Very little had been said at Framley Parsonage about Lord Lufton's offer after the departure of that gentleman; very little, at least, in Lucy's presence. That the parson and his wife should talk about it between themselves was a matter of course; but very few words were spoken on the matter either by or to Lucy."Lucy is suffering, but what Trollope emphasizes here isn't her despair but the proper way of showing respect for such a despairing person and for those who must live with this person. The Robarts remain quiet because they refuse to distress Lucy and Lucy remains quiet because she refuses to parade her distress. Some would call this refusal to engage "repression" or "denial." But to me, this reticence (which used to be called "delicacy") is less a way of avoiding what is painful and personal than a way of knitting such personal tragedies into something like an ethics of social life. To those who roll their eyes at this dreamy depiction of the Victorian age, I say that it is possible to admire the creation of such a world without necessarily believing that it existed or, on the off chance that it did, wanting to live there.

But the joy of reading Trollope is not exactly like the joy of reading genre fiction. There is something strangely impersonal, almost mechanical, about working your way through a murder mystery—it is more like playing a game than engaging with people who seem worthy of sympathy. Agatha Christie kills off characters like flies and I shed no tears. The almost total divorce from emotion isn't a bad thing—it's what can make mysteries so comforting. And if there is also something mechanical about Trollope's plots—the brutal inevitability of marriage, for instance—the experience of his fiction is really very different. I think of it this way: reading genre fiction is like doing a jigsaw puzzle—it's fun to fit the pieces together even though you already know what the picture will look like when you're finished. Reading Trollope is also like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but with someone who tells good jokes, makes fun of your friends, and does all of the challenging parts of the puzzle while you're out of the room getting a cup of coffee. To love reading Trollope is to feel like you have a relationship with Trollope. When he observes, after describing Mark Robarts's lamentable sluggishness as he's supposed to be dressing for dinner, "a strong-minded man goes direct from the hall-door to his chamber without encountering the temptation of the drawing room fire," you laugh despite the fact that you have no drawing room fire, are not required to dress for dinner, and (perhaps) are not a man, strong-minded or otherwise. Trollope, you think, totally gets you.

Not everyone appreciates this kind of implied chumminess. And not everyone wants to be the kind of reader who responds to this voice. Henry James actually found a way to compliment Trollope for his skill and his warmth while simultaneously reviling his devoted readers for their bad taste: "The best parts" of his novels, James says, "are so sound and true and genial, that readers with an eye to that sort of entertainment will always be sure, in a certain proportion, to turn to them."Perhaps James imagined that the reader who went for "that sort of entertainment" would not notice the contempt built into the phrase "that sort of entertainment." He was wrong in my case—I did notice, and I do feel bad about being lumped in with all of the complacent middle-class people who look for nothing more in a novel than what is comforting and familiar. Shouldn't I have grown out of this taste for the "genial" by now? Shouldn't I crave something a little riskier, more difficult, more experimental? James certainly seems to think so, since he is continually suggesting that Trollope's novels cater to the most childish desires, gratifying "the taste for the emotions of recognition" rather than "the taste for the emotions of surprise" (133): "His honest, familiar, deliberate way of treating his readers as if he were one of them, and shared their indifference to a general view, their limitations of knowledge, their love of a comfortable ending, endeared him to many persons in England and America" (100). Apparently, James's disdain for the type of reader I am knows no bounds.

What is endearing about a novel like Framley Parsonage for those of us who find that sort of thing endearing is less the geniality of the narrator's voice, the comfortable ending, or the sense of shared ignorance than the serious way it treats the minutia of daily life—the dinner parties, the tea parties, the hunts, the morning calls, the carriage rides, the late-night chats. This might be what James means by Trollope's "indifference to a general view," a kind of limitation that he elsewhere refers to as "a complete appreciation of the usual" (100-101). Trollope cares about the mundane things that fill our days not because they allow him (like James) to explore the outer reaches of the psyche but because they are interesting in and of themselves. Life for him is in the details. Since the way a dinner party is or ga nized gets to the heart of what makes the world either bearable or unbearable, it can inspire what amounts to a layman's philosophy of social life. Take his account of Mrs. Proudie's decision to have tea and cake "handed round on salvers" during her "conversazione": "This handing round has become a vulgar and an intolerable nuisance among us second-class gentry with our eight-hundred a year—there or thereabouts;—doubly intolerable as being destructive of our natural comforts, and a wretchedly vulgar aping of men with larger incomes . . . God be with the good old days when I could hobnob with my friend over the table as often as I was inclined to lift my glass to my lips, and make a long arm for a hot potato whenever the exigencies of my plate required it" (217-18). James would probably not get worked up about hot potatoes, but for Trollope the issue isn't merely material; it speaks volumes about how people are meant to interact. You can't hobnob if you're constantly on the lookout for potatoes, and what good is social life without hobnobbing? In Trollope's world, our "natural comforts" are not trifling matters.

My recent and entirely unscientific survey of friends and colleagues suggests that James's objection to Trollope lives on; Victorianists I know are among his harshest critics. There's nothing stylistically interesting about his writing, they point out, and nothing very interesting ever happens. Why would you read Trollope when you could read Dickens or Eliot or Thackeray or the Brontes? James makes much the same point when he describes Trollope as "a novelist who hunted the fox" (125). By this, I think, he means to emphasize both the "pre-established round of English customs" (101) that permeate the novels and Trollope's rather thorough knowledge of these customs. But James's line about hunting the fox is also clearly meant to dismiss Trollope as shallow and insipid, in the way that dismissive people today might say, "Oh, he's a football player." Some of these complaints make perfect sense to me: it is true that Trollope had no style, no capacity to see or interest in representing the strange and marvelous, no redemptive insight about the world's unfairness. But Trollope is hardly shallow, though in his role as narrator he often presents himself that way. "For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing," he remarks in defense of small talk. "I cannot hold with those who wish to put down the insignificant chatter of the world. As for myself, I am always happy to look at Mrs Jones's linen and never omit an opportunity of giving her the details of my own dinners" (144). Rather than calling him shallow, we might say he had profound thoughts about shallow things. Time and the world may crush our hopes and destroy our beliefs, Trollope suggests, but why let that get you down when there's the drawing room fire, the hunting, the hobnobbing? An adventurous spirit might shudder at such a worldview; I do not. There is something reassuring to me in Trollope's capacity to take the world very much as he finds it.

To take the world as you find it might in fact be the definition of realism, which would mean, as a colleague recently proposed, that Trollope is the only actual "realist" who ever existed. Certainly, anyone immersed in the American incarnations of realism will feel, reading Trollope, as though she is on unfamiliar turf. Say what you will about Wharton, Howells, Norris, Dreiser, even the early James—they did not take the world as they found it. Not in the same breezy, carefree way. Back in the day, Richard Chase made a version of this argument, which I still find pretty convincing. If the English novel, he claims "is notable for its great practical sanity, its powerful, engrossing composition of wide ranges of experience into a moral centrality and equability of judgment," the American novel is notable for its "profound poetry of disorder" and its interest in "radical forms of alienation."Of course, Chase is describing the romantic tendencies of writers like Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Crane, whose novels explore "the melodrama of the eternal struggle of good and evil" (11) rather than the high realism of someone like Howells, who is summarily rejected for being too "middlebrow" (10), but I think his distinction holds.

In fact, Chase's theory might have a broader reach than he intended. The genteel world constructed by writers like Howells still displays much of this American tendency; it is shot through with the poetry of disorder and the spectacle of radical alienation. For confirmation, one need look no further than the realist novel's profound interest in the dinner party, which, a relatively uneventful occasion for "handing round" potatoes and hobnobbing in Trollope, becomes, in American hands, more like a war of attrition. To generalize boldly and irresponsibly, the point of the ubiquitous dinner party scene in American realism is to stage melodramas of social mobility. These scenes frequently imagine the exciting clash of two uneven factions. On the one side is the establishment—often an "old family" marked by a hideous kind of entitlement; on the other is the aspirant—often a businessman or his offspring, marked by ruthless ambition. The job of the establishment is to display wit, erudition, and name-dropping; the job of the aspirant is primarily to be dazzled and confused (though sometimes it is also to be humiliated). The establishment goes on lockdown; the aspirant storms the gates. The rage just beneath the surface of such scenes—sometimes directed at the establishment, sometimes at the aspirant, sometimes at both—makes it seem as though the fate of the nation were at stake. How far, these dinner parties seem to ask, will American materialism go? The point, in other words, is less to analyze the social mores of the Gilded Age than to criticize them.

By far the best example of dinner party as class melodrama is the one at the center of Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham. The rather drawn-out description of the party at the Coreys goes exactly according to script. Pitting one of the "old families" of Boston against the nouveau riche, Howells takes great pains to present the Coreys and their friends as literate and urbane. They banter and make important-sounding pronouncements about architecture, literature, politics: "I really suppose you can't put a more popular thing than self-sacrifice into a novel, " says one of the guests; "We do like to see people suffering sublimely."At the same time, Howells takes pains to present Lapham as very much out of his element, suffering (though not sublimely) through a seemingly endless series of humiliations:

He felt that he was not holding up his end of the line, however. When someone spoke to him he could only summon a few words of reply, that seemed to lead to nothing; things often came into his mind appropriate to what they were saying, but before he could get them out they were off on something else; they jumped about so, he could not keep up; but he felt, all the same, that he was not doing himself justice.(196)

By the end of the scene, Lapham's degradation has become the stuff of nightmares—drunk without realizing it, he wanders around Mrs. Corey's drawing room bragging about his money, insulting the other guests, and generally making a fool of himself. I wish I could say that this scene works as a critique of the Coreys—and the barriers to openness and even civility that they represent—but the novel seems much more interested in punishing Lapham for his aspiration than the Coreys for their heartlessness and self-satisfaction. After all, Lapham's moral "rise" depends on his recognition that his wealth was a curse: "Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and truckle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him" (359).

Wharton does something similar with Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country. The guests at both the Fairford and the Marvell dinners are just as cultured; Undine is just as clueless: "Undine did not even know that there were any pictures to be seen, much less that 'people' went to see them; and she had read no new book but 'When The Kissing Had to Stop,' of which Mrs. Fairford seemed not to have heard."In fact, it's difficult for me not to think of Undine as a female version of Lapham—a wealthy social aspirant with a real knack for her job, which in this case is serial marriage. And like Lapham, Undine seems both confused by the social world she has managed to enter and oblivious to her own unworthiness (although her strange performances at these dinners evoke absolutely no sympathy from Wharton). It seems completely unsurprising, then, when the Marvell dinner ends, as the Corey dinner does in Lapham, with a moment of humiliation. Discussing her friend Mabel's social ambitions with Mr. Dagonet, Undine blithely defends divorce as a canny career move: "These words, uttered in the high fluting tone that she rose to when sure of her subject, fell on a pause which prolonged and deepened itself to receive them, while every face at the table, Ralph Marvell's excepted, reflected in varying degree Mr. Dagonet's pained astonishment" (58). The novel does not punish Undine for her unworthiness; she is rewarded in the end with the brilliant marriage she desired. But through this reward Wharton produces the same critique of materialism as Howells. Although she clearly admires Undine's brilliance as a strategist, she also recognizes that in Undine she has created a representative monster. This thing of darkness, Wharton seems to say, I acknowledge America.7

How very different Trollope's world seems in comparison. In Framley Parsonage, Lucy Robarts, the sister of a mere parish clergyman, is also an "outsider" to the aristocratic world she is made to enter—as Lady Lufton explains to her son, she finds Lucy "insignificant" (506). Lucy too must soldier through a stuffy party where, left to herself in the drawing room after dinner, she is made to feel this insignificance: "There she sat, still and motionless, afraid to take up a book, and thinking in her heart how much happier she would have been at home at the parsonage. She was not made for society; she felt sure of that; and another time she would let Mark and Fanny come to Framley Court by themselves" (158). Yet Trollope does not use the dinner party to showcase the wit of the aristocrats at poor Lucy's expense. Indeed, the conversations initiated by Lucy's seatmate are laughably banal: " 'Immense deal of game about here,' Captain Culpepper said to her towards the end of the dinner. It was the second attempt he had made; on the former he had asked her whether she knew any of the fellows of the 9th" (157). If Lucy thinks herself unfit for society, Trollope, with perhaps a less idealized view, clearly does not. And the scene ends not with her humiliation but with Lord Lufton's apology: "It is we who have done wrong in leaving you to yourself—you who are the greatest stranger among us" (159).8

In Framley Parsonage, the dinner party is not a clash of world-historical forces but an anatomy of the ordinary. The novel tracks, always with a degree of sympathy, the various ways individuals navigate the social customs they both strain against and, in large measure, simply accept as given. Trollope tends to treat the messes created by his characters less as evidence of social decay than as keys to understanding human nature. That is why, I think, he is rarely sanctimonious about his characters' weaknesses. Should Mark really be condemned for wanting to hunt with Lord Lufton or to spend the weekend at Gatherum Castle? "It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing," Trollope argues, "but nevertheless we all do so" (66). Should Lord Lufton be chastised for wanting Griselda and Lucy at the same time? "A man may be as imperfect as Lord Lufton," Trollope suggests, "and yet worthy of a good mother and a good wife. If not, how many of us are unworthy of the mothers and wives we have!" (369). The point here is analytical. Trollope is trying to understand certain kinds of ambitions and desires—how we manage to live with them in ourselves and in everyone else. Hypocrisy concerns him more than justice, a preference that might in fact reveal a sort of willful blindness about what lies beyond his privileged class. But I would suggest that while it is no doubt very wrong to be concerned with one's own small world, we are all nevertheless concerned with it from time to time.

The American realist novel pretty much rejects this attitude. And yet, I feel it is only fair to point out that the desire to dissect rather than challenge social mores, to avoid the "general view" in favor of a tight focus on the ordinary, is very much part of an American tradition. It is alive and well and currently living in syndication. Seinfeld is, I would say, Trollope's true heir. After all, Seinfeld billed itself as a show about nothing precisely because of its commitment to the trivialities of daily life—hanging out, meeting people for coffee, being bored at work, going on bad dates.In the spirit of the novelist who hunted the fox, Seinfeld analyzes what has become of American culture not merely by representing daily life but through elaborate taxonomies: on Seinfeld, a person's a "low-talker" or a "close-talker," a "bad breaker-upper" or a "re-gifter" or a "double-dipper," in the way that Lord Lufton is labeled at one point a "dog in the manger." These labels become a way of navigating an opaque social system that is itself never questioned. When Elaine says, "Is this a waste of time? What should we be doing? Can't you have coffee with people?" she's not really doubting her own commitment to the seemingly trivial pleasures of hobnobbing. And when Kramer says, "Jerry, this is the way society functions. Aren't you a part of society?" or Jerry says, "George, we're trying to have a civilization here," they are not straining against established social rules but recognizing their authority. Like Trollope, Seinfeld takes the world as he finds it. And given Trollope's notorious anti-Semitism, there is a kind of poetic justice in this inheritance, this shared worldview.

In the end, pleasure isn't necessarily about self-reflection. Being enraged comes quite naturally to me. I was once compared (unfavorably I might add) to the Angriest Dog in the World—which might explain why I gravitated toward American literature in the first place. The kind of rage that could produce an Undine Spragg is rage that I understand. But pleasures, like dreams, often go by contraries. One does not always want to marinate in one's own temperament; one sometimes wants to escape from it. Tranquil people like to sky-dive and anxious people swim laps. Perhaps our love of literature works the same way. For the bored, there are the difficulties of Joyce. For the optimist, there is the darkness of Melville. For those who fear chaos, there is the perfect closure of the murder mystery. And for those who are angry about the ravages of time and the world, there is Trollope.

Stacey Margolis  

Stacey Margolis is associate professor of English at the University of Utah. She is the author of The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Duke University Press, 2005).


1. Robert M. Polhemus, The Changing World of Anthony Trollope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 59.

2. Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 407. Subsequently cited parenthetically.

3. Henry James, Partial Portraits (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), 133. Subsequently cited parenthetically.

4. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), 2.

5. William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: Penguin Classics, 1983), 197. Subsequently cited parenthetically.

6. Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006), 24. Subsequently cited parenthetically.

7. A great example of rage directed against the establishment is Frank Norris's The Octopus, which cuts back and forth between Presleys' dinner at the Cedarquists and Mrs. Hooven's starvation on the streets of San Francisco. And if this were not criticism enough, Norris has Presley articulate what the contrast merely implies: "He sipped his wine mechanically, looking about that marvelous room, with its subdued saffron lights, its glitter of glass and silver, its beautiful women in their elaborate toilets, its deft, correct servants; its array of tableware—cut glass, chased silver, and Dresden crockery. It was Wealth, in all its outward and visible forms, the signs of an opulence so great that it need never be husbanded . . . For this, then, the farmers paid. It was for this that S. Behrman turned the screw, tightened the vise. It was for this that Dyke had been driven to outlawry and a jail. It was for this that Lyman Derrick had been bought, the Governor ruined and broken, Annixter shot down, Hooven killed." Frank Norris, The Octopus (New York: Penguin Classics, 1994) 603-4.

8. Lucy is not the only outsider who is not all that much an outsider in the novel. Miss Dunstable (called at one point "a gallipot wench whose money still smells of bad drugs") breezes through dinners with the Bishop and weekends at the Duke's castle as if to the manor born (488).

9. And as James realized from the beginning, Trollope was writing novels about nothing: The Belton Estate, he writes in an early review, "is without a single idea." See Henry James, Notes and Reviews (Cambridge: Dunster House, 1921), 130.