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Concerned with the intrigues of the cathedral clergy and the landed gentry, Anthony Trollope portrays Victorian English life with all its high moral values and noble ideals as well as its greed, snobbery, and hypocrisy…

Anthony Trollope

I’ve usually prefer the underrated and unpopular. Buster Keaton not Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Sayers not Agatha Christie, and Anthony Trollope instead of Charles Dickens.

Born to an upper-class, but impoverished, family, Trollope’s own life is worthy of his most eccentric fiction. Trollope’s father was a barrister. A clever man who was educated at New College, Oxford, he first failed to enter the legal profession because of his bad temper. He tried to be a farmer and failed, then he lost a family inheritance when a childless uncle married unexpectedly and had children.

He sent his son Anthony to Harrow School, followed by Winchester. Both boarding schools were for boys from wealthy families, and Anthony was bullied and excluded because of his poor prospects and connections. His mother moved to America where she failed in business before finally returning to England where she started to make some money as a writer. Meanwhile, his father lurched from failure to failure until the family finally had to flee to Belgium to escape debt collectors.

There Anthony was offered a commission in the Austrian cavalry, but had to learn French and German. To do this, he took a position as an assistant teacher in a boys’ school, only escaping that fate and that of becoming a soldier when he received an offer to be a postal clerk. He took the dull job with reluctance and only gained a reputation for being late to work and for being insubordinate. Finally, when a job came up in Ireland, Trollope’s boss recommended him in order to move him on.

Trollope began to write as he traveled around Ireland for his work. He wrote constantly and made himself a writing-desk so he could continue writing even while traveling by train. Persistent in his work he wrote in a letter during this period: ”Pray know that when a man begins writing a book he never gives over…. The evil with which he is beset is as inveterate as drinking—as exciting as gambling.” His determination, hard work, and eventual success makes him one of English literature’s most prolific novelists and a prime candidate for patron saint of struggling writers.

Eventually, Trollope moved back to England, and after a spell working in Salisbury, he wrote his most famous work, the six-volume Chronicles of BarsetshireConcerned with the intrigues of the cathedral clergy and the landed gentry, The Chronicles of Barsetshire portrays Victorian English life with all its high moral values and noble ideals as well as its greed, snobbery, and hypocrisy.

As a former priest of the Church of England, The Warden and Barchester Towers hold a favorite place in my library. The politics and personalities of the Victorian Church of England were still very much alive in the Church of England I inhabited in the 1980s and 1990s. I could name my own versions of the unctuous and ambitious Evangelical Rev. Mr. Slope (he added the ‘e’ to his name for euphony). I knew well the urbane and gentlemanly cathedral canons like Septimus Harding and the strident and striding Archdeacon Grantly. Anyone who had met a certain Archbishop of Canterbury and Mrs. Archbishop would recognize the reincarnations of Bishop and Mrs. Proudie. My visits to the Church of England now are rare, but when I’m there I still espy the ghosts of Barchester haunting the towers of the Church of England today.

The third novel in Trollope’s series is Doctor Thorne. This story veers away from the cathedral and deals with the hard times of the country doctor’s niece, Mary. Having grown up with the children of the local squire, Gresham, she falls in love with his heir, Frank. Mary is lovely but illegitimate, and therefore an unworthy match for Frank. The Greshams are in dire straits because, while they are from the top drawer, their bottom line is blank. They are in debt to a local working-class man made good—the itchingly named Sir Roger Scratcherd. The plot unfolds with the poor aristocrats trying to marry money, and the rich parvenus longing for social acceptance. A fairly predictable plot twist means everyone lives happily ever after, but the work is a delightful turn on Victorian England, and for my money, is far more enjoyable than Dickens’ often didactic and shallow fiction.

Amazon has launched into film production and recently hired the English Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes to produce a four-part film version of Trollope’s tale. Filmed with the impeccable taste we have come to expect from British costume-dramas, the Amazon film features excellent acting, gorgeous British country homes, actors with cut-glass accents and drawing-room manners interrupted by boorish behavior and bold ambition.

Trollope’s characters and plot are not cardboard cutouts. He is kind to all—observing the snobbery and greed with a tolerant, dry humor. Even the villains are shown to have some redeeming traits, and if they have faults they are caused by circumstances beyond their control. The terrible ones die humbly, and the frightful snobs are redeemed. And at the end of Fellowe’s film version is a scene of repentance and forgiveness that is truly moving.

Doctor Thorne, therefore, dramatizes many of the same trials and triumphs of Trollope himself. There is the desire to be true to oneself, one’s talent and one’s love while struggling with the reality of paying the bills. There he shows the clash between social position and prestige, on the one hand, and personal integrity, ambition, and greed, on the other. By participating in a social scene in another country removed from our day by more than a century, we can watch at a distance, then realize how enduring and endearing those same humans are not only there and then, but here and now.

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3 replies to this post
  1. A really nice piece, the highlight of which is the Proudie and his Mrs. comparison with the Archbishop of Canterbury and his dame.

  2. Fr Longenecker (a very euphonious, indeed striking, surname I must say): I think I’ve got all of Trollope’s novels (fine Folio editions) and do recall reading the first three segments of Barsetshire, but would be hard pressed to say anything knowledgeable about them today (10 years later) whereas Dickens’s (or Dickens’ if you prefer) books remain vivid to me more than a half-century later. But I do love Trollope. “The Way We Live Now” is one of my favourites.

    On another note: also being a former Anglican now happily ensconced, like you, in the One True Church, I’m hoping you don’t think “unctuous and ambitious” priests and prelates are unknown in Rome and its hinterlands. Of course you don’t.

  3. Thank you, Padre Longenecker-I have been re-reading Jane Austen and had forgotten about Anthony T-and I agree he is so much more better than Dickens, and more readable. I will get back to Trollope, thanks to you-and Deo Gratias-he has many more than Jane’s six finished novels published before her death. The Doctor Thorne series is, in several ways, better than Downton.
    Guy McClung, Texas

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