- Trollope for Americanists
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 reading Framley Parsonage (my favorite of Trollope's novels at the moment) is the same as the joy of reading Hamlet, Revenge! or The 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."1 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 [End Page 219] 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."2 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...