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  • Trollope's Modernity
  • Amanda Anderson

In the Autobiography, Anthony Trollope famously asserts the importance of character over plot.1 Like so much else in Trollope, this statement is not as transparent as it may seem. Overall, it is not a simple matter to discern exactly what Trollope means by character or, consequently, what he means to privilege in assigning primacy to it. One might imagine that Trollope is simply more interested in characters than plots, that the narrative focus is therefore predominantly psychological and ethical. The great attention paid in his novels to subjective thought processes and interpersonal interactions, and the way the narrative consideration of such matters seems to expand and dilate in an autotelic way, as though plot has been utterly abandoned in their favor, would seem to confirm this reading of his statement. But there are further reflections on character that move toward the mode of justification, and that begin to give a sense of the specific aesthetic and moral values that character has for Trollope.

To begin with, character underwrites a vitalist realism that values the presumed experience, commonly available to author and reader alike, of "living with" lifelike characters for the duration of a novel's composition or perusal. In the Autobiography, Trollope quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous remarks about the extraordinary reality-effect of Trollope's novels:

It is odd enough that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write. If I were to meet with such books as mine by another writer, I don't believe I should be able to get through them. Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste,—solid and substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.

(A, 144)

Trollope comments that "the criticism, whether just or unjust, describes with wonderful accuracy the purport that I have ever had in view in [End Page 509] my writing. I have always desired 'to hew out some lump of the earth' and to make men and women walk upon it just as they do walk here among us" (A, 145).

The shift in perspective that Trollope effects with the phrase "just as they do walk here among us" is noteworthy. The reader no longer looks down through glass (that crucial detail is now absent) but shares an eye-level view with characters who inhabit the same plane of existence. This quality of live co-presence is further conveyed through Trollope's tendency, reinforced in his narratorial practice, to speak of characters with the same affective immediacy that one speaks of people one knows. Of the popularity of Lily Dale (The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset), Trollope writes, "In the love with which she has been greeted I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a female prig" (A, 178). The immediacy here is not merely affective, of course: it is also evaluative, allowing Trollope to move seamlessly from an avowal of earthy realism to a claim about the novel's moral effects. What the novel teaches of virtue and vice (or, in this case, wishes it were teaching), it teaches through character. As he writes only a few sentences after his discussion of Hawthorne, his aim in writing is to "[impregnate] the mind of the novel-reader with a feeling that honesty is the best policy; that truth prevails while falsehood fails; that a girl will be loved as she is pure, and sweet, and unselfish; that a man will be honoured as he is true, and honest, and brave of heart; that things meanly done are ugly and odious, and things nobly done beautiful and gracious" (A, 145).

And yet, a faithful and vivid rendering can also generate higher-order apprehensions that share the diagnostic attitude of the author and hence operate outside...