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  • Partial Pleasures Reading Anthony Trollope
  • David Heddendorf (bio)

In 1955 A. O. J. Cockshut declared of Anthony Trollope's reputation: "When Trollope went out of fashion he did not cease to be read; he merely ceased to be discussed." Half a century later it's the other way around. Trollope criticism flourishes—his books offer tempting targets like politics, money, and relations between the sexes—but how many nonacademic readers know even the Barsetshire or Palliser series, Trollope's most celebrated and widely available works? The neglect outside the classroom is both curious and unfortunate, since Trollope at his best is at least as entertaining as Dickens, Thackeray, or George Eliot. As Edwin M. Yoder Jr. has commented in these pages, Trollope's novels remain persistently engaging while seeming to skirt every canon of modern storytelling.

Trollope's post-Victorian stock might have peaked in the 1970s, with the bbc's airing of a series called The Pallisers. The print companion, a one-volume (one volume) abridgment of six extremely long novels, promises "political intrigue, sexual shenanigans, stolen diamonds, family scandal—a penetrating look at the other side of Victorian manners," to which a reader of the actual books wants to reply, "Well . . . yes and no." The tv show might have managed a few lens-fogging moments, but Trollope's words rarely venture into territory more graphic than a gentleman's hand stealing softly around a lady's waist.

Despite the silly packaging, and the sheer nerve of cramming Trollope's dense multilayered novels into fifty or sixty pages each, there is a weird backdoor logic to the abridgment travesty. Paging through the pocket-sized volume, one comes upon scene after familiar scene—splendid scenes that, if we're honest about it, are the only reason to read Trollope. The abridger's principle of selection, in other words, mimics the way certain characters and events from Trollope's books linger in the mind, to the exclusion of vast tracts of other material. An argument could be made that all those [End Page 408] digressions, subplots, and endless foxhunts are indispensable; but one might as well admit that, as far as the immediate reading experience goes, Trollope's novels lead from one brilliant isolated success to the next. The same could probably be said of novelists both greater and lesser than Trollope, of course, but with Trollope it amounts to a distinguishing trait: his is an on-again, off-again art of the partial.

Henry James's essay on Trollope in Partial Portraits helped popularize the caricature of an endearing hack whose "lumbering" technique and "heavy-footed" prose deliver a handful of charming episodes. "There is something masterly," James sweetly allows, "in the large-fisted grip with which, in work of this kind, Trollope handles his brush." Trollope's would-be rescuers have defended him more or less on James's ground, trying to show how artistic the large-fisted man actually was, and how his books reveal, despite notoriously mechanical composition habits, his thematic unity and comprehensive vision. Impressive as these readings are in locating a pattern or design among the disparate elements of Trollope's novels, their conclusions seem remote and unsatisfying. We can agree, for example, following one such careful demonstration, that a certain darkening occurs over the course of the Barsetshire and Palliser series; but our intellectual assent feels thin and coerced after the pleasure of knowing Trollope's populous, many-sided world. It is true that Parliament gets next to nothing accomplished, Phineas Finn is devastated by a false murder charge, and the duke drifts lonely and purposeless after the death of Glencora—but did reading the Palliser novels really feel like the unremitting nightmare to which such thematic criticism reduces them? The Eustace Diamonds, granted, is a nightmarish book. But so exceptional are its cynical tale and frightful personages that Trollope omits this novel when he lists the titles in the series—and a case could be (and has been) made for its belonging to a different Trollopian category altogether.

Most lives pass through periods of disillusionment and unhappiness and end in a measure of suffering and pain. We call these experiences growing up and...


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