The rich man’s Dickens? Anthony Trollope and his low-key bicentenary

Trollope is still popular so why was interest in his bicentenary so patchy? Perhaps because mainstream fans lean to the right while his academic champions lean to the left

2015 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Britain's greatest novelists, Anthony Trollope. Despite the Trojan efforts of the Trollope Society, which organised a series of notable and highly successful events, how many people, who were not already Trollope readers and fans, actually noticed?

Although Trollope is much published and read, both academic and media interest in and coverage of the Trollope bicentenary was patchy and thin when compared to what is accorded to other writers who were his contemporaries. Especially given the year that’s in it, when the longest articles devoted to the writer are to be found in Country Life and the conservative tabloid, The Mail on Sunday, and when the biggest (indeed the only) conference dedicated to a writer, who ranks with Thackeray, George Eliot, and Dickens, takes place not in one of the great British universities but in Leuven in Belgium (and it was an absolutely wonderful conference in a splendid location in one of Europe’s oldest universities) something is clearly out of joint.

Despite his many readers (John Sutherland described him in 1992 as "our most popular and reprinted Victorian novelist"), Trollope's position within British culture is more precarious than it should be. Reading groups – mostly under the banner of the Trollope Society – meet, read and discuss Trollope regularly and yet it is worth asking why his wide readership does not translate into a more sustained presence in academic curricula and in cultural pages and blogs.

He is almost universally ignored on university undergraduate courses while a quick look at the English daily papers shows that Trollope largely failed to make a significant media impact in his bicentenary year. The Guardian, normally so alert to literary matters, ran just one piece which followed the rather lazy formula of asking various literary types to choose their favourite Trollope novel, all under the sloppy and ill-informed subtitle: "Poor man's Dickens, or master of motives and manners?" If anything, Trollope is, in the perception of many, the rich rather than the poor man's Dickens. The Telegraph did slightly better with a thoughtful piece by novelist Amanda Craig entitled "How turning to Trollope saved my life" and an insightful review of the beautiful new The Duke's Children, edited by Steven Amarnick for the Folio Society.

This new edition is the highlight of the scholarly contribution to Trollope’s bicentenary and it painstakingly restores the novel that Trollope, his reputation failing, had to trim extensively to fit into the usual three-volume limit. This publication was also heralded in the Times with the headline “The exhumation of Anthony Trollope” but no sooner was he exhumed than he was cast back into the depths of forgetfulness and the Times utterly ignored his big birthday.

Elsewhere what other coverage there was tended to revolve around the announcement that Julian Fellowes, to make up for the imminent conclusion of Downton Abbey, was to pen a three-part adaptation of Trollope's Dr Thorne. Fellowes makes much of being influenced by Trollope, liking to have Downton appear as a kind of paced-up early 21st-century version of Trollope's great house novels. The reality is that Fellowes is more comfortable and at home within those great houses than Trollope ever was (like his character, Phineas Finn, Trollope was welcome but, perhaps because of his shaky family background, never felt quite at ease in places like Gatherum Castle). Furthermore, Fellowes' fiction is of a far more conservative hue than Trollope's ever was, with Downton written to celebrate and to bolster the English upper classes while Trollope novels were written to satirise and challenge them.

Turning to Britain’s two pre-eminent literary journals, we see that the London Review of Books has published nothing on Trollope since December 2013 while the Times Literary Supplement did offer a substantial series of reviews to coincide with the bicentenary. Unfortunately they were headlined by John Sutherland’s inexplicably negative review of the new Duke’s Children which he had sadly not read with any care.

Even if Trollope got an unexpected end-of-year boost when it was widely reported that the customers of London's oldest bookshop, Hatchards, had chosen The Warden as their favourite novel of the past 200 years, it is still worth asking why he and his writings occupy a strangely liminal place in British mainstream culture. The answer lies perhaps in the fact that there is a huge disconnect between Trollope's mainstream readers, who are led by conservative establishment figures such as former Conservative prime minister, Sir John Major, and Sir Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, and those stalwart academics who do scholarly research on the author (which means taking on a huge body of texts) but are often seen by the mainstream readers as leaning left (just as the mainstreamers are seen as leaning right). Trollope unwittingly contributed to the problem himself when he defined his political stance and called himself an "advanced conservative liberal", a combination that would have needed considerable unpacking even in its own time.

Although a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Party, today Trollope is associated with a conservative readership who adore his novels, refer to his characters as though they were friends and are protective lest their Trollope be turned by the academics into something they believe he is not. When Thackeray turned down one of Trollope’s short stories (Mrs General Talboys) for publication on the grounds that it was indelicate, Trollope complained of his colleague’s “squeamishness”. Academics might well feel that Trollope’s legions of readers are also a little too squeamish on behalf of their author and argue that Trollope will stand up well and have his reputation expanded by scholarly interest and by readings that turn the focus more on the liberal (or the indelicate) side of Trollope’s definition and identify ways in which his works challenge rather than straightforwardly reinforce the political and social status quo of his time (and of our time) and how they do not simply amuse but follow Swift’s exhortation that satire should not simply entertain but should challenge and “vex” its readers.

John McCourt recently published Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press)

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