Dear readers and friends,
Over on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two, under the stress of the usual stigmatization and occasional spiteful harassment I have to endure where I teach as an adjunct lecturer, I turned to work again on my paper, “The Content of Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes,” and found myself renewing my strong ties with what keeps me alive, makes my life worth working to sustain. Being alive is (as Austen tells us at the close of Mansfield Park) a “consciousness of having to struggle and endure.” And I wrote a blog telling of how I first read Austen and Radcliffe too, how I first came across both of them and why I have not tired of either (or Bronte’s Jane Eyre). I posted a URL to the blog to friends and readers, and was answered on Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo so reciprocated with someone who had told of his experience with my first experiences of Trollope.
As I’ve posted so much here on the Palliser films, and by extension thus Trollope, I thought I’d continue the thread here and tell how I came to read almost all Trollope. I’ve read all his fiction, all but one travel books, most of his non-fiction and a good many of his essays. The centered piece is written in a different style than that of this or other blogs: it’s from my book where I worked very hard to polish and make bright my style:
Over on Eighteenth-CenturyWorlds at Yahoo a sweet woman has joined us, is reading away and enjoying herself She told of how she first encountered Austen at age 58 through a film, Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park (very unlike Austen’s book most feel). She felt a little awkward about coming to this now intense engagement with Austen through a film. So I told her that the Palliser films had been a catalyst for me. While I did not come to him first through a movie, my interest was deeply aroused on a second encounter by the Palliser films.
Kate Nichols as Mary looking out at her mother, Lady Glencora Palliser, Duchess of Omnium’s grave (favorite still from Pallisers)
From the introduction to my book, Trollope on the Net:
My first “real” to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.
In it I can still locate all the annotations to my copy which I
took down as notes from the English professor’s lecture in the course. The professor castigates Trollope ‘for telling, not showing’. Trollope is ‘repetitious’. The professor admires a scene in which Frank Gresham courts Mary Thorne while she sits upon a donkey because the comedy of the donkey’s perspective and presence ‘undercuts the sentimentality’; a near final line in the book where Mary cries out ‘Oh, Frank; my own Frank! my own Frank! we shall never be separated now’ leaves the reader with ‘a clutch in the throat’. Nevertheless, the book isn’t ‘sufficiently centered’ on ‘the consciousness’ of its characters. It’s not even clear who the hero is. We are ‘bogged down’ in ‘too much detail’ and ‘too many stories’. He said we were reading Trollope as ‘a mirror’ of his age. Trollope was dismissed. He was uninteresting.
Hermione Norris as Anna Howe reading Clary’s letter (favorite still from 1991 BBC Clarissa)
Seven or eight years later while I was writing a long dissertation on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa & Sir Charles Grandison, two very long eighteenth-century epistolary novels, and had become very weary of my task, the Public Television station in New York City ran a several-part film of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. I was so entertained by the first episode that I went out, bought and read Can You Forgive Her?. During the day. I put the dissertation aside. Then I bought and read Phineas Finn. Despite my real poverty, I went out and bought and read the novel I gathered came next, The Eustace Diamonds. Then I bought the next one and read it. And then the next. It was like some candy one could not resist. It was such a relief from Richardson. Sanity after madness. Trollope’s idea of politics described my daily existence. I began to grieve that I had chosen the wrong field. I should have studied Victorian literature so I could have written my dissertation on Anthony Trollope. I laughed at myself.
Jim read these Palliser novels with me. As I would finish one, I
would give it to him and he would read it. He was doing his mathematics Ph.D. dissertation on Kleinian groups and didn’t mind putting his down either. We discussed the novels and, when we had finished The Duke’s Children, we bought & read in tandem The Way We Live Now, but at the time I at least felt disappointed by it. My father owned Barchester Towerss and brought it over to me from his apartment. What a delight. I then read The Warden. I cherished Mr Harding. Still I had to stop. My husband had already returned to his work. I could not go on with this addiction. I too had to return to what I had already begun and finish that. I told myself that someday I would read The Small House at Allington because it was said to have more Plantagenet and Lady Glencora, but again life got in my way.
The fourth time, ten years ago now, something clicked in me. I
decided this time I would not put Trollope aside, but carry on reading him until I had gone through every novel or other kind of book he ever wrote. It didn’t matter how long it took. The thought that he had written so many books that it would take a long time before I would run out cheered me. It was Aug 1989. I just been had been in a frightening automobile accident, and had spent twenty-four pain-racked hours in a frantically-busy emergency room in Metropolitan Hospital, an underfunded hospital in New York City in Spanish Harlem. Two days later, when I finally arrived on a ward for women, and my condition had been treated so that I was on the way to beginning to mend and I found myself in a quiet room in a bed, my father brought to me a copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton to read. He said he had just read it and remarked ‘how wise Trollope is’. It got me through.
In my book I also tell of how I have a vague memory I did meet
Trollope once before. When I was 15 rummaging in my father’s books once again I think I must’ve read Trollope’s autobiography. I remember a story about a young boy’s father who was seen as a mad-man writing long encyclopedic books about nuns. And also how he was so badly beaten at school, the class humiliation. It was probably one of those small blue book Oxford books published in 1951.
So films have meant a lot to me because it was on a Trollope list I led my first group read, on a Trollope list I met John Letts who invited me to write a book for the Trollope society, published it, invited (and paid me) to give a hour lecture at the Reform club, the first time I ever gave a talk in my life — to such an exalted group too. My 15 minutes of fame came and went early.
Gari Melchers*, Penelope (1910) (AT’s Story-telling art: Partly Told in Letters)
Again my listserv (and nowadays facebook) friend replied telling generally of his earliest reading experiences and love of 19th century novels. And so again I responded in kind, again I quote the centered piece from the introduction to Trollope on the Net
Thank you so much for replying: our stories are parallel as they probably are not uncommon stories of reading American children growing up in households with access to books. We were reading children as we are now reading adults.
Mine differs slightly but I note neither of us came across Trollope or Radcliffe until later in life. They are not included in children’s classics abridged or otherwise — and in my story were not included in the 1930s and 40s sets of classics my father owned which he had picked up inexpensively by
belonging to book clubs at the time. Again I do quote from the opening of my book, Trollope on the Net. He told me these sets of books were produced by organizations at the time who were trying to spread education “to the masses,” left book clubs really. Tellingly, they did not distribute Sinclair’s The
Jungle or modern critical classics (say Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), much less any more radical or political book but rather the famous ones suitable to a school canon. Now older I surmise that’s because such books were out of
copyright, easy to get hold of, thought to be very good for us (the way the BBC first had education and uplift part of its aim). I thought and still think Trollope was excluded because his vision includes sex more overtly and Radcliffe suffered then and now from ridicule.
Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea planning for cottages (1994 Middlemarch)
When I was a girl my father owned old sets of these in editions published in the 1930s. Before I was fourteen I had read all sorts of novels by a number of the more famous English novelists: Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Emily & Charlotte Bronte, and then later in my teens William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Reade, Richard Blackmore, Robert Louis Stevenson — & of course Charles Dickens. But no Trollope. Trollope was never included in these sets, perhaps for the same reasons one found in them George Eliot’s Silas Marner but not Middlemarch, Goldsmith and Austen but not Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson, Robert Louis Stevenson but not George Gissing or Arnold Bennett. Depictions or analyses of adult sexual experience were not favoured — and also those authors chosen were those whose books are identified as romances or adventure stories, and those whose novels still regularly make it onto the syllabi in American high schools or colleges. Trollope’s books use adult sexual experience, and he is an author who schoolteachers and college professors think they can skip.
One reason for my writing this book in the way I have is to reach readers who, like myself, have not come into conscious contact with Trollope until they reached college, and those who, again like myself, once there, have had professors who’ve decided they have neither room nor time for Trollope or who belittle him. Anthony Trollope is one of the greatest 19th century novelists.
Twice now, once on the Trollope list and once on Trollope-l, I
have asked how others on the list came to read Trollope with real interest, if not devotion, and I have told how I did. Athough I never took a poll, it seemed to me that on both lists a large majority of people began to read Trollope on their own — that is, without first having been assigned to read a novel by him in school. Those who first read him did so in college or at a university. Unlike the nineteenth-century American novelist Herman Melville, or James Joyce, about both of whom it has been argued they are today classics and best-sellers (at least in college student bookstores) because of assigned reading in school, Trollope has survived in spite of how he is treated or ignored in schools. Most of us had also found that university teachers regard Trollope as a minor or second-rate novelist. My experience resembled that of others.
And finally, have I or does one tire of Trollope?
No I’ve not tired of him. But I do know that when I read him, it’s not common for me to have the kind of intense release or delight I can still know with Austen and Radcliffe. It can happen though – and usually it’s rather when he really hits his tragic mode, sorrow, grief, twisted anguish often framed in a larger ironic way through the book and I do really appreciate his downright simply said hard truths. As with Samuel Johnson, I find this comforting.
Although (as I said) i’ve have have read almost all Trollope, including travel writing and a number of his essays, I would be willing to read again or read more I’ve not yet read. I think I would find real interest (knowledge) and delight in what I’ve not gotten to as yet. He really does mean to and offers knowledge, information. And an ethical vision that stands up — if it’s limited, it’s less so in some ways than Austen or Radcliffe because his experience of the world was so much greater than theirs and as a man was allowed to write of it in searing fiction.
John Everett Millais, Lady Julia and Johnny Eames, The Small House at Allington