Analysis of Anthony Trollope’s Novels

Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a prominent though not necessarily a weighty or enduring writer. He wished to entertain and he did so, at least until the late 1860’s when He Knew He Was Right turned out to be a failure. His posthumous reputation was harmed by his Autobiography, which claimed that he wrote automatically, that his characters were imitations of commonly observed types, that he transcribed reality without much aesthetic control, and that he forced his production by his methodical habits of composition whatever the circumstances. These admissions brought upon him the wrath of the next generation of writers in the 1880’s and 1890’s who were imbued with more aesthetic doctrines of carefully contrived and consistent viewpoints, detailed representation of interior states, a conscious interplay of ideas, and a complex style to suit a more complex method of storytelling.

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Later, Trollope suffered from those who deemed him a pedestrian realist padding his work with creaking plots, flat characters, prosaic situations, and dull prose. He was, and still is for much of the public, the novelist of a single work, Barchester Towers, but other writers and critics have not forgiven him for writing more than thirty novels and setting himself a goal to exceed in quantity if not in quality. Despite what seems to be a simple theory of fiction—the writer tries as closely as possible to make the reader’s experience approximate his own, to make his characters and events appear to parallel actual life—Trollope was more sophisticated than he allows.

Walter Kendrick finds that before Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, his inner thought is not distinguished from outer events, consciousness is presented chronologically, and characters, at least by implication, appear without authorial intervention. Afterward, character becomes “a zone of space on a canvas” with changes of age, feeling, and appearance even while outside the narrative. Various linear plots create a spatial unity for the reader, and they become a mosaic on which the character exists. Fiction writing becomes a subject in the novel, and the characters are a warning against efforts to define their existence with the narrative. This view sees the characters as a complex interplay between narrative and reader. Nathaniel Hawthorne had a very different view of Trollope, equating him to a giant hewing a great lump out of the earth as the earth’s inhabitants go about the business of putting it under a glass case. This comment leads, unfortunately, in the direction of Henry James’s evaluation after Trollope’s death that he had “a great deliberate apprehension of the real” but that his “great fecundity is gross and importunate.”

Trollope is a mixture of several kinds of writer, sometimes realistic in the sociological way of Honoré de Balzac, analyzing class and caste, sometimes a comedian of manners and mores like Henry Fielding, at times a sentimental melodramatist like Charles Dickens, fairly often an ironist deliberately breaking fictional illusions like Thackeray, often introspective if not as equally learned as George Eliot, and periodically a brilliant chronicler of dementia like Joseph Conrad. This mixture is what creates havoc with critical response. Trollope is a master of convincing and accurate dialogue, good at retrospective interior analysis, and gifted with varieties of ironic voices. The building of his reputation, aided by Michael Sadleir’s biography in the 1920’s, was materially assisted by The Trollopian (now Nineteenth Century Studies), a journal devoted to studies of his novels; further work by scholars, such as Ruth apRoberts, Robert M. Polhemus, and James R. Kincaid; and new critical techniques, which have given Trollope his present reputation as a leading English novelist.

Twentieth century criticism of Anthony Trollope acknowledged his affinity with comic satirists of the eighteenth century, and this affinity is reflected in his best-known work, Barchester Towers. There are two distinct worlds in the novel: that of London vanity, represented by Mr. Slope, the London preacher who comes to Barchester as the protégé of Mrs. Proudie; and that of the smaller, conservative rural world, represented by Archdeacon Grantly of Barchester Cathedral, who opposes Mr. Slope with “high and dry” Anglicanism. At the end, Slope is rejected but so is the siren of the comic interlude, Signora Madeleine Vesey Neroni, daughter of the gentlemanly but parasitic, self-indulgent Dr. Vesey Stanhope, canon of the Cathedral.

Barchester Towers

The novel is concerned with the pursuit of Eleanor Bold, a young prosperous widow and daughter of Mr. Harding, by Obadiah Slope, a brash and unctuous social climber. The newly vacant position of warden provokes a struggle between the Grantly forces and the Proudie forces (including Mr. Slope), with Mrs. Proudie at the head. In this strand of the plot, the mock-heroic or mock-epic combat parodies the Miltonic epic tradition, with Grantly and his supporters as the rebel angels struggling against the tyrant Mrs. Proudie, with Slope as a kind of fallen angel. Slope is first supported by Mrs. Proudie in his efforts to prevent the return of the vacant post to Harding, but Slope, in his effort to attain favor with Eleanor Bold, eventually gets the position for Harding.

Slope is emasculated by Signora Neroni, who transfixes him with her bright eyes and silvery laughter during rural games and festivities at Ullathorne, the ancient seat of the Thornes and center of a static pastoral world. Seduced by her witchery, he is humiliated by this demoniac Eve and defeated by the godlike rebuff of Eleanor, who slaps his face as he presses his suit upon her. Further, he incurs the wrath of his patroness, Mrs. Proudie, with his attentiveness to Signora Neroni, who, although crippled, rules from a couch where she resides in state like Cleopatra. In this world of sham battles, Grantly celebrates his triumph, including a dean’s position for Mr. Harding in a solemn conclave of the clergy.

The disputants in these mock-exercises practice their feints around innocent third parties: Bishop Proudie between Slope and Mrs. Proudie; Quiverful, the other candidate for the wardenship, a pathetically comic father of numerous children, between his determined wife and Slope; and Harding between Slope and Grantly. In this formally ordered structure, it is appropriate that Eleanor and Frances Arabin, the naïve Oxford academician, be matched by Miss Thorne, reaffirming the power of the old order, yet still contending with Proudies. The marriage of Eleanor and Arabin asserts the two worlds, old and new, country and city, innocent and corrupt.

The novel has a rich galaxy of minor characters. For example, there is Bertie Stanhope, the dilettante sculptor, who is pressed into proposing to Eleanor, but he undermines his own courtship by the candid admission of his motives; Mr. Harding, the unwilling tool of both Slope and Grantly, who takes such delight in the cathedral music that he mechanically saws an imaginary cello during moments of partisan plots and counterplots; and Mrs. Quiverful, who functions like a wailing chorus in a Greek tragedy, piteously reminding the world and Mrs. Proudie of the cruel difficulties of pinched means and a large family. Although Trollope did write important novels on more serious themes, Barchester Towers remains his best known, with its effective comic scenes, the balletlike entrances and exits, the lively irony, and the mock-heroic bathos. The orchestration of speaking styles ranging from the pomposity of the Archdeacon to the vacuity of Bertie Stanhope is another example of the buoyancy and playful wit that Trollope achieved only intermittently thereafter.

Orley Farm

Orley Farm was written during Trollope’s middle period. Its central situation revolves around the plight of Lady Mason, the second wife of a rich man, who, twenty years earlier, forged a codicil to her dying husband’s will so that it leaves Orley Farm, her sole economic support, to her and her young child, Lucius. The possession of the farm has become a matter of regret, as the suspicions of the legitimate heir, Joseph Mason, otherwise the inheritor of considerable wealth, eventuate in a trial to break the will. The effort fails only because Lady Mason commits perjury. Using the omniscient viewpoint, Trollope shows both her guilt and her anguish in trying to provide security for her infant son. Lucius, as the novel opens, is a proud, priggish young man given to notions of scientifically reforming agricultural practice; he is well educated, theoretical, and self-righteous.

The novel’s unusual perspective poses two main themes: first, how justice can be accomplished, and second, whether justice can actually be achieved. In setting human rights against legal rights, Trollope portrays Lady Mason’s crime in the light of vested interests and the selfish motives of various people. Like C. P. Snow in a novel such as The Masters (1951), Trollope displays in Orley Farm an abstract ideal distorted and transformed by human emotions, calculations, and egotism. Joseph Mason is more concerned with defeating Lady Mason than enjoying the actual property; Sir Peregrine Orme, a highly respected landowner, proposes marriage to Lady Mason in order to extend the protection of his name, but even he is forced to realize the stain upon his honor if the truth should come out, and after Lady Mason refuses his offer, he, having been told the damning truth, keeps his promise to support her in her new trial. Another perspective is provided through Mr. Dockwrath, the country lawyer who discovers the evidence which necessitates the new trial, and hopes it will prove lucrative and will enhance his legal reputation. Lady Mason’s solicitor, Mr. Furnival, carefully avoids definite knowledge of her guilt, though he suspects it, while also wishing she were proven guilty so that he might forgive her with pleasure. A less selfish attitude is seen in Edith Orme, Sir Peregrine’s widowed daughter-in-law, who recognizes with compassion the necessity for Lady Mason’s crime and the suffering it has entailed for her.

Trollope reveals some of his other typical thematic concerns in the subplots of Orley Farm. He explores various attitudes toward marriage and money in the romances of Peregrine, Jr., Lucius Mason, and Felix Graham, a poor barrister, with a variety of modern young women. The women’s responses to the gentlemen’s advances run from prudent calculation of worldly advantages to prudent reticence in acknowledging love until family wisdom approves it. Also, Trollope’s impulses toward indulgence of children are exemplified in Lord and Lady Staveley, who, having made their way without worldly advantages, are willing to offer the same chance to their children by permitting the engagement of a daughter to Felix Graham, whose success has been impeded by his honesty. Trollope’s conservatism is revealed through the reluctance of these young people to avow their love until they have consent from the Staveleys.

With regard to the central theme of moral and legal justice, purely through the oratorical skills of the trial lawyer, Lady Mason is found innocent of perjury, a finding wholly incorrect. The trial frees the guilty, turns the truthful into villains, makes the innocent bear the burden of deceit, challenges the loyalty of lawyers, and implicates the idealists’ posturings. The system has turned Lady Mason’s desperate chicanery into heroism. It is somewhat anticlimactic that Trollope has the pure Edith Orme take Lady Mason to her heart and, from a sense of Christian charity, refuse to render judgment against her.

Meanwhile, Lady Mason’s greatest trial has been alienation from Lucius who, unaware of her guilt, has attempted vigorous countermeasures to defend her honor rather than respecting her dignified silence. His discovery of the truth cuts deeply into his priggish pride, destroys his dreams of becoming a gentleman-farmer, and makes him restore the farm to Joseph Mason before departing abroad with his mother. Again, Trollope makes an ambivalent statement through this conclusion. Although forgiveness implies repentance and restitution, Lady Mason has not been, at least in public, repentant, and the restitution is as much a matter of pride as of justice. The effect is a tacit denial of Lady Mason’s innocence and thus the aborting of the whole effort to save her reputation.


Can You Forgive Her?

If the power of money, or the distortions of human choice and desire which money brings, is Trollope’s major concern, the warfare of the sexes and the frustrations which that warfare brings are secondary themes in his novels. Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Palliser series—which includes Phineas Finn, Phineas Redux, and The Prime Minister, each grounded in politics—raises the issue of what sort of love a woman wishes in marriage or indeed whether marriage is a suitable institution. The novel presents the case of Alice Vavasour, a “new woman” who does not know what she wants in life but resents the demands of social propriety. She especially resents the expectation that she accept the marriage proposal of John Grey, whom she really does love, merely because everyone knows him to be a suitable partner. Her cousin, the heiress Lady Glencora McCluskie, has married Plantagenet Palliser, the dull younger son of a ducal family, to support his Liberal political career with her money; but she has fallen in love with the handsome Burgo Fitzgerald, an unconventional, ruinous, yet passionate charmer. Alice reinstitutes her former affection for her cousin George Vavasour, another charmingly irresponsible man who needs her money tocampaign to keep his seat in Parliament. For Alice, the masculine excitement of politics makes George attractive, although she honestly admits his desire for her money.

The novel has low-comedy relief in Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow, and her two suitors, a grocer with money and a retired military officer without it. Arabella means to have her own way, giving her lovers only as much liberty as she desires, choosing the officer because of “a sniff of the rocks and the valleys” about him. The comedy underscores the desire of Alice and Glencora, who, if they had a choice, would put themselves at the mercy of weak men.

In a melodramatic turn of the main plot, George knocks down his sister, Kate, for refusing to assist him in overturning their grandfather’s will, which had left all the family property to her. This turn of the plot demonstrates, through George’s furious masculine rage, the falsity of the normal economic subjugation of women, which has been reversed in Kate’s case. Arabella Greenow, for her part, is also financially independent and can bargain her way into a satisfactorily romantic liaison balancing “rocks and valleys” against “bread and cheese.”

Glencora, aware of being sold into matrimony, almost runs off with Burgo but is dissuaded at the last minute by the vigilance of Alice, who makes clear to Plantagenet the temptation he has given to his wife by his conduct. In an improbable reversal that displays Trollope’s own romanticism, Plantagenet sacrifices his political hopes for a cabinet appointment in order to take her away from the scenes of her misery after she has confessed her infatuation. Indeed, he is even willing to provide Burgo, who becomes a frequenter of gambling tables, with an allowance at her behest when they encounter him abroad.

Plantagenet can make a sacrifice for Glencora because he has money and social position; George Vavasour, by contrast, is defeated in politics and exiled for lack of money. John Grey, meanwhile, has interposed himself in Alice’s arrangement with George so that her fortune is not at stake. This conduct, chivalrous in one sense, paternalistic in another, results in George’s challenging him to a duel. The Victorian world is not that of Regency rakes, however, and George’s blustering challenge is physically rebuffed, and he is sent away degraded. Alice finally accepts John Grey in a contrite mood. Although Grey has kindly intentions, Alice’s undefined longings for autonomy anticipate those Henrik Ibsen made memorable through Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House (1879), where Nora sacrifices love in the effort to mould her own destiny.

If the future of his heroines seems to lie within conventional marital arrangements or respectable spinsterhood secured by inherited money, Trollope’s questioning title for the novel seems to turn the issue of feminine aspiration somewhat ambivalently to the reader. He has shown women challenging the decorum of prudent emotions and affections based on money, but only the ungenteel Mrs. Greenow succeeds in mastering her destiny through financial manipulation.


The Eustace Diamonds

In The Eustace Diamonds, Trollope shows the psychologically damaging effects of survival in an upper-class and aristocratic hierarchy, a society that channels affections and loyalties in terms of property and money, where people struggle for ascendancy, domination, and power, while subscribing to Romantic illusions of unfettered expression and creative self-development. The narrator ironically undercuts the Romantic pretensions as the novel delineates the unrealistic strategies of men and women coping with the moral corruption of social ambition. They seek security, status, prestige, and elegance while evincing pretentiousness, snobbery, envy, and parasitism. Trollope takes an anarchic pleasure in those egotistical characters who subvert institutions by undermining the rules of conduct, stretching them to the point of fatuity.

In the novel, Lizzie Eustace appropriates the diamonds without specific authority from her late husband, Sir Florian, and uses them as weapons against the respectable family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown, and the man she intends as her second husband, the morally honorable Lord Fawn. The diamonds become a symbol of Lizzie’s inner rage against the world, a rage arising from self-doubt prompted by the excessive demands of her own idealized views of herself. While denying that ownership of the necklace gives her any pleasure, Lizzie simultaneously insists that she will throw the diamonds away while guarding them zealously. When the box in which she ostentatiously houses them is stolen, Lizzie claims that the necklace has been stolen as well. The lie is psychologically predictable. The diamonds exemplify her attitudes toward herself, toward Lord Fawn, whom she despises for his complete disdain of the diamonds, and toward Frank Greystock, her champion before the world, whom she has lured away from his serious attentions to Lucy Morris. The supposed theft is Lizzie’s symbolic punishment for a guilt which will be lessened if the diamonds are believed stolen, but it is also an aggrandizement of her own self-esteem since secretly she knows they are still in her possession. The diamonds, however, are stolen in a second robbery, which ends Lizzie’s control of the situation.

Lizzie’s desire for social domination gains dimension through the narrator’s ironic moral judgment and through the close-ups of the omniscient viewpoint that reveal her own rationalizations and fears. Seeking support, Lizzie confesses to Lord George, hoping that he will be cynically brutal, but instead she receives his weak acknowledgment of her supposed cunning. When the police discover the truth, Lizzie prefers the illusion of submitting to the police administrator to the reality of confronting her own self-destructive behavior. Lizzie then tries desperately to reestablish control by triumphing over someone: She reproaches Mrs. Carbuncle, her friend; breaks her engagement with Lord Fawn, ignoring his earlier efforts to end the relationship and pretending to be heartlessly jilted; offers herself to Lord George, who also refuses her; and finally bids for the attentions of Frank Greystock through his need for money, yet Frank is simply provoked into promising he will abandon her utterly if she persists.

Yielding to a fantasy logic, Lizzie entertains a marriage proposal from Mr. Emilius, an impudent and sanctimonious popular preacher whom she had once refused. She deliberately accepts him knowing that he is a fraud and admitting that his bogus qualities attract her. Lizzie’s limited knowledge of how the world operates is supported by Emilius’s brazen effrontery, which will offer her a new chance for social domination.

The secondary characters are drawn with an equal sense of psychological aberration. For example, there is the cynical honesty of Lord George, which conceals a fearful vacillation that abhors responsibility yet is resolute in pushing his companion, Sir Griffin Tewett, into marriage with Lucinda Roanoke. Alternately submissive and aggressive, he turns vindictive in denouncing Lizzie for the damage she has caused his reputation by creating suspicions of his complicity in her concealment of the necklace. He is also forgiving, on the other hand, of Mrs. Barnacle, his former mistress, for her good intentions in encouraging her niece, Lucinda, to marry for money. Lord George appears cognizant of obligations assumed by others though irresolute in taking them upon himself. Further, he shows the unreality of Lizzie’s dreams; but his own conduct is the model of a romantic neurosis. Other examples of psychologically crippled characters are Lucinda, who suffers from strong sexual repression and emotional sterility, and Sir Griffin, cool, vindictive, and arrogant, who is repelled by anyone who would love him.

These characters are set up in contrast to the more conventional ones, such as Mrs. Hittaway, who reflect the pathological tendencies that a materialistic society encourages. The baffled efforts of Lizzie, Lord George, Sir Griffin, and Lucinda to deal with destructive self-deception reflect the results of social forces inhibiting real creative growth in understanding. V. S. Pritchett has criticized Trollope for being ”a detailed, rather cynical observor of a satisfied world,” and said that “we recognize that he [Trollope] has drawn life as people say it is when they are not speaking about themselves.” C. P. Snow commented that an exploratory psychological writer such as Trollope “has to live on close terms with the blacker—including the worse—side of his own nature.” The Eustace Diamonds is the record of Trollope’s endurance of a mental nature that was divided. Pritchett has accused Trollope of not capturing or presenting the depth of moral experience. This may reflect a demand for a more complex style, a more intensive depiction of the intricacies of moral struggle, and a more insistent emphasis on values. Snow, however, perceived the simple, direct style as cutting out everything except the truth. Trollope was not temperamental or self-advertising, but as a novelist he covers a wide range of social, institutional, and religious issues and controversies constituting the fabric of Victorian society. He dramatizes the moral and intellectual dilemmas often arising from them and has considerable insight as well as the ability to present the sheer flux of mental life, which anticipates later developments in the work of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson.


Principal long fiction
The Macdermots of Ballycloran, 1847; The Kellys and the O’Kellys, 1848; The Warden, 1855; Barchester Towers, 1857; The Three Clerks, 1858; Doctor Thorne, 1858; The Bertrams, 1859; Castle Richmond, 1860; Framley Parsonage, 1860-1861; Orley Farm, 1861-1862; The Small House at Allington, 1862-1864; Rachel Ray, 1863; Can You Forgive Her?, 1864-1865; Miss Mackenzie, 1865; The Belton Estate, 1865-1866; The Claverings, 1866-1867; The Last Chronicle of Barset, 1867; Phineas Finn, the Irish Member, 1867-1969; He Knew He Was Right, 1868-1869; The Vicar of Bulhampton, 1869-1870; The Eustace Diamonds, 1871-1873; Phineas Redux, 1873-1874; The Way We Live Now, 1874- 1875; The Prime Minister, 1875-1876; The American Senator, 1876-1877; Is He Popenjoy?, 1877-1878; John Caldigate, 1878-1879; The Duke’s Children, 1879-1880; Dr. Wortle’s School, 1880; Ayala’s Angel, 1881; The Fixed Period, 1881-1882; The Landleaguers, 1882- 1883; Mr. Scarborough’s Family, 1882-1883.

Other major works
Short Fiction: Tales of All Countries, 1861, 1863; Lotta Schmidt and Other Stories, 1867; An Editor’s Tales, 1870; Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices and Other Stories, 1882.
Nonfiction: The West Indies, 1859; North America, 1862; Clergymen of the Church of England, 1865-1866; Travelling Sketches, 1865-1866; The Commentaries of Caesar, 1870 (translation); Australia and New Zealand, 1873; South Africa, 1878; Thackeray, 1879; Lord Palmerston, 1882; Autobiography, 1883; The Letters of Anthony Trollope, 1951 (Bradford A. Booth, editor).

Felber, Lynette. Gender and Genre in Novels Without End: The British Roman-fleuve. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Hall, N. John. Trollope: A Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991.
____________, ed. The Trollope Critics. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1981.Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
Mullen, Richard, and James Munson. The Penguin Companion to Trollope. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Terry, R. C., ed. Trollope: Interviews and Recollections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Wright, Andrew. Anthony Trollope: Dream and Art. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1983.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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1 reply

  1. Thank you. I have been reading his many books to pass the Covid time, and have found in addition to engaging characters and plots, illustrations of moral dilemmas such as described on this review that have made me think as novels rarely make me do

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