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I was introduced to Trollope by Librivox, last year, when I listened to ‘The Warden’, the first of the ‘Barsetshire’ novels. ‘Barchester Towers’ is the second, and I was following its progress through the recording process with interest, having enjoyed the first so much. This one is a very different book, and is both better and worse.
The thing I liked most about Trollope at first was his understanding that almost all people are trying to do the right thing. They have different priorities, but essentially, no-one actively seeks to do evil. However, from slight differences or outlook, great unhappiness can result. ‘The Warden’ is a tightly plotted book with a real knot of a moral question at its core. And there is no Bill Sykes or Fagin cackling in the corner – just moral men and women doing what they see as right. He also has a hilarious dig at Dickens, parodying his style and sentimentality.
‘Barchester Towers’, however, is much more Dickensian, and is, in my opinion, a much more enjoyable (and funny) book as a result. We have the villainous Mr Slope to hate, and his character gives fire and life to the whole work. The characterisation is more exaggerated, and what the book loses as a moral puzzle, it gains as a laugh-out-loud romp.
The most memorable elements are the party scenes, full of colour and incident, and the author’s post-modern popping into the flow of the narrative, like a magician explaining how he has just done a card trick.
In comparison with Dickens, Trollope lacks passion and anger. But he makes up for this with a world weary appreciation of his characters, where the good are not all that good, and the bad are not as bad as all that.
Next: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Of course, another author with a high regard for the value of a unit of currency, was Jane Austen. During her lifetime genteel women could not work, and could only inherit or marry it. And genteel men had very limited ways of earning a living as well: the law, the church, the army (which would cost money, to obtain a commission), or inheritance. Money was too grubby to earn, so your whole life was engineered to acquiring it by accident.
‘Good’ characters do earn money in Dickens, but they seem to be pitied by the author, and the end of the story usually has them inheriting enough not to have to do so again. And he always emphasises the pitiable state of the employed versus the employer.
So: I think Trollope is the first nineteenth century author I have read who sees earning a living as a sustainable and honourable thing, and that earning it should occupy at least some of the thoughts of decent people.
What he would have thought of an entrepreneur, I don’t know.
I posted a while ago that Tolstoy seemed to think the profit motive to be an evil one, and that writers generally look down on money making as beneath them, and I have been pleasantly surprised by Trollope’s acknowledgment of money, as having a place in the motivations of even (otherwise) decent people.
I was gratified, therefore, to find that the great, liberal, Canadian economist, J. K. Galbraith, had written an introduction to a copy of Barchester Towers I happened to see in my local library. I wondered what economic insights he might bring to the work. It turns out that Trollope lost a great deal of public affection after his death, when his posthumous autobiography revealed that he had a strict writing schedule, at a rate of a thousand words an hour. His readers felt that the muse should not have a wristwatch. But he also reported, to the penny, how much he made from each novel. And I immediately thought less of him.
Why, I wonder? Is it unfair of me to expect someone to do all this work, and not care about the reward? Or would I rather they lied, and pretended they would have done just the same thing for nothing? I don’t seem to mind George Clooney getting a fortune in some films, as long as he does the odd low budget picture, to pay his dues.
Am I a hypocrite? Most of us have families to look after, and Trollope had a bankrupt father, so getting and keeping money was a serious business for him. Perhaps it’s a hangover from when the aristocracy decided what was polite, when the pursuit of money was seen as vulgar. Because the ‘in’ crowd was born with it.