The Underrated Genius of Trollope: “The Way We Live Now”

Money is at the center of what may be Trollope’s most famous novel, The Way We Live Now.  Although it is long –  nearly 900 pages – this masterpiece is elegantly-written, fast-paced, and a good starting point for those who are leery of his well-known series books. 

Much to my surprise, when I began to read Trollope, his work was not universally respected. One summer I sat in a lawn chair and read his political series, known as the Pallisers books, and recommended them to everyone. But when I mentioned Trollope to a professor, she made a little moue and said, “Yes, yes,” as if I were wasting her time.  

I gather from his popularity at Goodreads, a number of online discussion groups, his bicentennial in 2015, and the thriving Anthony Trollope Society that his reputation is now secure. And certainly his remarkable books are pertinent to our own economically unstable times:  The Way We Live Now reflects how we live, with our endless desire for money, distant suburbs, McMansions, SUVs, three-car-garages,  the latest iPhone, college debt, mortgages, and a deadly appetite for fossil fuels.

The Victorian marriage plot, of course, follows the money, or would if the enervated, broke aristocrats could leave the Beargarden club long enough to chase the women.  Oblivious of morals, they plot to marry nouveau riche heiresses, the despised daughters of “Jewish” bankers, stockbrokers, and merchants. (By the way, Trollope attacks the prejudice against Jews).   

Some aristocrats are kinder than others: the witty, affable Lord Nidderdale develops a real respect and liking for Marie Melmotte, the richest heiress in London.  At one point, Nidderdale, who has been on the marriage market for years and has not yet bagged a rich wife, humorously suggests that a new list of rich heiresses with their requirements for husbands should be published weekly.

But there are also despicable wife-hunters:  Sir Felix Carbury is a truly moronic, cold, vicious baronet who drinks and gambles away his fortune and is so deeply in debt that  his adoring widowed mother, Lady Carbury, despairs.  Lady Carbury, who has just written her first book, Criminal Queens, frenetically networks with newspaper editors in the hope of winning sympathetic reviews and selling books.  (In one case, a reviewer is kind but privately admits he read only a few pages:  most of the pages of the book are uncut.)

In this Victorian society that breaks the rules, the women are often stronger than the men.  Lady Carbury, a middle-aged woman who did not marry for love and was beaten and abused by her much older husband, has no romantic illusions, and so she has turned to work.  She has two hopes of solvency for her family:  Felix must marry Marie Melmotte, who is besotted with his beauty, and Hetta must  marry her rich older cousin Roger, an affectionate man who is in love with  her but whose love she does not return.

Hetta Carbury is a nice, bright, ethical, charming young woman who does everything nicely – as I would and did, too – and refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love – as her mother did.  But some of the women characters are much bolder than she in their open pursuit of the men they want.

I will write only about the most fascinating of them, Hetta’s rival, Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow and divorcee in her mid-thirties, who has a dubious past. Though well-educated, charming, and brilliant, she does not fit into the English class system:  she looks after her own money and has shot and killed at least one man in the West.

 What is the connection between Mrs. Hurtle and Hetta?  Hetta has fallen in love with Mrs. Hurtle’s ex-fiance, Paul Montague, and he reciprocates her love and proposes marriage.  After he writes to Mrs. Hurtle breaking off their engagement and informing her of his engagement to Hetta, she travels from America to London, and uses every ounce of charm to try to win him back.

During my previous reading of this book, I was annoyed by Mrs. Hurtle.  Paul and Hetta are the perfect couple. Trollope satirizes the Western American woman, but reading between the lines this time, I found her delightful. She dresses plainly but beautifully, flirts and entices, and also expresses emotions. But she has her scary side. In an unsent letter, she writes that she would like to horsewhip Felix. And then she reads it aloud to him. Naturally, Felix is not pleased by the prospect of a horsewhipping.

Mrs. Hurtle is kind to other heartbroken women.  She even has a chat with Hetta. And she helps her landlady’s niece, Ruby , who has broken off her engagement and come to London to frolic with unreliable Sir Felix, who she thinks will marry her.   Mrs. Hurtle herself may once have been as wild,  passionate,  and savage, but she makes sure that Ruby doesn’t sacrifice herself to worthless Felix.

The boldest heroines do not always win first prize in Trollope’s marriage game. They don’t fit neatly into English society, so they cannot quite make it to the top.. When Mrs. Hurtle meets Hetta, she regretfully notices that Mr. Montague has a type:  Hetta is a younger version of herself, with the same gorgeous dark hair and coloring.  And that is discouraging, because she cannot compete with her younger self.

The financiers in The Way We Live Now play a dangerous game, but the marriage game is also fraught with mines.

A Trollope Binge: The Small House at Allington

Bingeing on Anthony Trollope’s novels has its pros and cons. He was one of the most prolific Victorian writers, and he wrote some masterpieces and some duds.

Yet fans cannot get enough of him.  They are almost as keen on The Vicar of Bullhampton as The Way We Live Now.  “I love Mr. Trollope!!!” one enthusiastic fan posted.

And I tend to agree.

You won’t find a better Victorian novel than He Knew He was Right, but in my twenties, when I began to read Trollope,  only the Palliser series and the Barsetshire series were in print. I devoted a mellow summer to the six-book Barsetshire series, completely enthralled, completely uncritical; I walked around clutching  Framley Parsonage to my breastBut to mention Trollope in an English lit class would have been to invite darts and arrows.  I had been called “a naive reader” for bringing up Mrs. Oliphant. (What were they reading, Barthes?  I do not doubt it!)

Trollope’s brilliant Barsetshire series (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) was tremendously popular in the 19th century.  Earlier this month, I decided to go back to it.  I began in medias res, with Framley Parsonage, the fourth novel in the series (which can be read as a standalone, and is one of my favorites–I wrote about it here).  It was so much fun that I went right on to the fifth book, The Small House of Allington.

The Small House of Allington is a stunning novel, because Trollope really knew how to write by this point.  His interweaving of dramatic scenes within a tightly plotted book is expert. The novel  revolves around the marriage plot:  there are engagements, marrying for money, jilting, and separations without divorce.  When it was serialized in the Cornhill magazine (1862-64)  readers wrote letters begging Trollope to marry off the popular heroine Lily Dale to Johnny Eames, her lifelong swain. But it is difficult to imagine Lily marrying a man she calls a hobbledehoy, even though she has been jilted by her lover, Crosbie. 

Trollope was crazy about Lily–crazier than I am.  In Chapter 2, he praises his charming, saucy heroine and sketches her swains.

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale—for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale—Lilian Dale had discovered that Mr Crosbie was a swell. But I am bound to say that Mr Crosbie did not habitually proclaim the fact in any offensive manner; nor in becoming a swell had he become altogether a bad fellow. It was not to be expected that a man who was petted at Sebright’s should carry himself in the Allington drawing-room as would Johnny Eames, who had never been petted by any one but his mother. And this fraction of a hero of ours had other advantages to back him, over and beyond those which fashion had given him.

Such good writing! But Lily is not my favorite heroine.  I prefer Lucy Robarts in Framley Parsonage.

There are many, many characters in this novel.  I love Lily’s sister Bell, who refuses to marry her cousin Bernard because she doesn’t love him.  She is as honorable as Lily but more sensible.I fail to understand how Lily can continue to love the no-good Crosbie after he jilts her and marries someone else. And yet I am also fond of the woman he marries instead, the “horrible”  Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, who, at 30, is so desperate to marry that she gets engaged to Crosbie, even though he is jilting Lily.  Trollope caricatures Lady Alexandrina, and thinks she is an apt punishment for Crosbie, but I think her lot is much worse!

One important point:  Trollope introduces Plantagenet Palliser, who is one of the stars of the Palliser books.  “Planty Pal!” I said excitedly.

One of the best of the Barsetshire books.  And it can be read as a standalone.

Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage”

In the 21st century, Anthony Trollope is a trendy Victorian writer. Whether or not he is taught in school I cannot say, but he has a vast fan base. Some critics consider him a hack, but he has also provided them  with endless new subject matter.

I recently reread Framley Parsonage, the charming fourth novel in Trollope’s six-book Barsetshire series. It was Trollope’s breakthrough novel because of its serialization in Cornhill magazine.  Elizabeth Gaskell wrote admiringly to the publisher of the Cornhill, “I wish Mr. Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage forever. I don’t see why it should ever come to an end and everyone I know is always dreading the last number.”

Framley Parsonage is a sweet and mesmerizing read.  Trollope entertainingly explores the politics of the clergy and the foibles of the aristocracy. This compelling book revolves around debt, marriage, and pride and prejudice.  Though it rambles in the beginning, Trollope soon gets a grip.

The “hero” is Mark Robarts, an ambitious clergyman who, at 25, has never slaved as a curate: he has a splendid job, the prestigious Framley living, given him by his friend’s mother Lady Lufton, who has known him since boyhood. Lady Lufton loves to maneuver and manipulate: she even picked out Mark’s wife, Fanny. (Fortunately, Mark and Fanny love each other.) But we’re not surprised when Mark rebels against Lady Lufton and asserts himself, visiting a “fast set” of well-known men she disapproves of: Mr. Sowerby at Chaldicotes, a politician who is heavily in debt, and the Duke of Omnium, who is something of a roué. But Mark ends up foolishly signing one of Mr. Sowerby’s “bills”—saying he will be responsible if Mr. Sowerby can’t pay the debt—and, naturally, Mr. Sowerby cannot.

The marriage plot relieves the serious money problems faced by Mark and others. Will Mark’s sister Lucy, the smartest in the Robarts family (so much smarter than Mark) marry Lord Lufton, even though Lady Lufton disapproves? And whom will Miss Dunstable marry?

I adore Trollope’s occasional Ciceronian rhetoric.  Trollope was a lifetime fan of Cicero and even wrote a book about him.  In the following passage, you will notice a triad (a grouping of three) in the first sentence, and the second is marked by anaphora, a repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses.  N.B. This passage describes Lady Lufton’s reaction to the knowledge that her son, Lord Lufton, is coming home for the winter.

It was proper, and becoming, and comfortable in the extreme. An English gentleman ought to hunt in the county where he himself owns the fields over which he rides; he ought to receive the respect and honor due to him from his own tenants; he ought to sleep under a roof of his own, and he ought also—so Lady Lufton thought—to fall in love with an embryo bride of his own mother’s choosing.

When I first began reading Trollope, very few of Trollope’s books were available. How the world is changed! You can get free copies from Project Gutenberg now. And don’t worry about reading the Barsetshire series in order:  Framley Parsonage can be read as a standalone.

Am I Hallucinating, or Is Every Book Group Reading Trollope’s Palliser Series?


I belong to too many online book groups.   You probably do, too.

But here’s what I wonder:  why are they all  reading Trollope’s Palliser series?

Mind you, I love the aristocratic Pallisers.   Trollope’s six-book “political” series is loosely linked by recurring characters who are members of the political and social  circles of Plantaganet Palliser, a dry-as-dust  politician, and his lively, willful wife, Lady Glencora.

I am a great rereader, but  recently I was struck by the comedy of hundreds of Victorian lit fans rereading the Pallisers–probably for comfort and sanity!  My email Trollope group has read the Palliser series several times, and is about to embark on The Duke’s Children, the last  in the series.

And then I visited a Goodreads group I’ve long neglected, “The Readers Review: Literature from 1714 to 1910.” And they just finished The Duke’s Children.

The Duke’s Children is not my favorite Trollope, but since I seem to be  living in a Palliser era, don’t you think I should participate?

I wonder if we need the relatively cozy (though sometimes very dark) Palliser books to get us through our current unstable age.

Long live Trollope!

%d bloggers like this: