Anthony Trollope was _almost_ a realist

PhineasFinn.jpgI love Anthony Trollope. He’s a bit out of fashion nowadays, as are most of the early 20th and 19th century realists (Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Zola, Maupassant, etc etc. I think it’s because he’s just not quite as much fun as the Charlotte and Emily Brontes or even the William Makepeace Thackerays of the world. The world has tilted more Romantic nowadays, and that’s reflected in our fiction.

Trollope isn’t quite a realist. He’s somewhere in the murky middle. Some of his books are broader and more comedic, particularly the early books in his Barchester series (which is about rural clergy and squires). Even in his political novels, the Palliser series, there are dramatic interludes. For instance, the one I’m reading now, Phineas Finn, has a duel over a fair ladies favors!

But Trollope doesn’t shy away from the real business. For instance, what if you marry some guy and you don’t like him? What do you do then?

This isn’t a question that ever gets answered in Austen. George Eliot begins to approach it in Middlemarch, but then Casaubon conveniently dies, and Dorothea doesn’t need to suffer the full consequences of her decision.

But in Phineas Finn, Trollope goes there. One of the heroines, Laura Standish, marries a guy who’s awful. He’s not a brute. He doesn’t beat her. He’s just very domineering. He doesn’t let her go places or receive visitors or read books on Sunday, for instance. He expects her to just sit in silence, alone, for hours. This is a man who wants his way, and who will utilize all the power granted him by the law, short of violence, in order to get them.

And what can Laura do? Well, not much. With marriage, she gave up her freedom and her right to her own property.

She resists, such as she is able, but it’s a tough road.

The book is also intimately concerned with politics. The main character, Phineas, is an MP from Ireland, and most of the other male characters are also MPs. There’s much in here about the workings of reform. This was in the grumpy period of British democracy, when it was slowly pulled towards a more representative system of government. Phineas is an MP from a rotten borough, for instance (a borough with very few electors, most of whom are tenants of one major lord who, as a result, treats the seat like it’s his to dispense at will), and his seat dissolves in response to popular outcry.

There are numerous fiddly little political bits. Like how MPs are expected to live. How to make a political reputation. How to create and pass legislation. How to form a government.

But because Trollope is only _almost_ a realist, all of this stuff is eventually subsumed by a romance plot, of course, and Phineas happily spends 800 pages chasing this woman. I swear to god, literally every single Trollope novel is the same: Person A wants to marry Person B, but doesn’t have enough money. Sometimes you just want to yell at them: JUST GET MARRIED ALREADY!!! PEOPLE DO THIS ALL THE TIME!!!

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  1. Alison

    (Wandering in because I read a review of /Enter Title Here/ a while back, and it caused me to check out the book and the blog).

    Have you read any George Gissing? He’s a late 19th century realist and proto-feminist whose books I find entertaining. The summary of the Laura Standish plot you gave reminds me of one of the plotlines from his book /The Odd Women/ (which is otherwise mainly concerned with single working women.)

    His best known book is /New Grub Street/, a satire of the publishing industry that has held up pretty well — it has an antihero that you know would be writing clickbait today. I was also reminded it by some of your earlier posts, I think: one of the characters, a literary, author, is married to a more worldly woman who’s a poor match for him, but rather than being shown as a shallow Rosamond Vincy type who asks for too much, she comes off as an intelligent, ambitious, woman who just doesn’t want to be trapped in a starving author’s garret with their kid… and ultimately does manage to get out and have her own life.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Oh man, what a great comment! I love George Gissing! He’s definitely the person who brought 19th century British realism to its fullest fruition (in my opinion), and it’s so clear that so much of what he’s writing is written in response to Eliot, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Trollope, etc. I remember reading NEW GRUB STREET and thinking that in the hands of any other 19th century author (except perhaps Trollope), it would turn out completely differently, but Gissing actually takes things to their natural conclusions (the hack _does_ become a success, the brilliant author _does_ die unappreciated). It feels so bold and startling.

      I really liked THE ODD WOMEN as well, which was refreshing especially because most 19th century novels tend to be so hard on feminists, never honestly allowing them to hold their opinions, but always attributing them to vanity (thinking of BLEAK HOUSE and THE BOSTONIANS here).

      In my notes, I see that I also liked George Gissing’s THE WHIRLPOOL (more than NEW GRUB STREET even), but I did note that at times it felt a bit sexist. It’s about a settled, sedate, well-off man who marries a much-younger woman who wants very badly to be a concert violinist and who pursues that goal with a level of energy and cunning that’s not compatible with the man’s lifestyle and views.