Notes on Trollope

I’ve been trying to describe the pleasure of reading Anthony Trollope, and one way to compare it is with how I felt about Downton Abbey, back when it was a fresh thing. You don’t really care who gets married or inherits the money, who has their way about organizing the village fair, or if this misunderstanding between the butler and the footman ever gets resolved - but the characters are charming enough, and the acting and writing is so good that it’s simply a pleasure to watch these craftspeople execute their craft so well.

I spent much of this year reading the Barchester series. They’re long - like, eight hundred pages long - and there are six of them. I’ve been chewing on them for a while because the pleasure of reading them is so different from some other kinds of reading.

Trollope’s books are leisurely - they just sprawl out for hundreds of pages, but they’re absolutely NOT a slog. They feel like they are designed to pleasantly pass the time with. That’s not to say Trollope doesn’t have anything else to recommend him as an author: he’s really funny, he’s an amazing observer of behavior, and his authorial insertions are kind of astounding. But they are really equivalent to a beach read: you’ve got time laying around, and here’s a long, long novel full of interesting characters.

I wrote this when I finished The Small House at Arlington, the fifth in the series:

This was such a good one, but one that would only have worked this late in the series. Good characters, interesting plot, and a really intresting subversion of the expected plot elements. Not a cheap 'twist', but a refusal to drive the story forward to a comedic ending (in the sense of ending with a marriage). It feels like more mature, more character-driven writing. Maybe not a modernist rejection of plot itself, but just an honest craftsman who won't bend his material to suit an end.

I always say that reading Trollope, especially the Barsetshire novels, is like Downton Abbey or another multi-season TV drama. This book feels like an entire season, but a later one after everything has been established and the writers are starting to surprise you in new ways.

Anyway, I don’t know if that’s enough to convince anyone else to read these books - it does ring of faint praise. But man: Anthony Trollope! A good author! And he wrote like a real craftsman himself, waking up early to get his pages in, before going out to his job at the Post Office. Heck, he’s responsible for the ubiquitous pillar mailboxes in the UK! What more could you want?

The Sea Hates a Coward