With the universities narcissistically consumed by the culture wars, race and gender studies, and other curiosities of the 1990s, it is heartening for simple book lovers to discover there is a flourishing society devoted to promoting study of the works of Anthony Trollope. Though his values are middle-class and his aims unabashedly didactic, Trollope’s novels—especially the ecclesiastical Barsetshire series and the political Palliser one—are almost as well loved now as they were upon their appearance during the late nineteenth century.
The Trollope Society, founded in England in 1987, now boasts an international membership of over four thousand, some 75 of whom joyously convened at New York’s Knickerbocker Club earlier this year for their gala annual dinner. Feting the master in a style he would have appreciated, the Trollopians arrayed themselves in black tie and celebrated their hero with much eating, drinking, and toasting.
“It’s the high point of the social season,” exclaims Brian Bristoll, an animated man of about forty—and he’s only half joking. “It’s the only event I know that unites Mrs. Astor and the clerk from the New York Public Library.” A love of Trollope, he implies, brings together like minds. He should know: he and his beautiful wife, Susanna, spent their courtship reading Trollope together. Another member confirms this view. The meetings are not just about Trollope, he says, but about the pleasures of reading and bringing together people with a common view of the world.
Years ago Michael Marsh, a private investor based in New York City, read and enjoyed Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, a long series treating the intrigues among a group of prelates in an English cathedral town; but he only became a true convert in the 1980s upon reading The Way We Live Now, a complex roman Ã clef about the public scandals and vices of the 1873 London season. “I thought it was about Robert Maxwell,” he says, laughing. “It seemed totally appropriate to the whole contemporary world of puffery, aggression, making it.” Of course it’s a far cry from Anthony Trollope to Tom Wolfe, but there is indeed a connection between the louche society depicted in The Way We Live Now and the unabashed greed of the modern era. By the same token, there is something enduring in the appeal of nineteenth-century realism—the moral nuance, private and public politics, and sexual gamesmanship that give substance to the novels of Trollope, Thackeray, and Dickens. The proof of the endurance lies in the fact that Trollope, out-of-date as he might seem, has nevertheless been the subject of no fewer than four biographies in the last five years. Two of these, by Victoria Glendenning and John Hall, have found a surprisingly wide readership, and Ms. Glendenning’s recent appearance at the 92nd Street Y played to a packed house. This would seem to indicate a growing interest in Trollope, and in fact the Trollope Society is signing on new members almost every day.
All in all, 1993 has been a banner year for Trollopians, with a memorial to the Master being placed, at long last, in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, near his friend and literary colleague George Eliot. (It is characteristic of Trollope that while he campaigned for the memorialization in Poet’s Corner of Thackeray, another friend, he never conceived of such an honor for himself.) The event was marked by a formal dedication ceremony in the abbey, attended by large crowds of well-wishers, including the man who might be called Britain’s First Trollopian, Prime Minister John Major. The society’s London secretary, John Saumurez-Smith, attended the dinner at the Knickerbocker Club to provide New York City members with an eyewitness account of the event. Saumurez-Smith, the dynamic longtime manager of the superb London booksellers, G. Heywood Hill Ltd., is unstinting in his praise of Trollope’s work. Of the forty-seven novels, he insists, thirty are really good—psychologically correct and convincing. Aficionados are not even able to agree upon the ten best, so high is the overall quality. “His women, too, are not just cardboard characters as with so many of his contemporaries. They’re flesh and blood,” Saumurez-Smith says, pointing out that both Tolstoy and Turgenev envied Trollope’s literary abilities.
A smartly dressed woman at my table confesses, disarmingly, that she bought her first Trollope—Orley Farm—in the Bloomingdale’s decorating department. “It was so beautifully bound that I bought it and took it home with me.” After thirty-five years she is still a fan. Her husband, attorney Jacques Schlenger, now collects Trollope first editions and has managed to get his hands on everything but the rare Nina Balatka; though he was offered a copy, he balked at the price: eight thousand pounds.
The couple, like the speaker of honor, Judge Francis Murnaghan, had traveled to New York City from Baltimore for the dinner and the talk by Trollope biographer N. John Hall—a long distance but hardly the longest undertaken by the intrepid Trollopians. Frank Johnson, a software designer, came all the way from Santa Cruz, California, especially (well, almost especially) for the event. When he speaks of Trollope, Johnson’s cherubic face lights up. “Trollope’s books are very different from the stereotypes we have about the Victorians,” he says. “We always think the Victorians held moral certainties, but I would say that Trollope deals with moral uncertainties. There are many shades of gray in his thought. But in order to have moral agonizing, of course, you have to have some morals to agonize over.”
The English branch of the society is currently producing a uniform edition of Trollope’s complete novels, with the original illustrations. Four novels are being published each year, and the project will be completed by the year 2000. It also puts out a quarterly publication, Trollopiana, which contains short scholarly essays on Trollope. The American society holds an annual fall lecture in September, and members will reconvene this November for a trip to Princeton University to see its impressive collection of Trollope manuscripts. But the society is more convivial than scholarly, providing an opportunity for its members to meet fellow enthusiasts. Last year’s Christmas party was deemed a great success—the principal event was a port tasting—and another is planned for this December.
Unlike members of the Dickens Society, for example, the celebrants at the Knickerbocker Club are laypersons rather than specialists, people of the world rather than hard-core intellectuals. It is fitting that the pragmatic, worldly Trollope should claim a special allegiance from politicians: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and six former members of the Thatcher cabinet are members of the society. Trollope is also a favorite with diligent literary craftsmen. Mystery writers P. D. James and Ruth Rendell are fans, and novelists Louis Auchincloss and Robertson Davies are on the society’s literary board.
Why the renewed interest in Anthony Trollope? Perhaps it is because the values he exemplifies—common sense, decorum, and modesty—are values that, while unglamorous, have proven to be above price in this century of violence, upheaval, and hatred. Perhaps the collapse of the arrogant greed of the Eighties has brought about a gentler, more introspective sensibility that is capable of appreciating Trollope’s unpretentious virtues.
Anthony Trollope’s attitude toward his own endeavors was singularly unromantic. He wrote for two-and-a-half hours every morning, cutting off at the end of that time even if he happened to be in the middle of a sentence; he scorned the notion of artistic inspiration, wrote all his novels in the time he could spare from his demanding career in the postal service, and relished the money he earned from his literary labors. His reputation suffered accordingly, and his admirer George Bernard Shaw noted that “society has not yet forgiven that excellent novelist for having worked so many hours a day, like a carpenter or tailor, instead of periodically going mad with inspiration and hewing Barchester Towers at one frenzied stroke out of chaos, that being the only genuinely artistic method.”
But though Trollope may have lacked the social passion of Dickens, the Romantic fervor of the Brontes, or the intellectual rigor of George Eliot, he—and his readers—exude tolerance, civility, and humor. At the Knickerbocker Club, Judge Murnaghan’s address on “Trollope and the Irish” was delivered with a minimum of pedantry, a maximum of anecdote. “When I was in college,” he related, “I would take advantage of the difference between the small and the capital Ts and back out of dates I’d made by saying I had to spend the evening in bed with a Trollope.” His genteel audience laughed with as much enthusiasm as if they had been listening to Noel Coward himself.