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Trollope presents a dilemma for most readers. On the one hand, he wrote an enormous number of very good novels. On the other hand, he wrote no masterpieces. None of Trollope's books can stand comparison with the best work of Jane Austen, Flaubert, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. On the other hand, none of those writers wrote anywhere near as many excellent as Trollope did. He may not have been a very great writer, but he was a very good one, and perhaps the most prolific good novelist who ever lived. Conservatively assessing his output, Trollope wrote at least 20 good novels. Trollope may not have been a genius, but he did possess a genius for consistency.
So, what to read? Trollope's wrote two very good series, two other novels that could be considered minor classics, and several other first rate novels. I recommend to friends that they try the Barsetshire novels, and then, if they find themselves hooked, to go on to read the Political series of novels (sometimes called the Palliser novels, which I feel uncomfortable with, since it exaggerates the role of that family in most of the novels). The two "minor classics" are THE WAY WE LIVE NOW and HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT. The former is a marvelous portrait of Victorian social life, and the latter is perhaps the finest study of human jealousy since Shakespeare's OTHELLO. BARSETSHIRE TOWERS is, therefore, coupled with THE WARDEN, a magnificent place, and perhaps the best place to enter Trollope's world.
There are many, many reasons to read Trollope. He probably is the great spokesperson for the Victorian Mind. Like most Victorians, he is a bit parochial, with no interest in Europe, and very little interest in the rest of the world. Despite THE AMERICAN SENATOR, he has few American's or colonials in his novels, and close to no foreigners of any type. He is politically liberal in a conservative way, and is focussed almost exclusively on the upper middle class and gentry. He writes a good deal about young men and women needing and hoping to marry, but with a far more complex approach than we find in Jane Austen. His characters are often compelling, with very human problems, subject to morally complex situations that we would not find unfamiliar. Trollope is especially good with female characters, and in his sympathy for and liking of very independent, strong females he is somewhat an exception of the Victorian stereotype.
Anyone wanting to read Trollope, and I heartily believe that anyone who loves Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Hardy, and Thackery will want to, could find no better place to start than with reading the first two books in the Barsetshire Chronicles, beginning first with the rather short THE WARDEN and then progressing to this very, very fun and enjoyable novel.
Initially, the backdrop of a looming clerical power struggle in the pastoral English town of Barchester and environs is convincingly weighty. However, as this power struggle plays out it becomes apparent that Trollope is for the most part poking fun at players on both sides of the battle. He reminds us that despite the detachment and solemnity that such a conflict deserves, it's only human to be looking out for one's own interests as most of the characters end up doing. Trollope accomplishes this through brilliant characterization and a rich plot that keeps the reader interested and never bogs down.
Towers is incredibly humorous, both in the dialogue of the characters and in Trollope's third person omniscient narration. There were so many scenes of dumbfoundingly witty humor that if I didn't have other books to move on to I'd go back through and catalog all of the humorous bits for posterity. Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" is just as humorous, but it's more slapstick and deals more with situations. Trollope's humor is in wordplay and hyperbole. For example, when the awkward and unattractive Mr. Slope is soon to declare his love for the stunningly beautiful Signora Neroni, he takes her hand and this is how Trollope describes it:
"Mr. Slope was big, awkward, cumbrous, and having his heart in his pursuit, was ill at ease. The lady was fair, as we have said, and delicate; everything about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food."
I will never forget the analogy of a woman's hand in a man's looking like a rose lying among carrots.
Most of my friends aren't readers so I don't often enthuse to them about novels I've enjoyed, but you can bet I'll be recommending this to them as one of many reasons books are far worthier of one's time than TV and movies. This is one of those for which I can be jealous of anyone who'll be reading it for the first time. Don't miss it. Also, Trollope was a prolific writer and I've heard he's got a couple other gems. Based on other reviews, I added "The Last Chronicle of Barset", "The Way We Live Now", and "He Knew He Was Right" to my collection.
BARCHESTER TOWERS is the greatest novel of petty infighting ever written: it anticipates (and surpasses) the many British and American college novels written in the twentieth century. Very little happens in this novel: two old clergymen die in the course of this novel and have replacements chosen for them, and a widow is re-married. But to the inhabitants of Trollope's Barchester it is nothing less than all-out war, waged between the archdeacon's faction (representing the conservative church) on one hand and the new bishop's wife, Mrs. Proudie, and her chaplain Mr. Slope (representing the "Low Church" movement) on the other. Everyone else, including the henpecked bishop, is caught in the middle. There are two absolutely uproarious setpieces in this novel: the reception Mrs. Proudie throws at the bishop's palace, and the hilariously quaint medieval fair held at the country seat of Ullathorne (complete with such ghastly oddities as a quintain for practicing jousting) are as funny as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. Trollope may not have had Austen's genius for presenting ethical quandaries, but he comes second only to her as the great novelist of comic manners in the 19th century.
The engaging settings include mansions of the bishop, an ancient and peculiar manor and a variety of homes of archbishops, deans and rectors. The characters range from a morally questionable, lame, Italian Countess- and her child, 'the last of the Nero's', to anachronistic nobles and a cuckolded, weak-kneed Bishop. An impudent newcomer and assistant to the new Bishop spurs a rebellion of sorts- this upstart, Mr. Slope, fulfills all the qualifications for a sweaty, sneering, fox who will offend the congregation- including all of the other rectors at his first sermon.
From that point onward, as Mr. Slope's sexual drives and greed seem to collide within him, and his hold on the power in the diocese requires war; the tale has tension, comedy and ultimately romance.
There is certainly a resemblance to Jane Austen here, but Trollope does not lend himself to a feminist interpretation. His heroines are either well-meaning 'spinsters' or dutiful, yet quietly influential wives. Their villainous counterparts are overbearing, seditious or vampish- not particularly modern, definitely engrossing and fun.
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