Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rachel Ray and why Trollope sometimes annoys me.

I love Trollope; I really do, but not blindly. The first of his books I read was ‘Cousin Henry’, I had mixed feelings about it but realise now that it couldn’t have been a better introduction because like ‘Rachel Ray’ it shows both the best and worst of him as a writer. The biggest problem I have with Trollope is his habit of repetition, for example;
 “She thought only of him, how beautiful he was, how grand, - and how dangerous; of him and his words, how beautiful they were, how grand, and how terribly dangerous! She knew that it was very late and she hurried her steps, She knew that her mother must be appeased and her sister opposed,- but neither to her mother nor her sister was given the depth of her thoughts. She was still thinking of him, and of the man’s arm in the clouds, when she opened the door of the cottage at Bragg’s End.
Rachel was still thinking of Luke Rowan and of the man’s arm when she opened the cottage door...”
Trollope uses this trick all the time and on occasion it works really well underlining a point, it’s also a useful tool in making the details of the plot stick in the readers memory – something I suppose was especially helpful if you’re reading a chapter a week (that quote is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another). However in ‘Rachel Ray’ – as in other places – it’s a device that he employs far too often, it becomes (to me) an annoying distraction from the plot which I just want to unfold. ‘Rachel Ray’ is 400 pages in my edition, if it was 300 pages long it would be a far better book.

I haven’t yet read Trollope’s autobiography but have read about it a few times – it seems that it did his reputation no end of damage partly because he advocated approaching writing as a job to be done rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. Apparently it was his habit to sit down each morning before work at the post office commenced and bang out a prescribed number of pages. On the whole I’m sympathetic to this approach but here it feels like nothing has been discarded and that when in doubt he’s simply rehashed points he’s already made. If Luke Rowan is referred to as a potential wolf in sheep’s clothing once it’s a question that’s asked twenty times. The reader knows he isn’t but has understood the doubts of Rachel’s family long before Trollope has tired of reminding us.

He’s also been accused of anti-Semitism and this is the first time in his novels that I’ve seen where that comes from. There is an election during the novel; the two opposing candidates are Mr Butler Cornbury – squire’s son representing the landed Tory element, and Mr Hart – Liberal Jewish tailor down from London and Not A Gentleman. On the whole I’m indifferent to racial attitudes in older fiction – it’s easy enough to overlook casually mentioned prejudices and assume that in more enlightened times the author would most likely share my own views. Here however there is an argument (repeated) that a Jew shouldn’t be allowed to stand for parliament in a Christian country, Mr Hart’s supporters are the more villainous of the books characters and naturally it bothers me that an authorial voice I’ve come to consider friendly suddenly comes out with opinions I can’t feel comfortable with.

In fairness it’s just as likely that Trollope was making up his daily word count when he kept returning to the question of whether Jews (and Catholics) ought to be accorded the same parliamentary rights as Protestants and he doesn’t do a bad job of giving both sides of the argument but his Conservatism (never much in doubt) is very much to the fore.

None of this makes me want to give up on Trollope, or make me think less of him as a writer (or a person) but it does make it clearer to me why he isn’t as well known as Dickens. With better editing (I’m back to the repetition) Trollope’s reputation would stand much higher but as it is his shortcomings are too obvious to always ignore, happily he has the talent to more than compensate for the bad and overall I think it makes for a richer reading relationship.


  1. After reading your post on what you like in Trollope, I was very interested to hear the other side as well - you make good points on both sides.

    I do try to keep in mind with Trollope that the repetitions are due at least in part to the serialization - and I wonder if it's less noticeable in the longer books, where the story shifts between more subplots (I'm thinking of The Last Chronicle of Barset here) than in the shorter ones?

    I'm always curious about why Dickens remains so much better known and more popular than Trollope. Certainly his novels are just as complex and sprawling - and have equally large casts, in many cases. I sometimes think Dickens could have used an editor as well - but then he was also writing for the serials.

  2. Personally, I think Trollope's novels are more believable than Dickens's. With Trollope, even if the plot seems far-fetched, the characterization seems real. The psychology is almost always exactly spot on. Like Lisa May, I tend to blame the serialization for the repetitions, but that said, there are novels where Trollope does seem to be filling up pages to make his daily quota and his heart doesn't seem to really be in it. Definitely take the time to read the autobiography -- it is fascinating.

  3. Lisa May - I've never really got to grips with Dickens and my knowledge of Trollope is still quite limited so I'm trying to avoid sweeping generalisations but I think Trollope's characterisation is much better. He really makes me Believe. The last chronicle is brilliant and definitely benefits from having so many things going on and I have thought about trying reading his books a chapter a week to see what that's like...

    Jeffery K - I couldn't agree more and it's the psychology that keeps me reading - he's just really good.