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Mr. Trollope's Novels.
ART. IV.--1. The Warden. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. New
Edition. London, 1861. 2. Barchester Towers. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. New Edition.
London, 1861. 3. Dr. Thorne. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. New Edition. Lon
don, 1861. 4. The Three Clerks. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. New Edition.
London, 1860. 5. The Bertrams. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. Third Edition.
London, 1860. 6. Framley Parsonage. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. London, 1861. 7. Orley Farm. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. London, 1861-62. 8. The Small House at Allington. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE.
London, 1864. 9. The Macdermots of Ballycloran. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE.
New Edition. London, 1861.
Sir WALTER SCOTT somewhere compares the critic who selects an entertaining novel for the subject of his invidious labours, to the mischievous child who plays with his new toy to-day, and finds a still more exciting amusement in tearing it in pieces to-morrow; and it must be owned there is something almost ungrateful in coldly dissecting books that are written for our amusement after they have served their purpose of amusing us. On the other hand, novels now-a-days are not quite so humble in their pretensions that the simile of the child and his toy should indicate the relation between them and their readers. Even if they are not written with the object of illustrating or refuting any particular theory of life, or system of morals, or doctrine of theology, it is impossible for a man of any mental power at all to invent human beings and set them in motion without touching, expressly or by implication, the problems of human existence. If the world be a school in which we cannot live a day without learning something, no true picture of the smallest fragment of it can be altogether insignificant; and though few people, now that Miss Edgeworth is forgotten, read novels for the purpose of improving their minds, it is only very happily constituted persons that can be certain of always escaping that result. And, indeed, the functions of criticism would be miserably curtailed if amusing novels were considered too sacred, or dull ones too trivial, for handling. It is probable that the writing of such books at this moment absorbs more talent than any other literary pursuit ; and it is certain that no amusement is so universal as the reading of them. The popularity of a novelist who is popular at all is so enormous that every successful novel, good or bad—and some very bad novels have been among the most successful—is a phenomenon worth studying. Such a study will be far from fruitless if it only convince us how little ability, imagination, or culture, it takes to set all England talking. This humiliating conviction, we are afraid, would be only too often the result of an analysis of the novel of the season ; and it would not be at all uninteresting to investigate the sources of so much unmerited popularity. Our present task will be less amusing, but certainly much more agreeable; for if bad novels sometimes fascinate a deluded public, neither do good ones often fail of success; and Mr. Anthony Trollope's have unquestionably deserved their good fortune.
The novelist par excellence of the moment is assuredly Mr. Trollope. His works can by no means be placed in the highest rank; but within their own range, nothing better ever came from an English novelist. In our view, it is no drawback to their merit that they are the books of a man whose peculiar temperament is scarcely that of the literary artist. If we may judge on such a point from his writings, we cannot help thinking it a happy accident that Mr. Trollope should have written books at all. The wit and liveliness of his story and dialogue, and the simplicity, ease, and vigour of his style—an admirable style-are unquestionably the graces of a master of his craft. But the whole tone and habit of mind implied in these novels is that of a man of activity and business, rather than of a man of letters. His books are the result of the experience of life, not of the studious contemplation of it. A rare degree of talent was required for their production, but the kind of talent which was required is not, perhaps, uncommon. Books like Barchester Towers are certainly not very numerous; and therefore it may be assumed that the writers are few, who possess such gifts as the author of Barchester Towers. And yet it is probable that the same powers of observation, the same shrewdness, good sense and humour, are expended every day on the common affairs and common amusements of life by people who never dream, or who only dream, of writing novels.
The great charm of Mr. Trollope's novels seems to lie in this circumstance. While we read them we are made to share, in the easiest way, the experience of a man who, in going through his own daily business, has been brought in contact with an immense variety of people; who has looked at so much of the world as it came in his way to consider, with a great deal of keenness, kindness, and humour; who thoroughly understands, because he shares the thoughts and feelings of the majority of educated Englishmen; and who sets himself to describe his own
world and ours, with vivacity and grace, with a delicate appreciation of the niceties of character and manners, and in plain straightforward English. The result is a picture of society, wonderfully real and true. It is not merely that the incidents are such as occur, and the characters such as may be met with every day. The atmosphere also is that of real life. Mr. Trollope, if his books survive, will afford invaluable materials to the future historian of the manners of the nineteenth century; not like some of his contemporaries, by minute dissection, either of society or of individual men and women, but at least by a very agreeable exhibition in his own person, as well as in his characters, of the common opinions, sentiments, and habits of the men of his own day. We shall look to him in vain for such an analysis of mankind in society, as Balzac has given us in such marvellous perfection for a fragment at least of the world of France; and the great novelist whose loss we all deplore, for probably, a larger section of the world of England. To compare him, indeed, with Thackeray at all, were both useless and misleading. They are too dissimilar to furnish common points for comparison. Their disparity, according to a sound doctrine of Coleridge, excludes comparison. With all his subtle power of observation, Mr. Trollope has few of the qualities of the satirist, and is still more slenderly endowed with any of the qualities of the moralist. The force of his peculiar talent deserts him, if he strays for a moment into the regions where Thackeray has shown most unmistakeably the true elevation of his genius. And yet there is one point in which he resembles if he does not even rival the greater writer. There is no other male novelist that we remember, who has seized so successfully the true character of the petty intrigues of society, of family feuds, of household discomforts and household pleasures, of small malignities and daily kindnesses. He seldom attempts, with success, to penetrate deeper than other people to the ultimate springs of all the good and evil, “ all the wealth and all the woe,” which he sees and depicts on the surface of the world. But the surface world with which he does deal, the characters which come within his range, the manners, affections, sympathies, of ordinary people, the common activities and occupations, the accidents and trivial realities of life, these things are represented with marvellous truth and minuteness of detail, and at the same time with a certain sobriety of tone which is singularly characteristic of English society.
The effect of all this is probably heightened by the somewhat inartistic obtrusion of the author himself and his opinions. It is natural in the houses to which Mr. Trollope introduces us that there should be a good deal of talk about Mr. Carlyle and pre-Raphaelites, and the Bishop of Oxford, and the system of pleading at the bar. It is equally natural that such talk should be lively and sensible, without indicating any very profound insight into the real meaning and character of men, or books, or pictures, or institutions. If the plot of Mr. Trollope's novels were of paramount importance, such superfluities would be more objectionable. But the realist in fiction is careless about plot. His sole object is to describe men's lives as they really are; and real life is fragmentary and unmethodical.
We do not know whether this is Mr. Trollope's opinion, or whether he has any theory on the subject at all; but we know that it is not by dexterous manipulation of his story that he hopes to sustain the interest of his readers. That moves on, not indeed very rapidly, but easily and naturally enough; and ever as it moves, we are made to understand more clearly how thoroughly this story-teller despises the arts by which curiosity may be kept on the stretch. One or two of the scenes have some connexion with each other, and follow each other in natural sequence; but this is by no means the case with the majority. In many of these books, the chapters which carry on the story, and lead up to the catastrophe, are probably fewer in number than those which have nothing whatever to do with either the one or the other. This is a serious fault in art; and in policy, if Mr. Trollope desires his novels to be read often, it is, we think, a dangerous error.
But here it is necessary to discriminate. We are not of those who think that a perfect plot, or what is called so, is essential to a good novel. A plot may be a very ingenious invention ; but it generally implies at once an isolation and interdependence of characters and interests which never found its counterpart in real life since this world began. Ten or twelve people are so absolutely cut off from the rest of mankind, and linked so closely to one another, that the most insignificant cannot move an arm without hastening or retarding a catastrophe, the gradual evolution of which is the end of their miserable existence. Such phenomena are rare in the actual world; and by no means essential to the interest of those novels which appeal to higher feelings than curiosity. In these, there is no reason that we can see, why the people should not hang together as loosely as in real life. The characters need not be isolated from the world, nor from all the interests of humanity which do not affect the catastrophe. A novel is not a drama; and we have time, in our way to the conclusion, to pause upon details and to wander into byways. If the novelist can trust himself to let his story stand still, while he elucidates a nicety of character, or describes a picturesque or a humorous situation, there is no
reason why he should not disport himself in this way, so long as he continues to amuse his readers. Even a dramatic writer, if his dramas are to be read, may be allowed a certain license in this respect. On the stage, a play must move; in the closet we are delighted that the action should pause, while Egmont displays the Golden Fleece to his Clärchen, or describes to her the stately Regent of the Netherlands. But all this is permissible, only because, although it has no tendency to evolve the dénorment, it throws light upon the characters in whom it is presumed that we are interested. It is not the least inconsistent, therefore, with that unity of feeling and interest which is absolutely indispensable in the drama, and almost equally important in prose fiction. But if the scenes for the sake of which the story stands still, in no way concern the principal characters, and are remote from the leading interest of the piece, their introduction at all is a blot, more or less excusable according to the skill with which they are described, but always awkward and inartistic. The interest of Orley Farm, for example, turns upon the trial of a certain Lady Mason, nominally for perjury, but virtually for forging her husband's will. A trial involves barristers, attorneys, and witnesses. It is obvious that all these people must have interests in life, unconnected with Lady Mason; and it is right that this should be made apparent in a novel which aims at representing things as they are. But when two or three months are interposedfor the book was published in monthly numbers-between Lady Mason's committal for trial and the opening speech for the prosecution, in order that the high-life love affairs of her junior counsel, and the low-life love affairs of an unhappy witness, to say nothing of the eatings and drinkings of that witness's brother-in-law, should be detailed at length, this is surely carrying reality to a dangerous pitch. It is imitating nature, as it was said that Richardson imitated nature, jusqu'à l'ennui.
For Mr. Trollope scarcely seems to be sufficiently aware that the time-honoured rules which he disregards so pleasantly are founded on principles as real and permanent as the love of novel-reading itself. Superfluities and irrelevancies are objectionable in a novel for no other reason than because they make it less interesting. Even in a novel there is a certain strain on the reader's attention. The strain is at its minimum if every particular scene is good in itself, and also contributes to the general movement of the book; but many a stout swimmer has perished in sight of land, because the power which might have carried him triumphantly to the conclusion has been thrown away on an unnecessary episode. If that, as he somewhere