Law and Conversation

April 25, 2011

Read This: Anthony Trollope

Until just a few years ago, I’d read nothing by the 19th century British novelist, Anthony Trollope, and was under the impression that he was a bit of a second-rate writer. Why read Trollope when there are Dickens and Eliot novels I still haven’t read, I thought?

I’m delighted to report I was mistaken. Far from an also-ran, Trollope is a delightful writer, and his work provides a vivid picture of 19th-century English society.

Trollope is best known for two series:  The Barsetshire Chronicles, starting with “The Warden” and centering on England’s ecclesiastical class, and the Palliser series, starting with “Can You Forgive Her?” and focusing on Parliament and British politics. The BBC made both into TV series, which I haven’t watched but which remain very popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Well-crafted though both series are, many think a standalone novel, “The Way We Live Now,” is Trollope’s greatest work. Though I’m enjoying this 800-page, hundred-chapter brick as much as the other Trollope novels I’ve read, I put it aside the first time I started it. What bothered me was the anti-Semitism Trollope expresses in some of his description and some of his characters’ dialogue, so casual as to take one’s breath away.

I suppose some might condemn Trollope for this, and some might think publishing a revised edition of the book that amends or deletes the anti-Semitic remarks (as a recent edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” bowdlerizes the n-word) would be appropriate. I wouldn’t agree with either.

Though I’m not a Trollope scholar, I suspect that he was a product of his times. His books, as well as those of Dickens (who includes some anti-Semitic characterizations of his own in, for example, “Great Expectations”), bear out that anti-Semitism was, indeed, so casual as to be taken for granted in English society of the 19th century. The audiences for whom Trollope and Dickens wrote wouldn’t have seen anything extraordinary about those characterizations; in that day, that language was realistic for those characters and narrators, and their readership, I’m guessing, might have made or snickered at similar comments without seeing anything wrong. Trollope and Dickens, not to mention Twain, gave us not only great stories but also valuable historical pictures of life as it was, warts and all, during their lifetimes.

That, it seems to me, is a valuable lesson for us today. Though prejudices haven’t exactly disappeared, it’s now generally recognized that disrespectful comments about people’s culture and ancestry are not funny and not cool–and in some contexts, most notably the workplace, can lead to legal liability. With all the imperfections of 21st-century life, some things have improved.

Speaking of England, since it was Easter yesterday it seems like a good opportunity to call attention to a wonderful exhibit at Bath Abbey.  Artist Sue Symons uses exquisite embroidery and calligraphy to depict the story of Jesus’s life in her diptychswhich you can view online.

Are you reading anything that has material in it that bothers you? What is it, and what do you think about it?

UPDATE: After I posted, I realized that yesterday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac noted that yesterday was not only Easter but also Trollope’s 196th birthday!


  1. Wonderful blog post Helen. I read Trollope in college and thought he was quite good. Plus, the links to the Bath Abbey diptychs is right up my alley. Bath is one of my favorite cities in the world, the Abbey is exquisite, and I got married about 6 miles down the road in Box, Wiltshire. So two thumbs up (it’d be three, if I had enough hands). 🙂

    Comment by tjthurston — April 25, 2011 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, TJ. You are the second couple I know who were married in Bath–what a gorgeous and memorable place!

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — April 25, 2011 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  2. […] unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes […]

    Pingback by The royal wedding, law, and story « Law and Conversation — April 29, 2011 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  3. […] “Doctor Thorne,” by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope and have recently noted that I’m now reading what’s generally considered Trollope’s masterpiece, […]

    Pingback by Three doctors in fiction « Law and Conversation — May 18, 2011 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  4. […] One of the great results of blogging is that you meet interesting people. The other day Kerry Dennehy, a New Jersey artist with a neat website of his own who shares my appreciation of the work of artist Lynda J. Barry, commented on a post of mine and provided a link to still another cool website that belongs to artist Alyssa Sherwood. Among other things, Sherwood has posted several short and beautiful animations that are well worth viewing. The movement, colors, shapes, and intricate symmetries, as well as the spoken poetry, of the one Kerry highlighted, “Migrations,” reminds me of artist Sue Symons’s amazing Bath Abbey Diptychs, a project using embroidery and calligraphy to illustrate the story of Jesus’s life, which I recently noted and linked to. […]

    Pingback by Cool animated art! « Law and Conversation — May 25, 2011 @ 12:13 am | Reply

  5. Like you I came to Trollope late. I somehow had the idea that his novels were fatuous and uncritically devoted to the upper classes in England. Instead, I found a depth that does not exist in Dickens and a satiric talent that Eliot lacks. The issue of anti-semitism in Trollope’s work, especially THE WAY WE ARE NOW is complex. In my view, Trollope offers a critique of antisemitsm but cannot entirely escape it himself. In The Way We are Now, one of the most admirable characters is a jew, the banker Ezekiel Brehgert, a person who shows integrity in every interaction and contrasts so wonderfully with the venal and bigotted attitudes of his noble fiance Georgiana Longstreet and her odious family. Trollope’s characters do make horribly anti-semetic statements and it is hard to believe that Trollope himself did not absorb some of the sentiments of his society. Still, I have to point out that none of the characters we are really supposed to admire – Plantagenet Palisser, Lady Glencora, Phineas Finn, Warden Harding, Hetta Carbury, or Paul Montague EVER make an antisemetic statement.
    In THE WAY WE ARE NOW, Trollope describes Melmotte with stereotypical jewish characteristics. He never, however, identifies him explicitly as jewish. To me Melmotte, like Lear, is a tragic figure, self loathing and self consuming – reacting, perhaps to the antisemitism he encounters in the world?? Antisemitism in Trollope is by no means simple however much difficulty it creates for the modern reader.

    Comment by Michael Thomas — August 4, 2011 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I’ve had plans to do a separate post on some of the ideas you’ve included here, following up on my original Trollope post, which I wrote before I’d finished the book and before I’d encountered Brehgert. At least one other commentator has also pointed out that Brehgert is one of the few truly and completely admirable characters in TWWLN, and the Longstreets certainly are depicted as revolting characters. You make the excellent point that anti-Semitism in Trollope is not a simple matter, and that the way we live and think now is not exactly the way people lived and thought then!

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — September 4, 2011 @ 9:25 am | Reply

  6. […] “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of […]

    Pingback by Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012 « Law and Conversation — January 2, 2012 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

  7. My knowledge /recall of George Eliot’s books is not sufficient for me to point to specific examples here but I do recall noticing several examples of anti semitism in Middlemarch and I think that others have expressed some dismay at the anti semitism apparent in Daniel Deronda. So it wasn’t just Trollope and Dickens who might come in for PC criticism.

    Comment by Lynn Ball — September 5, 2013 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

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