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!

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