“Of all the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable.”
An Autobiography, 1883
For the past several months, I’ve been reading Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles before bed. My Kindle informs me I have read 92% of this six-volume work. The author will shortly have to reveal the fate of that poor half-mad curate, Mr. Joshia Crawley, accused of stealing a twenty-pound check.
In this final volume of the Chronicles, much depends on the verdict passed down at Mr. Crawley’s impending trial. Will his daughter, Grace, be free to marry the devoted and dashing Major Grantley? Would Mr. Crawley, already in poor health, withstand the rigors of incarceration? How will his large, poverty-stricken family survive the loss of his income should he be convicted? Questions abound, but this reader strongly suspects all will end well for the Crawley’s.
Unlike his superstar contemporary, Carles Dickens, Trollope doesn’t concern himself with the fate of downtrodden orphans and the seedy inhabitants of the London underworld who prey on them. His stories feature the social-climbing middle class and foibles of the newly rich. He creates relatable characters; his villains possess some redeeming qualities and his heroes their share of shortcomings. In the Barsetshire Chronicles, the ecclesiastical inhabitants of the cathedral town of Barchester wrestle with their greed, the ineffectual Bishop is cowed by his domineering wife, and lowly curates struggle to provide for their large families.
Like Dickens, Trollope’s work appeared in serial installments in weekly publications. This serial format resulted in long books — very long books by today’s standards — when they were collected and published in a single volume. Unlike Dickens, who wrote in the mornings and walked in the afternoons, Trollope had a day job. He worked in civil service and wrote most of his serial pieces on the train during his commute, even commissioning a knee-mounted desk for this purpose. His ability to draft new material while surrounded by the conversations of other passengers and rattle of the train demonstrate both a deep devotion to his craft and enviable powers of concentration.
Trollope entered my life one Christmas many years ago when my spouse gave me a hardcover edition of Barchester Towers, one of the six volumes in the Chronicles. On my Kindle are the Palliser Chronicles, another six books, and my personal favorite, The Way We Live Now. My bookshelves contain paperback versions of these and other works by Trollope, too, but their print is too small for me to read these days. Altogether, Trollope wrote fifty novels, beginning a new one as soon as one was completed.
What sets Trollope apart from other Victorian writers, and present-day authors as well, is his tendency to talk directly to his readers. He tells us what a character is thinking or fills us in on events outside the narrative. I thoroughly enjoy these interruptions; it’s like having a conversation with the author about a mutual friend.
In this example, Mr. Crawley is visited by Mr. Thumble, a clergyman with a message from the bishop — a message Mr. Crawley greatly resents. He blasts the the poor fellow finishing with,
“If you please, sir, let there be an end of it;” and Mr. Crawley waved his hand. Here, Trollope interjects, “I hope the reader will conceive the tone of Mr. Crawley’s voice, and will appreciate the aspect of his face, and will see the motion of his hand, as he spoke these latter words.”
Dickens claimed to always be sitting at the reader’s elbow. Trollope goes a step further. He takes his readers by the arm and walks us through the world he’s created. Along the way, we encounter the habits and values, social structures and styles of Victorian England not from a historical perspective, but as Trollope’s lived experience. And he does it in a way that is eminently readable.