Following last week’s paean to Trollope’s moments of brilliance, I must now turn the papal eye on his less successful efforts. It’s not to say that the novels listed below are without merit, rather that they left me either unmoved or very cross.
So, here are the stinkers, in no particular order:
The Belton Estate
Trollope is at his most reprehensible in this novel, carefully delineating the wrongs of women, but then desperately clinging to the status quo of primogeniture and wifely submission.
The story is of a young woman, Clara Amedroz, who vacillates between two suitors: her bucolic but passionate cousin Will, heir to her father’s entailed farm, and Captain Aylmer, an urbane but unemotional MP tied to his rebarbative mother’s apron strings. There is no option for Clara to remain single, as she is financially dependent upon men. She dramatically articulates her frustration: “I think it would be well if all single women were strangled by the time they are thirty.”
Although Clara herself is an admirable creation, Trollope’s reiterated argument that she should “suffer and be still” incurred my wrath and made me want to slap him.
This is one of Trollope’s many tales involving a dithering wastrel of a “hero” who can’t decide between a virginal wife and one who has been around the block a few times. Harry Clavering is drawn towards middle-class respectability with Florence Burton, but finds himself unable to resist the allure of the glamorous and widowed Julia Brabazon.
Julia is by far the most engaging character and should be the heroine of the tale; instead she is punished for behaving as good Victorian girls should, by making an advantageous marriage. Here Trollope shows toe-curling timidity, repeatedly punishing Julia for marrying a husband she didn’t love, yet rewarding the snivelling invertebrate Harry for his indecisiveness and intertia. Bah.
The American Senator
The eponymous Senator is Elias Gotobed, whose curious name alludes to that fact that he has a tendency to send people to sleep. Alas, the story he inhabits had a similar effect on me.
The Senator travels to England to undertake a study of English life, managing to inveigle his way into a stately home. He is fiercely critical of British society and perplexed by many of its customs. His valedictory lecture nearly causes a riot when he shares his views with the assembled throng. This character seems to have little merit beyond a narrative device, enabling Trollope to be vicariously rude about his countrymen.
The one redeeming feature is Arabella Trefoil, an alpha female intent on bagging the wealthiest possible husband. Trollope means to be critical of her, but her ability to make the best of a bad situation is laudable. The American Senator is often praised as one of Trollope’s best comic novels, but I cannot agree. Beyond the exquisite Miss Trefoil, it is little more than a rather weasly satire on English society.
The Small House at Allington
This is a controversial choice, as I know it is a favourite of many fellow Trollopites. Although it’s the penultimate Chronicle of Barsetshire, it blends in with the others like an orange in a coal heap.
My main objection can be summarised in two words: Lily Dale. Uggghhh. She plunges herself into “perpetual widowhood” for a man who is entirely without merit and considers herself legally bound to him. I wondered whether their relationship had been consummated, and she therefore felt unable to give herself to another man. In any case, she really needed to pull herself together, rather than moping about like a particularly morose Emo.
Mr Scarborough’s Family
I likened this one to a Tory party political broadcast, which is serious condemnation. The story begins well, with a King Lear moment in which the eponymous Mr Scarborough tries to decide which of his unworthy sons should inherit his considerable wealth. What follows is endless depictions of nasty, selfish people, with whom one is inclined to feel little sympathy.
The eldest son, Mountjoy, is a charmless little herbert who has accumulated eye-watering gambling debts in anticipation of his inheritance. Younger son Augustus can’t wait for his father to die so he can get his hands on the money. Scarborough Père tries to thwart them by declaring them illegitimate one moment, and then legitimising them again through the cunning use of multiple marriage certificates.
The only scenes I enjoyed were those involving Matilda Thoroughbung, a young woman on the cusp of marriage who enquiries as to what she can expect in return for her dowry. She points out that the advent of women’s rights means men can no longer rob vulnerable women: “A young woman doesn’t get taken in as she used to do … Since woman’s rights have come up a young woman is better able to fight her own battle.” Quite.
The Macdermots of Ballycloran
This was Trollope’s first novel, and it shows. Although the family saga is certainly lively, the narrative is rambling and bowing under the weight of supposedly phonetic dialogue. Trollope does a sterling job of recreating the pre-famine Ireland he witnessed during the early years of his post office career, but there’s an over-reliance on the stereotypical potheen, potatoes and peasants.
Conversely, Trollope knew absolutely nothing about the La Vendée region of France, so there aren’t even any beautifully-drawn scenes to relive the tedium of the turgid narrative. Set during the French Revolution, Trollope shows what happens when the common folk forget their place. It was his only attempt at historical fiction, for which fact we must remain grateful.
The Kellys and the O’Kellys
Another Irish family saga, although more polished than The Macdermots. I didn’t find it engaging at all, except for the terrifying sub-plot in which Barry Lynch attempts to force his sister Anty into an asylum in order than he might inherit her share of the family fortune. When this bid fails, he instead tries to murder her. Thankfully, the good are ultimately rewarded with happy marriages and the bad are parcelled off to Boulogne to think over what they’ve done.
The only aspect of this novel I can remember is the intensely moving descriptions of Ireland during the famine. They haunted me for weeks afterwards, and must have left an indelible mark on Trollope’s mind after he witnessed them for himself.
Otherwise, it’s an unmemorable tale of wealthy aristocrats living in County Cork who spend their time fretting about inheritance. Trollope himself thought it a failure, and the story is certainly very weak.
In his Autobiography Trollope wrote of The Bertrams: “I do not know that I have ever heard it well spoken of, even by my friends, and I cannot remember that there is any character in it that has dwelt in the minds of novel-readers.” That’s a fair assessment. Again it’s an inheritance plot, but this time involving a somewhat incongruous detour to the Holy Land.
The story comprises many people called Bertram, and most of them are unhappy. Bleak, boring and bloated.
As I wrote of Trollope in an earlier post: when he good he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad he’s terrible. Still, given he wrote 47 novels, they weren’t all going to be corkers. Also, it’s purely subjective, as I know there are readers who would staunchly defend some of the aforementioned novels. Trollope’s diversity is one of his great strengths, and it would be very dull if we all responded to his novels with one voice.
Please do let me know what you think.