Trollope’s “Barchester Towers”

So, do you guys remember when I summarized Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope? It was the super frustrating book about this woman who bounces back and forth between two fiances over and over again for 800 pages in a loose pattern of: unrequited love, drama, engagement, disappointment, break up–and then lather, rinse, repeat for the other guy.

Anyway, my supervisor suggested I read Barchester Towers, which is one of Trollope's more famous novels about the Anglican high church vs. Anglican low church. So basically, the whole book is about this city, Barchester, whose bishop dies, and the drama they have around getting a new bishop. Instead of the likely local candidate being appointed by the government, they ship in some new guy who makes a complete cluster-whoops of everything.

The crux of the new bishop's mess-ups (and actually one of the major parts of the novel) is about this older gentleman, Mr. Harding, who was the warden of the hospital under the old bishop. I guess when a bishop dies, every bishop-appointed position is reset, or something, because the new bishop needs to appoint a new hospital warden. Everyone is like, "Well, clearly he'll re-appoint Mr. Harding. We all love Mr. Harding and the new bishop doesn't want to ruffle any feathers, right?"

WRONG. It just turns into a giant mess, two factions break out in town, everyone has their own agenda, and for FIVE HUNDRED PAGES they fight over getting Mr. Harding his job back. So, after all this backstabbing and whispering and really lame social drama, the hospital warden job goes once and for all to someone else–but it's all okay, because the bishop has learned his lesson! Someone else dies, and now an EVEN BETTER job has opened up. The bishop is like, "Okay, let's offer this new job to Mr. Harding and everything will be hunky-dory with the world and the town will calm down and the book can end."

He offers the job to Mr. Harding, who, after all this crap for hundreds of pages, goes, "Actually, I think I'm going to refuse. I want to retire. I'm old and tired and just don't care."

And Mr. Harding's children are like, "What the ever loving HELL, dad?" And I'm like, "What the ever loving HELL, Trollope?" It just all seems so pointless now. Why go through this whole story if you just completely undo the whole point of the struggle?

Here's the point where I go on a largely personal rant, and my focus turns from this book to Trollope in general. That's right, Trollope's writing style gets its own qualification as "bizarre". As always, I welcome (polite) debate on this issue. Many people loved Trollope, and still do. I like him most of the time, just not when he does a few certain things that I will highlight below. He really undermines himself and is his own worst enemy.

I think largely my problem with Trollope is how poor of a story teller he is, and yet how great he thinks his story telling abilities are. He was renowned for LOATHING suspense in any form, so he repeatedly interjects with long diatribes on how much better his own technique is, unlike these horrible hack writers who try to engage the reader's interest (yuck!) and fill their plots with tension (errk!) and have big climaxes where you're wondering what's going to happen but don't actually find out until the end (god forbid!). So . . . basically, like every other book ever written.

And this manifests itself very pointedly in his work, because he'll start setting up something that might actually get you interested in his story, but then will immediately tell you what's going to happen to that character or situation several hundred pages from now. He actually comes right out and says things like, "Don't worry–our heroine will not marry either of these two blackguards. I don't want you to worry, because they're both courting her and she doesn't immediately see that they're not good men. But she'll figure it out soon, and will marry someone else at the end of the book who is more worthwhile. So, just, like, don't be nervous for her or anything, okay?"

And I'm like, "Well, damn, Trollope, why in the hell would I bother reading this book now if you've removed all suspense?"

See, it's not just about knowing the ending. You can reread books dozens of times, but as long as they are finely crafted and have a good sense of tension in them, it doesn't matter that you already know what's going to happen; it will be like reading it  for the first time. Tension means the person cares about the situation, that they can go on this journey with the characters over and over, that the reader can even hope that, somehow, the characters will make different choices this time around and avoid the problems you KNOW are coming. That's what a good book does.

I can't imagine ever re-reading Trollope for my own pleasure, because there was no pleasure in it the first time. Despite being occasionally funny and having some lovely sentences and allegories, he is like a magician who tells you how he's actually performing the trick WHILE he's in the middle of performing it, or a comedian who gives away the punch line before he tells you the joke. It's a total misery, and as a writer he certainly had an odd style.
I'm not suggesting you don't read him, because he is surprisingly light-hearted and funny, but just . . . brace yourselves, y'all. It's a bumpy ride.

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