Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
May 31, 2017
“No one need put up with wrong that he can remedy.”
Sadly, Trollope is neglected among modern readers. He is considered not the equal of those 19th Century British literary lions: Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, etc. (Classics don’t get the respect they should. Senator Al Franken was recently quoted: “I’m a senator. I don’t have time to read classics.” But he did admit to reading books by Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Lena Dunham!) Trollope did not depict dark pictures of inequality suffered by Britain’s class system, as did Dickens and Bronte. While he was humorous, he did not have the light touch that memorialized Austen’s characters. It was not his purpose to relate an allegorical moral tale of great moment, as did George Eliot.
What he did have was unswerving eye for the strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s prelates, aristocracy and the politicians who represented them. And he had a moral compass that he used to guide his readers through his characters’ flaws. A recent book on the Harvard Business School, The Golden Passport, condemns the graduate school for failing to adhere to its founding doctrine: to impart “…a heightened sense of responsibility among businessmen.” Classes in ethics at business schools would be redundant if students in high schools and colleges read the classics, including Trollope. The world he inhabited was not one of relative values. His principal character in Framley Parsonage, Reverend Mark Robarts, was imperfect. “He had large capabilities for good – and aptitudes also for evil.” Robarts had a leg in two camps – the son of a man of modest means, he had come to know the wealthy aristocracy through school (Eton) and university (Oxford). Marriage and profession gave him a sense of duty and right. The former provided the devil on his left shoulder; the latter, the angel on his right.
Like many of us, Roberts was challenged – pulled in opposing directions. Nathaniel Sowerby, an MP, asked for his (Roberts) signature on a loan he could not afford. In return, Sowerby promised to introduce him to the highest levels in Parliament, so Roberts complied. Trollope wrote of Mark’s inner conflicts: “One is almost inclined to believe that there is something pleasurable in the excitement of such embarrassments, as there is also in the excitement of drink. But then, at last, the time does come when the excitement is over, and when nothing but the misery is left.” Like Adam, he was tempted and fell. Later, as he admitted his wrongs and began the process of redemption, he found it would not be easy: “But wounds cannot be cured as easily as they ae inflicted.”
Framley Parsonage, the fourth of the six Barsetshire novels, where Trollope follows the lives and fortunes of the Shire’s inhabitants, was written in 1861. Trollope is noted for the accuracy of his reporter’s eye, and for making fun of, England’s most powerful 19th Century institutions – the Church of England and Parliament.
In Who Killed Homer?, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Professors of Classics at California State University at Fresno and Santa Clara University respectively, rue the absence of classics being taught: “The Greeks gave us the tools to improve our material world, but also the courage and insight to monitor and critique that scary dynamism; we have embraced the former, but ignored the latter.”
Reading Trollope is not the same as reading Pericles in Greek or Tacitus in Latin, but his characters speak to us of human foibles and strengths from across the decades. They provide insights into minds of modern men and women, and bring a smile at the same time.