Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lessons from Anthony Trollope

Sadly, Anthony Trollope's star has waned since the nineteenth century, when his books sold right next to Dickens's and Thackeray's.  But that waning star's light still strikes my eye with delight.  I save one Trollope novel to read each fall, just as the school year starts getting busy and hectic and maddening.  (This happens somewhere around week 1.)  His attention for detail, his warm humor, his quiet faith, his love for his characters, and his interesting personal intrusions into the narration bring me comfort, encouragement, joy, and understanding.  Every novel seems to end with a girl (affectionately referred to in the narration as "our heroine") and a boy getting married, but these are not simple romances; Trollope has something to teach us about life, as well.  Here are some lessons I learned recently (or received a refresher course on) from Barchester Towers, the second in a series about the fictional cathedral town of Barchester.

Villains are not necessary to drama.  Every character in Trollope shows a mixture of good and bad qualities, and the bad qualities never involve murder, grand larceny, or riotmongering.  Even Slope, the worst character in this novel, finagles and manipulates others only to get a position in the church with a comfortable salary--a commendable goal.  One supposes that having landed such a post, he would have been faithful to giving sermons he sincerely believed, as offensive as they might be to the rest of the congregation.  The other characters are flawed in equally mundane ways.  Mr. Harding is weak in the face of public opinion.  Bishop Proudie is henpecked.  The beautiful but crippled Madame Neroni enjoys the flattery she evokes from men she plans to ignore.  All these problems the reader might find in himself or in his friends.  We could be the subjects of great novels.  Which brings us to the second lesson:

The best drama is that of the normal person trying to do the right thing in everyday situations.  Do I break the confidence to tell a third person of potential harm?  Do I take the job when someone less qualified but far more needy also hopes for it?  Do I take the job when someone far less needy but more qualified also hopes for it?  How do I treat the distasteful person my child (or sibling) has chosen to marry?  What do I do when a new clergyman at the church to which I am devoted says things from the pulpit that I don't agree with?  These situations are terribly dramatic because they form the tense drama of our own real lives.  Trollope the narrator even assures us at one point that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope (whom he calls his least favorite character), and yet the outcome of all the intertwined stories still keeps us enthralled.

Musical worship wars have been around for a long time.  In this novel the conflict has to do with chanting vs. intoning.  I don't understand the difference, but I recognize the confusion when one of the characters finally admits to himself that he is arguing only about a musical style, not the content of the prayer being sung.

Church politics has been around for a long time.  As much as we wish the Church, of all institutions, would choose its servants through wisdom and for wisdom, it simply does not.  We must find a way to deal with the fact and worship anyway.

Having an established church is strange. When politics in the Church and the politics of the nation become entangled, things get very weird.  Our country has not dealt with the relation of Church and State in any consistent or logical way that I can discern.  But when I read of Parliament making appointments of clergy, and doing so in deals involving party politics, I become very glad we banned Congress from establishing any religion.

It is possible to criticize the church while still loving it. Trollope hangs out all the Church's dirty laundry -- petty attacks from the pulpit, well-paid clergy who hire curates to do all the work for them, decisions made in order to elicit a favorable story in the press -- and yet maintains his respect.  "It would not be becoming were I to travestie a sermon . . . .  I trust that I shall not be thought to scoff at the pulpit, though some may imagine that I do not feel all the reverence that is due to the cloth.  I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the thing to be taught."  (Ch. 6)

People in the right never win fights.  Briefly, a person in the wrong must find fault with the other party and so is always ready with an attack; people in the right are never ready for that attack.  Read chapter 37 for Trollope's much more eloquent explanation, and then ponder the many lessons to be drawn from this observation.

Writing a novel must be fun.  Trollope was a Post Office worker.  In order to write novels, he woke up before dawn, wrote during his train ride to work, kept notebooks and word quotas.  But in spite of this mechanical method, when he tells the reader about his growing up with the characters, when he begs the reader not to judge a character too harshly for a bad decision, and when he fills a couple of pages near the end with an explanation of the difficulty of making a novel come out the right length, we see how much fun it all must have been for him.

I like to draw lessons from books, even from novels.  You, of course, may enjoy this novel in any way you wish -- even by ignoring it.  And you're certainly free to read it as a light romance, wondering who Eleanor is going to marry.  But don't worry; it's not Mr. Slope.

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