Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Like and Unlike

Okay, so I didn’t like The Eustace Diamonds so well. I’ve enjoyed all thirteen of the other Trollope novels I’ve read. So, since I’m weeks ahead of my 2016 plan, I have taken the opportunity to insert Anthony Trollope’s autobiography into the schedule, an extremely pleasant extracurricular that I’ve put off for far too long.

In the Facebook era, today’s title sounds as though it might indicate my judgment on various Trollope books. (Even Facebook has finally faced the fact that “to like or not to like” is not the only question.) But it actually refers to ways in which I’ve found myself like Trollope and other ways in which I see myself as unlike him. Like Trollope, I look back on my school days with disappointment. My chief frustration, again like Trollope’s, lies in my school’s total neglect of Latin. Sadly for my fellow scholar, his school’s stated mission actually centered on instruction in Greek and Latin, so he carried the extra injury of having been lied to. Like Trollope, I taught myself Latin as an adult. Like Trollope, I spent many years working for the government: he as a clerk for the Royal Post Office, I as a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Like him, I tried to infuse clarity and eloquence into every mundane memorandum I had to write. Like him, I view my writing skills as moderate. And like him, I have tried to use those writing skills in the attempt to earn some extra money.

Unlike Anthony Trollope, though, my writing skills actually are only moderate. And unlike him, my income from the pen has not come close to tripling my annual salary. Most surprisingly, in reading the autobiography I found myself unlike Trollope in my opinions regarding some of his novels, especially what is perhaps his most famous these days: The Warden. Trollope says that when an author takes on a controversy, he has to take a side, and claims that he should either have made the warden (a clergyman in charge of a hospice for the elderly in this case, not a prison overseer) a bumbling, lazy fool or have portrayed the newspaper editor who complained about the sinecure as a thundering misanthrope. But one of the things I like best about the novel is that it shows deep interpersonal conflict while naming no villain. Septimus Harding never intended to make money undeservedly and gladly gave up the position once the story came out. And the newspaper didn’t set out to ruin a good man’s life, only to right a public wrong.

Did Trollope really see things this way? Or did he offer his self-critique all with tongue in cheek? Perhaps the passage refers elliptically to Dickens, who took on public controversies with a good amount of satire and through the portrayal of decided villains. Curiously, I love both authors, as different as they may be. In fact, I think they attract the same part of me by being honest, perceptive, caring, comic, tragic, morally minded, and articulate: authors who found the rainbow in the dusty backyard, the transcendence in the human clay.

I’ll close with an observation on one similarity I have to G. K. Chesterton: he also admired both Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope.

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