Trollope: Something for the (London Lit) Weekend
By MICHAEL CAINES
This time next week, I'm very happy to say, the London Lit Weekend, produced in association with the TLS, will be under way at King's Place. There'll be talk of overrated and underrated authors (suggestions welcome), inequality and what to do about it, the Notting Hill Editions essay prize, the Battle of Agincourt, Mrs Thatcher in fiction and much else besides, including some chat about this:
This is the work of the artist and comics expert Simon Grennan, who has turned Anthony Trollope's late novel John Caldigate (1879) into Dispossession, a "novel of few words". Indeed, the page reproduced above is a typically deft rearrangement of relatively few words from its source. (In the novel, Dick Shand declares of their fellow passenger, without needing to assert that he and his college friend John are gentlemen: "She is a mystery, and mysteries are always worth unravelling. I shall go to work and unravel her".) Other panels and pages pass wordlessly, making a fresh adventure out of Trollope's own.
As part of the London Lit Weekend, I'll be discussing Dispossession next Saturday, and Trollope in general, with Simon Grennan, Professor Helen Small (who has edited both The Eustace Diamonds and The Last Chronicle of Barset), Jonathan Keates (whom I strongly suspect of knowing everything, as well as being able to write beautifully about anything) and John Sutherland (likewise). As already mentioned on this blog, on our podcast TLS Voices and in the TLS itself (by Professor Sutherland, among others), it's Trollope's bicentenary this year – not a bad moment to be revisiting Barsetshire or the sometimes surprisingly wider world that the novelist covered in the course of forty-seven novels and numerous works of non-fiction.
Stories set in Australia, Egypt and Ireland reflect his fascination with the fate of English men and women abroad, as well as those who come home but, as in John Caldigate and Dr Wortle's School, cannot escape the malign clutches of the past. There is an abiding irony in the series of travelling narrators who find themselves unable to escape the company of their compatriots, either, however far they go. Over the course of his prolific literary life, Trollope covered a full spectrum of Victorian obsessions: the Church of England and its politics; problems with money and class; sex and marriage. Trollope never lost his admirable knack for coining a ridiculous name: President John Neverbend, Ontario Mogg, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Lady Selina Protest.
Perhaps his own name will come up at the end of the London Lit Weekend, too, in the course of that discussion of the overrated and underrated, authors with "undeserved reputations" and those who have been "unfairly overlooked". Trollope has been regarded as both over the years. His Autobiography suggests that he himself regarded Lady Anna as his best novel ("Quite far away above all others!!!" – sic), while Ralph the Heir was "one of the worst": "a novelist after fifty should not write love-stories". Is He Popenjoy?, despite its splendid title, will strike many modern readers as Trollope at his most wrong-headed, for its attack on the "nascent women's rights movement". On the other hand, he dared to write in favour of Radicalism in Lady Anna and everywhere spies out pride, vanity and the other little quirks of character that could make comic characters of us all. If he lacks a modern-day counterpart, there is at least Dispossession to prove that a story of his can be translated, with unexpected ease, into a highly modern idiom.