One of my causes is old books. This isn’t for educational or moral reasons, though there’s definitely a lot to be said on both scores for reading literature from times past and from other cultures. I think old books are tremendously enjoyable, and that if modern readers could just get over their initial anxiety they’d be drawn into stories that are engaging, amusing, and enlightening. And that do two important things: first, they remind us of our common humanity, as we see characters in very different situations behave much as we do; and second, they help us see things that really have changed, for good or ill.
This winter, I’m reading some of Anthony Trollope’s novels and since my family is sick of hearing about how good they are, I’m going to besiege my readers. Trollope was an immensely prolific author–to the point that he annoyed other writers–and I have most of his work on my shelves because when I mentioned his name my 87-year-old friend Linda offered to loan me what she had. I started with Can You Forgive Her?, the first volume in the political series centered around Plantagenet Palliser. This is a good place to start, because the novel centers around romantic dilemmas in the lives of two young women who are both strong-willed and independent yet caught within the confines of their society and class. They’re often funny, too. Here are a few lines, which I especially enjoyed because the husband of a friend of mine is in the British government, and I could imagine her saying something quite like this:
â€œTheyâ€™ve been talking together till sometimes I think Mr. Grey is worse than Plantagenet. When Mr. Grey began to say something the other night in the drawing-room about sugar, I knew it was all up with you. Heâ€™ll be a financial Secretary; you see if he isnâ€™t; or a lord of something, or an under-somebody of State; and then some day heâ€™ll go mad, either because he does or because he doesnâ€™t get into the Cabinet.â€ Lady Glencora, as she said all this, knew well that the news she was giving would please her cousin better than any other tidings that could be told.”
And here’s a line from a letter written by a woman to a male friend, in Phineas Redux:
“I cannot explain to you what it would be to me to be able to talk again to one who knows all the errors and all the efforts of my past life as you do.”
Surely that feeling, the need to talk to an intimate friend who knows our past, is one that any of us can sympathize with. Trollope’s novels center around human relationships of all kinds, and I suppose that’s why I enjoy them so. If you like politics, the Palliser novels will be particularly enjoyable. You may be as surprised as I was to find Plantagenet Palliser, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the novel, set in 1862, trying to decimalize the British monetory system. This did eventually happen, in 1973.
Another series is set in the imaginary city of Barchester. Many characters are clergymen, and the novels offer a fascinating look at the role of the Church, if not actual religion, in Victorian England as well as some of the funniest personalities in fiction. I suggest starting with Barchester Towers rather than The Warden, which is a lovely book but doesn’t have the remarkable Mrs Proudy in it.
And need I mention that these Victorian novels are popular culture? I comfort myself with this fact when I’m feeling particularly at a loss during office conversations about celebrities.