Saturday, 12 March 2016

Simon Heffer calls Anthony Trollope "the poor man's Mills & Boon" - he's right, but what's wrong with that?

Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope
I broke the habit of a lifetime two years ago by actually reading an Anthony Trollope novel, namely Barchester Towers. I enjoyed it. I was amused by its deeply conservative attitudes and by the satirical tone of much of the writing. I'd imagined Trollope would be quite serious and plodding, but not a bit of it. I downloaded some more of the prolific (and how!) author's works  onto my Kindle, and, one night a few months later, opened up The Way We Live Now, an 800-pager about the sinister financier Augustus Melmotte (Melmotte the Usurer might have served as an alternative title). After about forty pages (screens?), I exited the document and hit the "delete from this device" button.

It just hadn't grabbed me and, while reading it, I'd paused and tried to recall a single thing about Barchester Towers -  a character or an incident or an "elevator pitch" summary of the plot - and realised I couldn't recall one single thing about it, apart from the fact that reading it had been vaguely pleasurable.  I even had to check the list of books on my Kindle to refresh my memory as to which Trollope novel I'd read! (I've just made an effort and I seem to recall something about whether singing in church is a good or bad thing - something to do with High and Low Church wranglings? Or was that in George Eliot's Scenes from a Clerical Life? Although I'm a great admirer of Eliot's, I found her first published work almost unreadably dull. Does Obadiah Slope appear in Barchester Towers - or is that another of the Barchester Chronicles, and I'm just remembering him from Alan Rickman's brilliant television portrayal?)

Forgetting everything about something I've watched or read isn't that rare an occurrence: I've often sat through the first twenty minutes of a film on TV before realising that I've seen it before - even if I quite enjoyed it the first time round. I've encountered many books with similar amnesic properties. But when you read a dirty great Victorian blockbusting bestseller, you expect to be able to retain some memory of it. The way it usually works when I come across a mention of a book I know I've read yet can remember nothing about it is that I panic for a few seconds, then recall one scene or character and the rest comes flooding back. But Barchester Towers? Not a sausage.

I encountered a similar problem with Charlotte Bronte's novels (although, obviously, I know the plot of Jane Eyre backwards, because it has a great plot and because of  the endless screen adaptations), but with her, I know what's wrong while I'm ploughing through the books: the writing is too easy, the style too pedestrian, the characters have no genuine, independent existence outside the confines of the plot. The books are potboilers - or, as Simon Heffer puts it, "only a cut or two above pulp fiction". Reading Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time recently - it's a prequel to Jane Eyre - I was instantly struck by how superior it was in every department to its source material, apart from basic plotting.  I first read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights as a teenager, and adored it. I read it again as an adult, expecting to be disappointed, only to be astonished anew by what a truly great novel it is (and very definitely not, as F.R. Leavis sneered, "a kind of sport"). Wuthering Heights displays all the difficult, confusing, roiling, meaningful inner life that Charlotte Bronte's creations lack.

I'm a pretty unsnobbish reader (I have to be, given the type and quality of the pulp fiction I used to write). There is absolutely nothing wrong with the novel as entertainment (or craft), as opposed to the literary (or art) novel. Many entertainment novels - especially in the detective, crime and thriller genres - belong in both categories. Many modern literary novels, it strikes me, fail dismally as literature and are so unrelentingly unentertaining that you begin to suspect the author set out with the sole purpose of boring the reader senseless ("Wow, this is so dull, it must be real literature!").

The problem for me when it comes to entertainment novels of the Trollope/Charlotte Bronte stripe (and their numerous successors) is that when I feel the need to be entertained, I automatically reach for a genre book - something from the three categories mentioned above, plus, increasingly infrequently, science fiction (I used to read horror, but can no longer stand it). If the novel turns out to possess literary qualities as well, especially in terms of writing style and characterisation, that's a splendid bonus - but those aren't the qualities I'm looking for. When I read a non-genre novel, I invariably want a work of literature rather than a "good read". There's nothing whatsoever wrong with a good read - it must take tremendous skill and talent to create one. It's just that - with a few exceptions - I don't find them satisfying. The problem with the novels produced by Trollope and Charlotte Bronte isn't that they aren't great literature - it's just that some people have raised expectations by claiming that they are: they have made a category mistake.

I was going to end by pompously asserting that novelists such as Trollope and Charlotte Bronte aren't in the same league as George Eliot,  Joseph Conrad, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky - but, in fact, they're not even playing the same game, and should be judged by different criteria. For instance, Jane Eyre is entertainment: Wide Sargasso Sea is literature.

The Telegraph hasn't seen fit to post Simon Heffer's article about Trollope on its website (or, if they have, I can't find the damned thing), but it's essentially a rehash of a piece he wrote for the paper in 2011, which can be found here.


  1. I envy your ability to read fiction at all. I was once a voracious user of the drug but underwent the transformation sometime in my thirties and eventually realised that I'd almost completely lost the WSOD. I can (just about) watch a good film, but even then have to be in the right mood.

    I have never heard a convincing explanation of this metamorphosis but it is common enough that I am sure there must be one.

    1. As you say, it's a common experience. I joined a book group a few years ago because I was stuck in a reading rut, and had almost given up reading novels. It could, I suppose, have something to do with the ability - or willingness - to suspend disbelief waning. I used to alternate between periods of nothing but non-fiction and nothing but fiction, switching over when I started feeling weird: too much non-fiction and it felt like my brain was drying up, hardening - a pure fiction diet and it would eventually feel like it was melting, softening. I've no idea if other people have had similar experiences. By the time I joined the book group, my bonce had practically ossified, and joining the group really did the trick - having to read novels I wouldn't have otherwise dreamt of reading was a bit like a mental fitness programme and my taste for fiction came roaring back. Now I'm more of a switch-hitter and try to get a little of both in every day.

      I used to watch films a lot, but, like you, find I don't really have the patience any longer. Maybe it would be different if I'd retained my BAFTA membership and had to watch a lot of DVDs of new films at the end of the year - ten years ago, that was a real treat: now, it would be torture. Maybe I need to be made to watch films I don't want to see.

    2. I think my idea of hell (maybe like Mystery Science Theater 3000) might be having to watch films I hadn't wanted to see - especially ones that had been favourably reviewed in the Guardian!

      Actually, you can make that the Telegraph too, these days.

      I suspect I'd be ejected from any book club were I to say what I thought of most of the sort of fiction that is lionised in the press. I have tried...

      Ossification is exactly the word I've used to describe the experience too, though I might have chosen sclerosis as it feels like some form of rigidity creeping in to match the physical aches and pains.

      Not being retired (not a dig, just a point of reference) what little time I have for anything other than work or domestic drudgery is precious, so I have to enjoy it.

      Next on the pile is Andrew Graham Dixon's book on Caravaggio. It would take a very great deal to make me put that aside for the sake any recent novel I've seen reviewed.

      Do keep on with the 'don't miss this' posts, though. I'd have skipped Fargo II, had you not recommended it.

    3. Graham Dixon's Caravaggio is a page-turning biography- I read it in two sittings such was its grip. The illustrations, of course, do not do justice to the dazzling potency of Caravaggio's work. I had the lap top at hand as my own gallery.

    4. No, it's fine to mention retirement. Having to work all the hours God sends severely hindered the number of books I could read, and affected my choices - so I read a lot of stuff that was immediately gratifying and would block out the real world instantly. That changed when the BBC launched its Big Read initiative in 2003, and I started reading non-genre novels again - I still think it's one of the best things the BBC has ever done.

      I may have to read Andrew Graham Dixon's Caravaggio biography, given two mentions and one enthusiastic review. He's doing a three part series on Scandinavian art for BBC4 at the moment - the first part on Norway was a bit disappointing: the nature sequences were well done, but there weren't enough paintings or artists featured. As Denmark and Sweden don't offer the same spectacular, awe-inspiring landscapes, I'm hoping we get more art in the rest of the series.

      I should have recommended the Icelandic crime series "Trapped" on BBC4, GCooper, which has just finished. If you missed it, I can really recommend catching it when it comes on again. Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed Fargo II - can't wait for III

  2. Hang on a minute. According to my calculations you are judging Trollope on the basis of having completed one book and read 40 pages of another. I accept that there's no point in persisting with something that is meant to provide enjoyment or intellectual stimulation and doesn't but it's not much of a basis for rhadamanthine judgements about the great man's oeuvre. I tend to read the Barchester Chronicles and the Palliser novels every couple of years, no doubt aided by the fact that I don't any longer have the discernment to tell great literature from potboilers.

    As to Barchester Towers, the present day malaise of the Church of England is all there, foretold with accuracy and wit, with the added bonus that once you have read it, the numerous Proudies and Slopes in today's world seem a bit funnier.

    1. Heffer said he was inundated with complaints when he first criticised the Great Postie in print - there's evidently a lot of you out there!

      How the hell do you get through that lot every few years? I'm surprised you ever manage to leave the house. Anyway, it doesn't invalidate my point - I rarely reread literary novels, but I've happily reread my favourite Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Bertie Wooster novels and short stories many times - as well as those by the SF writer Alfred Bester. I think the only 19th century novels I've read twice are "Wuthering Heights" and "The Moonstone" (the former I regard as literature, the latter as entertainment).

      Around the time I read Barchester Towers, I also read Barnaby Rudge and Our Mutual Friend (at your suggestion) for the first time, and both books are now firmly lodged in my subconscious. I remember enjoying Barchester Towers - it just didn't stick in the same way as the others. As for basing my opinion of Trollope on a thin sliver of evidence - I'm aware that there's a lot of historical literature I've never got round to (I still haven't read a single 19th century French novel to its end), and I'm not getting any younger, so the major writers I haven't read get one chance, and I've got a longish "To Do" list. (Although I did manage to complete Shakespeare last night - unfortunately ending with"Merry Wives of Windsor" which is a rare old clunker.)

      Reading anything that reminds me of the current state of the Church of England just makes me sad. Almost any statement by any of its bishops makes me quietly despair - which isn't really what I want from my church leaders. I've often been tempted to go full RC - but they're even more goofily left-wing, and if Pope Francis has a direct line to God, I suggest he phones BT, because something's definitely gone wrong at the exchange.

  3. Very interesting post. Thanks for Heffer link.

    If I am allowed to include the Colossus of Caledonia amongst great Victorian novelists what strikes one is their sheer back-breaking industry. Jane Austen never stopped writing and revising and died at 41 [nobody knows of what]. The Lion of Abbotsford wrote constantly with the creditors in the hall because of the threat of bankruptcy and died at 61. Thackeray died at 52 [was Vanity Fair longer than War & Peace?] and Dickens basically worked himself to death and went at 58.

    As for Trollope, he was up every morning at exactly 4 a.m. to write and then he went off to run the Post Office [as well as being an avid fox-hunter in his spare time].He lasted to age 67. No wonder the men did not have time to shave or trim their beards [I cannot speak for George Eliot. She died at 61].

    I am with ex-KCS on this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the six Barsetshire novels. Struggled through "Can You Forgive Her?" [had problems with somebody being called Plantagenet] and then a friend gave me the 1974 "Palliser" TV series and I was hooked and then thoroughly enjoyed the novel "The Way We Live Now". If Trollope had been born a century later he would have earned huge sums as a screenwriter - his works seem to be eminently filmable.

    1. Who's the C of C? Sir Walter Scott? Or is he the L of A?

      Mind you, French novelists were no slouches either: "Like a lot of people, coffee was Honoré de Balzac’s poison. But we’re not talking the odd espresso. He would drink vast quantities of black coffee, ensuring that he could write through the day and into the night, once clocking in 48 hours straight." This led to endless health problems and he died at 51. As for Victor Hugo: "In order to stave off procrastination Victor Hugo wrote both Les Misérables and The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame in the altogether. Being nude meant he wouldn’t be able to leave his house. As a safety measure, he’d also instruct his valet to hide his clothes." Hugo wrote 20 pages a day. Didn't do him any harm, as he died aged 83. I don't know if he was big coffee drinker.

      The English writer R.F. Delderfield (family sagas) wrote 33 pages a day (I assume a page is 250 words, but it could be more) ending at 4pm on the dot. If he finished a novel before that time - even 20 minutes early - he'd stick a new page in the typewriter and would immediately begin his next book.

      When I was trying to become a successful writer I bought a book about how to become a successful writer by the bestselling American horror novelist Dean Koontz. On the first page he stated that no writer worth his salt ever spent less than ten hours a day at his desk either actually writing, or staring at a blank page waiting for inspiration to strike. I stopped reading it at that point, and started looking at other career opportunities.

      I agree with your point about Trollope as a successful screenwriter - in particular, television drama: Dickens and Wilkie Collins would have mopped up as well, especially as they wrote their novels in serial form for periodicals.

    2. Two quick additional observations. I believe there are as many different approaches to the discipline of writing as there are writers. Some are compulsive, some require compulsion. I don't believe either kind makes the better writer.

      As for the length of time Victorian writers spent lashed to the mast, they didn't have the great time vampire of the Internet to distract them did they? Time has never been easier to waste.

    3. French novelists were no slouches either ...

      That's one way of putting it.

      "C'est fatigant de faire l'amour trois fois par jour", Victor Hugo confided to his diary.

    4. The absence of Twitter might indeed have helped the Victorians, GCooper, but they really were an extraordinarily energetic bunch. Whether he was in London or Kent, Dickens walked an average of 12 miles a day! (Today, a novelist would be more likely to tweet that fact about Dickens with LOL or FFS added.)

      Was that with Mrs. Hugo, Mr. Moss? Or did he have to waste time hunting down prostitutes, as George (upwards of - or with - 10,000 women) Simenon?

      I'd love to have seen Harold Macmillan's expression when John F. Kennedy told him that he had to have sex at least every three days, or he got a headache. I'd like to think he replied, "Yes, I experience that problem if denied the opportunity to read Aeschylus for a similar period."

    5. I understand that Mr Hugo bestowed his inspiration widely.

      There was an article in the Telegraph the other day about a Dickens letter up for auction.

      Miss Marryat, daughter of Wimbledon's famous Capt, sent him a story for publication and asked if he would give her some improving tips otherwise.

      She caught him on a bad day ...

      ... and he sent back a three-page screamer saying the story didn't meet the high standards of his magazine and no he wouldn't giver any tips and suppose every hopeless scribbler importuned him like this, etc ...

      She seems to have taken the reproof in her stride. That was in 1860. She died in 1899 with 68 novels to her name.


      This huge output of the Victorians does begin to look like a function of the times. Is it something they didn't put in the water then?

    6. If Twitter of Faceache were the only distractions the Internet offers it wouldn't be so bad.

      We mustn't overlook the prodigious letter writing, either - several times a day, back and forth to the same person on occasion, thanks to the wonderful Victorian postal service!

      I wouldn't like to be a biographer in 10 years. Where would one find a future victim's emails and text messages?

    7. I suppose having people to do your shopping, cooking, ironing, dusting, gardening etc, a distinctly hand-off approach to parenting (including packing the little blighters off to boarding school), no television or radio, as well as no internet, and no cars to muck about in, hardly any forms to fill in (because almost nothing was regulated), all must have helped a bit. But I suspect Mr. Moss is right, and it was more to do with the peculiarly energetic, go-getting spirit of the age - and possibly the threat of being mown down by any one of a huge list of untreatable illnesses at any moment spurred them on a bit. (By way of contrast, I've just read four Chekhov plays on the trot and none of the blighters ever does anything apart from moan about how they'd rather be in Moscow and how meaningless their lives are - they occasionally threaten to kill themselves, but rarely summon the energy to do so. You get the sense that the spirit of the age - so apparent in America, Britain and many Northern European countries never quite reached Russia.)

  4. Judging by the number of comments this excellent literary post has elicited appears to indicate that Mr.Gronmark's occasional ennui is thankfully not too deep- rooted.I've never read Trollope-the name puts me off,but if i find myself getting a trifle bored with it all,returning to those old faithfuls like Dickens can work wonders;and there is always the Orwell fix.

    1. I've got an (almost) complete set of Orwell's non-fiction writings (I'm not talking about the Penguin essay compilations, but an endless series of books that include every damn thing he ever wrote - including things like notes to the landlady), and when I really can't settle on anything I either reach for one of those or a Wodehouse novel.