Classics for Non-Intellectuals: Who Is Your Favorite Victorian Writer?

The deepest book I’ve read all summer…

This summer I’ve written about effervescent classics by P. G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Patricia Moyes.  Where, you may wonder, are my rants on modern mores? Where my extravagant enthusings about Ovid’s epic? Well, the daily news is so dreadful that I now focus strictly on the light and whimsical. After skimming The New York Times, I want to quaff a Wodehouse cocktail, drink a von Arnim cup of coffee, or sip a liqueur at a 1960s party in a Moyes mystery.

Mind you, I haven’t abandoned the traditional classics. I am currently devouring (or quaffing) an 800-page Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope.

I am a mad Trollope fan.  He is, I always say, the greatest Victorian writer for non-intellectuals . He is not a master of rhetoric like Dickens, nor is he a an elegant stylist like Eliot, but he is consistently solid and intelligent. His understanding of politics, psychology, and finance is curiously modern. The best of his well-plotted novels never go out-of-date.

I am loving Trollope’s Orley Farm, a neglected novel about a lawsuit against a fascinating widow, Lady Mason, who was cleared of the charge of forging a codicil to her husband’s will 20 years ago.  She won the case, and her son Lucius, then a baby, inherited Orley Farm. Now the case has been reopened, and Lady Mason’s 60-year-old lawyer, who is half in love with her, realizes she is guilty, though he won’t admit it.  Her 70-year-old neighbor, Sir Peregrine Orme, is so outraged by the accusations and convinced of her innocence that he proposes marriage to her, hoping his own name will protect her.  Ironically, it is her Oxford-educated son, Lucius, the beneficiary of the forged codicil,  who caused the reopening of the case by revoking the tenancy of two fields long rented by Mr. Dockwrath, a lawyer.  Furious,  Mr Dockwrath reviews the legal papers in the case and digs up new evidence to get revenge.   And Mr. Mason, Sir Joseph Mason’s son by his first marriage, is eager to dislodge Lady Mason.

Orley Farm is Trollope’s Bleak House, and in a way Lady Mason is Trollope’s Lady Dedlock, though Lady Dedlock’s sin is that of having a baby out of wedlock, while Mason committed a financial crime.  Although we readers do not approve of Lady Mason’s actions, she is mostly a sympathetic character, and complex in a way that those on the right side of the law are not.  Trollope realistically describes her weariness, depression, fearfulness, and remorse, as well as her failure to act in any way that might hurt her son.  But there is a huge cast of characters, and love and marriage as well as money are at the center.

The novel is brilliant, if you can get past the first 30 rambling pages.  Trollope has a problem with beginnings, and I was dismayed by this one. But then he gets a grip, and suddenly his prose smoothes out and he fascinates us with his distinctive character portraits.   Doctor Thorne, one of my other favorites, also suffers from Bad Beginning Syndrome.

Although I know there are many, many Trollope fans out there, because we all went a little crazy during the bicentenary in 2015, we all have our own favorite Victorian writers.  Who is yours?

18 thoughts on “Classics for Non-Intellectuals: Who Is Your Favorite Victorian Writer?

  1. I love Trollope. He’s the Victorian author whose books I’ve read the most–there’s so much of him! But I also love Elizabeth Gaskell, whose Wives and Daughters and North and South are among my favorite books to reread, even though they both have their weaknesses. The die-off of characters in North and South seems excessive and plot driven, for instance.
    I’m also a fan of George Gissing, although I’ve only read three of his books. New Grub Street and The Odd Women are two books I want to read again.

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    • I do have a hard time naming favorites. I’m going with Trollope, because, as you say, there’s so much of him! And though he writes well, his plain language doesn’t get in the way, as sometimes Dickens’s rhetorical flourishes do. Really I like all the Victorians you name, but since I’m reading Trollope right now he’s my favorite.
      Charlotte Bronte is doubtless my real favorite, but I’ve read her four books over and over and over and over and over…you get it!

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  2. Orley Farm is a strong book. But even books that present themselves as light have an inner gravitas that makes them riveting works of genius. It takes quite a talent to appear light and yet not be: I’m referring to Ayala’s Angel. We are reading it as a group on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io just now. I’ll be reading in the spring with a group at the OLLI at Mason Can You Forgive Her?

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    • Yes, Trollope is so talented and he can do it all. Some years back I read and enjoyed Ayala’s Angel, but since I remember very little about it I could now read it as a brand new book! And I know the OLLI group will be thrilled by your expertise on Trollope.

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  3. I join you in enthusiasm for all these writers I like Eliot for moral courage, Dickens for fun, and Trollope for understanding of the real world of money and politics. It’s a long-term project to read all of Trollope while I can still open my eyes. I have just finished Ayala’s Angel which I recommend for its realistic take of the problem of women from respectable families who have no money. Hint: they cannot work for a living so they must marry. As to beginnings, I find it helpful that Trollope lays out at the start who is related to whom and where the money is.

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    • I love the way you identify the writers with different qualities! There IS a lot of Trollope, and after finding an almost complete set of Oxford paperbacks at the Planned Parenthood Sale I powered through a lot of it but there is always more left!. I am going to put Ayala’s Angel on my reread list, because even though I read it years ago I have only the vaguest memories of it.

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  4. I think Trollope is my favorite. I can always depend on him for a good story. I’ve only read two of Gaskell’s books and they were very different from each other. I read Cranford and loved it. Then I read North and South. I didn’t really like it at all, maybe because I expected it to be funny and light like Cranford.

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    • Trollope vs. Gaskell. It’s a tough one! Trollope IS entertaining, and is a distraction from real life. So is Cranford, which doesn’t really fit in with Gaskell’s other books, which are very serious, so I can see you’d be put off by her industrial novel.

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  5. Trollope’s Orley Farm and Can You Forgive Her are both wonderful. Do not miss Lady Anna! (Much shorter than his usual tomes.)

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  6. Trollope is definitely my favourite. I particularly love the Palliser novels, which I think are just about due for a re-read. His grasp of politics is amazing and still relevant today in terms of the way in which much of the psychology is played out.

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  7. A Victorian poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, who wrote a couple of fine verse novels in hexameters (yes! this is true!), The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich and Amours de Voyage.

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  8. Pingback: Not Long Enough: Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope – mirabile dictu

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