Still reading, reading. Turns out great big Victorian novels are the number one antidote to late-pregnancy frustration and psychosis, and Anthony Trollope is the great big leather daddy of great big Victorian novels. It doesn’t hurt that The Way We Live Now and Can You Forgive Her? would be excellent alternate titles for Charlie Ravioli, of course, but the reason I’m devouring my Trollope in huge chunks is that he gives great character. There’s a passage in The Eustace Diamonds where our antiheroine Lizzie is sitting in a garden, being all picturesque and reading a long poem of Shelley’s. She gets about twenty lines into it, wilfully misinterprets everything as a reference to herself and her situation, commits a line or two to memory then floats off, happily convinced, the narrator assures us, that she has really studied and made her own the entire text. As if that’s not damning (and funny) enough, the narrator adds that later in life she learns to choose the lines she commits to memory from the end of the poem rather than the beginning, as you only get credit for reading the poem up to your quotation from it, and not one line further.

It’s a fabulous scene because it demonstrates not only Lizzie’s shallowness but the exact shape and scale of her misapprehensions about the world she would like to be a part of: a world where she will be thought of as a creative, poetic soul but not one where that would involve actually, you know, reading and understanding the poem or anything strenuous like that. Yet the narrator isn’t unkind to Lizzie. He mocks her and pins her like a butterfly to a card, but he is actually quite a lot harder on our putative hero and heroine, Lucy Morris and Frank Greystock. Frank is one of a series of wholly useless and morally suspect romantic heroes that crop up regularly in the Trollope I’ve read so far: John Bold in The Warden is another and Paul Montague in The Way We Live Now is the exemplar of the type. What’s staggering about this series of indecisive, weak and malleable men is that they end up getting the girl.

I love this. Trollope doesn’t have good guys and bad guys, per se. Even Melmotte, who comes as close to a Trollopian villain as makes no never mind, is granted a lucid and sympathetic end. Trollope’s world is vast and sprawling and coherent from novel to novel. The same milieux and families crop up again and again. But there’s no hard line between morality and laxness, as Austen and Dickens have trained you to expect. Instead, there’s a series of fine judgments drawn out on a case-by-case basis. A person can do reprehensible things and still be a decent person, as in the case of Paul Montague’s hapless American fiance Mrs Hurtle. A person can be entirely admirable, the moral center of an entire novel, as is Montague’s cousin Roger Carbury, and Trollope will still see to it that he is condemned for being boring, and that his rival gets to carry off his sweetheart.

If I’ve noticed a couple of themes emerging in my own fiction, they are The Innocent Are Punished and The Guilty Walk Free. Turns out Trollope strip-mined this ethical terrain a century and a half before I stumbled over his tailings, but I’m delighted to concede his priority, especially with another forty-odd novels to wallow in. (Shameful confession: most days I’d rather read than write.) His narrative line is often convoluted, he meanders, he overuses the dramatic coincidence and in general he could use a thorough edit, but none of this is remotely surprising considering that, like his contemporaries Dickens, Oliphant and Thackeray, he was writing serials for magazines. I should concede at once that he’s a darling of the Tories and anathema to the Marxists because he’s considered retrogressive and narrow in his concerns, confining his interests to the behaviour of spoiled rich English people. Of course, both kinds of critics take their quotes from near the beginnings of his books. Anyway, Trollope’s way ahead of them, having already skewered the complacent and the meaninglessly revolutionary in lines our critics will no doubt assume do not refer to the likes of them. Satire is a cracked glass in which we are liable to see every face but our own. I wish I’d said that.

Trollope is part of one big block of reading I’m doing at the moment, sort of Late Imperial Thought (or What Were They Thinking?): I also have Roy Jenkins’ monumental Churchill biography on my to-read list. This is all essentially background reading for a more specific project I have under way, about Ada Lovelace’s daughter. A third line of inquiry is around the same period, but local: I’ve just picked up Imperial San Francisco and a biography of Julia Morgan. Now all I need is vast chunks of time to assimilate it all. I’d better not do anything rash like, I don’t know, have a baby or anything…

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