Sunday, August 28, 2016

Money, class, luck and boredom: Trollope's convincing world

The Small House at Allington (Chronicles of Barsetshire #5)The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington is the fifth of Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, and is John Major’s favourite novel.

This is a long book: 845 pages in my OUP World’s Classics edition. But Trollope knows how to keep his readers guessing to the end. As in life, things don’t work out as neatly as in musicals.

Indeed, Trollope’s story draws the reader in with its realism. Good characters have their faults and bad ones their virtues. Only on the fringes of the story does Trollope allow himself to skip the nuances. So there are passing references to a Mr Optimist and a Mr Fiasco, minor civil servants. But only a step closer to the main narrative we meet, for instance, a minor character, an official called Mr Butterwell with a convincing hinterland: he “had walked his path in life discreetly. At the age of thirty-five he had married a lady with some little fortune, and now lived a pleasant, easy life in a villa in Putney.”

It is easy to imagine Trollope drawing inspiration from his Post Office colleagues for such details. Similarly, he must have drawn on his knowledge of London for the subtle gradations of status of its various districts. Young Crosbie picks a house for himself and his fiancĂ©e in (the fictional) Princess Royal Crescent, “a very fashionable row of buildings abutting upon the Bayswater Road,” which boasts a view of Hyde Park from one end. The house wasn’t ideal: “the street being unfinished had about it a strong smell of mortar …but nevertheless, it was acknowledged to be quite a correct locality.” And it could have been worse: “we know how vile is the sound of Baker Street, and how absolutely foul to the polite ear is the name of Fitzroy Square.” The bride’s family was paying, so the groom didn’t get his choice, which was Pimlico. That was rejected after the bride had a warning from a friend: “For heaven’s sake, my dear, don’t let him take you anywhere beyond Eccleston Square!”

Equally convincing is Trollope’s meticulous recording of the financial constraints which have such a powerful hold on his characters. Young John Eames starts work in London with a salary of 80 pounds a year plus an allowance of 20 from his mother. At the other end of the spectrum, Plantagenet Palliser receives seven thousand a year from his uncle. As a rough rule of thumb, it feels as though money can be multiplied by a hundred to bring it into today’s world – putting Eames on £10,000 a year and Palliser on £700,000.

The negotiating of jobs, houses and marriages determined people’s lives. If they got it right, they could look forward to decades of security and respectability. But as Trollope shows so vividly with young Lily Dale, a blameless girl of modest means, if you put a step wrong, or are unlucky enough to be treated badly, the consequences are devastating.

Even with apparently good luck, the road to respectability can be tough. A young married couple who hardly know each other are thrown together. If they haven’t the means to entertain or even be entertained (which means arriving and leaving a social event in an expensive carriage), life can be agonisingly dull. Crosbie and his wife, who can’t afford to honeymoon in Paris, discover that six weeks in a hotel in Folkestone, starting in the middle of February, can be quite a test. As Trollope comments drily: “all holiday-making is hard work, but holiday-making with nothing to do is the hardest work of all.”

After Folkestone, life off the Bayswater Road was even more boring for the Crosbies. There was no money to go riding in Hyde Park: “she would tell her husband that she never got out, and would declare, when he offered to walk with her, that she did not care for walking in the streets. ‘I don’t exactly see, then, where you are to walk,’ he once replied.”

Trollope’s virtuosity is not as self-conscious as Dickens’; his set pieces are vivid and engaging but our attention is seldom drawn from the story to the writer. It’s true that Trollope often addresses his reader with a companionable comment on his own work, but it’s never self-dramatising: “of whom else is it necessary that a word or two should be said before I allow the weary pen to fall from my hand?” If Trollope’s social range is a little less spectacular than Dickens’, the ground he covers is rendered with complete solidity. The Small House at Allington feels like a true story, perhaps a little polished in the telling, but true nonetheless. At the end of the book, it’s hard not to wonder how Squire Dale, Eames, Crosbie, Belle and Mrs Dale are doing.

John Major must surely have seen himself as Eames, the hardworking, brave, honourable young man who found himself moving in wealthier circles of higher social standing. Huntington sounds like Allington but it can't be that neat.

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