Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels: I’ve read them, so you don’t have to

Can You Forgive Her? (1865)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1880)

When I was mad keen on all things Celtic, I remember being hugely amused by a scribe’s marginal note which went something like this: “Here endeth the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. The longest, most tedious work ever written. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God!”

This was pretty much my reaction to reaching the end of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Chronicles.

One of the good things about being ill all summer has been the opportunity to engage in some extended reading projects. I’ve always meant to read Palliser. Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles were the first grown-up classic novels I read. Warm, gently insightful and frequently hilarious, the cathedral precincts and rural parishes of Barchester with that subtle and loveable characters remain amongst my favourite fictional escapes. The first one, The Warden, was the inspiration for my modern retelling, “Ursula. The Last Chronicle of Barset is on a short list of novels which have made me cry.

So I decided it was high time I read Trollope’s other series. Written after Barchester, and dealing with the grander world of national politics, rather than the politics of an English diocese, I have heard them spoken of as the greater of the two. I found they were longwinded, humourless, snobbish, and shallowly sententious. That is (according to Kindle timings) 74 hours of my life I will never get back.

There are endless minor variations on the same handful of plot devices and character types. The narratives all hinge, not on any events or revelations, but on one character remaining unerringly and unreasonably stubborn until the denoument where they suddenly and inexplicably relent. Most depressingly, the only characters with a fragment of personality and pluck, Bergo Fitzgerald, Mrs Sexty Parker and Major Tifto, all fall victim to their own personality flaws and the grinding inevitability of the narratives, and all have their loose ends tied up by being made pensioned objects of aristocratic charity, with no hope of rising in the world again. The reader is supposed to be satisfied.

The final novel, The Duke’s Children, has a little more spark than the rest. At last, the comedy that pervades Barchester makes an appearance as election candidates go canvassing in pouring rain. The relationship of the shy and geeky Duke of Omnium, whose career we have followed throughout the series, with his grown-up children, is sweetly and delicately portrayed.

Yet one cannot dismiss the suspicion that Trollope created the love-interests in The Duke’s Children, the noble but low-born Frank Treagar and the angelic American Isabel Boncassen, to atone for his deeply snobbish treatment of the characters in the previous novel, The Prime Minister. The hero Arthur Fletcher, blonde, loyal, principled, with a landed pedigree going back to the Normans; and anti-hero Ferdinand Lopez, dark, charming, lying, obsessed with money, of obscure Portuguese parentage, are a shocking pair of feeble racist stereotypes.

If you get as far as The Duke’s Children you are doing well. You have to wade through the first one, Can You Forgive Her? nicknamed at the time, Can You Finish It? Phineas Finn is innocuous enough, and if you survive the cast of unpleasant characters which populate The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison. After struggling through the unpleasantnesses of The Prime Minister, one hopes that genial and now mature statesman Finn might make play some part in The Duke’s Children. He doesn’t.

I realise I did not read these novels as Trollope intended. They were the soap operas of the day, published in instalments over fifteen years in magazines. They served a purpose at the time: they made money, and passed the time of bored Victorians. The commercial nature of the project is evident in the numerous hunting scenes, which are by far the most exciting episode in the books. Trollope does not conceal his moral qualms about hunting: the swathes of land designated to aristocratic pleasure, the harsh crackdowns on poaching, the worldly pretension, display and waste of the whole charade. But he can write a gripping gallop over the fences, so he cannot resist doing it again and again, with only the mildest of authorial censure.

Our descendants may well acknowledge that Eastenders, Neighbours or The Archers were great cultural institutions of our time. Someone might well read through the entire scripts and write an interesting PhD on them. But we would not expect these compositions to be widely read as literature.

Everyone should read Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. But don’t read his Palliser Chronicles. I did, so you don’t have to.