Friday, September 21, 2007

The Palliser Novels

I remember my mom giggling over Barchester Towers when I was a teenager, but I was not at all intrigued. At the time I was interested in sterner authors than Anthony Trollope, such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

But this spring my roommates and I got hooked on the 1974 Pallisers miniseries. It was like a Victorian soap opera. We always wanted to know what would happen next, even though the makeup was hideous and the music sounded like an old phonograph and the drama all took place in drawing rooms or Parliament. That doesn't sound like a recommendation, but it just goes to show how transcendently good Trollope was as a writer.

So I picked up the first Palliser novel (there are six) and it was even better than the TV show. Trollope's novels are like beautiful jewelry. His writing is extraordinarily controlled and nuanced, like a delicate filligree setting, and his characters are like small, perfect precious stones (not sparkly ones, like emeralds and diamonds, but pearly ones like jade and opal). There are so many characters in these novels that the Oxford University Press edition actually provides a character index in the back of each volume. And yet each character is unique, and conceived in detail. Their actions are described and explained down to the smallest motive, and are almost always consistent with their personalities.

Then, each novel consists of not just a main plot but several subplots, and all the plots are pretty much the same. We have love stories, thwarted-love stories, social climbing, social falling, and politics (which should be boring, but is somehow absorbing in these tales). The subplots are the same and yet not the same, because each one is just a little different from all the other ones. I don't know how Trollope kept all these things straight. He must have been a wide-ranging observer of human beings.

He wrote a huge number of novels, I'm happy to say, which means I can read one a year for the rest of my life, or something like that.

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