Friday, June 12, 2009

Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope


It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel by Anthony Trollope. The first novel I ever read by him was the classic The Way We Live Now. Framley Parsonage is the fourth in the series of Barsetshire novels that examine English clerical life. Trollope wrote six novels in the Barsetshire series. His other famous series is the Palliser novels which dealt with political life, of which he also wrote six.

I picked this novel up because I saw it in the new releases section at my library, and I love reading a new Penguin edition. I can’t remember how many of the Barsetshire novels I’ve read. I thought I’d read them all, but having finished Framley Parsonage, I now know I hadn’t read this one.

Let me say at the outset that I thoroughly loved this book. How wonderful it is to find a book where you enjoy reading so much. I sensed I was onto a good thing when I read the opening quote in the introduction from the wonderful Mrs Gaskell:

‘I wish Mr Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage forever. I don’t see any reason why it should ever come to an end, and everyone I know is always dreading the last number.’

Mrs Gaskell is referring to the Cornhill Magazine, in which the novel was serialised. This was the first novel that Trollope wrote as a serial, and he had to tailor his writing style to the format. This new edition follows closely the original Cornhill Magazine text, and highlights the actual instalments numbers as they were published.

Of all novelists I’ve ever read, the Victorian Trollope always comes across as the most modern. Framley Parsonage could be published tomorrow and it wouldn't at all seem out of date.

How does he do it? Trollope had me thinking on this as I continued to turn the pages. He has an admirably simple and straightforward writing style that transcends time and literary fashions. His writing is like a freshly laundered white linen sheet: plain yet fresh and clean. Trollope was always excessively modest about his writing, claiming that anyone could write a novel if they put their mind to it. No wonder then that the reader of his novels doesn't feel intimidated by a grandiloquence of literary style. Trollope removes these barriers and makes the reader feel able to walk directly into his world.

The main reason, however, that I think Trollope comes across as so modern is due to the attention he pays to character and psychology, and moreover, the small dramas of everyday life. It constantly amazed me during Framley Parsonage how Trollope would describe the emotional reactions his characters have when dealing with life’s day to day dramas, and I would think, that’s happened to me, or that’s how I would respond. In short, I think Trollope describes plain psychological truths, irrelevant of gender or social status.

Indeed, it must be said, Trollope gives his women characters the same psychological interior accorded his male characters. Like Shakespeare, Trollope seems to think men and women are basically intellectual equals. Women are not treated as a lesser sex in Trollope. This, for me, has always made the hundreds of pages of dialogue between his male and female characters immensely satisfying and real. Echoing Virgina Woolf’s dictum on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Trollope writes books for grown-ups.

Another point on Trollope’s characters. He doesn’t paint uber-villians or angelic like heroes or heroines. His people are regular mortals who succumb to weakness then right themselves once they learn better. Even some of the more unsavoury characters in Framley Parsonage Trollope urged his readers not to judge too harshly.

There are so many great places to start with Anthony Trollope’s fiction. This is certainly one of them. It’s a great page-turner of a read, and surprisingly topical, as it deals in large part with the type financial jiggery-pokery that has brought our own financial system screeching to a halt. Trollope informs readers that they can have their cake and eat it too, if only they will restrain their greed and live within their means. Sound financial advice for today!

Beyond that, Framlely Parsonage is a moral tale of how the vanity of attaining social eminence, and the desire to run with fashionable crowds, in the end leads to emptiness and in some cases, personal ruin. Trollope promotes forgiveness and personal advancement by way of learning from our mistakes.

No wonder this book was a favourite with Mrs Gaskell.

You can read my review of Trollope's The Small House at Allington here.

The novels in the Barsetshire series are:

* The Warden (1855)
* Barchester Towers (1857)
* Doctor Thorne (1858)
* Framley Parsonage (1861)
* The Small House at Allington (1864)
* The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

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