Classic Thoughts: Bozo peers in love: Jonathan Keates on Trollope mania and Framley Parsonage (1860)

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FROM HAVING been the most underrated Victorian novelist, Trollope has suddenly become the most overvalued. People you wouldn't give the time of day to - seedy ex-Cabinet ministers, Horatio Bottomley journos, pea-brained luvvies - come out strong for the old Post Office clerk, and everything but everything in his massively uneven oeuvre has slid back into print.

Much of it is middling stuff, the equivalent of a school-meal jam sponge: filling without being especially tasty or nutritious, the ideal comfort food for those frightened by serious fiction or else eager for the hierarchical certainties of Victorian fantasy-land.

Framley Parsonage, however, the fourth of his Barsetshire series, is the kind of novel I wish I'd written, a benchmark of Trollope's magically artless art, fashioned with that quiet certainty of moral focus which is his sublime gift. The story of a socially ambitious clergyman who runs into debt and courts disgrace, it is one of those potently elastic fables whose strength is tested by a wealth of possible interpretations. A bourgeois parable? A gloomshadowed English pastoral? A survival manual for Victorian gentlemen?

My own apprehension of this funny, lucid, compassionate book so doggedly grounded in truth (despite the cheeky mock-fairytale title of its final chapter 'How They Were All Married, Had Two Children And Lived Happily Ever After') is as a hymn to women and men's need of them.

Trollope's women are often more satisfyingly real to me than the martyr-missionaries of the Brontes and George Eliot, and in Framley Parsonage they are the moral referees: feisty Lucy Robarts who gets her man; Miss Dunstable, frumpy and common, who finds hers as a reward for always saying exactly what she means; Lady Lufton dosing snobbery with her need to love; and Mrs Proudie well on the way towards becoming the wonderful tragic grotesque Trollope makes of her in The Last Chronicle Of Barset.

A single episode crystallises the author's genius. As Griselda Grantly, a crinolined iceberg, leaves for her honeymoon hitched to a bozo peer, her grandfather Mr Harding, Trollope's ultimate ethical touchstone, warns her gently that she will only find happiness through doing good to others. 'Being a countess - that fact alone won't make you happy.'

Griselda's answer, by its total incomprehension, damns her with spiritual emptiness. 'Lord Dumbello at present is only a viscount. There is no earl's title in the family.' At such moments Trollope drops his industriously maintained pose as English fiction's favourite man-on-the-Clapham-omnibus to reveal a great artist.