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.Reuse content