Anthony Ogus is a retired academic lawyer and an Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Rotterdam. He is an elected Fellow of the British Academy and was awarded the CBE in 2002. Since retirement, his creative activities have focussed on writing on opera (he has published a book Travels with my Opera Glasses and contributes regularly to the Opera Now magazine) and on recording audio books (including four Trollope novels) for the website LibriVox.
My first encounter with Trollope was at school, Barchester Towers being a set text for A Level English. Although I enjoyed the novel, I cannot say that it made a deep impression on me for, apart from The Warden during my student days, I was not tempted to acquire further experience of the author until I was in my late forties. Then, when I was working in California, an American friend expressed surprise that I had consumed so little of what was for her the richest pickings of English literature. And so, within the next few years, I absorbed the whole of the Barchester and Palliser series and was completely hooked. I ought to add that not a small influence on my conversion was Timothy West’s enormously compelling commercial recording of these series. The CDs in question had the same impact on my first wife who was French and as a result she, too, became a Trollope-lover. It is a matter of no small poignancy that during the last months of her terminal illness, I spent many hours reading Trollope to her.
Almost all of my tally of forty-six Trollope novels – as well as his autobiography – were then devoured during my “mature” years. I do not think that this is surprising. In my younger days, I wanted literature to challenge traditional values and to explore cultural and social landscapes outside those with which I was most familiar, and this may be true of younger people generally. It may also be the case that one is, at an earlier age, less appreciative of elegant Victorian prose style of which Trollope is such a master.
Of course, by beginning in Barchester and with the Pallisers and then exploring the more highly regarded and weighty examples of Trollope fiction, such as The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, with their focus on wealth and the landed gentry, one derives the false impression that the author could only write effectively about these areas of English society. The falsity was exposed when I delved into The Golden Lion of Gran’père (France) and Harry Heathcote of Grangoil (Australia), but most of all by his treatment of Ireland and the poorer communities there in his very early novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran as well as the later An Eye for an Eye.
By way of extension to this theme, I have to admit that a barrier to my enthusiasm for Trollope has always been the anti-Semitism which is apparent in a number of his works. But those who are rightly critical of this feature in his writing tend to overlook Nina Balatka which offers a very sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish community in Prague, suggesting that Trollope was not incapable of recognising prejudice and presenting both sides of a problem or argument. Indeed, one of the attractive features of his novels is the care he takes to force the principal characters to churn over in their minds the various options they can take and to reason their way to action in one direction or another.
It is difficult to summarise succinctly what it is in Trollope’s writings which render them so appealing to readers a century and a half after they were published, but I shall try. There is, in the first place, the strength of characterisation of his protagonists, and this often combined with the warmth of the author’s identification with them that communicates itself immediately to his readers who then share that identification. Then, there is his skill in describing the various milieux of his stories. This might not attain the sharpness of Dickens and, as noted above, the subject-matter is typically (though not exclusively) limited in terms of social class and culture but Trollope succeeds in inducing a fascination with particular areas of Victorian life. With the Barchester novels, we become absorbed in the lives of the clergy – though not with religion – and with the Pallisers the lives of politicians – though not with political ideas. His long association with the Post Office enabled him to capture so vividly the workings of bureaucratic institutions and nowhere better than in his masterly Three Clerks which combines so effectively issues of love and friendship with the stuffiness but also perversity of government organisations.
Absorption in the world of the landed gentry, with their dynastic aspirations and their often convoluted family relations, may not have the same immediate appeal – and having a distaste for hunting I tend to skip the often lengthy passages devoted to this pastime – but, through humour and clever plotting, Trollope is typically able to overcome one’s initial resistance and secure one’s involvement, if only through the “will she? won’t she?” syndrome. And here we arrive at what may be an uncomfortable recognition, that enjoyment of much of his output is enhanced by, if not dependent on, that which has been the stuff of popular fiction for centuries.
Unquestionably my recording of some of Trollope’s novels has enriched my knowledge of, and added to my pleasure of reading, them. So, let me conclude this short article with an account of the experience. LibriVox is an American-based website which, using volunteers, provides at no charge access to recordings of literature no longer subject to copyright: https://librivox.org/
Such recordings are in some cases undertaken by a team of readers – in which case different chapters are read by different individuals – or a solo reader. Although consistency with the text and technical aspects are checked by a “proof listener”, the quality of the readings varies substantially, as is inevitable with volunteers. I must confess that when I first listened to some classics of English literature read with American accents, the anachronism was too strong for me. It provoked me to offer my own services.
To give myself some initial experience in reading before a microphone, I began with the contribution of a chapter to a team recording of The Golden Lion of Gran’père (https://librivox.org/the-golden-lion-of-granpere-by-anthony-trollope/). While I enjoyed this, the contrast between my interpretation of the characters and that of my fellow readers left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. So it became clear to me that I should go solo, my first such effort being H.G. Wells’ wonderful novel Kipps (https://librivox.org/kipps-by-h-g-wells/), chosen in part because I had confidence in reproducing appropriate South England working-class accents. The apparent success of this venture – at the time of writing this, it has achieved nearly 20,000 downloads – encouraged me to see how I would fare with Trollope.
Perhaps incautiously, I decided to go for a major novel which I had not previously read, The Three Clerks. The characterisation was not difficult, nor the accents necessary to achieve this, though I rashly assumed that, since the events took place in London, the barmaid to whom Charley, one of the three clerks, becomes engaged, was a Cockney. When, some chapters later, Trollope referred to her “Irish brogue”, I was forced to go back and rerecord all of her dialogue! The book is a long one and the recording (https://librivox.org/the-three-clerks-version-2-by-anthony-trollope/), which took the best part of nine months to complete, is nearly twenty-two hours in duration. Nevertheless, it was a most satisfying experience because, over such an extended period, one gets very close to the characters and their fate, as actors must do when performing on stage. It is also gratifying to be aware that one is making a book which one loves available to a wide audience – it has been downloaded by over 78,000 listeners.
Two other Trollope audio books which I recorded were less ambitious, but no less interesting. Nina Balatka (https://librivox.org/nina-balatka-by-anthony-trollope), as I have already indicated, is set in Prague and although the plot, a catholic Czech girl steadfastly sticking to and marrying her Jewish betrothed despite opposition from all quarters, is rather conventional and the characterisation a little thin, it carries a trenchant message, particularly for those who have been critical of Trollope’s treatment of Jews.
An Eye for an Eye is also a powerfully dramatic novella. Here the contrast is between the hero’s aristocratic and wealthy English background and that of the simple rural Irish girl whom he seduces. Her mother and the community in which they live is portrayed by Trollope with much understanding and affection. For a reason which I have not been able to identify, the recording (https://librivox.org/an-eye-for-an-eye-by-anthony-trollope/) has proved to my most popular, in terms of downloads – over 80,000. Perhaps the book is a set text in some American English literature programme.
My most recent Trollope recording, Alice Dugdale (https://librivox.org/alice-dugdale-by-anthony-trollope/), is of flimsier stuff. It is short and sweet, but the conventional tale of an elegant young man having to choose between his long-standing but humble village sweetheart and the daughter of a rich and noble local family does not extend the author’s creative capacity and one feels that, in writing it, he was almost on “automatic pilot”.
Will Trollope remain popular with future generations? My affection for his novels, and the knowledge that many others feel the same, are such that I am tempted to respond with an emphatic, Yes. If I have doubts, they arise less from any reservation about the quality of his output but rather from considerations which relate to the appreciation of culture more generally. I have already indicated that Trollope is better suited to the tastes of mature readers than to those of younger people. Many who, like me, came to read his novels in middle age might have done so because he was an acknowledged “classic” and one felt some compulsion to get to know the “classics”. I intuitively sense that there is much less such compulsion felt in our contemporary world. And that intuition is supported by observing how, for example, there has been a serious decline, over the last thirty years or so, in the range of classic drama being performed in our theatres. (For an elaboration of this, please read my blog http://www.anthonyogus.co.uk/state-of-theatre-in-england-the-classics/).
But let me not end on this despondent note. The Trollope Society will, I hope, continue to flourish and thereby foster enthusiasm for one of our literary giants.
Download Anthony Ogus’ LibriVox Recordings
- The Golden Lion of Granpère by Anthony Trollope
- Kipps by H.G. Wells
- The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
- Nina Balatka by Anthony Trollope
- An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope
- Alice Dugdale by Anthony Trollope
Visit Anthony Ogus’ website
Published July 2020