Sunday, October 7, 2007

Literary Smackdown: Dickens Vs. Trollope

I've just been going through a little Dickenso-mania here. That's just to say, I've been reading some Dickens.

I hated Dickens when I was made to read his books in high school. A Tale of Two Cities: I could not get through it. Hard Times: I found it boring and stupid.

Looking back on it, I think, "Why those particular books?" I mean, the Dickens books I've enjoyed most as an adult have been Bleak House and David Copperfield. Both of these are more interesting, funnier, and way more enjoyable than Hard Times.

My guess is that they assign Hard Times because it's, you know, the right length. Which is a seriously dumb reason.

Also, it's not obvious that Dickens is suited to a young audience. The humor is allusive and subtle. The stories often involve political sentiments that are of no interest to your average 14-year-old.

Anyway, the past few months I've read some more Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations. I reread David Copperfield. I reread Hard Times.

Charles Dickens at work, via Wikipedia.

Here's the thing. I come to Dickens with a set of complex prejudices, arising from the fact that I am a huge, and hugely partisan, Trollope fan.

For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts: Dickens and Trollope both wrote in nineteenth-century England. Dickens's books often feature important poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment.

Trollope's books feature pretty much only aristocrats, and they tell the characters stories with incredible verisimilitude. They focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper? How is England's social and political world changing?

Dickens is taken way more seriously these days. Friends in literature departments often poo-poo Trollope as a lightweight: a sort of early soap-opera writer. And almost any North American bookstore will have about ten Dickens books and maybe one or two by Trollope.

It is my belief that this is totally unfair. Trollope, I believe, is actually a better and more serious writer. (Actually I think all literary judgments are subjective. But you know what I mean: I mean I love Trollope and maybe some other people should too.)

The main reason for the difference in respect up to now, as far as I can tell, is class and politics. Dickens saw his writing as a way of changing society, not just as an entertaining diversion. He was an egalitarian, right-thinking, progressive guy.

Trollope was socially and politically kind of conservative. He saw his writing as a way of entertaining readers, making money for himself, and encouraging virtuous behavior in readers. Women, he claimed, would always be made to behave more modestly from reading his books rather than less modestly. He was against women's rights, and in many ways against the dismantling of the British class system he saw happening around him.

OK. Score one (or two) for Dickens.

But. Trollope's characters are real. They are complicated. They are moved by various passions. The good guys are tempted to behave badly; the bad guys are often moved by impulses we sympathize with. Many characters are neither really good nor really bad but just muddling through. A lot like life.

Anthony Trollope. How great is this picture?

I love this, and I find it missing in Dickens. In comparison, Dickens's characters seem one-dimensional, cartoonish. There are lots of evil people who are just evil. No one knows why. There are a few good people who are just good. No one knows how they got that way. The evil people seem like aliens.

I'd say Dickens is at his best when he has a narrator who is encountering these aliens and trying to work things out -- like in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Then the hero is a real person. But he still encounters a lot of cartoonish people.

Trollope's books often center on some conflict that has some justice on both sides. In The Warden a kind and sensible old man is being overpaid, through no fault of his own, out of a charity fund. Should he be exposed to ridicule in a system overhaul that will ultimately leave everyone worse off? Or should the arrangement continue based on a lie?

Many of these conflicts concern cases in which some cultural system (inheritance laws, class-marriage customs, money arrangements) clashes with some individual's needs. An aristocrat spends himself into poverty and can't simply go to work; a young man and woman fall in love despite class differences; a woman yearns to be involved in public life but cannot without risking her life's happiness.

Trollope conveys the desires of these individual with passion. He thus seems to doubt the wisdom of the cultural arrangements themselves. So to deny him the "progressiveness" of Dickens is unjust.

It is true that Trollope seems to offer no particular solutions. He doesn't seem to think young people should marry without their parents' approval, but he doesn't seem to think they should refrain either. If you marry without love you'll regret it, but if you marry for love, you may well regret it also.

This is a sharp contrast to Dickens, who seems to suggest that more equality and respect would just make the world a better place.

I don't see that this is a failing for Trollope, though. Some problems have no easy solutions; the clash of needs between cultures and individuals is never simple, and everyone has experienced it.

Many of the conflicts that interested Trollope the most seem to involve the role of women in society. The women in Trollope's books are as richly drawn as the men. They frequently want the same sorts of things men want: power, money, happiness, significance. They can only achieve or even pursue these things through marriage, except in very unusual cases. Sometimes, this makes them very unhappy.

Trollope's obsessive desire to portray the world as he saw it, I believe, led him to ascribe to women dissatisfaction with their dependence, whatever his personal views. This makes his books some of the most powerful feminist books there are. Although Dickens is insightful and hilarious describing the folly of a young man falling for a pretty young thing, the "good woman" for him is mostly just kind and warm and sensible about the home.

Nathanial Hawthorne wrote to Trollope that Trollope's books were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case with all its inhabitants going about their daily business" (cited on p. 144 of Trollope's Autobiography).

That's exactly right.

Characters, conflict, and women: three power blows for Trollope. Looking over the Autobiography to write this, I found T said some of these things himself: "It has been the peculiarity and marvel of [Dickens's] power, that he has invested his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature" (p. 248). Oof!! Body Slam!


Captain Colossal said...

It reminds me of some class I had, where the teacher quoted Henry James's description of the Russian writers as "baggy monsters," and then suggested that of course we all knew now that the Russians were better. For, I think, some of the reasons people like Dickens.

Maybe they could be the undercard.

(Also, when I got to your point about Trollope's opposition to women's rights I was all "But . . ." until I came to the place where you discussed his actual female characters. Because I do think Trollope is better than most authors I read, including some female authors, in writing about women.)

Noko Marie said...

Interesting. An friend alterted me that James criticized Trollope for not taking his (Trollope's own) fiction seriously enough.

By the mircale of the interwebs, I was able to find the reference online: it's from James' "Art of Fiction," posted here.

James writes, "I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only "making believe." He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best."

I don't know what to say except these little asides have never undermined the "lump of clay" aspect for me.

Trollope is totally so great writing about women. I don't know how he did it! It's so weird when you read the Autobiography and there's like one sentence about his wife and almost none about any other female person. Amazing.