Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (1867); Linda Tressel (1867); Lady Anna (1874); Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874).
The words “sensational” and “exotic” are perhaps the last that any reader would apply to Anthony Trollope. His stories are set, by and large, in contemporary England, inhabited by recognizable English men and women obeying or defying the written and unwritten law’s of the English middle and upper class. Not even the occasional duel, suicide, theft or thrashing can overshadow the true drama of his best work, which is founded on the keen discernment of the interaction between individual character and social convention.
There are, however, exceptions. We consider here four Trollopian novels that are unusual in setting, if not always in theme.
In 1867, at a time when he was one of the best known and best selling authors in the world, Trollope conceived the idea of experimenting with anonymous publication, in order to find out whether the multitude bought his books for their literary excellence or merely for the “brand name” on the cover. Two slender novels, Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, were the result. Taken together, they offer a glimpse of a different Trollope from the familiar chronicler of politicians and parsons.
The two stories have much in common. Each is set in a foreign city that Trollope had recently visited (Nina in Prague, Linda in Nuremberg), with a plot centered on the impact of an aunt’s religious bigotry on a young woman’s marital prospects. In one, the zealous aunt is Roman Catholic and opposes her niece’s betrothal to a wealthy Jew. In the other, an Anabaptist aunt strives to promote a union between beautiful, wealthy Linda Tressel and a clownish, middle-aged bureaucrat.
Nina takes place in Prague, which Trollope had recently visited. There a gloomy imperial court (of Ex-Emperor Ferdinand, who had abdicated the Austrian throne after the revolution of 1848) presided over an almost medieval city, where the Jewish population, though possessing some degree of civic rights, still lived in a ghetto, and an unenlightened Christianity was a powerful social force.
The story that Trollope sets here, of the family-crossed romance between a young Catholic woman and a somewhat older Jewish merchant, seems far less daring and unconventional now than it did in 1867. The plot, too, is creaky, its mainspring a business about title deeds whose significance is obscure to the reader (and most likely to the author also).
Meticulous plotting and close fidelity to legal niceties are not, however, the virtues that one seeks in Trollope. His strengths lie in the portrayal of manners, emotions and character. In those respects, Nina Balatka is worthy of its author. It is also a testament to the power of his imagination. A single visit to Prague was scarcely sufficient to make him expert in the customs of the city’s Catholics and Jews. There are glaring improbabilities, chief among them that Anton, the eldest son of a wealthy father in a traditional Jewish community, should have reached his middle thirties as a bachelor. Nevertheless, this largely fanciful society coheres in the reader’s mind and seems almost as believable as Barsetshire or Gatherum Castle. The portrayal of the mutually hostile religious communities is especially effective, showing a broad range of attitudes in each camp. Nina and her fiancé are themselves complicated figures, for it takes a long time for their love to completely overcome prejudices instilled from childhood.
In Linda, by contrast, the dramatis personae - all odd ducks except for Linda herself - are simple souls who belong to comedy, and a work in that vein might have succeeded. Trollope chose, however, to write a tale that becomes progressively grimmer, eventually toppling the lightweight characters. The religious motif verges on the absurd. There are reasons why a 19th century Catholic family would revolt against a relative’s marriage to a Jew. There are none to move an Anabaptist to insist on linking her nearest kinswoman to a worldly boor. Indeed, the author does not have much notion of what “Anabaptists” are. (He seems to regard them as a species of Calvinist, which is about like labeling Ross Perot a “Republican”.) Religious bigotry detached from any recognizable religion can evoke only laughter, which is not the response that Linda Tressel is supposed to arouse.
The book was not a total failure. It drew praise from Henry James (who guessed the author’s identity from stylistic clues) and has both lively and pathetic moments. Nonetheless, it fails in those areas, characterization and setting, where Trollope usually is at his best.
Trollope’s experiment did not turn out particularly well. The mildly unusual settings and themes of these works could not hide his identity from alert critics, several of whom, like James, quickly pierced the veil of anonymity. On the other hand, readers were fooled and declined to buy, even though the reviews were generally positive. “Another ten years of unpaid unflagging labor might have built up a second reputation,” Trollope wrote in his autobiography, but “I could not at once induce English readers to read what I gave to them, unless I gave it with my name.” That is what he did thereafter, bringing the career of the “alternative Trollope” to an end.
In a rarity for Trollope, Lady Anna is set in the past, during the Reform Bill agitation of the 1830’s. The author declared once that it was “the best novel I ever wrote”. Readers did not agree. Appearing between the masterpieces Phineas Redux and The Way We Live Now, it sold poorly and has been neglected ever since. Trollope blamed this failure on his audience’s objections to the heroine’s choice of a husband, though similar complaints, much more vehemently expressed, had not sunk The Small House at Allington. (There, the reader will recall, Lily Dale remains faithful to the memory of a cad, scorning the devoted attentions of a worthy suitor. Anna’s wooers, by contrast, are both good men, though vastly different in rank and personality.)
“Lady Anna” is, in fact, a well-knit narrative with more suspense than is usual for Trollope. Will the courts declare Anna to be Lady Anna Lovel, heiress to £35,000 a year, or merely Anna Murray, a pauper? Which of her suitors, the sometimes surly tailor Daniel Thwaite or her handsome, good-natured cousin Lord Lovel, will Anna prefer? Will Daniel’s political principles lead to a breach with his childhood sweetheart? Will the impoverished Lord Lovel find honorable means to support his noble rank? The plot takes surprising, if not astonishing, turns; the characterization is as deft as ever; and there is a leavening of subtle humor, such as Daniel’s cross-purposes consultation with a quondam radical poet (a thinly disguised Robert Southey) who has evolved into an intractable Tory.
The book has two weakness, though. The first is that the leading characters are, by and large, decent folk at the beginning and, except for one who falls into a state akin to madness, remain decent, if not unchanged, to the end. Conflicts end in rational compromises. Everybody eventually sees everybody else’s point of view. Even the lawyers on opposite sides of Lady Anna’s case get along amicably. (One solicitor does have the sense to grumble that such harmony is unprofessional.)
Second, the setting seems wasted. Other than as a sounding board for Daniel’s political views, the tumult of the ‘thirties plays no important role in the story. It may be, of course, that the differences between the Englands of 1832 and 1874 are merely invisible to modern readers and that the original audience saw and appreciated them. If so, that is Trollope’s (and our) bad luck. Similarly, the deterioration of pigments is a painter’s bad luck, but knowing that the colors were originally vivid does not make them so today.
Trollope’s liking for this novel may have arisen from the fact that it is light, sunny and fresh. There may be an evil earl in the first chapter and a mad countess in the last, but how pleasant for the writer to be free for a time from the political intrigues, financial manipulations and cynical worldliness of the Palliser saga and The Way We Live Now! Moreover, Lady Anna was, in its creator’s mind, only a prologue. The last paragraph promises a (never written) sequel, where the characters doubtless were intended to meet sterner challenges. There are hints that the scene would have shifted to Australia and America and that the hero’s and heroine’s homegrown principles were to be put to the test in those lands. Thus the author had much in view that he never disclosed to his readers, perhaps accounting for part of the discrepancy between his opinion and theirs.
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, published in the same year as Lady Anna, does take the reader to Australia, though to an Australia where even the rough-hewn Daniel Thwaite would have seemed like a cultured aristocrat.
Trollope wrote this very short novel (only about 45,000 words) for the Christmas issue of a London magazine. Regarding Victorian sentimentality about the holiday as “humbug”, he presented a very different sort of Yuletide tale, one in which there are no snow flakes and no sleigh bells - and in which fires are not cozy but frightening.
The hero is a prosperous young sheep rancher in Queensland, where December is the hottest, driest month of the year, when a careless match can spark a ruinous blaze and in a few hours wipe out all that a man has built through years of labor.
Careless matches are not the only danger. Harry has just as much fear of malicious ones. He is an imperious ruler of his domain (120,000 acres leased from the Crown) and prides himself on his unflinching candor. Not surprisingly, he is at feud with his shiftless, thieving neighbors, the Brownbie clan, and is quite willing to quarrel with Giles Medlicot, another neighbor, when Medlicot hires on a hand whom Harry has dismissed for insubordination and suspects of plotting arson.
In other Trollope novels, “war to the knife” means snubbing an enemy in the street or not inviting him to a garden party. In this one, conflict is simpler and more violent. With the grass growing more parched by the hour, Harry’s enemies gather, scheme and strike. Because Trollope is not a tragedian, they are thwarted - narrowly - and there is even a Christmas dinner to conclude the story and incidentally seal a budding romance. But the pacing and atmosphere are very different from the Trollope that readers expect.
The picture of a frontier society, living almost in a Hobbesian “state of nature”, is vivid, and the moral consequences of that state are clearly drawn. Harry’s refusal to compromise with what he believes to be wrong is a principle that can be safely followed only where the structures of law and order offer shelter. Where a man must be his own constable, high principle is a dangerous luxury. The appearance of two colonial policemen at the end, as helpless to punish the malefactors as they were to forestall them, underlines the impotence of the law and perhaps reminded Trollope’s audience of the excellence of their own social arrangements.
Alert members of that audience will perhaps have noticed that Queensland displays ironic inversions of English certitudes. Most notably, Harry leases his land and therefore considers himself socially much above Medlicot, who has purchased his. In the home country, of course, a land owner raising a valuable cash crop (Medlicot is a sugar grower) would have looked severely down upon a man who kept livestock on rented pastures.
Unfortunately, despite its excellent qualities, “Harry Heathcote” suffers a defect that reduces it to the Trollopian second class (albeit that is no low place to be). In so short a work, nothing should be superfluous, and too many words are lavished here on a perfunctory romance, one of the least interesting that Trollope ever devised. Medlicot’s courtship of Harry’s sister-in-law not only adds nothing to the narrative but is positively detrimental, as it gives the neighbor a self-interested motive for his decision to take Harry’s side against the Brownbie conspiracy rather than maintain a “fair-minded” neutrality. It would be more satisfying if he had chosen the side of civilization on principle, without the push of love.
These four ventures into unfamiliar terrain are not among the most successful of Trollope’s works. Though they do not lack virtues and are certainly pleasant reading, their common fault is that the author’s less than intimate knowledge of the milieux forces him to fall back on guesswork (an inspired success in Nina Balatka, a pretty complete failure in Linda Tressel), melodrama (surprisingly rousing drama in Harry Heathcote, a tangle of weakly drawn legal disputes in Nina, a delicate young flower predictably battered by the cruel world in Linda) and romantic complications that, except in Nina, could have taken place anywhere and anytime. Like many a lesser light, Trollope here ignored the maxim that it is best to write about what you know (albeit “know” must not be taken too literally). Being Trollope, the results were still excellent, but they fall short of being great.