I officially love Trollope more than Dickens. Trollope, it seems to me, writes more about everyday things. He is nice. Most of the characters are trying to do right, though they often get it wrong. Dickens gives us lily-pure heroines, super-evil villains, and memorably eccentric quirky people, and there's lots of melodrama. Trollope shows us ordinary people: mostly pretty nice, some kind of jerks, some real cheats, but mostly good, flawed people trying to get through life. A Trollope heroine is good and noble, but she's not perfect or improbably angelic. A Trollope enemy is an annoying sort of person who makes you mad, but who is not evil--just really not doing well. I think it's more realistic. OK, there's not a lot of seamy underbelly (there is some), but does Dickens describe seamy underbelly realistically either?
Anyway. This last Barsetshire story braids together many characters (most, I think) from earlier volumes. There are three main plotlines:
- Mr. Crawley, impoverished curate of Hogglestock, is accused of stealing £20. Young Major Grantly was just about to ask the eldest daughter Grace to marry him; what will he do now, especially since his family is against the match? Will the Crawley family survive this disaster? Mrs. Proudie, the bishop's wife, is determined to interfere.
- Lily Dale, who was jilted by Mr. Crosbie three years ago, is still single, and John Eames is still in love with her. But he's getting tired of begging and is starting to think that maybe he ought to make one last appeal and then quit. He's doing pretty well these days in his career; will Lily decide to marry him?
- John Eames' friend Conway Dalrymple, an artist, wants to paint a picture of Miss Van Siever as Jael. He intrigues with her and one Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, to get it done. This all happens in London and contains all the seamy underbelly stuff of the novel. Many of these wealthy London city types are shallow and predatory of each other, and some characters get a bit more caught up in it than they ought to. Johnny Eames is pretty vulnerable when it comes to intrigue.
I thought Mr. and Mrs. Crawley were so well-drawn; their story is painful, but I couldn't put it down. Mr. Crawley is a wonderful character. He is a strong and intelligent man who has suffered under grinding poverty for years, doing a good job with his work, also having some intermittent mental issues because of his constant misery--and yet also, he often wallows in a self-indulgent pity-fest. He's not a perfect martyr; he's also a regular, kind of selfish guy who has some pride issues. His wife bears up, doing the very best she can for him, but she has a breaking point too, and where it is really surprises him.
I also love the two heroines of the novel, Grace Crawley and Lily Dale. They are Trollope's two ideal young women (and they have their opposite number, who is really fun to read about). What I love about them is that they are both virtuous women doing the best they can in their difficult circumstances, and they have strong senses of their own worth and dignity. Neither of them will put up with ill treatment, nor will they deliberately do anything they feel is wrong. They worry about their decisions, and try to act for the best, but they won't give in to pressure from others.
Now that I've finished the Barsetshire novels, I wonder what Trollope I should pick next. Should I read the Palliser novels? Maybe a stand-alone? I'm also tempted to read Angela Thirkell books (again! I have a bunch) to see what happens with their grandchildren.
Barsetshire is a fictional county, but it's pretty much Wiltshire.