Sunday, 29 December 2013

'The American Senator' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

With all the Trollope novels I've read, it's hard to imagine a year without a few, but 2013 had only seen one up to now (The Way We Live Now).  Well, until today, that is.  This review is looking at one of the Oxford World's Classics I won in a competition a while back, another two-volume monster from the master of the Victorian potboiler.  The difference is though that this one has an American touch...
 
*****
The American Senator starts off in a small village in England.  It's the perfect scene for a Trollope novel, with the usual ingredients of fox-hunting, strife and romance in abundance.  Into the village comes Elias Gotobed, an American senator who wants to find out all about British life (mainly so that he can ridicule it...), and Dillsborough seems as good a place as any for the job.

A second outsider is also on the way to the village though, the intriguing Lady Arabella Trefoil.  She is engaged to marry John Morton, a local landowner who works for the foreign office, and is travelling to the provinces to see her fiancé's family seat before the marriage.  Morton is a good catch, but not quite good enough for the ambitious Arabella.  Lord Rufford, a local neighbour, is richer - and so Arabella decides to set her sights higher...

It all makes for a (stereo)typical Trollope novel, with a controversy involving a court case and a poisoned fox to hang his story on, and there's even the obligatory soppy romance.  We have the perfect, ladylike heroine (Mary Masters) and her deserving gentleman (Reginald Morton) taking five-hundred-odd pages to get to their inevitable happiness in a relationship which is predictable to the extreme, Trollope by numbers.  There's also a slow and impenetrable start to the book, and it all takes a good while to get going.

These usual elements are merely the background to the main stories though.  Gotobed, an American abroad, is a creation who allows Victorian readers to see the peculiarities of their society (and there are many) through foreign eyes:
"I shall be delighted to see any institution of this great country," said Mr. Gotobed, "however much opposed it may be to my opinion either of utility or rational recreation."
p.53 (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
The good senator won't take a backward step and leaves many a feather ruffled in his honest quest to work out exactly why Englishmen talk and act as they do.  This all culminates in the public talk he gives in London - which is rather a rather heated affair...

In truth, the novel is all about Arabella though, another of Trollope's great characters.  She's a woman who hunts her husband (one of Trollope's pet hates), and she's very good at her game.  Tempted by Rufford's riches, she nevertheless tries to keep Morton hanging, just in case things go wrong in her new affair.  It's a delicate game she plays, but she has a lot of experience...

She's also very good at it, as she should be seeing as it's her life's 'work'.  However, like any worker who's been hard at it for years, there's no room for any enjoyment in her days:
"Business to her had for many years been business, and her business had been so very hard that she had never allowed lighter things to interfere with it." (p.216)
Sadly though, Arabella isn't getting any younger, and she's sick of all the intrigues and subterfuge:
"I'll tell you what it is, mamma.  I've been at it till I'm nearly broken down.  I must settle somewhere;-or else die;-or else run away.  I can't stand this any longer, and I won't.  Talk of work,-men's work!  What man ever has to work as I do?" (p.85)
This is it then, all or nothing.  Arabella is going to get herself a man, whether he's rich and landed or not...

Trollope paints a nuanced portrait of his anti-heroine, or at least as nuanced as his Victorian morals will allow.  Yes, Arabella is bad, but not all bad.  She has doubts about her way of life, and she knows she is mistreating John Morton - indeed, several incidents in their stormy relationship show that she has retained some sense of character.  In a book padded out with the usual stock personages, the lady is easily the strongest and most well-rounded character.

Overall, The American Senator, while interesting, is not one of Trollope's best.  Like The Prime Minister, for example, it's a case of one overarching novel with several ill-fitting plots crammed together.  Gotobed, despite the scholarly claims of the introduction, never really fits into the story, even if his observations are acute at times.  I would have loved to see a shorter novel focused on him, one which fleshes him out a little more (he's a bit one dimensional at times here).  In the few pages allocated to him in this book, he gets a little lost...

Still, a Trollope novel is always a comfort, and Arabella makes it all worthwhile in the end.  Like all the best seductive 'heroines', she steals the show, and you secretly hope she gets away with it.  For all the soppy heroines and big-chinned heroes, it's nice to have someone who does exactly what she wants - and Mr. T knows that as much as we do ;)

14 comments:

  1. I haven't read this one Tony--although it's on the shelf and on the kindle. You are spot on about Trollope being a 'comfort' which is probably why I read his books (when I'm reading one) at night. Anyway, I have to return to him soon and I've been pulling various books off the shelf looking over the blurbs on the back covers.

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    1. Guy - Amazingly, I still have another two of his on the shelf - if I read those, that'll take me up to twenty... I do get the feeling though that I've exhausted the really good ones and that anything I read from now on will be Trollope light :(

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  2. Halfway through Can You Forgive Her?, "comfort" is not a word I would want to attach to the book or to Trollope more generally. Trollope plays kind of rough.

    But I likely do not understand the use of the word. I know I never understand it when applied to food.

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    1. Tom - Comfort reading is reliable, familiar and usually rewarding - and that pretty much describes Trollope ;)

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  3. And of course I forgot my question. Fox-hunting is one of Trollope's "usual ingredients." You have read a lot more Trollope than I have - you have been running into a lot of fox hunting scenes?

    I ask because the two I have read, in Orley Farm and now in CYFH? have been such highlights. Great sense of movement, of action as a way to reveal character, of natural symbolism. So now I am curious about what else Trollope (or other authors) do with these scenes.

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    1. Tom - To get Trollope, you have to get the hunting scenes (and that means leaving 21st-Century sensibilities at the door - Trollope *loves* hunting...).

      Firstly, they are a means of gauging social standing. While anyone can join in, how you do it shows how you are seen in the eyes of the community. Do you have several horses? Are you borrowing someone else's? Are you a paid-up member of the hunt? Many of hsi more dubious characters are scrounging off their rich friends.

      Secondly, the way you ride when the action heats up reveals your character. Many a sociopath has been revealed by their lack of disregard for their own (or anyone else's) neck during these hunts. Likewise, many a potential suitor has shown their frailty by their lily-livered conduct on approaching a high fence.

      Thirdly, like the ball scenes, the hunts are opportunities for young men and women to converse unheard and in semi-privacy - where Austen has her lovers whisper sweet nothings on the dance floor, Trollope has them flirting in the saddle instead.

      Finally, it also gives Trollope the chance to insert himself into the scene, in a couple of cases literally. In at least one book, there is a portly literary fellow who comes down from London for the day - I wonder who that might be...

      There's a PhD thesis in there somewhere ;)

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    2. An article, at least. The two I have come across certainly do #s 1, 2, and 4, although I did not notice #4 until I reread your post on CYFH?. So far, the ladies have mostly stayed home, so no #3.

      Such strong scenes.

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    3. Tom - No, I'm definitely holding out for a fully-blown thesis - that paper barely scratches the surface of the topic...

      ...or at least a week of your blog posts, anyway ;)

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  4. This was one of the first of Trollope's novels I read and so liked it better than you did...but I'm not sure I wouldn't agree with you now, especially having since read the Chronicles of Barset! We know how much better he can do than he did with The American Senator.

    That said, I thought Gotobed's ill-fitting presence was quite possibly intentional--he is, after all, an alien in Britain espousing alien values; and given what T had to say about American men in Dr Wortle's School and what his mother had to say in Domestic Manners...it occurs to me it was all intentional. Maybe even someone as improper as A. Trefoil is meant to be more sympathetic than the upright senator--she's, at least, British!

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    1. Colleen - Yep, this is Trollope by numbers, which is not necessarily a bad thing ;)

      I quite like Gotobed - it's just that he deserves his own story. I still believe that Trollope missed a trick and couldn't quite get his plots to gel (c.f. 'The Prime Minister').

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    2. I haven't read The Prime Minister yet! I did, however, just tear through Cousin Henry which was by no means T at his best. It was, however, very much better than expected so I'd call it a win!

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    3. Colleen - I've got that on my shelf too - maybe this year :)

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  5. Great commentary on this one. I have just discovered Trollope and am reading my way through the Chronicles of Barsetshire books. It does indeed sound like there are some very common elements to many of this authors books. I am liking his books very much.


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    1. Brian - Take your time with those - they're just wonderful :) Of course, you can always reread them every few years as I do ;)

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