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 ;)