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Tolstoy’s Master: the Case of Trollope

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

The only great novelist, I believe, to have died of laughing, Anthony Trollope, made a generous end. For what made him laugh, before paralysis silenced him forever in 1882, was a novel by somebody else.

The book was F. Anstey’s Vice Versa (1881), which he heard read aloud after a London dinner-party, and it is a fantasy about a middle-aged man who exchanges bodies with his schoolboy son. It is more farcical and uproarious than anything that Trollope, in 47 novels and some nine million words of fiction, had ever allowed himself to write. As C. P. Snow, another novelist-administrator, emphasized in his Trollope (1975), his life was essentially that of a civil servant, and his prose exemplifies the virtues of public service in the Victorian age. A high official in the post office, he traveled the world; and in 1851 he invented (to our eternal gratitude) the letter-box. With so much achieved, his last, fatal laugh bespeaks modesty. It is not every successful novelist who, at his last gasp, applauds the achievement of a rival.

If Trollope was modest, it makes it the more difficult to imagine what he would have made of the greatest compliment ever paid him, which was Tolstoy’s. “He confounds me with his mastery,” Tolstoy once exclaimed in his journal (September-October 1865), though, according to the recollections of his secretary N. N. Gusev, he placed Dickens and George Eliot still higher. The memoir is unavailable in English, according to C. P. Snow, and was still unused by modern biographers when Snow wrote his Trollope; and a note proposes “mastery” rather than “excellence” as a just translation of what Tolstoy said. A more recent biography prefers “virtuosity.” So Trollope was Tolstoy’s acknowledged master. It is a remark to astonish those who imagine that the Barchester novels are no more than bedtime reading or matter for a television series. I want to suggest a ground or two here for Tolstoy’s surprising view, though mindful that the Russian novelist, who is unlikely to have had much interest in parliamentary institutions, might not have endorsed the whole of my case. He was more interested, as a Russian, in ideas than in institutions, apart from the institution of the family; and parliament is a species of institution largely unknown, until recently, in Eastern Europe, profoundly alien to the Russian tradition, and distinct even from democratic forms elsewhere. It differs radically from the American, for example, in that the chief executive or prime minister is chosen not by a popular vote but by an elected assembly which, as Mrs. Thatcher’s fall in November 1990 exemplified, has the power to dismiss and replace its head of government without a popular election. That is the British constitution that Trollope knew and revered. And if there are greater political novels than Trollope’s, there are no greater parliamentary novels. That was his mastery.

Trollope’s mastery lay with his interest in the political process rather than political ideas. At first glance his novels look, if not unprincipled, at least principleless. In all that he stands in striking contrast to Disraeli, whose Coningsby (1844) had preceded the Palliser novels (1864—80) by 20 years. The contrast must have been a knowing one. Trollope was the younger man by a decade and more, and he loved to describe himself as an “advanced conservative Liberal,” which would not have impressed the ardent young heroes of a Disraeli novel or Disraeli himself. He stood for Parliament only once, as a Liberal at Beverley in 1868; but his contempt for Disraeli ran far deeper than party, and it was contempt for what he saw as the hollowness of a man. “The glory has ever been the glory of pasteboard,” he wrote in his Autobiography (1883), which was fated not to appear until both men were dead, and the wealth has been a wealth of tinsel. The wit has been the wit of hairdressers, and the enterprise has been the enterprise of mountebanks. An audacious conjuror has generally been his hero. . . . Through it all there is a feeling of stage-properties, a smell of hair-oil, and he goes on derisively to talk of paste diamonds. That easily exceeds the normal abuse of Victorian parliamentary life, and still more the tolerances of ordinary Victorian literary debate. But then Trollope the Liberal detested Disraeli the Conservative for reasons far beyond the ordinary.

By 1880 or thereabouts, when he wrote his attack, Disraeli had already twice been prime minister, while Trollope, politically speaking, was no more than a Liberal who had fought once and lost once. And yet the attack reads for all the world as if launched from within the Victorian political establishment upon an outsider. That is the enormous paradox of Trollope’s political novels. The paradox can be resolved, but only by making a large claim on Trollope’s part. It is a claim to know England. How much of England did Disraeli know? For all his 40 years in the Commons, for all his peerage, for all the admiration in which a doting Queen held him, he remained palpably an outsider to the end of his days. That was not because he was Jewish—a remotely ancestral fact, had he himself chosen to leave it at that—but because he was a cultural outsider of outrageous views and a longstanding suspect of shady conduct in money and in love. He had denied the continuity of British public life, demanded a clean break with the past, and abused the Revolution of 1689 on which the British constitution is based as the beginning of “a mere phantasma,” ten reigns long, where “oligarchy has been called liberty” and Monarch and Multitude are blotted out of English life through “the selfish strife of factions.” So he had once outrageously put it, in the conclusion to Sybil (1845). It is a suggestion as insulting to the British establishment as it is fantastic as a theory of history, and an affront to something far wider than to the Liberal Party. It was a challenge to the British parliamentary process itself.

The object of Trollope’s political novels is to reassert the value and dignity of that process at Westminster and to offer real jewels for paste. He had published the first of the Palliser books, Can You Forgive Her? (1864), four years before his failure at Beverley, so that his praise of the parliamentary process begins as an act of aspiring homage and turns only insensibly, in the last and greatest of the six novels—The Prime Minister (1876) and The Duke’s Children (1880)—into an act of self-consolation. Trollope knew, at least after Beverley, that his talents were those of a novelist and not of a politician, and he put his bitter election experience frankly into Ralph the Heir (1871). “I knew that in politics I could never become a practical man,” he wrote in his Autobiography. Still less could he become an orator, as he realized, with his ponderous voice and ponderous figure: “I had no special gifts that way, and had not studied the art early enough in life to overcome difficulties.” Disraeli’s oratory struck him as flashy, and it is not clear that he was always entirely at home with the spell-binding tirades of his own leader, Gladstone. Trollope was simply not a man for the public platform, whether in theory or practice, and the speeches he creates for his characters are often as stumbling and inconsequential as his own must have been. His passion was rather for the intimate exchange of views in study, salon, or bedroom, where persuasions occur, or partly occur, or fail to occur. He was a man of the Inner Ring: but always under the highly English qualification that the Ring is there to be invaded, as in the public interest it must be, by outsiders who, through courage and integrity, can prove themselves to possess a capacity to advise and to govern. His theme, from first to last, is an open elite.


Trollope’s political fiction deals with two large issues of public affairs: the one perennial, the other peculiar to his century. The perennial question concerns the nature of persuasion itself. How are men and women induced into courses of action to which they are at first unwilling? The topic, even the word, is distinctively English, so far as fiction is concerned. Jane Austen’s last novel had been entitled Persuasion (1818), unpolitical as it is, and it is perhaps symbolic that a recent translator of the book into German, despairing of finding an exact corresponding term in that language, has been forced to entitle it by the name of its heroine. But then persuading people—talking them round, whether partly or wholly, and by processes more than purely intellectual, or purely mercenary, or purely intimidatory— lies at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon political mystery as well as at the heart of much English fiction since Richardson and Fielding. That mystery is profoundly understood by its Westminster practitioners, but it is not usually subject there to technical description, and for evident reasons. It is a professional secret. Trollope described it.

The classic Trollopian situation resembles a committee rather than a deliberative assembly like the House of Commons. He is immensely fond of summarizing the mental state of a character as he approaches an interview with a friend, relative, or colleague: determined to speak in a certain way and inventing provisional responses, only to find that they are not enough, and only to see his intentions subtly or boldly deflected by an unexpected turn in the debate. Domestic life, as so lived, is after all very like a committee; and not surprisingly, since the British committee system is itself a reflection of a national way of life. Private conversations, after all, even with one’s own wife, can have agendas as well as formal bodies, though not on paper; so that the classic Trollope scene might be entitled the Committee of Ways and Means. Such conversations in the Palliser novels can equally concern love, or politics, or a mixture of the two, and it is notable that Trollope regards the business of parliamentary management, on the one hand, and the pleasures and duties of matrimony on the other, as powerfully and revealingly similar. The rising statesman like Plantagenet Palliser, or Phineas Finn the Irish Member, learns the processes of politics (among other things) by persuading a woman to marry him; and even, having married him, to stay with him, since Lady Glencora Platagenet is in love with another man. In the same way, it is hardly too daring to say, he learns to manage a wife through daily experience of his parliamentary colleagues. Such analogies represent a powerful insight into political process. They are at once richly commonplace and, by virtue of being just that, highly original as argument: surprising not by virtue of being little known, but rather by virtue of being little spoken of. In a world of debate where the obvious tends to get lost, as in the heady ideological mishmash of popular monarchy and Semitic mysticism of Disraeli’s Coningsby trilogy, Trollope reminded men in the age of Gladstone and Disraeli of how such men contrived in truth to rule. It is a very Whig intuition, in the end, and Trollope is perhaps the last Whig man of letters, as his hero Palmerston, whose life he wrote, was almost the last Whig prime minister, at least in name. It is about the intimacies of power through persuasion. Through managing a wife, a family, and an estate you learn how to manage a nation.


The second large issue, and one peculiar to the Victorians, lies in the deliberate abdication of power in that age by a landed gentry. Oligarchies seldom give up power willingly and without a struggle. The oligarchy which, as Disraeli affected to complain, had governed Britain since 1689 was a landed aristocracy. It was to continue to dominate all governments and both great parties of state down to 1906; and its style of life, emphatically patrician as it was, was centered on the club and the country house as much as on the Palace of Westminster where Lords and Commons sit. But it was an aristocracy threatened by the ballot box. In 1832 it had fearfully extended its power in the direction of a middle class, moved both by a Liberal urge for popular suffrage and Macaulay’s Whig principle of “Reform that you may preserve.” In 1867 Disraeli had extended the suffrage to towns and cities, hopeful of seizing a new, wage-earning vote for the Conservative interest; and in 1884 Gladstone had completed the process, at least as far as adult males were concerned, by extending it to the countryside. These three actions, in varying measure, were all skillfully conducted retreats carried out, so to speak, under fire, or at least under the threat of fire. But the enormous fact remains that no shot was ever fired. The world’s first industrial nation, Britain proved itself the first and almost the only state to have democratized itself without violence. It is natural that Trollope, who saw the first two acts of the drama and who died only a year or two short of the third, in 1882, should wonder how it had all been managed.

Management is the word. It is remarkable that Disraeli, and none other, had already returned an answer to the question, if only in the briefest of outlines, and it was one that Trollope was to endorse and enlarge 20 years later. “With pluck and property, we may come through,” an early Disraeli character had observed sagely, or cynically, watching the way the democratic wind of change was plainly about to blow, Trollope’s answer to the great puzzle of Victorian history—how in the world did they manage it?—is not much different from that, though it is far more richly instanced and documented. Pluck means not losing your nerve, as King Louis Philippe was to lose his in Paris in 1848 and Napoleon HI in 1870; it means a confident dependence on an unarmed police rather than on armed bands and foreign adventures. There is something un-British about revolution, and that became clear during the long age of Victoria.

Property, crude as it sounds, amounts to a principle at least as subtle. Landed estates were something more in that age, even something other, than capital investments: indeed the economics of Victorian agriculture, when you study it in detail, can sometimes leave you with the thought that the proprietors might have been richer if they had sold up their lands and invested in 3 percent bonds instead. But land meant status; it represented administrative experience in little; and above all, it was a style of life. The Victorian statesman needed all three, and he bought land, if he did not inherit it, in order to have them. Palmerston acquired lands in Ireland as a natural part of his progress to the premiership; Gladstone managed his wife’s estate in North Wales until he saw it out of debt, achieving thereby a financial reputation that took him to the Exchequer and beyond. Disraeli bought Hughenden. With broad acres of his own, he could aspire to what in Coningsby he had distantly venerated in a ducal character as “the magic of manner”—a manner calculated to confer mastery of the Commons and an assured, persuasive style over a Cabinet, or at Windsor in the presence of his queen.

But it is Trollope, not Disraeli, who is after all the true fictional master of that magical manner. In Plantagenet Palliser, as he wrote proudly at the end of his life, he had confidently created the supreme model of an English gentleman. The concept borders on the undefinable. Palliser’s gentility is not an effect of his wealth, though wealth helps. Nor does it arise out of his membership of Parliament, which confirms rather than creates his status as a gentleman; still less is it based on power. It is a startling fact of life at Westminster, which some discover only by entering it, that no one man there has power, and that it is the prime object of a parliamentary system to ensure that none ever does. Trollope’s Prime Minister is a man strong in himself but weak in what he can effect. He only narrowly avoids the loss of his wife to another whom she loves better. For all his paternal skills, his son disgraces him by joining the Conservative Party. The great dream of his political career, the introduction of a decimal currency, he fails even as head of government to achieve, and Trollope was not to guess that Britain would have to wait nearly a hundred years, till the 1970’s, for the hundred-penny pound. That is the ultimate enigma of power. Power exists. It must, since things happen. But there is no one place where it is: not the floor of the Commons, or of the Lords, or the smoking-room of the best club, or the boudoir of a premier’s wife. Power is a divinity. But though you can point to its symbols and its effects, you cannot point to it.

Trollope understood that. He was not an ideologue, like the young Disraeli or the aging Tolstoy, and his Liberalism was more deeply rooted in the soil of tradition than the Toryism of an upstart leader he disdained as a novelist and despised as a man. Parliamentary process is not about Utopias, which go rather with marches and bedsitters than with deliberative assemblies, and Trollope always knew that you do not have to change everything in order to change something. But he was not indifferent to ideas or ideals. His sensitive, circumspect ideal of a Liberal Party receptive to new ideas but prudent enough to brake them found an improbable admirer in Tolstoy and speaks powerfully to the 1990’s. He is as contemptuous of process for its own sake as of its neglect, and has no time for mere climbers or sycophants. Sir Timothy Beeswax in The Duke’s Children is a placeman who sees Parliament as nothing more than the best club:

They who succeeded were acknowledged to be the cream of the land. They who dominated it were the cream of the cream. Those two who were elected to be the chiefs of the two parties had more of cream in their composition than any others (ch. 21);

and as for that “Elysium of creaminess” known as Number Ten Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives, the old polisher emblematically dubbed Beeswax can hardly contemplate it without swooning at the thought.

There were such men at Westminster, and still are. Trollope did not respect them. He accepted their view that politics is a great game with great prizes. But, fed as his imagination was on a tradition of liberty, he always knew there was something more. Whereas the Conservative, as his Duke put it in The Prime Minister, seeks to “maintain the differences and the distances which separate the highly placed from their lower brethren,” Liberalism believes in the reverse. It has “conceived the idea of lessening distances—of bringing the coachman and the Duke nearer together— nearer and nearer, till a millennium shall be reached by—.” Then there is a sudden, momentous silence.

The Duke’s flight breaks off in mid sentence, and he waves aside the word “equality” that Phineas Finn proffers him. Equality is “great, glorious and godlike,” he replies, and not for this world. In that last hint of the millennial, and perhaps only there, Trollope showed his own mind to be something other than earthbound.


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