Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Belton Estate

Anthony Trollope

This may well be the first Trollope I have ever picked up, and I began reading it without expectations, and without any recollection of ever learning anything of him or his work, and feeling a little bit ashamed about that, in the way that you do when you stumble on what seems like a big gap in your head.

This was a strange little book – it was reaching towards instructive, and I think it was meant to be quietly revolutionary, with its independent and violently strong-minded heroine who is so clearly a better person than the man she’s supposed to be in love with, who is not interested in musty and uptight societal mores and follows her heart and all that good stuff that feels so modern.

But then it all comes screeching to a halt and the book, and the thought behind the book, feels exactly as old fashioned as you’d expect, and the exciting subversion of patriarchal notions you had been reading into the subtext turns out to have just been an illusion. This is fine if you go in expecting an artifact, but disconcerting when you find you are not exactly sure what your footing is, and what stance you’re meant to take with the text. It was jarring, the swerving forward and back, trying to decide exactly where Trollope was going.

Clara, our strong minded heroine, suddenly falls into a state of despair and lamentation and does not shut the fuck up about being the most woeful person to ever walk the earth, her strong-mindedness starts to come across as idiot pig-headedness, but her eventual submission makes you want to slap her, and the ending, which is telegraphed a million miles ahead takes a million years to arrive and is exactly as predictable as you thought it would be all along, and the ending suddenly swerves into broad and clumsy comedy for no good reason.

But you know, maybe surprisingly, I liked the book. Trollope’s writing is subtle (except for the ending), his psychological insight interesting, his characters strong and well-drawn. The book infuriated me as much as it engaged me, and vice versa, and I think that makes it successful.


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