Anthony Trollope – The Bertrams

I can’t say exactly how many Anthony Trollope novels I’ve read since buying a Kindle, but I would never have got through this mountain of offerings if I had had to buy each one in print format.

Trollope wrote 47 novels, mostly very long, and similar in plot and theme. Characters too are fairly predictable, but there’s something addictive about reading Trollope. It’s rather like watching a TV series on DVD from start to finish in one sitting.

This is in no way meant to belittle the writer’s achievement however. Although his works were treated as popular fiction during his lifetime they have since been recognised as having great literary merit. Trollope worked consistently over many years and his style developed as he matured. His output was truly prodigious, writing about 1000 words per hour, usually in the early morning, and producing an average of 40 pages each week. In his own words his output: “…has been as low as 20, and has risen to 112 (pages!)”.

Since embarking on my exploration of Trollope’s work I’ve come to agree wholeheartedly with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s assessment that describes Anthony Trollope as:

English novelist whose popular success concealed until long after his death the nature and extent of his literary merit. A series of books set in the imaginary English county of Barsetshire remains his best loved and most famous work, but he also wrote convincing novels of political life as well as studies that show great psychological penetration. One of his greatest strengths was a steady, consistent vision of the social structures of Victorian England, which he re-created in his books with unusual solidity.

The Bertrams

I don’t think The Bertrams is Trollope’s best work, but I found the book entertaining, and although a little slow to start, it became thoroughly engrossing as the story progressed. The star-crossed lovers in this story are not exactly plagued by circumstance, their troubles are brought about instead by pride and a stubborn refusal to accept each other except on their own terms.

As Trollope himself commented about the book:

“I do not know that I have ever heard it well spoken of even by my friends, and I cannot remember that there is any character in it that has dwelt in the minds of novel readers”

George Bertram and Caroline Waddington meet while holidaying in the Holy Land and decide to marry. Most other Trollope novels are built around the joys and pitfalls of courtship and marriage with happy endings usual all round. However, The Bertrams begins with an engagement that is doomed to failure and the ensuing problems eventually bring others to tragedy.

Once again the question of marrying for love or money, with the author coming down strongly on the side of love, is the main theme of the book. The secondary character, George’s friend Arthur Wilkinson, also has a similar issue to grapple with. For him the choice eventually becomes clear, but our hero is not so fortunate and there are serious outcomes to his relationship with Caroline.

George has reason to rue the day he met his sweetheart. In the Holy Land he was at first keen to follow his inclinations to become a clergyman, but all thoughts of the church were soon driven out of his mind. Later in the book he recalls the moment when his life changed:

He had promised himself to his God, but the rustling of silks had betrayed his heart. At her instance, at her first word, that promise had been whistled down the wind.

I could go on, but I think this comment from an Amazon reader says it all:

Books by Trollope that are not part of the two series (Palliser, Barsetshire) tend to be neglected. This one deserves far more attention. It is Trollope at his best. The structure is intricate, the characters superb, the pace brisk. the wit and satire sharp . No dry spells, no simpereing Victorian maidens. This has a Balzacian flavour to it; there are a number of characters looking for the main chance. Caroline is one of his most interesting creations. There are three plots which are both parallel and contrasting: George and Caroline, Adela and Arthur, and Sir Lionel’s search for a rich heiress. I would say the major theme of the book is the limits of prudence. The scenes in Cairo and Jerusalem add color, an exotic quality, to the story. A delightful read.

Trollope’s Advice To Aspiring Writers

Trollope wroked very hard at writing throughout his life. He did not rely on income from his writing until he was well established, working instead first as a post office clerk and later as a surveyor in Ireland. His advice to aspiring authors then comes from hard won experience.

This, however, I think may be said to you, without any doubt as to the wisdom of the counsel given, that if it be necessary for you to live by your work, do not begin by trusting to literature. Take the stool in the office as recommended to you by the hard man, and then, in such leisure hours as may belong to you, let the praise that has come from the lips of that soft man induce you to persevere in your literary attempts.

Should you fail, then your failure will not be fatal – and what better could you have done with the leisure hours had you not so failed? Such double toil you will say is severe. Yes, but if you want this thing you must submit to severe toil.

Or put more simply if not so well – don’t give up your day job.


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