"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
The Pallisers fitted the bill perfectly.
Compared to Dickens, whose novels seem to inhabit a hyperrreal world of caricatures, Trollope's stories are disarmingly familiar. His characters complain about an unpopular coalition government, bemoan the fact that there are no longer any politicians with charisma and think that the young generation aren't a patch on theirs.
Each novel seems to feature the following stock characters:
- A penniless young man on the make
- A young woman who can't decide whether to marry for love or money
- A rich widower who is exasperated by his children's behaviour
- Someone called Frank
- A feisty, outspoken elderly duchess
- A middle-aged bachelor who's a bit of a chump
- A penniless spinster who exists as a 'companion' to an aristocrat
- A man of doubtful social origins who believes that he is a gentleman
- A wealthy widow who delights in toying with her suitors
The Palliser novels are all about money and power. If you have neither, then your only hope is to acquire them through marriage or inheritance. The third option available to young gentlemen - hard work - appears to be too absurd to warrant mentioning.
I liked Trollope's ability to create a broad canvas of well-defined characters, whose interactions are portrayed with wit and perception. Trollope writes particularly well for women, showing how they used wit and guile to overcome the restrictions placed on their gender.
I didn't like Trollope's anti-semitism, which hit a particularly sour note in the penultimate novel and went far beyond the normal prejudices of mid-Victorian Britain. I also felt that by the fourth book, Trollope was beginning to repeat himself and kept forgetting which novel I was reading.
Some might argue that the Palliser novels are a literary Downton Abbey, lacking the breadth of vision that made Dickens such a great writer. But although they may have something of the soap opera about them, Trollope's rich panorama of the upper echelons of mid-Victorian Britain also asks some fundamental questions about the pursuit of happiness.
In Trollope's world, love conquers all, but only if it's accompanied by money: "Love is like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it." and whilst we, the reader, may feel a warm glow when the wedding bells ring, there is usually at least one character who is left destitute and alone.