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Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope


I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.

I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.

I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.

Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.

The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

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What I Am Reading, What I Am Trying to Read

1. “My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead. Mead is a reporter for The New Yorker, born in England in a small provincial town much like Middlemarch, and she came to my rescue as I was trying to read the novel for the umpteenth time, and failing abysmally. Perhaps if I read Mead’s book, I thought to myself, I might enter this challenging novel at last and inform my niece that I have done so. She belongs to a “classics” book club and is well ahead of me with that list.

Mead’s book is part memoir, part literary analysis, part bio of George Eliot. It’s well written and interesting, but whether I’ll finally be able to read “Middlemarch” itself, I do not know right now. Or, perhaps, I could cheat and say I have read “Middlemarch” because I have learned so much about it from Rebecca Mead. Not likely.

2. “The Bostonians,” by Henry James. Having failed with “Middlemarch,” I turned to another 19th century tome with greater success. This surprised me; I have never been able to read Henry James even though my husband was named after him by his journalist father. (We call my Henry James Jim for short. The 19th century Henry would not have approved.) Well, this is not exactly accurate. I did read “Portrait of a Lady” in college. I can’t remember a word. So how did it happen that I should attempt another Henry James? Well, I was upstate at my daughter’s house where I keep a small library of books and needed something to read slowly—slow reading I call it—before going to sleep (the e-books are too speedy at bedtime) and there was “The Bostonians” on the shelf. Fortunately I wasn’t too tired to get the cadence of James’ long sentences that first night and, before long, I was swept up in the story of New England suffragettes and, more importantly, sequestered homosexuality. Henry James was gay. This I learned from studying Edith Wharton and John Singer Sargent. And the book is loaded with allusions, attractions, rapture, commitment, jealousy—all woman to woman for safety sake. Please forgive me, dear reader, but I see Henry James and his struggles in his protagonists Olive and Verena. What an odd couple!

3. “A Son at the Front” by Edith Wharton. Published in 1922 and dedicated to two friends she lost in WW I, Wharton describes in scintillating descriptive detail what it was like in Paris during the war. She had been living in Paris, was already a successful author, and became a war correspondent for two magazines, traveled to the front, and was active in relief efforts for wounded soldiers and their families.

This is a reread for me as Wharton’s stories and sentences never disappoint me. I didn’t start reading her work until about ten years ago and I go back to them time and again for inspiration, psychological insight and entertainment. I had wanted to read this one last year—the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WW I—but was too busy with other things.

We are still a nation at war and probably will be for some time. Soldiers returning from Afghanistan, their families, all of us. This book resonates.

4. “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill. Such an interesting writer—half Turkish, half Irish, raised in Holland. This is his first novel gifted to me by a friend just yesterday. I started reading it on my long train ride home and was riveted from the first paragraph. It’s a 30-something story and I am no longer 30-something (no one is for very long) and so I find some of it boring and predictable and I am not that interested in cricket, I am interested in this writer and how he is making this story. I don’t know if I’ll finish it or not, but I’m pleased to have been introduced to him. His new book is called “Dog,” set in Dubai (now that is interesting), and he’s also written a memoir, “Blood-Dark Track,” which is definitely on my list because I am so interested in O’Neill as a writer.

That’s it for today dear reader. Would you add your current reading escapades here, please, not just titles, but annotations—how you found your way to the book and why it resonates, or doesn’t? Many thanks.  Read More 
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