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Tedious Victorian Rom-Com
on 10 October 2017
Trollope is one of those hugely prolific Victorian writers whom I'd never read, until our book club somehow selected this first in his "Palliser" sextet to tackle. Of course, had anyone realized that it weighs in at 800+ pages, I'm very doubtful we would have picked it. In the event, I made it halfway through before finally setting it aside forever. That was plenty to absorb the prose style, narrative form, and overall idea of it for me to know that to read on would be an exercise in tedium.
The story is basically a painfully extended Victorian rom-com, following three relationships. The foremost of these is an on-again, off-again engagement between two cousins, with an earnest, suitable, and kind of boring third suitor working to interject himself. There's also the more comic thread of a wealthy widow being hotly courted by two jerks (one a wealthy landowner, the other a penniless ne'er do well). And finally, there's the awkward marriage of a sober, widely respected member of government to an immature young woman who dithers over seeking out an old flame. Any of these plots is fuel enough for a mediocre film, and the union of the three does not do any of them credit.
Part of the problem is that like many novels originally published in serial form, there's a ton of filler, and pacing is an issue. There's just so much mediocre table-setting to plow through to get to a nice turn of phrase, and so much back and forth to no effect. It's very hard to read this and not be thinking about the probability that the author was scrambling to put pen to paper on deadline and at so many pennies per word. The other major issue is that the woman at the heart of the romantic triangle that's the main plotline (or at least it is of the first half), is simply not interesting.
The book is not entirely without its charms -- Trollope seems interested in systems, and when there are sections that dive into these (such as the financial machinations necessary in standing for Parliament), my interest was piqued. But these are few and far between the many many chapters devoted to hand-wringing letter-writing, and letter-reading. Indeed, the timing of sending letters in order to achieve the correct effect is more interesting than the actual letters. But again, I found scanty portions that interested or delighted -- and I suspect many modern readers will feel similarly.