Archive for the ‘Anthony Trollope’ Category

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

The decade is almost over and I shall end it as I started: seeking to emulate Simon.  His favourite books of the decade post made me want to look over my own from the last ten years.

In those ten years, I have read 1,613 books.  Some of those are rereads and I didn’t record the many scintillating textbooks I read over the same period for (during which I completed a dozen courses leading to two professional designations and two different licenses – it’s been a busy decade).  But most importantly, the decade is not over yet.  I have a couple of good reading weeks left and I intend to make use of them!

I always enjoy looking back at past years on the blog and was so happy when I put this list together to see what excellent judgement I exercised.  These all remain favourites that I would be happy to pick up right now and start rereading.  And the nicest thing to note is that my 2010 and 2011 favourites, which I struggled to track down at the time, are both back in print and easy to get.  A sure sign of progress over the last ten years!

2010: Mrs Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson

What I wrote: “I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.”

2011: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

What I wrote: “Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.”

2012: The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

What I wrote: “I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.”

2013: Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern

What I wrote: “All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amount of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).”

2014: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

What I wrote: “The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.”

2015: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell

What I wrote: “An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotesself-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.”

2016: I Was a Stranger by John Hackett

What I wrote: “In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.”

2017: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

What I wrote: “I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.”

2018: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

What I wrote: “Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.”

2019: To be determined!  Check back on December 31st. (edit: check out my Top Ten Books of 2019 to see my final favourite of the decade)

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When I shared one of the letters from P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe a couple of weeks ago (when Wodehouse wrote to Denis Mackail to praise the newly published Greenery Street), I mentioned the book was full of Wodehouse’s comments on authors who were his contemporaries.  What I’d forgotten until I found myself flipping through the book again this weekend was that Wodehouse’s reading was wider than that!

In June 1945 Wodehouse was living in Paris when he discovered the genius of that most British of authors, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope had been recommended to him by his old school friend, Bill Townend, and it was to Bill that Wodehouse wrote to share his excitement:

[…] In one of your letters you asked me if I had ever read anything by Trollope.  At that time I hadn’t, but the other day, reading in Edward Marsh’s A Number of People that Barrie had been fascinated by a book of his called Is He Popenjoy? I took it out of the American Library.  I found it almost intolerably slow at first, and then suddenly it gripped me, and now I am devouring it.  It is rather like listening to somebody who is long-winded telling you a story about real people.  The characters live in the most extraordinary way and you feel that the whole thing is true. […] Anyways, I think Trollope is damned good and I mean to read as much of him as I can get hold of.

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the american senator

I started my day in one of the nicest ways I know how: listening to a BBC radio dramatization of Anthony Trollope’s The American Senator.  Trollope adapts so well for film and radio, provided he is left in the right hands (the recent adaptation of Doctor Thorne has not yet aired in North America but I gather I should be very alarmed indeed).  The American Senator was the very first Trollope novel I read and made me into a life-long Trollope fan, so it will always hold a special place in my heart.

And then, after happily listening to the first episode, I saw that today is the anniversary of Trollope’s birth.  A very nice coincidence and proof positive that his legacy endures.  More than two hundred years after his birth, Anthony Trollope is in no danger of being forgotten and his stories delight readers as much as ever.


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I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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The Last ChronicleSaying goodbye is difficult. When I finished The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (four years after picking up The Warden, the first in Trollope’s delightful series), it was with tears streaming down my face and the sense that I was parting from dear old friends. But the beautiful thing about books is that I can always revisit these friends, as long as they remain on my shelves (which they will do – forever).

Much has changed since we were first introduced to the cathedral town of Barchester in The Warden. Children have grown to adulthood (or been wordlessly killed off, in the case of two of the Grantly offspring), ecumenical battles have been waged, marriages both good and bad have been made, and, as is only natural with the passing of time, our beloved central characters have aged. Mr Harding, surely the sweetest and most beloved of all Trollope’s creations, is slowly begininning to drift out of this life. The Grantlys are rejoicing in the worldly success of their children, though youngest son Henry, now a widower, is less certain of his path than his siblings. In Allington, Lily Dale, still in her early twenties, is settling down to a life of pleasant spinsterhood while in London Johnny Eames is progressing steadily at work and, when he’s not too busy, still pining after Lily. And, at the bishop’s palace, a quiet revolution is being to take shape.

At the heart of the story is the very Trollope-esque mystery of Mr Crawley and the stolen cheque. Mr Crawley, the morally uptight and perpetually cheerless perpetual curate of Hogglestock, stands accussed of stealing a cheque. Never a particularly attentive man, he can’t adequately explain how the cheque came to be in his possession. He thought it came from Dean Arabin, but Arabin thought not. Already poor and relatively friendless, Crawley settles in to enjoy his martyrdom and alienate those friends who do try to assist him in his time of need.

And those friends are legion, though they are in truth really the friends of his long-suffering wife and eldest daughter, Grace. The Luftons and the Robarts at Framley try to help, as do Lily and Mrs Dale, and various Grantlys – particularly Henry, who is in love with Grace Crawley. But Crawley is a stubborn man and is determined to suffer until his innocence is proved. Meanwhile, he goes a little mad.

With such a father, I can forgive a great deal in Grace Crawley. She is perhaps the dullest Trollope heroines I’ve yet to come across – certainly the dullest in this series. She is so sweet and good and morally upright that she refuses to marry the man she loves, Henry Grantly, as long as her father stands accused. Her reasoning is peculiarly Victorian: she will not taint her love and his illustrious family with her father’s shame. And, of course, she is beautiful and graceful and a true lady, etc, etc. When the archdeacon finally meets Grace, he quite falls in love with her and is moved to tears by her plight (a situation easily foreseen by Mrs Grantly, who knows her husband’s sentimental heart). A fine pair.

I can’t bring myself to like Grace. Trollope’s other heroines are equally good and moral but they have a bit more fun and fight in them. Grace is a sad creature with no discernable sense of humour. She’ll make Henry Grantly a lovely wife but a dull one – which is fine as he seems quite dull too, as do his two surviving siblings. None of the archdeacon’s passion or Mrs Grantly’s well-concealed cunning seem to have been passed down to the next generation. As they are two of my favourite characters – indeed, the archdeacon is probably my favourite of all Barsetshire residents – this is a sad thing indeed.

All the youthful female spirit and wit (I say youthful since the elder generation – such as Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly – has never for a moment been lacking) was saved for that determined spinster, Lily Dale. I love Lily. I was enchanted and beguiled by her when I read The Small House at Allington but Trollope gives us even more to love about her here. Further encounters with both Crosbie and Johnny Eames leave her determined to remain an old maid – a choice I would probably also make if my only choice were between those two. Crosbie is now a poor widower, losing his hair, with none of the brilliancy that attracted Lily before. Johnny continues to grow into a promising man and there are times when Lily does seem tempted. And Trollope certainly thinks she should be:

My old friend John was certainly no hero – was very unheroic in many phases of his life; but then, if all the girls are to wait for heroes, I fear that the difficulties in way of matrimonial arrangmenets, great as they are at present, will be very seriously enhanced. Johnny was not ecstatic, nor heroic, nor transcendental, nor very beautiful in his manliness; he was not a man to break his heart for love or to have his story written in an epic; but he was an affectionate, kindly, honest young man; and I think most girls might have done worse than take him.

Much as I love Johnny, I can’t think he would make Lily a good – or constant – husband. He is always falling prey to some artful female, always too happy to neglect his duties, always, in short, thinking of himself and the present moment. No, as a husband for Lily he will not do and so the author sentences them both to eternal singledom. Something I suspect they will both excel at. They are friendly, selfish creatures, much loved by others. They shall never lack for friends and never need to think of anyone else.

Johnny remains a touching figure and clearly one Trollope identified with. He is, Trollope points out to us early on, much improved from his earlier days:

With his own mother and sister, John Eames was in these days quite a hero. He was a hero with them now, because in his early boyish days there had been so little about him that was heroic.

He has worked his way up in the world, inherited a little money, and made a few more influential friends. He has a gift for making friends and, by instantly and carelessly sharing his heart and innermost thoughts with them, turning them into his devoted supporters. Those who know him a little better would wish him to work harder and with less complaints – both in matters of commerce and the heart. He shares his feelings and his dreams with everyone he meets – endearing, no doubt, but concerning if you are Lily Dale and constantly being petitioned on his behalf by near strangers. He still keeps less respectable company in town, with no true friends to reign him in and steer him in less dangerous directions (though Conway Dalrymple tries). Trollope, better than almost any writer I’ve found, understands how lonely and scary it is to be in your twenties and starting a career, hating the dull, grinding work, wanting to move up but not really wanting to expend the necessary effort. Any distraction is welcome and any chance to be heroic should be seized. God bless Johnny Eames for seizing what adventures come his way.

There are two major deaths in The Last Chronicle of Barset: the entirely expected passing of Mr Harding, after a long and satisfying life, and the unexpected death of Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s reviled wife. Mrs Proudie’s death comes as a shocking blow to her husband, who had only just begin tto assert himself after decades under the rule of that virago. Dr Proudie has always been a pitiable character but never moreso than here.

It was the peaceful departure of good, sweet Mr Harding that left me wiping away tears as I finished the novel. The archdeacon’s tribute to his father-in-law was what did it:

“I seem to have known him all my life,” said the archdeacon. “I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom knows another. There is nothing he has done – as I believe nothing that he has thought – with which I have not been cognisant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of woman; and yet, when occassion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero…The fact is, he was never wrong. He couldn’t go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God – and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he coveted aught in his life – except a new case for his violincello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.”

I cried less for Mr Harding – so certain that he is going to his reward – than for the archdeacon. They never truly understood one another but they were family, friends and allies for so many years. My dear archdeacon will miss him.

In the end, this was not my favourite Barsetshire book; The Small House at Allington retains that honour. A dull romance and over-long plot about the stolen cheque detracted from the really excellent elements: the return of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, the archdeacon’s emotional outbursts over any number of things, and the beautifully touching depiction of Mr Harding’s final days. Yes, not the best book in the series but still a wonderful conclusion to an absolutely absorbing saga.

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Trollope Bicentenary

The Eustace DiamondsToday marks 200 years since Anthony Trollope was born.  Trollope has been a relatively recent discovery for me (I only started reading him back in 2011) but he has quickly become one of my very favourite authors – so much so that I am currently reading two fabulous Trollope-related books: his wonderful novel The Eustace Diamonds and Victoria Glendinning’s excellent biography of him.

Here’s a quick recap of some of my encounters with Trollope so far:

The American Senator

Ayala’s Angel

The Warden

Barchester Towers

Doctor Thorne

Framley Parsonage

The Small House at Allington *my favourite (so far)

I’ve enjoyed all of these (plus The Three Clerks, which I read but never managed to review) and look forward to reading and rereading many more of Trollope’s books in years to come!

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Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.


1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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TheSmallHouseatAllingtonAlmost before I knew who Anthony Trollope was, I was being warned by other readers of how disappointing I would find The Small House at Allington.  Lily Dale was a drip, I was told, and the entire book a drag to read.  Old visitors to Barsetshire happily skip it when rereading the series.  Forewarned, I put off reading the novel for months after finishing Framley Parsonage.  But then I went into Trollope withdrawal and, rather than turning to one of the standalone novels, decided to soldier on in Barsetshire.  I picked up The Small House at Allington with no great expectations.  I put it down a few days later convinced that it was the best Trollope I’ve read yet.

Even people who have never read Trollope themselves are familiar with Lily Dale, the jilted heroine of The Small House at Allington, whose constancy to her former fiancé so appealed to Victorian readers and so enrages modern ones.  Lily lives with her mother and elder sister at the Small House at Allington (as opposed to the Large House, inhabited by her uncle, Squire Dale).  In the novel’s early chapters, she meets and falls in love with Aldolphus Crosbie, a winsome and ambitious young man.  Unfortunately, shortly after their engagement Crosbie abandons Lily to make a socially advantageous marriage to Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the eldest daughter of a well known and unpleasant family familiar from earlier Barsetshire books.  Meanwhile, young Johnny Eames, a friend of Lily’s since childhood, longs to avenge the wrong that was done to her by Crosbie and to win her for himself…if only he could get his rather messy London life sorted out first.

I can see why modern readers find Lily enraging and also why Victorian readers adored her.  She is affectionate and resilient but, when it matters, introverted to the extent that neither the reader nor her own family can really know what is going on in her mind or heart.  Trollope later referred to her as a “prig” but the Lily he presents here, obstinate as she is, seems too bold to be branded with such a milksop label.  She teases that she is a domestic tyrant and throughout the book goes along, doing just as she likes, happily ignoring the well-meant and generally sensible advice of those who love her.  When she is abandoned by Crosbie, Lily does not go immediately into a decline; she has no delicate feminine constitution that collapses under the emotional strain of her broken engagement.  She soldiers on, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness.  But you never quite know what is going on in her head.  Her lighthearted flirtation and sharp banter seem at odds with the devotion she shows to Crosbie.  I think I like her and yet I am not quite sure.  I am certainly fascinated by her.

Poor Aldolphus Crosbie is perhaps the most interesting and, in many ways, the most sympathetic character.  The reader – and Lily – knows from the start that he is young, full of more flash than substance, more ambition than moral certainty.  But it is his half-formed character that makes him so sympathetic.  He is a man with no cruelty in him, no badness, just weakness.  And he is more than punished for his youthful foolishness by his marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the heartless de Courcy family.  He tasted enough true intimacy and affection with Lily to know what he is missing.  His about-face so shortly after becoming engaged to Lily is upsetting but wonderfully written.  He is being true to himself, if not to Lily; one of the first things Trollope shared about Crosbie was his acknowledgement that “he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money.”  Foolishly, it is only after becoming engaged to Lily that he sets out to discover if her uncle, the squire, intends to settle any money on her.  He, a childless bachelor who one would expect to do better (and who does indeed reconsider his position over the course of the novel), refuses to give Crosbie the assurance that she will receive any money on her marriage.  With the prospect of trying to support a wife on only his meager salary, Crosbie sets out on the fateful trip to Courcy castle where, with the thirty-something – but dowered and well-connected – Lady Alexandrina on display, ambition wins out over affection.

This is a thick novel and over the rest of it Crosbie has much time to repent of his decision.  His arrogance and confidence, his dreams of a bright professional future, are slowly ground down as the frightful and demanding de Courcys invade every corner of his life.  Meanwhile, his timid would-have-been-rival for Lily’s affections, Johnny Eames, finds himself rising in the world.  Johnny works moderately hard at his job but, more importantly, finds himself with a well-connected patron, Lord de Guest, whom he saved from a charging bull in a delightfully comic scene.  Lord de Guest helps champion Johnny’s bid for Lily’s hand but it is of no use: Lily has no interest in any other man than Crosbie, feeling herself bound to him despite the abrupt end to their relationship.

I feel like I ought to have liked Johnny Eames more than I did.  He is appealingly green and insecure, the sort of young man who Trollope excelled at writing about sympathetically.  But, in his way, he is crueller to the women in his life than Crosbie was to Lily.  The scenes in Johnny’s squalid London boarding house make it that much easier to understand the appeal of gently-bred Lily but that does not make his treatment of Amelia Roper, the landlady’s daughter to whom he declared his half-hearted love, acceptable.

What I did love about Johnny Eames – and Crosbie – were the details of their working lives in London.  I adore Trollope for many reasons and one of them is the insight he gives into the professional careers of middle-class Victorians.  I delight in learning about the sort of hours clerks worked, or the amounts they were paid, or what they did on their weekends, or how they furnished their houses and how they managed to afford to marry and support children.  And I adore reading about office politics and the hierarchies within the departments where Trollope’s characters work.  The Three Clerks was a perfect book for this but The Small House at Allington, which spends a significant portion focused on Crosbie and Eames, is almost as good.

Another joy of reading Trollope is being privy to his authorial asides, be they about society or his characters.  He has a habit of defending his characters before anyone can criticize them which feels adorably parental.  But, best of all, he likes to insert reminders every now and then for his readers:

Young men, very young men – men so young that it may be almost a question whether or no they have as yet reached their manhood – are more inclined to be earnest and thoughtful when alone than they ever are when with others, even though those others be their elders.  I fancy that, as we grow old ourselves, we are apt to forget that it was so with us; and, forgetting it, we do not believe that it is so with our children.

I feel like every Trollope book has at least one of these timeless reminders that is wildly appropriate for my life at that moment.  I often find myself copying them out and forwarding them on to friends or family members.

The genius of The Small House at Allington, where it rises about the rest of the equally entertaining Barsetshire books, is that it is perfectly put together.  The plotting is tight, the characters compelling (if not always comprehensible), and there are none of the extraneous scenes or storylines that distract from the action in his other novels.  That’s not to say that there aren’t secondary storylines: there are several.  While Lily is pledging herself to eternal maidenhood, her sister Bell is confusedly falling in love with the village doctor.  And in a more exalted strata of society, the awkward and shy Plantagenet Palliser is falling inappropriately in love with the exquisite Lady Dumbello, to the horror of both their families.  This sets up the Palliser books nicely and makes me eager to start them, but not before I finished with Barsetshire.  The Last Chronicle of Barset awaits.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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Framley ParsonageIs there anything more delightful than a visit to Barsetshire?  Reading Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope for the first time earlier this year has been one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of 2013.  Any Trollope is attractive but there is something so welcoming about the Barsetshire books.  Though I don’t think Framley Parsonage is the best in the series, it does introduce some wonderful characters and brings back old favourites.

The main conflict of the novel is good – a young clergyman, Mark Robarts, guarantees a friend’s debts then unsuspectingly finds himself on the hook for them – and the romantic subplots were excellent but, as is Trollope’s want, it was overlong.  There was too much about Mr Sowerby, the MP whose careless ways cause Mark Robarts so much anxiety, and his unscrupulous group of friends.  The drawing out of Mark’s association with these people, especially after he realises how irresponsibly he behaves when around them, did little to increase the tension of the story.  And seeing these folk separate from Mark, carousing in London where Mr Sowerby continued his pursuit of the wealthy Miss Dunstable, stretched my patience when there were so many other characters I liked and was eager to get back to.

The central group of characters, though, was perfect.  Mark Robarts, thanks to his longstanding association with young Lord Lufton, has had everything handed to him: an excellent education, a generous living, and a wonderful wife.  He is a good man who has never been forced to make any hard decisions, whose goodness and moral judgement have never before been tested.  When they are, Mark realises how weak he is.  He is no hero and, left on his own, has no idea how to extricate himself from his troubles.  For months, he feels too ashamed to reveal his failure to his loving wife or even his best friend, Lord Lufton.  His weakness makes him feel terribly real but that alone does not make him particularly interesting.  As usual, it is Trollope’s women who demand the bulk of the reader’s attention, affection, and esteem.

The men in this book feel young but perfectly so.  Mark Robarts and Lord Lufton feel like normal twenty-six year old men, no different from the ones I know now.  They are charming and bright and eager, loving and kind and thankful but, more often than not, they are also impulsive and proud and indecisive.  They are not storybook heroes, who always know exactly what to do and say, but real men with much left to learn:

I know it will be said of Lord Lufton himself that, putting aside his peerage and broad acres, and handsome, sonsy face, he was not worth a girl’s care and love.  That will be said because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for the world’s common wear and tear.  I may as well confess that of absolute, true heroism there was only a moderate admixture in Lord Lufton’s composition; but what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were to be thought worthy of women’s love?

Their lovers – Fanny, Mark’s wife, and Lucy, Mark’s sister who falls in love with Lord Lufton – are even younger but are far more practical and productive than their menfolk.  They can be just as confused emotionally but they know how to handle the challenges they face.  The stalwart Fanny Robarts is wonderful.  Already the mother of two young children, she is quiet and sweet but much stronger than her husband and diplomatic enough to keep up the relationship with Lady Lufton when that sensible woman is ready to give up on Mark.  And Lucy, wonderful Lucy, has to be one of Trollope’s most delightful creations.  Having come to live with Mark and Fanny after her father’s death, Lucy attracts the admiration of Lord Lufton, much to his mother’s displeasure.  Knowing that his initial vows of love are more a sign of infatuation than real emotional commitment and that he could just as easily be convinced to propose to Griselda Grantly, the statuesque beauty his mother favours, Lucy tries to halt her own growing love for him.  The result is one of the most amusing chapters in all of Trollope, with such wonderful exchanges as:

‘And what shall I do next?’ said Lucy, still speaking in a tone that was half tragic and half jeering.

‘Do?’ said Mrs Robarts.

‘Yes, something must be done.  If I were a man I should go to Switzerland, of course; or, as the case is a bad one, perhaps as far as Hungary.  What is it that girls do?  they don’t die now-a-days, I believe.’

The more mature women are no less formidable or sympathetic.  Trollope, bless him, understood how much fun the older generation was still capable of having, especially since the younger folk in this book spend so much of their time consumed with very weighty concerns.  Their elders, for the most part, are left to indulge themselves in petty squabbles and flirtations without censure from the young:

How pleasantly young men and women of fifty or thereabouts can joke and flirt and poke their fun about, laughing and holding their sides, dealing in little innuendos and rejoicing in nicknames when they have no Mentors of twenty-five or thirty near them to keep them in order.

Miss Dunstable, the wonderfully sensible heiress introduced in Doctor Thorne, is back but in danger of drifting away from her true friends.  Caught up with a fast, fashionable London set, she risks losing the warmth and genuine feeling she values in her relationships with the young Greshams and the admirable Doctor Thorne.  Her attempts to claim the kind of life (and life partner) she desires is one of the novel’s most enjoyable subplots.

Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly, those two old foes, feature prominently here as well, though Mrs Grantly’s family has been cruelly cut since earlier books: she now has only one daughter and two sons (down from two and three, I believe).  Mrs Grantly’s efforts to marry off the cold and exquisite Griselda occupy most of her attention but enough remains for her to make a number of jabs about the vile Proudies when their paths cross in London.  I loved these glimpses of the battle-ready Mrs Grantly, even though it meant I got to see very little of my favourite Barsetshire resident, Dr Grantly.

As much as I loved Lucy, I think Lady Lufton was my favourite character in Framley Parsonage.  Though she is an active and well-liked woman, her main focus in life, the source of her greatest happiness, is her son.  She is content in his absence but “younger and brighter when he was there, thinking more of the future and less of the past.  She could look at him, and that alone was happiness to her.”  She wants only the best for him and, to her, the “best” means a suitable marriage, ideally to a bride of her choosing.  Lord Lufton, still a young man, seems less convinced of the necessity of a wife but Lady Lufton, like any competent Victorian mama, sees no reason to let that stand in the way of her match-making:

In her mind, every man was bound to marry as soon as he could maintain a wife; and she held an idea – a quiet private tenet, of which she was herself but imperfectly conscious – that men in general were inclined to neglect this duty for their own selfish gratifications, that the wicked ones encouraged the more innocent in this neglect, and that many would not marry at all, were not an unseen coercion exercised against them by the other sex. 

When her son goes against her wishes in picking a wife, Lady Lufton has to overcome her pride and accept the woman he has chosen.  For a woman so used to having her own way, it is a difficult lesson but Lady Lufton can be impressively humble when she knows she has erred, which only makes me admire her more.

Had the subplots, particularly Mr Sowerby’s, been judiciously pruned, I think this would have been my favourite Trollope book to date.  As it is, I still loved it and I can completely understand why Elizabeth Gaskell was moved to say: “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end.”

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