- The Best of Friends by Joanna Trollope
Bloomsbury, 261 pp, £15.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 7475 2000 3
Critics don’t think much of Joanna Trollope’s novels. They call them inconsequential, petty and suburban. But that’s beside the point, because as far as money and fame are concerned she’s a phenomenal success. The critical reaction isn’t surprising: very popular writers are often dismissed in this way. Trollope, though, has some claim to be taken more seriously.
It’s because this is evident and yet thought to be inappropriate that the odd sense of unease which surrounds all discussion of her work has built up. Trollope isn’t felt to be of as much significance as she thinks she is. She deals with large, topical, recognisable issues, but she doesn’t do so in a very political way – or at least, not in a way which can easily be categorised. A mild version of feminism shapes her writing. It incites identification and is gently provocative, but ultimately it’s more comforting than subversive. She evades radical conclusions. Her interest is in the position of a certain type of woman: one who chooses to abandon an income and a career in order to get married and have children, and who later regrets it. ‘Nobody ever gives disappointment the credit of being a prime force behind wayward behaviour,’ one woman thinks in an early novel. ‘But it is. Disappointment is what’s the matter with most of us.’
Trollope’s characters are caught between the urge to undo recent history and reclaim their independence, and the wish to honour their responsibilities and remain safely within the societies that have cosseted them. But it isn’t quite as simple as that, because they are capable of resolving difficult situations in ways that would usually be considered unthinkable: they abandon their children, or they leave their husbands for vague, unspecified reasons, without seeming to care about the effect of it all. There are times when taboo subjects like these are broached openly; when the women decide to put themselves first, because escape seems the only real option. Trollope isn’t afraid to pursue this. And she doesn’t rush to make judgments.
In fact, it is ironic that the middle-class settings and ostensibly trivial concerns which dominate Trollope’s writing and which seem to establish its tone are more often attacked than applauded in the novels. Though they are set in provincial communities among old-fashioned institutions, the stifling social hierarchies and the prejudices they create are seen to be more harmful than quaint. These are the conditions which oppress her characters, and which goad them to reaction.
That isn’t to say that the novels aren’t rooted in a distinct social class. Trollope’s men are professors and vicars, artists, antiquaries and TV producers; her women have usually left their jobs, but are educated and can always find work in an emergency. These people live in elegant, scrupulously decorated houses. They are parents who stay up at night, over bottles of wine, to discuss their children’s development. The children are articulate, bright, well-meaning and emotionally stable (though some, inevitably, are especially gifted or artistic, and have temperaments to match). Members of different social classes cross their paths, but only in passing – farmers’ daughters employed as nannies; villagers whose poverty is viewed either with pity or distaste; very rich, slightly disdainful Londoners.
Nothing is analysed in these terms. Fluctuations of personal wealth may result in sacrifice; beautiful houses or school fees can be jeopardised. But the characters’ assumptions, their vocabulary and ways of speaking don’t change. Their society is a backdrop for the exploration of relationships, but it is also a trap, an illusion of stability which crumbles under close inspection.
In Trollope’s early novels the pattern is lucid. Frustration, material need or anger prompt the heroine to challenge constraints she hadn’t noticed before. New or illicit sex can seem a way of regaining control but it’s also problematic, fraught with danger. The heroine enters a period of crisis which she resolves either by sacrificing the safety of the world she knows – this often involves leaving a child – or by accepting the limitations of her situation, and returning to it with a different outlook.