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.
Anna Bouverie, in The Rector’s Wife, takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family’s needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back ... saw ... her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.
It goes without saying that Trollope’s view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James’s, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly ... the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them ... It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place.’
That image is significant: Trollope’s women are subject to many of the same social and domestic pressures that 19th-century writers had their heroines fight against, and her deliberate use of inherited concepts and language shows that she’s aware of that. But her characters are living in a self-imposed anachronism. Their situations have been created by choice. Other options have been – and to an extent still are – open to them, but it takes them a long time to realise it. Kate Bain, of The Men and the Girls, gives up a difficult but self-sufficient existence to move into a large house with a rich man. Later, she gets bored, moves out of her partner’s home and sleeps with another, younger man. The initial excitement is illusory. He turns out to be violent and neurotic, and she rebuilds her life alone. She sacrifices her daughter to do so, and then she finds that not having worked for a long time, she is only qualified for difficult, unsatisfying part-time jobs. Liza, in A Passionate Man, stops teaching to devote herself to bringing up her children, and to being a doctor’s wife. When she takes it up again, it is part of an attempt to regain her former identity and sense of purpose, and her marriage suffers as she succeeds.
The Best of Friends is more complicated. Its women, Gina Bedford and Hilary Wood, both curbed their professional ambitions when they got married. But they do not spontaneously choose independence or self-confrontation; both have it forced on them as a direct result of other people’s actions. Their lives, and those of both their families, are intertangled; everyone has the power to affect what happens. There is no prime instigator, no neat explanatory framework, and no single heroine. Equally, no one involved is fully in control of the situation.
It isn’t that what the novel chronicles is extraordinary. In fact, it is relatively undramatic. The narrative centres on the separation of Fergus and Gina Bedford – occasioned because ‘they’d changed and he was being stifled. Suffocated’ – and its effect on their 16-year-old daughter Sophy, and on their neighbours, Laurence and Hilary. The families are close. Gina and Laurence are old school friends; each represents ‘the person I talk to about what we want out of life, borrow books from, go to the cinema with’. It is quickly established that they haven’t slept together. But when Fergus leaves their relationship becomes more intense. They have sex, decide that they have always been in love; that ‘it was all turbulence and un happiness and storms and suddenly there’s this oasis of calm because we’ve found the answer.’
It turns out not to be the answer, but in the meantime Laurence tells Hilary and their three sons. Thrown into crisis, Sophy loses her virginity to Laurence’s eldest son, George. This causes problems because his brother Gus thinks he’s in love with her himself. Fergus, meanwhile, has bought a house with Tony, his business partner, who is infatuated with him. But Fergus isn’t gay. Sophy, who blames her mother for her parents’ separation, tries to move in with Fergus and Tony, who resents the intrusion. As all this goes on, Vi, Sophy’s grandmother, who was forced by the disappearance of her wartime lover to lead a much less conventional, less dependent life than her daughter, loses her soulmate Dan to a heart attack.
After a while The Best of Friends starts to read like a soap opera. It’s also as compelling as one. Apart from being so obviously melodramatic, the novel portrays a small, introspective community where everyone knows everyone else and feels free to judge their actions. And because the characters seem familiar and realistic, it doesn’t quite matter that the story is sometimes improbable.
There is a lot of voyeurism. People talk about their neighbours, and they watch their movements closely. There are peripheral characters whose function is simply to spectate. Cath Barnett, who is in charge of the housing estate where Vi and Dan both live, openly admits to spying on them, telling Dan that ‘Mrs Sitchell is causing some offence coming over to your flat every morning in her nightclothes and remaining here for an hour.’ Dan is in his eighties, and the comment offends him so much that he falls into a sudden decline. And at the beginning of the book, a couple argue at a party and another guest lays bets on how long their marriage will last. Gina gets so that she can’t meet Sophy’s schoolfriends without wondering how much they know about her. And quite a lot of the misery caused by the separation of the two couples is to do with what people will think. Divorce is considered by some to be ‘like a knell of doom’. Not everyone thinks like that: Gina is illegitimate, and her mother has never pretended to have been married. But however people react to gossip, there is no getting away from the fact that they will be talked about.
The consciousness of being watched affects what most characters do. They all want to be seen to behave well, and even the most hopeless situations are glossed over in public. Even when they’re convinced that they have no future together, Laurence and Hilary stay in the same house and for a long time sleep in the same bed. The reason is simple: they own a hotel and they don’t want the staff to know that anything’s wrong. Similarly, when Hilary goes to confront Gina about Laurence’s affair, she is rigidly polite. ‘Not having done this before, I don’t know how one proceeds,’ she says. ‘I don’t know the form.’
Gossip and speculation play a big part in the novel, but Trollope is not an overtly moral or didactic writer, and what people think depends largely on who they are, and on how old they are. An old man sees Sophy as a victim of her parents’ selfishness, a ‘poor, stricken girl’, but Gina tells Laurence that, though the children may be temporarily unhappy, ‘they’d hate us even more later if we said you’d only stayed ... for their sakes.’ Everyone goes through phases of feeling responsible for the others’ distress, but they also try to justify their actions according to their own sense of morality. Gina decides that her relationship with Laurence has failed simply because it’s immoral, and George’s mother tells him that he has taken advantage of Sophy: that she’s vulnerable, and in any case too young for him. But Sophy herself sees sex as quite inconsequential; ‘she had quite liked it, to her surprise.’ She refuses to feel bound to George, whom she had chosen simply because ‘she had wanted someone in her power that afternoon.’
Yet characters sometimes change their minds about what they think, and what they’ve done. When Laurence leaves Gina, and her plans to leave England with him are overturned, she starts to think about Sophy, who had refused to go with her, and about her mother, and about the effect her leaving would have had on them. And Laurence goes back to his wife because he decides that their marriage doesn’t have to be over. ‘I’ll never be tired of you,’ he tells Gina, ‘but you aren’t where I belong.’ Fergus, who is in a roughly parallel position, has just as much dignity, though he states adamantly and repeatedly that he has no regrets. But where people haven’t thought rationally about their situation, they come to wish that they hadn’t been so impulsive, and for Trollope that’s quite new. In many of her early novels, regret or possible alternatives aren’t really an issue.
But then Gina is unlike Trollope’s previous heroines. Like them, she is forced to a crisis of identity, but she is slow to recognise it. She is bound up in a closed community, and not far-sighted enough to want to change her life. She comes to freedom reluctantly, not wanting to be independent. At first she attempts merely to replace one man with another. She goes to counselling sessions, and comes to depend on the therapist, who is blithe and encouraging and quotes things at her like, ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak knits up the o’er-wrought heart and bids it break.’ Gina tries to act on her advice, but in the end it doesn’t work. Trollope is very good on the ludicrous side of all this. There’s a superb description of a young man in the waiting-room, ‘staring furiously’ and swearing at a helpful little card which says: ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ Vi tells her daughter, at one point. ‘Sometimes you seem to me like someone I’ve never met before.’ No one personality or relationship in the novel ever seems fixed or completely stable. Despite that fluidity, The Best of Friends appears oblivious to many of the ideas which pervade contemporary novels. Trollope doesn’t worry about the novel form, or about the drawbacks of omniscient narration. She clearly states exactly what each character (including, at one point, the dog) thinks and feels. Their reactions to each new event, and their emotional vacillations, are explained. The problems of individuals are always articulated, justifying their decisions. It’s impossible to feel that Fergus is brutish and insensitive when he argues with Sophy, because we are explicitly told that he secretly thinks she’s right. We are encouraged to empathise with everyone; to concentrate on each in turn; to watch them battling through the often self-created chaos of their lives; and yet to feel for them. Dialogue cuts insistently into the narrative, but it’s stilted and anxious. This is very much the way soap opera works, and the technique feels odd and slightly misplaced in a novel. Yet as in soap opera, it’s sometimes peculiarly effective.
The novel’s conclusions are ambivalent. Situations are set up but are then compromised, or left partially unresolved. Wealth, education, upbringing and gender, and the assumptions they create, determine characters’ fate, the decisions they make, and the emotional effects of their actions. People make small moves towards freedom, but they do and think nothing that will really place them outside their own societies, or will alter dominant ideas. Those who want to escape do not do so literally. They face up to their problems, and see their failings, their successes and the implications of their actions clearly. But they still remain embedded in the situation, and the only way out they can see is emotional or intellectual – a poor, but appropriate, substitute for the flight they dream of.