Once upon a time in Barsetshire

Anthony Trollope

The novels of 19th century writer Anthony Trollope are not an easy read. Indeed, ‘challenging’ might be a better description. It’s not the tales themselves that’s the difficulty, but Trollope’s style and literary techniques¹ that are no longer fashionable. Yet, as I have found with great pleasure over several decades, they are worth the effort.

I first became acquainted with the works of  Anthony Trollope in 1976. Steph and I were doing a weekly shop in San José, Costa Rica. We had relocated there in early April to establish a research program on breeding heat- and disease-resistant potatoes in Turrialba for the International Potato Center (CIP).

Having spent an hour at one of San José’s better supermarkets, we decided to investigate The English Bookshop (I think that was its name) in one of the side streets near the city center and see what literary delights it had to offer.

The shelves were stacked with all the current best sellers: crime, thrillers, a modicum of erotica. None of them were cheap, however. And once I’ve bought a book, I never like to discard them. I just didn’t think that much of what was on offer deserved a place on my bookshelf, not at those prices – whether or not that’s a rather arrogant attitude towards the popular fiction of the 1970s.

As it happened, the wife of a colleague from Turrialba was in the bookshop at the same time. Mary Boynton, a retired professor of English Literature at Cornell University had accompanied her husband Damon Boynton, a retired professor of pomology at Cornell on a short term consultancy at CATIE, the institute to which I had also been seconded. Anyway, as I was browsing the shelves, I asked Mary if she could recommend any of the novels spread out before us.

Why don’t you try these‘, she suggested, pointing at a group of books by Anthony Trollope. These were the six Palliser novels², tales of politics, preferment, aristocratic intrigue, the Irish question. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound (well, several £££ in this case) and I bought the first in the series, hoping that if I did enjoy it, the others would still be available on a later visit. However, I didn’t anticipate there would be much of a market for Trollope in 1970s Costa Rica.

Alan Rickman

And enjoy them I did. The remaining Palliser novels found a home in my library, as did Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire³, another six books recounting the lives of the great and good, the Church, and the ‘lower and artisan classes’ in the fictitious counties of West and East Barsetshire; and linked to the Palliser novels through at least one character in common: the Duke of Omnium (bachelor uncle to Plantagenet Palliser). Several of the novels are centred around the ecclesiastical community of Barchester. So it was a delight, after we returned to the UK, in 1981 that the BBC broadcast an adaptation (The Barchester Chronicles) of the first two of these novels (The Warden, Barchester Towers) and starring a relative newcomer to our screens, the late lamented (and young) Alan Rickman as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain (here with the late Donald Pleasance as the Rev. Septimus Harding – the Warden).

The Palliser novels were adapted for television (in 26 episodes) in 1974 by Simon Raven and have recently been rebroadcast on daytime television. The Pallisers starred Philip Latham as Plantagenet Palliser and Susan Hampshire as his vibrant and wealthy wife Lady Glencora M’Cluskie. Today, the production seems so dated compared to recent offerings.

Dr. Thorne on TV
In the past month, an adaptation of the third of the Barchester novels, Dr. Thorne, has been broadcast on ITV (one of the UK’s commercial channels) with all the drawbacks of commercial breaks every ten to fifteen minutes. Adapted for television by Julian Fellowes—the creator and writer of Downton Abbeythis adaptation of Dr. Thorne suffered from Fellowes’ inability to write a scene lasting more than 30 seconds (I’ve never been a fan of Downton Abbey). I exaggerate of course. But the narrative moved swiftly on from one set piece to another. On the whole, the first two episodes were fine, but the third was a complete let-down. Very wooden. But not everyone agrees.

Oh for the more leisurely (and commercial-free) pace of a BBC production. The celebrated writer Andrew Davies has adapted to many of the great works of literature for the small screen, including Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in 1995, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy earlier this year.

However, the locations chosen for filming Dr. Thorne, the costumes, and the whole look and feel of the production were outstanding. But the cast of characters as dramatised by Julian Fellowes were generally one dimensional, except for the wonderful Ian McShane as the nouveau riche railway baron, Sir Roger Scatcherd. And Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham was another joy to watch. The character of Dr. Thorne was played by Tom Hollander.

In the book itself, Dr. Thorne is obviously the central character, a sensitive yet strong character. I’m not convinced this was captured as satisfactorily on screen. Maybe it was the writing as Hollander’s performance per se was also very good. As it happened that Tom Hollander was appearing at the same hour (it started a couple of weeks earlier) in another production on the BBC, The Night Manager (adapted from a John Le Carré novel), playing a homosexual, psychopathic factotum. Two opposite characters could hardly be dreamed up, and unintentionally might have prejudiced my take on Hollander’s Dr. Thorne.

Dr. Thorne was broadcast over three Sundays at 9 pm. Given how commercial breaks can, and do, disrupt the narrative, I wonder if adaptations of this type are better suited to the commercial-free environment of the BBC, and portrayed at a slower pace over more episodes. Even two episodes, each 90 minutes with no breaks, would lend themselves perhaps to a more satisfactory and enjoyable experience.

However, having been left somewhat dissatisfied with the TV production, I decided to retrieve Dr. Thorne from my library. I’m now more than half way through. It’s just as enjoyable today as when I first tackled it almost 40 years when I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex—a reprint from 1915! I think it’s time to immerse myself once again in the world of the Pallisers, which should keep me occupied for a few months more.

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¹ For example, even as the narrative is romping along, Trollope will call a halt and, as though someone quite disconnected from the story, begin a commentary on the events. He also uses an interesting technique of addressing the reader from time-to-time, seeking as it were a response on what is happening and what this character or that should do. It’s rather like talking to camera as a kind of narrative, employed quite successfully by comedienne Miranda Hart in her series Miranda. Even though she might be in the middle of a sketch, the narrative might  stop, and she talks direct to camera, to the audience, to great effect.

² Can You Forgive Her? (1864); Phineas Finn (1869); The Eustace Diamonds (1873); Phineas Redux (1874); The Prime Minister (1876); The Duke’s Children (1879)

³ The Warden (1855); Barchester Towers (1857); Doctor Thorne (1858); Framley Parsonage (1861); The Small House at Allington (1864); The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

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