It’s been ten years or more since I read Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, and I am returning to them now with great delight. I have now re-read the first four, and will probably move along to The Last Chronicle of Barset because of my particular dislike for Lily Dale, the masochistic heroine of The Small House at Allington. There’s no reason why I should force myself, you know.A number of impressions strike me this time around, and I’ll just mention a couple of them — one today, one tomorrow. Trollope is wonderful with characters who are bad but could have been good, or good but could have been bad. This is particularly evident in Framley Parsonage. One of my favorite Trollope characters is Lady Lufton, whose pride in her family and class could easily have turned her into a snobbish tyrant — were it not for the essential goodness of her heart, her deep desire to love and be loved. Conversely, after going to considerable trouble to portray Mr. Sowerby as a scoundrel, Trollope then pivots and goes to almost equal trouble to show us that he could have been something much better:
We know not what may be the nature of that eternal punishment to which those will be doomed who shall be judged to have been evil at the last; but methinks that no more terrible torment can be devised than the memory of self-imposed ruin. What wretchedness can exceed that of remembering from day to day that the race has been all run, and has been altogether lost; that the last chance has gone, and has gone in vain; that the end has come, and with it disgrace, contempt, and self-scorn — disgrace that never can be redeemed, contempt that never can be removed, and self-scorn that will eat into one’s vitals for ever? Mr. Sowerby was now fifty; he had enjoyed his chances in life; and as he walked back, up South Audley Street, he could not but think of the uses he had made of them. He had fallen into the possession of a fine property on the attainment of his manhood; he had been endowed with more than average gifts of intellect; never-failing health had been given to him, and a vision fairly clear in discerning good from evil; and now to what a pass had he brought himself!
Somewhat later in the book, Sowerby is speaking to Mark Robarts, a man whom he has entangled in financial difficulties, and is moved to tears, real tears, by Robarts’s plight. He would do something to help him if he could, but there’s nothing he can do — he has compromised himself too thoroughly, is too deep in debt, is so utterly discredited that he’s helpless. Moreover, Robarts doesn’t believe in Sowerby’s good will, which grieves Sowerby but does not surprise him.