Distraught over politics? Take a break with Trollope

That’s a somewhat deceitful title. Because Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) is immersed in politics. Just not our 21st century ones.


I’ve been re-reading Trollope’s great six-novel saga, the Pallisers. There’s nothing quite like sagas to pull me out of my own contemporary distresses and nudge me into fictional characters’ distresses. Such a relief, especially before going to sleep and especially if each of the six novels is around 800 pages. That is, the whole series offers nearly a year’s worth of relief.

Instead of tormenting myself with thoughts of Trump, I worry about whether Phineas Finn, Member of Parliament, will be exonerated of a murder charge. (At this very moment in my reading, Phineas has been taken from Newgate Prison to the Old Bailey courthouse for his trial.)

The politics of Trollope’s fiction pings with references to our own politics. It’s as if Trollope spends each day in Congress taking notes and then goes home to transcribe them into the 1870’s. There’s something almost surreal about the similarities.

In the first novel featuring him (Phineas Finn), Phineas runs for Parliament twice, once in an Irish district and subsequently in an English one. Each district is controlled, i.e., basically owned, by a titled aristocrat. That is, it’s gerrymandered; Phineas really doesn’t have to run at all.

In his third Parliamentary effort (Phineas Redux), since the aristocratically controlled districts have been legislated mostly out of existence, Phineas must campaign for votes against a long-time incumbent without any ideas or qualities beyond being an incumbent.

Voter suppression? Well, only propertied men can vote and when Parliament expands the franchise, it still is not to every man and certainly not to women. There are unattractively practical and cynical political consultants, and open corruption. Dark money? Some campaigners literally purchase votes (mostly in pubs).

Parliamentary leaders manipulate complex House of Commons rules and the party in power discusses Cabinet selections — and salaries are often bestowed on already rich men. There are open fights, private club confrontations, backstreet and intimate parlor maneuvers — often by some remarkably forceful women who have no other powers (I think today of Barbara Bush who used her powers beyond the scenes) — and speeches which, as summarized by Trollope, sound eerily temporal: taxation, separation of Church and state, currency re-workings.

There’s a newspaper that could be the New York Post, and its sleazy editor named Quintus Slide is Sean Hannity’s genetic ancestor.

Lies, libel, sexual shenanigans and false accusations. Open racism. (Britain’s residual anti-Semitism can be difficult to take, even with a 150-year buffer.)

A couple of criminal defense attorneys discuss defense law procedures and I swear to you I’ve heard lawyers I know saying the same exact things. And one lawyer manages voir dire, i.e., jury selection, so similarly to our kind of selection I was startled.

So there it is, life in the 2018’s repeating art of the 1870’s. Or the other way around.

But perhaps the most wonderful thing about Trollope’s Pallisers is how they encourage me to understand that government, in all its miserable mess, with all its awful participants, existed before and somehow a country survived it.

Spoiler alert: As does Phineas, by the way.

The two Phineas stories, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, two and four in the whole six-novel series, can be read by themselves. Even if they don’t entirely reassure you there will be American life after Trump, they are a wonderful read.




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