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Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Ordinary Writing

The great novelists of 19th century English literature — Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot chief among them — are justly beloved by generations of readers who read and reread their hefty fictions, learning from them about human souls and human society, and about the art of writing. Oliver Twist in the 6th grade gave me my first taste of these glorious books, and I've spent much of my life since engrossed by the unfolding adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Becky Sharp, Phineas Finn, and Daniel Deronda.

Many similarities link the writers: their country and culture, their long story arcs, their "omniscient author" point of view, and their big canvas realism; and many differences set each off from the others: Thackeray's sarcasm, Eliot's warmth, Dickens' melodrama, and Trollope's common sense. Luckily we can enjoy them all, reading Vanity Fair in April and Middlemarch in May, as we can enjoy Duke Ellington in June and Count Basie in July. If I could take to a desert island books by only one of these authors, I'd agonize over the choice, but I'd take the novels of Anthony Trollope.

Why? Well, Trollope wrote more than the others — over fifty novels and other works — so I'd have more to read. Yet here's the real reason: Trollope's writing is so ordinary.

Calling a work of art ordinary is not ordinarily considered praise, but I use the term as a lustrous laurel wreath. More than any writer I know, Anthony Trollope uses writing fiction to paint, in breath-taking detail and variety, ordinary human life — not what we think life would, should, or could be like, but what life truly is like.

Trollope wrote as a no-nonsense professional who churned out best sellers by daily diligence at his desk. When George Eliot told him some days she couldn't write a line, Trollope replied, "With imaginative work like yours, that's natural; but my mechanical stuff is a sheer matter of industry." At the banquet table of English literature, Trollope called himself "the saddle of mutton."

Trollope describes ordinary places with a draftsman's clarity — "The hall was spacious, and the stairs went up in the center, facing you as you enter from the inner hall" — and a decorator's eye — "There was a green damask sofa, and two green armchairs opposite to each other at the two sides of the fireplace." He works hard to make his characters ordinary people, "speaking, moving, living human creatures," as he wrote in his Autobiography, "a month older on the last day of each month than on the first," whom the writer knows intimately, "crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities":

They must be with him as he lies down to sleep and as he wakes up from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true and how far false.

Trollope resists the temptation to make his characters too good to be true. "No terms have been more injurious to the novelist," he writes in The Claverings, "as the two words, hero and heroine. In spite of the latitude allowed to the writer in interpreting them, something heroic is still expected; whereas, if he attempt to paint from nature, how little that is heroic he should describe."

Trollope's characters look ordinary. He'll put a little gauze on his lens for a pretty girl, but he paints his men unadorned:

Brooke Burgess...was a good-looking man, with black whiskers and black hair, which was beginning to thin on the top of his head, and pleasant small bright eyes...He was rather below the middle height, and somewhat inclined to be stout.
— He Knew He Was Right

Brooke Burgess turns out to be a good fellow, but when Trollope introduces Ferdinand Lopez, the villain of The Prime Minister, he gives him the same neutral treatment:

[Lopez] was nearly six-feet tall, very dark and very thin, with regular well-cut features indicating little to the physiognomist unless it be the great gift of self-possession. His hair was cut short, and he wore no beard beyond an absolutely black moustache. His teeth were perfect in form and whiteness...

Dickens's expressionistic portraits are justly famous — think of Uriah Heap's clammy hands and his eyes like "two red suns" — yet I love Trollope's prosaic portraits. Sometimes he paints with broad strokes; here Charley Tudor, a junior clerk in the Office of Internal Navigation:

He was a gay-hearted, thoughtless, rollicking young lad, when he came up to town; and...he easily fell into the peculiar ways and habits of the office. A short bargee's pilot-coat, and a pipe of tobacco, were soon familiar to him; … he had his house-of-call in a cross lane running between Essex Street and Norfolk Street. "Mary, my dear, a screw of bird's-eye," came quite habitually to his lips...
— The Three Clerks

— at others he paints in minuscule detail. In The Eustace Diamonds, Lord Fawn courts Lizzie Eustace, "twiddling his hat" through their first remarks. Then:

Lord Fawn…put his hat down on the floor. It came upon Lizzie at that moment, as by a flash of lightning — by an electric message delivered to her intellect by that movement of the hat — that she might be sure of Lord Fawn if she chose to take him.

Trollope paints country scenes and city scenes, scenes of high life and low life, in the same even light. There's only one murder in his entire oeuvre, but he describes countless courtships, lawsuits, inheritance battles, elections, dinner parties, and fox hunts. Whatever he describes, Trollope keeps his vocabulary informal, his dialogue conversational. His sentences, some long, some short, jog along at an easy andante, each one doing its job, none drawing attention to itself:

But the post did not go out during the night, and the note lay hidden in the Duke's private drawer till the morning.
After lunch Mabel came suddenly behind the chair on which Silverbridge was sitting and asked him to take a walk with her.
— The Duke's Children

A short essay can only hint at the plainspoken quality of Trollope's prose.  If these few examples have tempted you to give Trollope a try, I suggest, first, read one or two or three of his freestanding novels — Orley Farm, The Claverings, or The Three Clerks, all meaty tales I think you'll enjoy — then restart your reading with The Warden, the first of Trollope's six-novel Barsetshire series. Next go on to the other five novels of the series — Barchester Towers, Dr. Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. When you've finished its 3000-odd pages, and taken a welcome breather, you'll be ready to launch into the 3,000-odd pages of the six Palliser novels — Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke's Children — that grow out of the Barsetshire six.

On every page of this humongous opus — perhaps the longest single narrative in English — you'll find ordinary people doing ordinary things. Much as Balzac's The Human Comedy creates a real-fictional France, Trollope's dozen connected novels create a real-fictional England in which hundreds of interrelated characters live, love, and die through the historical events and social changes of the three decades 1850 to 1880.

You'll meet the charming Lady Glencora, the mysterious Madame Goesler, and the hot-tempered Irishman Phineas Finn; you'll listen in on Parliamentary debates, watch crooked gamblers fix a horse race, and sit at the bedside of a dissolute old Duke sinking down to death — seeing everything, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all the inhabitants going about their daily business, not suspecting they were made a show of."

After decades of reading Trollope, I trust his vision of ordinary human life. He turns his plain understanding of people into plain understandable prose, maintaining in novel after novel a balance of physical and psychological observation that convinces me of its rule-of-thumb rightness. Trollope sees his characters one by one and describes each as a human like himself. That intense individuality makes his vision universal. For, as he wrote in Can You Forgive Her?:

Every man to himself is the centre of the whole world, the axle on which it all turns.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 11th 2012, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
The Power of Ordinary Writing hit the spot today as I go again to the rewrite of my first, but not my last novel. I haven't read a great deal of Anthony Trollope, yet, but I've read everything his descendant Joanna Trollope ever wrote and I'm thinking she may have taken a page from her ancestor's book and studied it carefully. Anyhow, I know what Mr. Trollope meant when he told George Elliot (essentially) his job was to sit down and write what he saw, smelled, heard, and touched. Obviously he was a lover and keen observer of human nature and would be writing truthfully about us all and what motivates us if here were living today. I believe and I will read.
Tuesday September 11th 2012, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Thank you, Michael. I'm off to Trollope at a gallop.
Wednesday September 12th 2012, 9:55 PM
Comment by: John R. (Rochester, NY)
John Fowles's *The Book of Ebenezer Le Page* is all about the 'ordinary' lives of the people on an island off the west coast of France. I've asked myself more than once why I continue to read this book. After reading Michael's essay above, I see now it's the easy and flowing style of Fowles's writing in this book. And it's a book about ordinary lives. The lives of people over almost a century, marrying, dying, going to war, quarreling, laughing, etc.
Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 8:34 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I've just finished listening to the six Anthony Trollope books which are the "Chronicles of Barchester." I was enchanted every day as I listened (downloads from Audible.com)to page after page of fascinating life. The last book was so wonderful that I couldn't stop listening until the last word was read (except for sleeping, of course). And I've just begun the Paliser series with "Can You Forgive Her," in which an exasperating young lady is finally forgiven. I simply can't begin another of his novels until I get a few things done that won't support listening--then it'll be back to the stories which flow from the narrator as if he's telling his listeners the latest news. I love, love, love Trollope's novels and have had many days of happy listening. Thankfully, there are many more to come.

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