In 1868 Anthony Trollope, one of the most successful British novelists of his time, decided to run for political office. He’d spent decades as an administrative official for the Post Office, writing novels in the morning, but the commercial success of his books finally allowed him to write full-time. Leaving government service in turn allowed him to stand for the House of Commons, something he had dreamed of doing since childhood.
Running as a moderate Liberal, Trollope spent roughly the equivalent of $43,000 in today’s money to campaign in a borough of Yorkshire that was notorious for corrupt elections. In his autobiography, he reflected that the local Liberal officials had only endorsed him because he was willing to pay for the race out of pocket. Despite his investment he finished last, and the seat went to a Conservative candidate. A subsequent voter fraud investigation found corruption so extensive that the borough was disenfranchised.
Trollope never became a member of Parliament, but his vision of a compromise-oriented liberalism lived on elsewhere. The great project of his late career was a six-volume series about the British legislature, essentially a nearly 4,000-page work of centrist fan fiction. Creating dozens of fake politicians, Trollope set about rewriting political history according to his own ideas, celebrating compromise and incremental reform in terms that echo the language of modern centrists from Joe Biden to Tony Blair.
The six-volume saga that emerged from this effort, known as the Palliser novels, represents the clearest statement of the liberal political values of Trollope’s time, but today we can also read it as a critique of those same values. Even as Trollope praises liberal reform throughout the books, the social drama that surrounds the novels’ political debates also shows the vanities and weaknesses of the reformers themselves, sketching a political class that proves too vain and out of touch to improve the lives of ordinary people. As a result the novels, long hailed as a testament to political moderation, end up arguing that the world they depict should be swept away altogether. Read today, with the benefit of hindsight, his masterpiece appears not as the work of a liberal foot soldier, but as that of an accidental radical.
Trollope was born in 1815 to a middle-class London family. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was herself a moderately successful writer. He attended a prestigious college, spent the better part of a decade as a clerk in the Post Office, and in the 1840s started writing (at the time, mostly comic novels about village life). He kept doing that almost until the day he died, producing an average of one novel a year in addition to numerous short stories, articles, and nonfiction books on politics and travel. Even though many of these works were critical and commercial successes, Trollope’s name today does not retain the same glory as that of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, aside from the occasional reference in Downton Abbey. That’s because within a few decades of the writer’s death, his work—and Victorian realism more generally—fell out of fashion with both critics and the reading public. In 1860, Nathaniel Hawthorne rhapsodized that Trollope’s books were “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business.” But his son Julian Hawthorne, writing 25 years later, wasn’t nearly as kind: He declared that Trollope had “done great harm to English [fiction]” and compared his writing to watching somebody making shoes. It didn’t help that Trollope’s posthumously published autobiography revealed that he had an almost robotic work ethic, worked on four or five books at the same time, and often “dragged” unnecessary fox hunting scenes into his books just because he liked fox hunting.
Even with the benefit of hindsight and even by Victorian standards, Trollope’s fiction still seems almost aggressively normal. He represents the ideal version of mainstream 19th century realism, the pinnacle of the novel as a form meant for mass-cultural consumption. Almost all of his books follow plausible-seeming people as they get married, find jobs, write wills, and do everything else required to maintain the existing social order of their time. These books are funny, engaging, and brilliantly plotted, but they are not radical or experimental works of literature by any definition; indeed, they form a perfect compromise between the social caricature of Dickens and the thorough psychologizing of a writer like Charlotte Brontë. The prose style, meanwhile, is so measured that it often feels monochromatic—the average sentence is something like “The Earl had been courteous, as hosts customarily are, but had been in no way specially kind.”
Given the moderate nature of his work, it’s hardly surprising that Trollope was what we would today call a centrist; he described himself without irony as “an advanced, but still conservative Liberal.” He believed that British society should be reformed incrementally and that the rich should “help the many to ascend the ladder a little,” but that things, for the most part, should remain as they are. He agreed with the Liberal party of the time that the poor should be given rights, but not too many; the aristocracy should be restrained, but not eliminated; and the Church of England should get less money from the state, but not none. Serving in Parliament he regarded as one of the greatest imaginable honors.
The Palliser novels make no attempt to conceal Trollope’s beliefs. The protagonist of the series, Plantagenet Pallliser, is the paragon of moderate, technocratic liberalism—his lifelong dream is to adjust the nation’s currency so that a shilling contains 10 pence instead of 12. Over the course of the series he feuds in equal measure with the Tories and with the progressives in his own party: He won’t give Sir Orlando Drought the money to build new warships, but neither does he seem willing to sponsor the radical Mr. Monk’s demands for electoral reform. At the height of his political influence, Palliser leads a “coalition” government split between Conservatives and Liberals; after Conservative jostling forces it to dissolve, the coalition’s great legacy is that it “carried on the Queen’s government prosperously for three years,” an outcome that everyone involved seems to find inevitable.
Even if we don’t find this centrist odyssey very inspiring, it appears coherent enough when viewed from a distance: Palliser and his cohort, through devotion and hard work, are for a short time able to form a government and make some minor reforms for the overall benefit of society. But the true joy of reading the novels is seeing how Trollope’s grand statement falls apart when you look closer and get a better glimpse of the politicians who surround Palliser and what they do when they leave the halls of Westminster. What at first presents itself as a work of fiction about politics eventually shows itself to be a work of fiction about the political class and a portrait of the elitism and avarice endemic to that class.
Although politics is the dominant theme of the series, each book centers not on a parliamentary debate but on one or more marriages among members of the political class, which Trollope calls the “Upper Ten Thousand” of British society. Between grandiloquent chapters that recreate Liberal floor speeches and tense cabinet meetings, Trollope shows his cast of ministers and their families doing the things that characters in Victorian novels tend to do: quarrel with a cousin, lust after a young lady, scramble to secure a fortune. The same parliamentarians who sincerely preach the “lessening” of social differences by day find themselves wrapped up in foolish quests by night to gain riches through marriage or protect the fortune they’ve already inherited.
Take Phineas Finn, a penniless Irish lawyer who stars in two of the series’ six books. When he first stumbles into a seat in Parliament, Finn resolves to “go there as a sound Liberal,—not to support a party, but to do the best I can for the country.” That seems to work out for a few months, until he manages to fall in love with both the daughter and the future daughter-in-law of an influential Liberal lord, offending the politicians in his own party; the gossip and scandal created by these two romances soon turn Phineas into a social outsider, relegated to a subcommittee on the importation of potted peas and shamed in the press over a duel he fights in Belgium with a rival lover. Tellingly, it’s these social squabbles that make Phineas a pariah among his fellow ministers, not his dissent over actual questions of policy. At the end of the book, after his party opposes a bill expanding the rights of Irish tenants, Phineas resigns and returns to Ireland. As he packs his bags, his sometime rivals visit him and beg him to stay, perhaps concerned that his seat will go to the Conservatives.
Indeed, the liberal characters that Trollope follows never seem to miss a chance to renege on the principles that Trollope himself advocated in the election in Yorkshire. In Can You Forgive Her?, heroine Alice Vavasor throws away an advantageous marriage because of her love for George, her progressive cousin, whom she adores for his noble efforts to get into Parliament. Only these efforts turn out to be not so noble: George goes thousands into debt paying a pub owner named Mr. Grimes to whip up votes for him and campaigns on a nonsensical promise to embank the Thames River—a program that “was perfectly unintelligible to the majority of those who read it.” Even Palliser, shut up in his countryside castle working on policy papers, cannot escape the perils of the social world: The event that undoes his centrist coalition is not a Conservative electoral victory but a rumor started at a garden party and bandied about in the tabloids.
The subject of the rumor, and of most other rumors in the saga, is money. W.H. Auden said of Trollope that “of all novelists [he] best understands the role of money,” and this understanding is on full display in the Palliser series: Whenever his focus drifts outside the halls of Parliament, Trollope shows us over and over again that both the Liberals and Conservatives in the “Upper Ten Thousand” are motivated mainly by the financial interests of their class. It’s with undisguised glee that he tells us about how the old Duke of Omnium nearly throws away his title and his fortune on a lustful late-life marriage; how the London police force gives high priority to locate a social butterfly’s missing diamonds; and how one of Palliser’s own sons loses millions of pounds on a horse-race bet when a shifty army veteran named Tifto jams a nail into the prize steed’s foot.
It’s this parody that keeps the books engaging even when the descriptions of the Cambridgeshire countryside (“very flat…not well timbered…the rivers are merely dikes”) grow dry. But as the series stretches on, the shallowness of the political class becomes almost horrifying. These people and no others, we come to realize, hold the reins in a country that in the 1860s was not only the planet’s most advanced industrial society but also the ruler of an empire that extended across half the globe. Palliser and his cohort come out on top in the end and even manage to do some good, but we are left wondering how much more they could have accomplished if everyone around them hadn’t sold out on progress in order to protect the interests of a wealthy, insulated elite.
The Parliament depicted in the Palliser novels is not a fanciful creation but rather a slightly fictionalized version of the legislature Trollope tried to enter. In addition to recreating real-life debates about tenants’ rights and the Church of England, he inserts obvious stand-ins for the politicians of his time, including the Liberal lion William Gladstone and longtime Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli. The novels are not a depiction of the 1860s as they actually happened but rather a commentary by Trollope on how politics should be conducted as well as who should do the conducting. The conscientious centrists do usher the country a few steps forward in the end, even though the Conservatives and radicals both attack their agenda along the way.
It would be easy for the candidates in this year’s Democratic primaries to find reflections of themselves in the series, since they’re still debating the same questions that troubled Palliser and his colleagues: How much change is too much? Should legislators pursue practical reform or a progressive vision? Should liberals negotiate with conservatives or force them out by any means necessary? In one sense, the novels’ answers to these questions are clear: If he were reincarnated today, it’s easy to imagine Palliser casting his lot with a Joe Biden or a Pete Buttigieg, anyone who believes, as Trollope did, that a good liberal “knows that he must be hemmed in by safeguards, lest he be tempted to travel too quickly; and therefore he is glad to be accompanied on his way by the repressive action of a Conservative opponent.”
Taken as a whole, though, the novels are far more pessimistic about the strengths and abilities of a liberal government than Trollope’s own attitudes would suggest they might be. At the end of six books and a lifetime of struggle, Palliser has gotten almost nothing done, not even his coinage project. (That wouldn’t be accomplished in real-life Britain until 1971.) The Liberal Party we see in the series’ final pages is marginally more progressive than it was at the start, but it’s certainly no more stable or committed to defeating the Conservatives’ opposition to reform. Thus the moral arc of the Palliser novels, if it bends toward anything, bends back on itself, presenting us a world where all political efforts seem to achieve the same middling results. We watch as control of Parliament, that “fullest fountain of advancing civilization,” passes back and forth between two supposedly antagonistic political parties whose ministers all attend the same social functions and hunt in the same forests.
One hundred and fifty years after the events Trollope described, the political world we inhabit is just as stultifying as his was, just as incapable of taking one step forward without taking at least one step back. Trollope might have believed in the justice of liberal causes and in the ethics of a few dedicated ministers, but he could not tell the stories of these ministers without also showing that they would never be victorious on their own terms. Whether it be the ambitions of their colleagues, the temperaments of their constituents, or simply their inability to find a constructive common ground with their opponents, something would always slow down their march of progress until it ceases to be a march at all. You come away from Trollope’s constellation of marchionesses and ministers wanting to blow the whole thing up, to sweep the whole system away and start anew. That is the real power of the novels and the reason their vision of politics still feels fresh—because Palliser’s world, like ours, is one in which nothing gets done.