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Jane Austen was no Trollope

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Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope are among the creators of the modern, realistic novel. Austen, of course, preceded Trollope by half a century. Her genius as both an author and an innovator outshine his.

Austen writes with a predetermined notion of proper conduct. She is a moralist. Although she makes little or no reference to religion as being the basis of her moral preconceptions, they exist as clearly as if they WERE religious in origin.

Trollope, on the other hand, loathes the moral consistency that Austen admires. He loves to lead his readers down the path of uncharitable judgment and moral censure. Then he writes, “With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree.” Finneas Finn – the hero of the Palliser novels – leaves his girlfriend, Mary, in Ireland to fall in love with Laura Standish, Violet Effinghan, and Madame Gessler, pausing only to marry Mary, and become a widower. Of this hero Trollope writes:

“If it were to be asserted here that a young man may be perfectly true to a first young woman while he is falling in love with a second, the readers of this story would probably be offended. But undoubtedly many men believe themselves to be true while undergoing this process, and many young women expect nothing more from their lovers.”

Mrs. Proudie, the wife of the Bishop in the Barchester Chronicles, is one of the great monsters of literature. She’s a domineering, uncharitable and vindictive woman. Yet, when she offends her husband and then dies, we feel that, like Trollope, “with this censure we cannot completely agree.”

Here he writes about the monstrous woman, after her husband turns against her,

“In spite of all her roughness and temper, Mrs. Proudie was in this like other women –- that she would fain have been loved had it been possible. She had always meant to serve him. She was conscious of that: conscious also in a way that although she had been industrious, although she had been faithful, although she had been clever, yet she had failed. At the bottom of her heart, she knew that she had been a bad wife.”

As the scorned Mrs. Proudie makes this realization (shortly before she dies), she – a comic character for five novels – lifts her death to the level of tragedy.

Neither Austen nor Trollope is a religious writer. Austen, a preacher’s daughter, mentions only the secular concerns of her many clergymen. Trollope wrote an entire series about churchmen, but is concerned mainly with their worldly affairs. Yet, more than Austen, Trollope consistently sides with forgiveness over censure, understanding over incredulity, and humility over pride. If a confidence in standard, English morality was the whetstone on which Austen sharpened her witty satire, uncertainty about everything except a loving, forgiving heart is the cornerstone of Trollope’s more homely art.

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