Trollope better than Dickens … again

I am grateful to Rita Burns who spotted this article in The Guardian, as she said, somewhat belatedly as it is from 2012. Then we were all gearing up to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Next year, of course, we are gearing up for the MUCH more significant bicentenary of the birth of Trollope.

Back then, Professor John Sutherland, whose dissections of Victorian novels have always been thought provoking, wrote the following article in which he finds there are a number of novels by Dickens’ contemporaries that he prefers to Dickens’ own works, including one by Trollope.  Read the article below to find out which Trollope Sutherland rates above Dickens:

‘Dickens here, Dickens there, Dickens everybloodywhere. And here am I (and, after me, a chorus of you) adding to the pile. Set your spam filters now. There’s more to come.

Tomorrow at 11.15, a wreath commemorating the 200th year of Charles Dickens’s birth will be laid at Westminster Abbey – where his bones lie – and, one half expects, the nation will observe two minutes’ silence for “the Great Inimitable”. Every day, for the last few months, there has been a tsunami of Dickens stories. Today’s Guardian, for example, informs us that Ebenezeer Scrooge is our favourite Dickensian character. While in the Telegraph, Simon Callow declares that Dickens is “our first and favourite literary superstar”. (Chew on that, Shakespeare.)

The Times reports Claire Tomalin’s anxieties that all the recycled Dickens we’re being bombarded with on small and large screens is eroding children’s ability to read Dickens intelligently. The article is accompanied by a picture of Gillian Anderson, from the recent Great Expectations BBC adaptation, looking as much like Miss Havisham as Katie Price resembles Sairey Gamp (the homicidal nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, if that’s one of the books you haven’t got round to yet).

Never one to trail the bandwagon, the Daily Mail did its “Dickens was a Love Rat” story a few weeks ago, penned by “Simon Heffer PhD”, under the eyecatching title: “The dark heart of Dickens: How writer was an abusive husband who seduced a woman 26 years his junior”.

Is Dickens really that good (as a writer, not a husband I hasten to say)? What about the other Vict-lit greats. It was William Makepeace Thackeray’s bicentennial last year. Who noticed? Even though, for my money, Vanity Fair is a greater novel than anything Dickens penned. In December this year the BBC is doing a three-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. TS Eliot (no less) acclaimed it the “first and best of detective novels”. He was right. It beats that other contender for the title, Bleak House, into a cocked hat.

But Dickens is now, incontrovertibly, the “greatest”. It was not always so. The Times observed, in a snide obituary notice on his death, that Dickens “was often vulgar in manners and dress … ill at ease with gentlemen”. Real gents, that is. The smart money was on classy novelists like Bulwer Lytton and George Meredith. (If you’re interested, and no one is, their bicentennials are 2003 and 2028).

All through the first half of the 20th century Dickens was regarded as a great entertainer and nothing more. There was no place for him on the university syllabus. Leave him to the film-makers and Classic Comics. Oh, and the Americans who for some reason thought highly of him. The first, heroic, generation of British Dickensians (Philip Collins, KJ Fielding, Kathleen Tillotson) were shut out from posts at Oxbridge, and laboured in provincial universities. Gradually the tide turned and crested in the centennial of his death, 1970. Suddenly Boz was “canonical”. The Dickens industry cranked up, spewing monographs, PhDs and owlishly over-annotated editions. Dickens even appeared on a £10 note, the only novelist ever to have done so.

I write as someone who has devoted my professional life mainly to other 19th novelists than Dickens. I wouldn’t deny him a place at the top table but there is, I believe, something wrong about elevating him above all the others as “the champ”.

We are currently infected by an ethos of competition. What’s the best novel of 2011? We had a gladiatorial competition to decide which was the “one”: Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In fact, there were many superb novels published last year – all now certified losers by virtue of Barnes’s superb novel winning. It reflects a lack of balance in how we approach our literature.

So, yes, give Dickens a round of applause on his 200th birthday. But let’s not forget the others. They’re just as good – or better.

My 10 Victorian novels that are as good as, or better than, anything Dickens wrote:

Middlemarch, George Eliot
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’

What do you think?  Do you agree with Sutherland’s selection?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Trollope better than Dickens … again

  1. Peter Blacklock

    The professor’s sour view of Dickens simply underlines the fact that literary criticism moves about like the shifting sands, depending on such matters as any given person’s background and current mores, political and otherwise. He cites George Elliott, but she was regarded as a tedious windbag in my youth though now there is a school of thought that says she is the best novelist of the 19th century. And, if Dickens was ignored by scholars in the first half of the 20th century, who wrote Great Expectations and Martin Chuzzlewhit, both of which I laboured over for exams in the fifties (and which taught me to love their writer’s work)?

  2. Dickens still seems to be the benchmark. I studied Oliver Twist at school and Hard Times at university. But there does seem to be a broader perspective now – at least in so far as popular culture turns classic literature into TV serials.

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