Sunday, April 7, 2013

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope



One of the best things about Anthony Trollope is that he wrote 47 novels.  It's also one of worst things about Trollope, because now I want to read all of them, which could seriously take me the rest of my life.  

Anyway, I'm in an online group that wanted to read one of his novels, which is always great, but the book they selected was The American Senator.  Sadly, it's not one of the many Trollope novels languishing on my bookshelves.  If you've heard of The American Senator, you're probably a pretty hard-core Victorian lit lover (actually, if you've even heard of Trollope you're probably a hard-core Victorian lover!!) Compared to Dickens or even Thomas Hardy, Trollope's books are barely a blip on the radar.  And that's a real shame, because they are just wonderful.  I loved this book. 

The name of this book is really misleading, because the senator himself is actually a minor character.  This is the story of two cousins, John and Reginald Morton, and like many Trollope novels, it's full of love triangles, class conflict, and some jabs at the British aristocracy.  It's set against the backdrop of English country life, particularly the fox hunting season.  John Morton, the heir, has been living abroad in America while working in the British foreign office, and returned to his estate, Bragton, with a party that includes his grandmother; his fiancee, Arabella Trefoil; her mother; Lady Augusta, and a visiting American Senator, Elias Gotobed.  

John Morton is estranged from his second cousin Reginald, since Reginald's father married below his class to the daughter of a Canadian shopkeeper (gasp!)  John's grandmother would not receive Reginald's mother, and was furious when Reginald inherited a small part of the estate.   Reginald is close to his aunt, Lady Ushant.  Years before, Lady Ushant had taken in a companion, young Mary Masters, daughter of the Morton's solicitor, Mr. Masters, a widower.  Masters eventually remarried, and now Mary is back living with her father, stepmother, and half sisters, and is being courted by a local landowner, Larry Twentyman.  Mrs. Masters is eager to settle Mary with Mr. Twentyman, though Mary is hesitating, because she's secretly in love with Reginald, whom she's known her entire life.  As a Jane Austen devotee, I could see parallels between their relationship and Emma and Mr. Knightley.  Mary's stepmother also reminded me an awful lot of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, though Mr. Masters is a much better father than Mr. Bennet.

Meanwhile, Arabella is jockeying for position between her suitors, and her strategy would make any politician proud.  As I was writing this, it occurred to me that the fox hunt is sort of a metaphor for Arabella's search for a rich husband.  She'll have to make bold moves to win the big prize, but if she's not careful, she could get left behind or thrown from a horse.  The book actually reminded me a lot of the first season of Downton Abbey, when Lady Mary is trying to make the best possible match since she can't imagine marrying her cousin Matthew, heir to Downton -- especially the episode where they go fox hunting and she meets the ill-fated Mr. Pamuk.  (If you haven't seen it, go out and watch it right now.  Seriously!)  The American Senator is set about forty years before Downton Abbey, but some of the themes are really familiar.  

This story starts out slowly, giving background about the village and the county, and the complicated history of the Morton cousins, to which I had to refer several times since I couldn't get into the book at first and sort of lost the thread of all the characters and their relationships.  But once I got going I was hooked and could hardly put it down.  The plot really takes off and I think I read most of it in about three days, which is pretty fast for a Victorian triple-decker.  

It's one of Trollope's comic novels and Arabella is a fascinating character, probably one of Trollope's most distinctive females.  She makes no pretense about her social climbing, and she and her mother are just an awful pair.  And they're funny.  The way they snipe at each other is pretty hilarious.  

I really enjoyed this book, but it's not my very favorite Trollope because I did find the beginning rather slow to get into, and also, I didn't really like the actual American Senator character.  Trollope uses him to get up on a soapbox and has the character spout off about some the appointments of the clergy, the British Parliament, and also about some of the stuff that the members of the aristocracy get away with.  I understand he wanted to make social commentary but sometimes it just felt awkward and forced, not very organic to the plot. Despite these minor flaws I just loved it and now I want to put everything else aside and just read more Trollope.  

Anyone else out there reading Trollope?  Which is your favorite?  Besides this one, I've read The Barchester Chronicles and The Way We Live Now.  Which one should I read next?

26 comments:

  1. I'm loving it too & looking forward to getting back to it this afternoon. I'm only about 100pp in but I see what you mean about the Senator. He seems to be there as Trollope's satirical mouthpiece & it sounds as though that's his only function in the plot. Still, the rest of it is wonderful.

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    1. Satirical mouthpiece is exactly right! I thought at first that he was some kind of catalyst to the plot, but he really isn't. But I tolerated that part to read the rest of it, which I loved.

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  2. I wonder why Trollop is not better known! I have only read the first two books in the Barchester Chronicles, but I enjoyed them very much and found them to be just as entertaining as Dickens; different, but still just as good and worthy. So I can’t give you any suggestions on what to read next, unfortunately. I am currently reading Love Among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell. I didn’t realize this, but quite a few of her books take place in the same fictional Barsetshire. They are set in the 1930’s and 40’s, but it is the same universe. There are characters with the surname of Grantly and Thorne who are descended from Trollop’s characters and I just read a direct reference to Mr. and Miss Thorne of Ullathorne Court (which has now become brick houses and council estates).

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    1. I do want to read Thirkell! I think she wrote as many books as Trollope, and I'm going to have to wait before I start on her books -- she has 29 books in her Barset series!! Maybe after I make some progress on the first Trollopes.

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  3. Hard-core Victorians unite! Honestly, before I started blogging I didn't know anyone else who reads Trollope.

    Did you catch the reference to Trollope in that episode of Downton Abbey? I was thrilled to hear his name actually mentioned - I wondered if it might make non-readers curious enough to look for his novels.

    I'm with you in that this isn't my favorite of his novels, but I did enjoy it. I liked Lady Ushant, and Mrs Masters' constant complaints about what would come of all that "Ushanting." Little did she know!

    I think my favorite is The Last Chronicle, though I am very fond of the Phineas novels, The Eustace Diamonds, He Knew He Was Right, Who Is Popenjoy - and The Three Clerks, if you want a shorter one. Who am I kidding - I can never pick just one Trollope.

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    1. I loved the bit about the Ushanting!! And I did NOT catch the bit about Trollope in Downton Abbey -- was it in the hunting episode? I'll have to go back and watch it again.

      I have the whole Pallisers series on the TBR shelves, but I think I'll read a few stand-alones before I tackle another series. I do have The Three Clerks so that's a possibility.

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    2. I'm pretty sure it was in the hunting episode - one character says the day's ride was like something out of Anthony Trollope, or WTTE.

      I know what you mean about the series! though I generally enjoy interconnected stories & recurring characters. I did get one of the titles wrong - it's Is He Popenjoy?

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  4. I have many favorite Trollope novels! I enjoyed all the Barchester series, for the most part! And I loved, loved, loved Lady Anna!!! And He Knew He Was Right is so good!!!

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    1. I have He Knew He Was Right and I think I'll put Lady Anna on my birthday wish list!

      Trollope has the best titles, doesn't he? Except I think The American Senator is misleading.

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  5. I am excited to add this to my tbr! I have heard this author has terrific comic sensibility (or somesuchnonsense?) and now I finally have a title to search.

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    1. Trollope's pretty funny! This isn't his most popular book -- The Barsetshire series is really popular. Barchester Towers was my favorite. The Way We Live Now was the first Trollope I read, and it's wonderful but it is long, about 800 pages. So good though!

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  6. I have GOT to start Trollope this year. I keep saying that every year but I really feel like I'm missing out every time you review one of his books. (And I have a couple on my TBR shelves already!)

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    1. Trollope is so worth reading -- the only trouble is that some of his books are harder to track down, though they're all available free online. Project Gutenberg has all of them, which is so great.

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  7. Hi, I just noticed this review and wondered if you would like to link it in to the new monthly collection of books that people loved on Carole's Chatter. This is the link There are already quite a few books linked in that you might be interested in. It would be great if you came on over. Cheers

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  8. I really enjoyed reading Trollope's The Three Clerks recently, it's amazingly topical. Recommended by Lisa May actually - blogging has enriched my life so much! Thanks, I was wondering which of his to read next and I think it might well be The American Senator.

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    1. I do have The Three Clerks on the TBR shelf! Definitely a possibility for my next Trollope read. Thanks!

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  9. I have the same problem with Trollope that you do--he wrote a lot of novels and I want to read them all. It's interesting that the title is misleading--I wonder why he settled on it.

    I like the comparison to Downton Abbey, in themes and issues.

    Have you considered the Palliser novels--that's the set I'm probably going to read after Barchester.

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    1. I do want to read the Pallisers but they're soooo long! It took me forever to finish the Barchesters and I'm a little hesitant to start another series. I think I'm going to read a few stand-alone novels before I start them.

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  10. I'm another Trollope fan, there's a few of us about. :)

    I really do need to hurry up and read the rest of the Barchester series and post about them though!

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    1. I loved the Barchester chronicles! My favorites were Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne, though all the rest were good too.

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  11. The Eustace Diamonds may have put me off Trollope forever, but I always love your reviews!

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    1. Oh, that's too bad. I've heard a lot of people love it -- maybe Trollope is just not for you. But thanks for reading my reviews!

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  12. Other people reading Trollope! Hooray! I love the Palliser novels (starting with Can You Forgive Her?), and if you can--get hold of the Pallisers BBC television series starring wonderful Susan Hampsire. And I love He Knew He was Right, Ayala's Angel and especially Rachel Ray.

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    1. Another Trollope fan, hooray!! I have the ENTIRE Pallisers series on my TBR shelves, PLUS the other three you mention. One of my online groups has He Knew He Was Right as a future read (next year I think), so that's coming, and Rachel Ray and Ayala are relatively short, so those are both possibilities.

      I think my library has the Pallisers. I also own BBC miniseries of all the other Trollopes, though I've only watched The Way We Live Now, which was a great adaptation.

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  13. Miss Mackenzie is quite short, with a very funny dinner party scene.
    I see you're reading John Mullan's book. He features in the BBC reconstruction of the Netherfield ball, which you may be able to get hold of eventually. It's quite good fun, but what I missed was not being able to smell it!

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    1. MIss Mackenzie is definitely on my short list for my next Trollope!

      I am reading Mullan in dribs and drabs. I'll have to look for the BBC reconstruction, this is the first I've heard of it! Thanks!

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