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Trollope and Dickens: Can Nuance Survive Centuries?

Trollope and Dickens

Trollope and Dickens. While their rivalry as literary giants is not as intense as that of Tesla and Edison or mythic as God and Satan, it is still one worth talking about.

On one side you have Charles Dickens, Mr. Sentiment as Trollope calls him in Chapter 15 of The Warden. Then there is Trollope, three years junior to Dickens and often pegged as a direct competitor to Dickens.

To understand the magnitude of Trollope and Dickens rivalry, one has to understand the mid nineteenth century. The 1832 Reforms Act is the cataclysmic event of the times in a century which has already seen the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

In times of change, it is natural for divisions to become deeper. The rich continue getting richer while the poor remain stuck in their squalor.

In these fraught times, literature is not just a form of escapism. Remember people during that time didn’t have televisions or mobile phones, let alone Facebook to pass their time. Reading literature was not just a leisurely activity, but a tool to shape thinking and perceptions.

Then comes Charles Dickens, a man who watches those in squalor closely and attentively. He sees their pain and in it a desire to do good as well. Dickens is not the only one in the mix. We have to speak of Trollope too.

Different in style and approach to Dickens, Trollope is also a very capable writer and a master at storytelling. Both end up influencing generations with their words. Even now, in 2020, people search for Anthony Trollope books and Charles Dickens classics.

Where did this rivalry begin? Why did Trollope diss Dickens in a The Warden? Is there a winner in the Trollope and Dickens debate? What is there influence in the 21st century?

Trollope and Dickens – Differences in Style

One big reason there is a rivalry between Trollope and Dickens is the type of topics they chose. Both spoke about English society, the class divide, and the different institutions in nineteenth century Britain.

Since they wrote on similar topics, it is natural to compare both of them.

The areas of difference between these legendary authors arise in their approach to writing characters.

Dickens and His Dramatic Choices

Dickens was famously melodramatic with his storytelling choices.

His poor orphan protagonists always had to fight the cruel captains of British institutions. Aunts and stepmothers were usually very cross. Uncles were sometimes sympathetic. Mothers were sweet and died during childbirth. Fathers were either dead or absent. Rich people were misers who detested the poor and believed they were scum. The poor were products of a failed system designed to benefit the rich. Good people were very good, almost to a fault. Bad people were very bad with no redeeming qualities. Strange people were very strange.

You could find these tropes coming up in most Dickens novels. It isn’t for no reason most working class people regard Dickens as a hero. To this day, you find Dickens’ name etched in literary history. His work isn’t just good storytelling, but extremely politically relevant for multiple generations.

Trollope and His Subtlety

Dickens always painted British institutions at the time as indifferent and even cruel to some extent. In essence, he confirmed all the bad things the poor and working class already believed about the institutions.

Trollope was different. He didn’t paint all institutions with a single brush. Like a masterful teacher, Trollope laid bare how various institutions of power worked in Britain. Instead of muddying the establishment from the outside like Dickens, Trollope explained its inner working.

To Trollope, calling the entire establishment as cruel and indifferent was intellectually fraudulent. In order to make the people understand how these institutions worked, Trollope adopted characters who were in positions of power. In fact, the fifth book of the Pallister series, The Prime Minister, shows readers how politicians work behind closed doors.

You won’t find Trollope falling back to the tropes Dickens is known for. You won’t find cruel rich men and honourable poor people in a Trollope novel. Unlike Dickens, Trollope makes sure his characters are not clichés.

Did Trollope Call out Dickens?

Yes. In The Warden, Trollope writes a brief passage about someone named Mr Sentiment, which is most likely a reference to Dickens himself.

In the passage, Trollope goes on to call Dickens’ characters ‘second rate’ and says his work gives the working class a false sense of comfort.

Trollope believes Dickens does his readers a disservice by not explaining how the institutions of Britain actually work.  Trollope’s entire volume of work is an attempt to make readers understand the establishment. Instead of making his readers feel they’re moral and good like Dickens, Trollope forces people to understand the levers of power.

The Legacy of Trollope and Dickens

Looking back, it is safe to say Dickens emerged as the winner of the rivalry. His work is much more influential. You only have to go through reading lists in most high schools to know how crucial Dickens is to English literature.

Trollope, on the other hand, lacks the popularity Dickens commands. Looking back at the mid-nineteenth century, most historians find the work of Dickens a much better representation of the times.

It’s not as if Trollope is not admired. However, the nuance one finds in Trollope’s works is difficult to popularize and explain.

The mistake many readers make when talking about Trollope is considering his books the exact opposite of Dickens.

Like Dickens, Trollope also believed Victorian institutions were plagued with corruption and worked against the working class. However, Trollope believed the solution wasn’t to paint the whole establishment black. Instead, he tried to make people understand how power structures in Victorian England worked. With this knowledge, the working class had a much better chance of reforming the institutions.

Lessons for Modern Writers

What can writers today learn from the Trollope and Dickens rivalry?

The most profound lesson to learn here is how both these authors were influenced by the world they lived in.

Writers crib and moan for inspiration. Very often, inspiration lies in the world around us.

Whether you’re watching a good fantasy film or writing noir fiction, you can find places where the audience gets a glimpse into the real world.

Let’s take an interesting example. The entire Game of Thrones series can be separated into two storylines – the fight for the throne and the existential battle against the enemy beyond the wall. What is the author, George RR Martin, trying to tell us with this setup?

Like Westeros, the leaders of our society and world are obsessed with power. They cannot come together for existential threats like climate change and global warming. So, they keep fighting and bickering with each other, just like kings, lords, knights, ladies, and queens in Westeros.

Your work can reflect your surroundings in many different ways. This also gives whatever you write more weight and authenticity as it is coming from a real place.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, this piece is a complete summary of the rivalry between Trollope and Dickens.

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Also read: Ten Speculative Books You Should’ve Already Read

(Featured Image Credits: Wikipedia)

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