A Companion to the Victorian Novel

By William Baker; Kenneth Womack | Go to book overview

Anthony Trollope and “Classic Realism”

K. M. Newton

Most readers and critics of fiction would probably agree that of all the major nineteenth-century English novelists, Trollope is the most “realistic.” This has clearly been a major factor in his great popularity with general readers, with the result that all of his forty-seven novels are now in print. Of course for certain critics, notably those influenced by Roland Barthes’s view of realism, this would have the consequence of making his writing highly questionable and problematic. Barthes attacked nineteenth-century realism for being complicit with a conservative ideology that accepts the world as given. Although in S/Z, his major study of realism, he somewhat qualified his earlier negative view of realism in general by recognizing that in the realism of a novelist such as Balzac language achieves some plurality of meaning, he contended that even in Balzac meaning is largely controlled by codes that are rooted in ideology. Barthes’s critical writings on realism generated the term “classic realist text,” which critics such as Colin MacCabe and Catherine Belsey have popularized.

Surprisingly there is some common ground between critics who identify “classic realism” with a conservative ideology and a critic from the opposite end of the critical spectrum, namely David Cecil, whose study, Early Victorian Novelists, is still a useful and challenging book. What Cecil finds lacking in Trollope is any sense of style: “But it is in his style that Trollope’s relative weakness of imagination shows itself most clearly. Style is the writer’s power to incar-

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