I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson - Anthony Trollope
This novel is very unlike Orley Farm, the novel he was writing at more or less the same time, the early 1860s. SBJR comes in at about 150 pages, OF about 600. SBJR tickles the funny bone compared to somber OF. The boisterous and quarrelsome characters in SBJR live and work in the lower middle class while OF features mainly well-off temperate people. Instead of a social comedy of life in the country, we get a satire on the rough and tumble of a retail shop in London. The best scenes in OF are intense conversations in pretty rooms while in SBJR they feature slapstick shenanigans in a magenta shop.
At the time, used to quiet novels such as The Warden, the critics and reading public hated this novel. Reviewers called it “coarse,” “odiously vulgar,” and “unmitigated rubbish;” in our time, scholars have called it “ghastly” and “the least funny of Trollope’s novels.” I wonder if these sensibilities were made squeamish by Trollope’s home truths and dark realism. I mean, members of the middle class resent it when it is implied middle class people are no more or less honest than the upper or lower classes. Imagine their umbrage when Trollope has the boldness to have Mr. Jones, a villain in this novel, describe a job satisfaction thus: 'And though I looked so sweet on them,' said he, 'I always had my eye on them. It's a grand thing to be down on a well-dressed woman as she's hiding a roll of ribbon under her cloak.’
Matrons shoplifting – the very idea! Sons-in-laws and daughters stealing from her father! An owner using the firm’s till as his personal piggy bank! Lead me to the fainting couch, Beulah. And like Balzac in Père Goriot, Trollope presents two daughters that are after their father’s money, even to the point of tossing him out on the street without remorse. For all the shenanigans, messages dark haunt the heart of this novel, messages that we post-moderns affirm as a matter of course.
But it’s pretty funny. In chapter fourteen, Trollope writes slapstick romp in which imperious Irishwoman Mrs. Morony and her henchwoman Miss Biles insist on the sticker price for an item displayed in the shop window as the villain Jones tries to deflect them with bait and switch. Trollope also tips his hat toward Dickens. Miss Polly Twizzle (now there’s a Dickensy name) calls upon our hero Mr. Robinson with a message from the evil-tempered Maryanne Brown, daughter of his partner in the store. "The long and short of it is this: is Barkis willing? If Barkis is willing, then a certain gentle- man as we know in the meat trade may suit himself elsewhere. Come; answer that, Is Barkis willing?" And Mr. Robinson answers, "Barkis is willing" much to his pain later on.
I mean, I like comic novels though I know that often comedy is so hard to sustain that it inevitably poops out near the end. But interest was sustained to the end because the main character, Robinson, is quite likable, clueless and vulgar as he is. Robinson, by the way, is also the narrator, which is another departure from OF, where Trollope was his usual genial and nearly omniscient narrator.
I think that readers who know they are devoted to Tony and his works will like this novel, like I know I did. But I’m pretty sure readers new to Trollope should start with one of them below.