Spiral democracy: Anthony Trollope's prosaics of reform
Dorothy Noyes (Ohio State University)
Paper short abstract:
Political reform in Victorian England was conceived as a spiral progression, both thematized and enacted in the procedures of serial fiction. Trollope's novels iterate a process in which an outsider's exemplary gesture, amplified by the press, pushes against an inherited plot to widen its arc.
Paper long abstract:
In Victorian England, serial fiction and parliamentary procedure played interacting roles in democratic reform. The first influenced the ethos of civil society by provoking and sustaining conversation. The second negotiated the interests represented in the political sphere. Fiction was broader in reach, legislation more decisive in impact. Popular novelists modelled progress as iterative re-formation, a gradual amplification of the possible. Anthony Trollope's novels of liberal reform flesh out the most schematic conventions of English serial fiction with famously humdrum and increasingly harsh realism. The Barsetshire and Palliser series (1855-67, 1864-79) address the institutional reform of church and Parliament as well as the larger sweep of social change that opens up the landed elite in the period surrounding the Second Reform Act. Trollope repeatedly recasts an experiment in which an outsider's exemplary gesture, amplified by gossip and the press, pushes against an inherited plot to widen its arc. Female, poor, in trade, Irish, or Jewish, these adventurers sometimes maintain their autonomy and defeat the normative happy ending. More usually the establishment incorporates the resistant element, but is changed in the process. The reciprocity between drawing room and House of Commons reflects Trollope's own career and that of his negative exemplar, Benjamin Disraeli. This model of spiral reform--invigorated by newcomers, stabilized by tradition--reaches its limit in Trollope's last novels, which portray the triumph of commercial interests. The circulation of capital now exceeds society's interactional capacity to hold it in check. The serial novel's capacity for modelling becomes likewise inadequate.