Rummaging around at the website of the Trollope Society, I see that someone has put all of Anthony Trollope’s novels into the following categories: Barset, Palliser, Irish, Overseas, Dramatic, Comic. Keen-eyed readers might notice that some of those classifications overlap, and if The Way We Live Now is not a comic novel than I have completely misunderstood what it’s about. I would prefer just two categories: Funny and Not Funny. The Barset novels are also Comic, and also, to me, Funny.
Sometimes Trollope is as good as Evelyn Waugh:
"My dear Lady De Courcy, I am so delighted," said [Mrs. Proudie], looking as little grim as it was in her nature to do. "I hardly expected to see you here. It is such a distance, and then, you know, such a crowd."
"And such roads, Mrs. Proudie! I really wonder how the people ever get about. But I don't suppose they ever do." (Barchester Towers, Ch. 37)
Or do I mean, as good as Oscar Wilde? If I were told that this dialogue came from a Wilde play, would I know the difference? I would lose that little stab at Mrs. Proudie, though, which Wilde would have to leave to the actress.
Trollope has two comic modes, which he alternates. He creates a cast of characters, types and more-than-types, two-and-a-half dimensional, not quite real people – I mean in the way that imaginary people like Elizabeth Bennet and Don Quixote and Huck Finn are real people – but really extraordinarily well-made marionettes. Then he deftly bashes them against each other in ever-varying combinations. See Chapters 10 and 11 of Barchester Towers, “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception,” for Trollope Mode 1 at its best:
"The German professors are men of learning," said Mr. Harding, "but ---"
"German professors!" groaned out the chancellor, as though his nervous system had received a shock which nothing but a week of Oxford air could cure. (Ch. 11)
That quotation has nothing to do with my point, come to think of it. Still, I think we have all felt just that shock.
The other comic mode is the comment on the action, Trollope-the-narrator having his fun. I'm back in Chapter 37:
A man must be an idiot or else an angel who, after the age of forty, shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.
Trollope was, at the time of the publication of Barchester Towers, forty-two. He’s not an idiot. Perhaps he is claiming to be an angel. Perhaps something else.
My favorite joke, which might not look like much:
[Mr. Slope] had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne's champagne to have any inward misgivings. He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything. It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie. (Ch. 40)
Mr. Slope is a first-rate comic character; Mrs. Proudie, who we met above, surely among Trollope’s finest. At this point in the novel, they are enemies. Why does the narrator think it a pity that the bold and tipsy Slope does not meet the grim Mrs. Proudie? Because the scene would be really funny. Trollope would like to write it, has perhaps even imagined it. But they cannot meet. The plot calls. Such a shame. And what a classic comedian’s trick, the joke about the even funnier joke he's not allowed to tell.