Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guest Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope

This week I welcome Clea Simon to my writing world. After I wrote my last piece, on Graham Greene, it occurred to me this might be a good opportunity to find out about my fellow writers’ favorite books. Since I’m always look for more titles to read, I asked Clea Simon about her favorite writer, and she sent me this.


Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope



A few years ago, when PBS adapted The Way We Live Now for television, I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I was thrilled that my husband got to learn about the sleazy financier Melmotte and his Madoff-like shenanigans. On the other, so did millions of other viewers—and suddenly my secret was out. Anthony Trollope was in the public eye. I no longer had Mr. T to myself.

            Okay, so it’s pretty silly to feel like I ever had any ownership over Trollope. The 19th Century Brit was one of his century’s most successful novelists and while his fame may have faded a bit in this era of fast-paced thrillers, there have always been readers who have loved his cynical, funny social satires and convoluted family sagas, books like Can You Forgive Her? and The Prime Minister.

            Trollope wrote novels the old-fashioned way, letting us get to know his characters—and their numerous flaws—before rushing them off into action, usually in the marital or social markets, occasionally in the personality-driven politics of the day. In two of my favorites, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, he follows one particular young man through most of his adult life, from early ambition and thwarted love to a mellower, and somewhat wiser maturity. He takes his time—these are books to curl up with—and he always delivers. Sometimes arch, always funny, and often wise, Trollope is a writer I often re-read. When I think of his wit and sharp eyes, I think I’d have loved to meet him.  He’s a writerly writer, not in a pained, self-conscious way (yes, he’s lighter than Henry James), but in the sense of being an assured wordsmith.

            Perhaps it makes sense that I have a sister copy editor to thank for introducing me to him. Several years ago, when we both worked at the Boston Globe, a Living/Arts desk colleague loaned me the use of her lakeside Maine cabin for a weeklong vacation. She had a canoe, an outdoor shower, a lovely dock. Everything one would need for a restful week. Except the weather didn’t comply. After only one day of swimming and sunning, the rain closed in, and the book I’d brought to read myself to sleep was soon exhausted. Poking about in her shelves, I found a well-worn paperback copy of The Eustace Diamonds, and I was hooked. The middle of The Palliser novels, this 1871 picaresque features a slick anti-heroine, very much in the mode of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair). Just insecure enough to be sympathetic, she leads the bon ton a merry chase as she hangs on to her late husband’s family jewels beyond all reason—and all profit to herself. It’s a great fun soap for the pre-TV age, and one I re-read fairly regularly.

            I admit, these books may not be for everyone. I’ve always been a fan of long, gossipy novels. The Gothic adventures of the 1790s have inspired my new mystery, Shades of Grey, and I’d just as soon tuck myself up with a Henry Fielding or a Thackeray as watch most dramas on TV. But Trollope is easier reading than even these, fast and funny and full of well-drawn characters. These aren’t necessarily qualifications that critics look for these days. There may be a reason that Trollope is best known at present as the source of TV drama; fiction critics tend to favor action-packed thrillers or navel-gazing meditations to a well-written story line.  But these are still my models for what a good novel should be, and what I aspire to write like. They are certainly the kind of book I love to read, over and over again.


Clea Simon is the author of five mysteries and three nonfiction books. She can be reached at


  1. Enjoyed your blog on Trollope! Shades of Grey is a wonderful title--look forward to reading more about your series.