It’s many years since my career took a surprising, not to say wrong, turn and I found myself catching the train from Birmingham to Solihull every day to my job in the Tax Office. This was in my early twenties and it was so long ago that smoking was still allowed in the office – though only just. I was training to be an Executive Office (Higher Grade). I had taken the civil service exam and, given that I had barely scraped a pass in ‘O’ Level Maths, it’s strange that I was sent to the Tax Office, especially as I had asked for Social Security. I am inclined to think that it was simply a mistake. I lasted four months before deciding that I had better return to academic life. It was a difficult time, and Trollope’s Palliser novels which I read on the train, at lunch-time, and at every spare moment, were a great consolation. I had a parallel life in the world he had created and I loved his authorial voice, so measured and humane. He was like a wise, older friend. Over the next few years, I read nearly all of his forty-seven novels (and have since re-read quite a few). I almost chose to work on Trollope for my PhD.
It’s 200 years since he was born and there was an item in the Guardian a few weeks ago in which various writers discussed their favourite Trollope novel. It set me thinking about mine. It’s not an easy choice. I love the Palliser novels with dear old Planty Pall and the flighty Lady Glencora, a marriage which somehow against all the odds does work. I much admire the stand-alone, The Way We Live Now, sharper, darker in its analysis of various kinds of corruption in both private and public life. I like The American Senator with its merciless dissection of the workings of the marriage market. For pure humour, there’s Barchester Towers and the oleaginous Mr Slope’s hapless courtship of Mrs Bold. Perhaps I could cheat and have all the Barchester novels bound into one volume, but failing that, I think I would have to go for The Last Chronicle of Barset, where lots of old friends appear and so many stories are wound up and Mrs Proudie meets her nemesis. That was the one I slipped into my case on my trip to China as insurance against my Kindle conking out. Trollope himself regarded as his best and who am I to disagree with the master?