If there is any justification at all in the comparison, it is that both writers are concerned primarily with descriptions of what might be called ordinary people and their relationships. In fact, Johanna is (to my eyes) the much more skillful of the two. I think it would be easy for readers who insist on serious, substantive literature to overlook Joanna Trollope. After all, her novels are best sellers; they read with the flow and ease of a good mystery, and they can be read as a kind of dessert. Indeed, I have to confess that I put aside whatever else I am reading when one of her novels comes into my hands, and I feel a kind of guilt at the sheer enjoyment I experience in reading her flowing novels.
However, I never get far into her novels without realizing that I am learning important things about relationships from someone who has an excellent and trained eye for observing. Although discursive essay has an important role in informing us about relationships, about how they go right, how they go wrong, how deceit inevitably erodes and corrupts them, really good novels do something that essays cannot do. This has to do partly with the fact that lots of people who read novels would not, by choice, pick up a heavy discursive essay, but there is more to it than that. What Trollope wants to show us in this novel (among other things) is how families weather broken marriages, or, more accurately, broken primary relationships. The best of friends after whom this novel is named are two families—two families so close as to almost be one.
As usual, I will insist on giving away as little of the plot as possible (since I have always hated book reviews that tell me more of the story than I want to know). However, the reader will very quickly learn in this little novel that one of the marriages is going badly. Trollope is, I think, almost as astute as Iris Murdoch in seeing just how destructive relationships can be when they start to go bad. I would be very surprised if Trollope has not carefully read Murdoch’s work; her attention to detail and her meticulous creation of rich, complicated and believable characters seems very much in the Murdochian tradition. In the name of loyalty, one of the two couples in this story remain together long after they have ceased to strengthen and support one another. Indeed, as Trollope so clearly sees, the very thing that makes good relationships so enriching (namely, that each member of the partnership likes and values the other more than her/himself—so that the reflection given back enhances and vivifies the self), not only lessens as the relationship declines, but reverses itself. This is a difficult thing to say clearly. As the people begin to distance from each other, each new interest of the other, indeed, even old interests and activities, become threatening to the other. And again, in the name of loyalty, it occurs often enough that each person grows smaller by the day as they limit and conform themselves to the expectations of the other.
Let me try to use a passage from the book to make this point. Gina, the wife in the relationship going bad, is trying to explain to her old friend Laurence, the husband in the other relationship, what transpired in the fateful confrontation that is now leading to the dissolution of her marriage.
Laurence replies to this that her husband, Fergus, seems simply to be building a raft of excuses to sail away on, and his comment is to the point. Nevertheless, and in spite of the unfairness of Fergus’ attack, Trollope allows us to see that there is a lot of truth in what he says. Fergus and Gina have changed; interests they had in common have been abandoned by one while accented by the other. No harm in that unless each begins to see every difference as either a threat or a condemnation.
He said I’d allowed myself to wither so that I’d not only not got any new horizons, but I wasn’t interested in having any. He said I ran round after him and Sophy [their daughter] trying to claw out little bits of their lives and that I was showing every sign of becoming a hysteric with a craving for rows and scenes. He said I play emotional games and that my best energies are now devoted to manipulating people.
Not to continue on too long with the downward spiral of this relationship, the reader quickly comes to see that were this simply a matter of whether these two people should stay together, the answer is clearly “No!”. But, again like Murdoch, Trollope will not let us off so easily. After all, this is real life she is describing, not a novel. While it is true that each of these people is daily diminishing both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other, there are families involved here, not simply their happiness, or even their potential as people. A bit of honesty and communication might help—less fighting and accusation and more real attempts to understand. But Trollope wants to move on now and to move the reader on. Suppose it is ‘best’ in some sense for these two to go their own ways, what of their daughter? And suppose now that Gina turns to her oldest friend (and probably her first love) Laurence for help and succor, and that he, out of real love and concern, reaches out for her. Is it enough that their love for one another is real? That they have, when they pause to consider, loved each other always?
Almost all of the rest of the novel is directed towards the consequences for both families of the dissolution of the marriage of Gina and Fergus. Each of four children as well as Gina’s aging mother gives us their story, a picture of just how far-ranging the consequences can be of one divorce. We hear Fergus attempting to explain to his daughter, Sophy, why the lack of harmony between him and Gina forced him to leave, though she ‘explains’ just as clearly how the desertion is of her as well as of her mother. And when he insists that she could have come with him, that he did not choose to leave her, it is the child who has to explain how that would simply compound the desertion of Gina.
Again, I think I will not be giving away too much if I say that the original best of friends are Gina and Laurence, and that Gina’s agony calls forth from Laurence a sympathetic response, a genuine loving response, that begins to threaten the marriage of Laurence and his wife, Hilary. Again reminding me of Murdoch, Trollope will not allow us as readers to oversimplify; the love between Laurence and Gina is real and deep, but it does not negate his love for his wife, nor does it justify his abandoning his family.
Let me end by quoting one more scene from the novel, one that I think gets at some of the complexities Trollope sees. As Laurence attempts to explain to Gina why, in spite of his love, he cannot leave or abandon his family, Gina retorts:
“We can’t use our children as excuses for what we do. They’d never forgive us. They may hate us just now but they’d hate us even more later if we said that you'd only stayed on in your marriage for their sakes. It isn’t fair to burden them with that. That’s our burden.”
I don’t want to pretend that Trollope sums up so neatly, or even that she thinks there is a right answer here. What she does see is the enormous complexity of relationships and of families, and she describes this complexity in an interesting and compelling and (I think) enlightening way. She writes as if she knew me, as if she can name my blindness, my excuses, my selfishness. I think you will see that she names you as well.
Laurence said softly, “Don’t you make excuses.”
“Yes, your are. You’re trying to justify things. The only justification we have, Gina, is that we want to do this thing, and it’s not a justification that has, or can possibly have, any appeal for anyone but us.”