Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811
Joanna Trollope 1943-
(Has also written under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey) English novelist and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Trollope's career through 2004.
Trollope, a distant relative of celebrated nineteenth-century novelist Anthony Trollope, is known for her best-selling novels that feature strong female protagonists struggling for independence, personal freedom, and self-definition against the restrictions imposed by repressive family and community expectations. Her early novels—a series of popular historical romances—display a firm emphasis on the virtues of love, commitment, and marriage. However, with her 1988 novel, The Choir, Trollope began writing narratives set in the contemporary era, among middle-class English families in small provincial communities. In all of her novels, Trollope elucidates the importance of moments of personal growth in which her protagonists learn to take control of their own lives and make decisions based on a strong sense of self, rather than the influence of family or society.
Trollope was born on December 9, 1943, in Gloucester, England, to Arthur George Cecil and Rosemary Hodson Trollope. Her father, a royal engineer, worked abroad during World War II, and Trollope was raised in the household of her maternal grandparents in Surrey. She graduated from St. Hugh's College at Oxford University in 1965 and completed a M.A. in English at Oxford in 1972. Trollope worked in the department of information and research at the British Foreign Office from 1965 to 1967. She married David Roger William Potter in 1966, with whom she has two daughters, Antonia and Louise. The couple later divorced in 1983. From 1967 through 1979, she taught English in secondary schools and adult education programs. With the success of her first novel, Eliza Stanhope (1978), Trollope was able to begin working as a full-time writer. Trollope published her only work of nonfiction, Britannia's Daughters: Women of the British Empire, in 1983, which profiled significant English women throughout history. In 1985 Trollope married Ian Bayley Curteis, a playwright, who wrote the screenplay for the television adaptation of The Choir. Both The Choir and The Rector's Wife (1991) were filmed for television and broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1995 and 1996, respectively. In 1996 Trollope was recognized with an award of the Order of the British Empire, granted by Queen Elizabeth II. Trollope has received numerous accolades for her work, including the 1979 Historical Novel of the Year Award from the Romantic Novelists Association for Parson Harding's Daughter (1979) and the Elizabeth Goudge Historical Award in 1980.
Eliza Stanhope was Trollope's first published novel and her only historical romance released under her own name—all of her subsequent romances use the pseudonym Caroline Harvey. Trollope's early novels are set against meticulously researched historical backdrops, however, they reject the traditional emphasis on labyrinthine plotting that is typically found in the genre of historical fiction. Instead, Trollope chooses to focus more heavily on characterizations, courtship, love, and marriage. Taking place in eighteenth-century India, Parson Harding's Daughter recounts the life of Caroline Harding, an English woman stifled by her loveless marriage. Caroline falls in love with a dashing older man who appreciates her for her wit and tenacity rather than her beauty, but refuses to be his mistress and thus lose her independence. She is eventually able to marry the older man after her boorish husband dies in a fire. Trollope continued writing historical novels as Caroline Harvey, including a trilogy of works that have been collectively published under the title Legacy of Love (1983). The series traces a family saga through three central female characters, ranging in settings from Afghanistan in 1841 to London during World War II. Charlotte (1980) follows the eponymous heroine and her sister Emily from England to India, where romance and family discord form the center of the story. The title character of Alexandra (1980) is the granddaughter of Charlotte, who finds love and personal contentment in Edwardian Scotland through the influence of her Aunt Emily. Set at the outbreak of World War I, Cara (1983) explores the life of Alexandra's daughter, Cara, as she discovers romance and happiness through a series of personal tribulations. With The Choir, Trollope began a new phase of her writing career, making the transition from historical romances in exotic settings to more realistic storylines in contemporary settings. However, Trollope's central thematic concern—the struggles of women to attain autonomy and a strong sense of self—remains essentially the same. Most of these later novels focus on the experiences of middle-class women in small, provincial English communities. Her heroines strive for personal independence and self-definition against the constricting forces of tradition, societal pressure, and small-town gossip. Often these difficulties are precipitated by a crisis, such as marital infidelity, divorce, or death, that reverberates throughout the heroine's family and community. The Choir concerns the interpersonal and political entanglements of a small church community after the church dean decides to disband the church choir for financial reasons. Efforts by several citizens to restore the choir are complicated by the impact of the incident on the marriages and family relationships of the various choir members.
Trollope's next novel, A Village Affair (1989), continues her examination of modern female roles in provincial settings. The novel focuses on Alice Jordan, a painter who moves into an idyllic house in a quaint and quietly trendy English village. Alice believes that the move will complete her happiness, hoping that external events—marriage, children, and the patterns of village life—will give her a sense of self and purpose. She unexpectedly finds contentment in a lesbian relationship with Clodagh Unwin, the daughter of the local squire. A Passionate Man (1990) shifts to a male protagonist, following Archie Logan, a middle-aged country doctor, and the effect of his actions on the women in his life, particularly his wife, Liza, and his father's new mistress. Anna Bouverie, the title character in The Rector's Wife, embodies the typical Trollope protagonist—a woman in an isolated community who becomes increasingly frustrated with her limiting prescribed social role. Anna is the wife of a country vicar and, due to her husband's commitment to the church and his role as the town's spiritual advisor, she is unable to own property, hold a job, or explore any personal options beyond serving as a dutiful wife. Set in Oxford, which Trollope portrays as a rural village despite its famous university, The Men and the Girls (1992) examines the issue of aging and the trouble caused by age discrepancies in relationships. The plot centers around Kate Bain who leaves her lover, James, to start an independent life with her teenage daughter, Joss. After working at a battered women's shelter, Kate realizes that her relationship with James was not as confining as she once imagined and returns home. A Spanish Lover (1993) centers on the tension between twin sisters, Lizzie Middleton and Frances Shore, who have taken very different paths in life. Lizzie is married with a family and a successful retail business, while Frances is the unmarried owner of a growing travel agency. Lizzie pities her sister's unmarried state, and Frances's desire to escape the stifling attention of her family is represented by her decision to spend Christmas alone in Spain. As Frances falls in love and grows more happy and successful, Lizzie's life is complicated by financial worries and by the ensuing stresses on her family. The Best of Friends (1995) is another novel whose plot contrasts a pair of women, seen again within the context of marriage and family business. The best friends, Gina and Laurence, have their relationship tested after Gina's husband leaves her, and Gina—in an attempt to cope with the loss—sleeps with the married Laurence. As Gina and Laurence's wife, Hilary, attempt to come to terms with this crisis, the teenaged children in Gina and Laurence's families find their own methods of coping.
Trollope narrowed the focus of her subsequent novel, Next of Kin (1996), even further by setting it on a dairy farm run by an extended family. This specific emphasis allows Trollope to pinpoint the enmeshed family ties and effects of financial hardship that influence Robin Meredith and his daughter, Judy, after the death of his American-born wife, Caroline. Also in 1996, Trollope published Faith, a short novella set in Canada, and in 1997, she released The Brass Dolphin, a Caroline Harvey historical novel set in Malta and Africa during World War II. Other People's Children (1998) examines three generations of families divided by divorce and reconstituted by second marriages. As its title indicates, Other People's Children focuses on the complex relationships between stepparents and their often-reluctant stepchildren. In Marrying the Mistress (2000), Guy Stockdale, a sixty-two-year-old judge, leaves his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter, exploring the repercussions of this act on his adult children and their families. With Girl from the South (2002), Trollope abandoned her traditionally English locations, instead setting the novel in Charleston, South Carolina. Gillon Stokes, a rebellious girl from an old Southern family, meets Henry, a nature photographer, in London during a visit and invites him back to the United States. Gillon is surprised when Henry reacts differently to her relatives—whom she finds stifling—than expected, as he finds their folksy directness both refreshing and charming. In 2004 Trollope published Brother and Sister, a novel that revolves around Nathalie and David, two children adopted by the same family. As they grow older, the bond between Nathalie and David deepens, and they decide to locate their respective birth mothers.
Although Trollope's historical romances have been popular with readers, a majority of critics have not regarded them as serious literature, labelling them as purely entertaining fiction. Since the publication of The Choir, however, reviewers have begun to recognize the significance of Trollope's work, applauding her realistic portrayals of suburban English life and her insightful portraits of familial bonds. Trev Broughton has described Trollope as “an expert as an anatomist of the beleaguered middle-class home.” Commentators have noted Trollope's skill in tracing the impact of individual decisions on extended families or small communities and complimented her commitment to such recurring themes as love, grief, change, and personal transformation. Jonathan Yardley has stated that Trollope addresses “large themes in unassuming surroundings and explores them with wit, feeling and originality.” Many reviewers have expressed admiration for her strongly sketched, sympathetic characters and her lively sense of humor. Despite such praise, some critics have found Trollope's plots to be contrived and her conclusions unsatisfying to the reader. Several feminist academics have found fault with Trollope's oeuvre for failing to address larger feminist and political concerns by reducing her characters' dilemmas to a level of personal crisis rather than societal conflict. Trev Broughton has asserted that, despite Trollope's considerable skills as a storyteller, “as an exponent of the ‘post-feminist’ love story … Trollope seriously misses the mark.” Sarah Rigby has similarly observed that, “[a] mild version of feminism shapes [Trollope's] writing. It incites identification and is gently provocative, but ultimately it's more comforting than subversive. She evades radical conclusions.”