‘Nina Balatka’ & ‘Linda Tressel’ by Anthony Trollope (Review)

It’s time for my final review of 2022, and I’m rounding off the year with a look at a couple of novels by a favourite round these parts, Anthony Trollope.  Big Tony T. often gets called upon in December, but today’s post does feature something a little different, with books originally published anonymously, set outside his usual stomping ground in the English countryside.  Come with me, then, on a trip to Europe (as we all know, England isn’t there anymore…) to meet two young women with marriage on their minds and relatives on their backs – some things never change…

In the mid-1860s, Trollope was at the height of his powers, and popularity, but he was also starting to wonder whether his acclaim was due just as much to his name as to his work.  To test out his theory, he decided to write some short novels set outside England, in a slightly different style to his usual work, and a while back I picked up a second-hand copy of a book collecting two of these.  They’re rather similar in many ways, but there are crucial differences, not least in the setting.

Nina Balatka takes us to Prague, where a young woman, almost of age, is engaged to a slightly older man, a successful businessman.  Given that her ailing father is rather poor after some business mishaps, you’d expect everyone to be happy about the match.  The problem is that the fiancé is a Jew, and in mid-nineteenth-century Prague, Christians and Jews live very separate lives outside business, with intermarriage heavily frowned upon.

Meanwhile, over in Nuremberg, Linda Tressel sees the eponymous heroine living quietly with her aunt in the house the young woman inherited after the untimely death of her parents.  Aunt Charlotte, a hyper-religious Lutheran, has decided that Linda needs a lord and master, and fifty-two-year-old Peter Steinmarc (their lodger) is the perfect candidate.  Alas, not only is Linda (understandably) more than reluctant to hand herself over to someone almost three times her age, she also has a slight fondness for a young man of the neighbourhood, one who is not exactly an eligible match.  I think you can see where this is going…

So far, so Trollope, but there are aspects of the two novels that make them stand apart from the writer’s work thus far.  Both books are more concerned with the working world of the middle classes than of the upper classes, with not a country mansion in sight, and the two stories are also more focused on a single plot than earlier works.  They mark a psychological turn to Trollope’s fiction, with more attention spent on the thoughts of the main characters and less on balls.  In truth, they’re also somewhat darker, without the usual Trollopian happy ends, and including some nasty moments before we get there.

Poor Linda’s story is one of religious browbeating.  Technically, nobody can force her to marry Steinmarc, but having been brought up by her aunt in a very strict religious environment, our heroine is almost unaware of the fact.  Bombarded by threats of eternal damnation and social degradation by a woman who genuinely believes that a young woman’s lot is to be crushed, and to obey, Linda finds it increasingly difficult to stand firm, particularly given the lack of people on her side:

Though she continued to swear to herself that heaven and earth together should never make her become Herr Steinmarc’s wife, yet at the same time she continued to bemoan the certainty of her coming fate.  If they were both against her – both, with the Lord on their sides – how could she stand against them with nothing to aid her, – nothing, but the devil, and a few words spoken to her by one whom hitherto she had never dared to answer?
‘Linda Tressel’, p.220 (Oxford World’s Classics, 1991)

It will comes as little surprise, then, that she jumps at the first chance to escape, not realising that a nice smile and a friendly voice doesn’t always tell the whole picture.

By contrast, over in Prague, matters are slightly more complex, and interesting.  Nina is a far stronger protagonist than Linda, and the main characters here are slightly less black-and-white than in the German story.  Here, too, property is involved, with the house Nina and her father live in belonging to the father of her fiancé, Anton Trendellsohn, but the problem is that there’s some uncertainty as to the whereabouts of the deeds.  It’s this issue that Nina’s horrified relatives use against her, sewing uncertainty in the mind of Trendellsohn in an attempt to tear the lovers apart.

For the contemporary reader, one of the more interesting, and fraught, aspects of Nina Balatka is Trollope’s handling of his Jewish characters.  There is the odd sour note, such as a description of Trendellsohn’s fleshy lips, and the repetition of ‘Jews’ and ‘the Jew’ from some of the less sympathetic characters does stand out.  However, on the whole, the writer manages to create characters who are neither heathen beasts nor angelic fakes.  Anton himself is an excellent main man, strong, silent and determined in his love for Nina, yet not entirely able to trust her, needing proof that she’s not conspiring against him.

The situation in Prague is an important part of the story.  Unlike in other European capitals, Christians and Jews alike are seen to be degrading themselves with a mixed marriage, leading to Anton’s dreams of escape:

He had heard of Jews in Vienna, in Paris, and in London, who were as true to their religion as any Jew of Prague, but who did not live immured in a Jews’ quarter, like lepers separate and alone in some loathed corner of a city otherwise clean.  These men went abroad into the world as men, using the wealth with which their industry had been blessed, openly as the Christians used it.  And they lived among Christians as one man should live with his fellow-men – on equal terms, giving and taking, honouring and honoured.
‘Nina Balatka’, p.69

And yet the very real threat of being ostracised by family and community, and of being fooled by Nina’s relatives, means that we’re never quite sure the thing will come off.  It’s understandable that he has his doubts, despite genuinely loving Nina.

As you may have gathered, I was far more impressed with Nina Balatka than with Linda Tressel, but part of that may come from having read them one after the other as they’re rather similar in many ways.  However, after the nuances of the Czech story, events in Nuremberg can seem rather blunt and annoying.  The plain plot of a young woman being psychologically tortured and pressed into an unwelcome marriage becomes rather repetitive after a while, even if matters do improve towards the end as Linda begins to stand up for herself, despite the pressure.

Something a little different, then, yet as Robert Tracy explains in his introduction, the two novels actually mark a turning point in Trollope’s fiction.  Thanks to the freedom of publishing the books anonymously, the writer was able to be more dramatic, romantic and sensational than in his earlier work, and he was to carry this mood into his later fiction (with more deaths and murders).  While these two are probably not for readers new to Trollope’s work, those who have ticked off all the usual suspects will no doubt enjoy the writer’s little break from business as usual, and appreciate an insight into his attempts to break free, however (un)successfully, of the constraints of his success.

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