And is the way we live now so much better?

<em>The New Statesman Christmas</em> - The BBC's Trollope serialisation leads John Sutherlandto draw

In 1968 (heady year), a colleague and I wrote to Penguin Books. Would they, we politely inquired, like an edition of The Way We Live Now? The firm had just launched their classic reprint series (then called Penguin English Library, now called Penguin Classics). The idea behind PEL was to package classics (principally out-of-copyright Victorian fiction) at a budget price (around 6/- in the 1960s) with handsomely pictorial soft covers. And, most significantly, from our point of view, PEL volumes had an apparatus criticus: donnish introductions, bibliography, a critically "established" text, and lots of owlish annotation. The whole shmutter. Who better to provide it than a couple of young university lecturers on the make?

Viewed in long hindsight, the PEL innovation was one of a series of interventions ("reforms", as Trollope's age would have called them) that, cumulatively, raised the reading tone of the nation. The 1944 "Butler Act" had made grammar schools available to all (assuming you could do the party tricks required by the 11-plus). It was this that had released me and my collaborator, Stephen Gill (now the country's leading Wordsworth scholar), from the horrors of the secondary modern. The 1959 Roberts report on the public library (which would lead to legislation requiring local authorities to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" supply of free reading matter) had been particularly beneficial for young bookish minds, like ours in the 1950s and early 1960s. Popular fiction on the rates. What next? Outings to Southend?

Capping it all came the expansion of the British university system in the mid-1960s. A new generation of graduates (many from the "new" universities) filtered out into the general population, like yeast in dough. An educated (and monied) reading public was taking shape, hungry for good books. Books that they could buy not borrow.

The Penguin English Library fitted neatly into this inexorable progress. The British reading public was getting more literate, more judicious, more discriminating. You could feel the uplift every time you walked into a bookstore. It was one of the Everest highpoints of 20th-century culture when Middlemarch made it to the top of the British paperback bestseller list, in March 1994, slugging it out with Stephen King and John Grisham. Penguin victorious. And Andrew Davies, who scripted George Eliot's novel for the BBC's adaptation.

Back in 1968, however, Penguin looked at The Way We Live Now and wrote back gloomily. It was, they said, "unpublishable". They "winced" at the length of it. But they liked the cut of our jib. Could we suggest something shorter? How about The Eustace Diamonds? We were on. The edition came out in 1969. It has sold around 120,000 copies and is still in print.

The publisher's disinclination was understandable. TWWLN is long - some 425,000 words (six Atonements, if you like). It had also been, ever since its publication in 1875, unfashionable. Victorians did not like it one bit. It was too satirical, too savage, too, how could one say? - "un-Trollopian". Give us more Bishop Proudie, more Lily Dale, more Phineas Finn. But not that awful Melmotte.

After his death, in 1882, the novelist's reputation went into a deep trough. The revelations in his posthumously published Autobiography that he wrote his fiction robotically, before going to work in the morning (stopping only to empty his bowels), that he never revised his manuscripts, that he was principally interested in being paid for his literary efforts, which he regarded as just another job of work - all this went down very badly in a period dominated by Jamesian doctrines of "the Art of Fiction". No one wanted to know about the "Grind of Fiction".

Trollope, as is well-known, enjoyed a cult revival during the Second World War (partly triggered by radio adaptations of the cosy Barchester novels - works that reminded the population of the Britain they were fighting for: gaitered bishops, the right to hunt foxes, the Church of England, and maidens fresh as a spring morning). The author was rising in the popularity stakes, but was still caviar to the masses in the 1950s. It helped that Harold Macmillan cited him as his favourite novelist (John Major duly took the tip and read the chronicler of Barsetshire voraciously).

Trollope's popularity took off like a Gothic Victorian rocket in the 1960s with the classic reprint boom. OUP's "World's Classics" came on the scene, as Avis to Penguin's Hertz. Trollope's popularity was boosted by the sub-Forsyte TV mini-series of the Barchester and Palliser novels (ten novels, comprising two million words, boiled down to ten hours' viewing time - the way we read now).

There was, by the mid-1970s, what can only be called a mild Trollope mania. There were, for example, no fewer than five competing editions of Barchester Towers. All Trollope's 47 novels were available at budget price. Even clunkers such as The Macdermots of Ballycloran were there for the buying.

I myself - ranking, probably, as the world's 14th leading Trollopian - edited no fewer than 14 Trollope novels for various reprint series.

Since it is Trollope we're talking about (remember his tally of total earnings in the Autobiography), they brought me a total of £11,000. "Comfortable, but not splendid," as the old man said, looking at his own £68,993. 17s. 5d.

None the less, despite his late-20th-century triumph, even maniac Trollopian readers tended to shy away from the massive pile of The Way We Live Now. It had a certain insider cachet as "dark" Trollope (we cognoscenti all liked the "dark" side of great Victorian novelists, ever since Edmund Wilson had instructed us that Little Dorrit was a much greater novel, because glummer, than Pickwick Papers).

But the clouds continued to hang over TWWLN. It was, as Willy Loman would say, liked but not "well liked". I finally persuaded World's Classics to do an edition in 1984 (it's still in print, and, at £3.99, the best available - though I say it myself). But its sales were notably less than my Barchester Towers.

Now, it seems, the country is at last ready for Trollope's late masterpiece. The Andrew Davies-scripted, David Suchet-starring BBC adaptation garnered viewing figures of between five and seven million for its four, lengthy, instalments. It is "well liked" at last.

Meanwhile, the high tide of Trollope's popularity has apparently passed (the new favourite is Wilkie Collins). Six of my editions, sad to say, have dropped out of print. You will scour your local Waterstone's for The Macdermots of Ballycloran in vain nowadays.

The background to the writing of TWWLN is well known. Trollope returned to England in 1872, braced by a year and a half in the colonies, to find that "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."

In other words, all those Victorian Robert Maxwells (probably Jewish, certainly foreign) were taking over England. Trollope resolved to take a horsewhip to his age.

Davies's TV adaptation strikes the contemporary resonances brilliantly. All the reviews have noted Suchet's eerie evocation of Cap'n Bob. It's a nice irony that the last instalment should have coincided with the biggest business collapse of all time. Enron's $15bn bubble is pure Melmotte.

But underneath TWWLN is a concern that, as far as I know, no recent commentator has picked up on. Trollope himself saw the novel as part of his life-long quarrel with what he called "Carlylism". By this he meant the conviction of the Scottish sage, Thomas Carlyle, that the world was going "to darkness and the dogs". Had been going to darkness and the dogs, in fact, ever since the grand old medieval times celebrated in Past and Present.

There is a vulgar misconception that Trollope disliked progress. In fact, he loved technology. He took a childish joy in the steamships that whisked him across the Atlantic in days, not weeks. He loved writing his novels in railway trains, travelling at headlong speed. A train compartment, he declared, is the "modern man's study".

With Rowland Hill, Trollope was a main architect of the 1839 "penny post" (and, famously, the pillar box that we still have with us). In Trollope's day, you could send and receive letters across London as fast almost as our e-mail. That delighted him. He took a particular interest in the telegraph - which he saw as the mail of the future. He loved the London underground railway.

But was the world getting better, simply because its communication systems were more efficient and there was more money about? Trollope published TWWLN at the sage age of 60. As it happened, he thought that no one should live beyond that age (nor did he long exceed it). Was England better than it had been in the year of his birth, 1815? He wasn't sure. He really wasn't. That uncertainty reverberates through the novel.

I, as it happens, am also now 60 (and a bit). Is the world better than it was in 1940? Young people are bigger because better nourished. There are fewer rotten teeth and no rickets that I can see. TB and the dreaded polio are as unknown to today's young as the bubonic plague. The population, as a whole, is more literate, prosperous and better travelled.

That's all progress. People live longer, but old age (without the nuclear family - all that divorce) is more terrifying. The stigma of bastardy (which Trollope dealt with sympathetically, by the way, in Ralph the Heir) is lifted; thankfully. But children, I suspect, are lonely within the single-parent family. There are ubiquitous private cars, mobile phones and designer labels. But, in west-central London where I live, I have never seen so many beggars, wandering and raving poor Toms, or what the government euphemistically calls "the excluded" and "rough sleepers". Down-and-outs, as honest George Orwell called them. Every night, 20 yards from where I live, junkies line up in Bloomsbury Square to buy crack, smack, fry, blow and weed. The police politely look the other way. The council won't clean the square, because its work teams are (rightly) frightened of needles (users drop their works, with the used condoms, in the bushes).

So: is the way we live now better than the way we lived then? I dunno. To borrow the words of another Victorian novelist: "It's aw a muddle." The difference is, I suppose, that Trollope and Dickens could make great novels like Hard Times and The Way We Live Now out of the muddle. Me? Just another confused think-piece for the New Statesman.

John Sutherland teaches English literature at University College London