My last run through Anthony Trollope’s Barset novels was eighteen years ago, I think. Please do not quiz me on the later ones. I remember them in scraps. A few characters, a few scenes.
Except for Trollope’s voice. Of course I remember that; it’s the one thing all six novels share, the one thing I suspect all of his novels share. Playful, mock-serious, really, careful with proprieties but occasionally willing to tweak the reader, incessantly referring to the fictionality of his own novels. That last item drove as sophisticated a critic as Henry James straight up the wall. To James, that was a true impropriety, a violation of the rules of good fiction. See Rohan Maitzen's essay, near the end.
What I did not know was how close a relative Trollope's voice was to that of William Thackeray, or at least the Thackeray of Vanity Fair. Thackeray is more outrageous more often, more willing to entangle the reader in the worst failings of his characters. When the reader is most tempted to condemn a character’s behavior, there’s Thackeray, reminding us that, after all, isn’t this simply the way of the world, and aren’t you and I just as bad? Trollope softens Thackeray. He still implicates us in his characters’ actions, but they’re rarely all that outrageous in the first place.
The Barchester novels, at least, do not have villains, not really. Barchester Towers has characters who fill the roles a melodramatic villain ought to fill, but Trollope apologizes for them:
It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel and a male and a female devil. If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie. But she was not all devil. There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible. (Ch. 26)
This is the sort of thing Henry James begs Trollope to stop doing, to stop talking about the novel itself. But in this case, Trollope is deliberately extending sympathy to the unsympathizable, or, more precisely, he is undermining the reader’s typical, perhaps natural, desire to identify the angels and devils of the novel. The devils, at the end of the novel, are actually rewarded. As are the angels.
At the novel’s true climax, the female angel commits a serious social impropriety against the male devil. Thus Trollope’s anticipation of the delicate reader’s shock:
And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust, feeling that, after all, the heroine is unworthy of sympathy. She is a hoyden, one will say. At any rate she is not a lady, another will exclaim. I have suspected her all through, a third will declare; she has no idea of the dignity of a matron, or of the peculiar propriety which her position demands. (Ch. 40)
Trollope fears that she “cannot altogether be defended,” before defending her at length in a peculiar string of incoherent, back-handed arguments that are in fact directed at no one, because any actual reader is delighted that the angel finally let the devil have it. Trollope’s delighted, too:
And then Mr. Slope's face, tinted with a deeper dye than usual by the wine he had drunk, simpering and puckering itself with pseudo-pity and tender grimaces, seemed specially to call for such punishment.
That, by the way, is a primo slice of Trollope. Now, to go back to the title, since no actual reader laid down the book with disgust, and yet every well bred reader would, is it not then true that no actual reader is well bred? This is how Trollope mocks me. Or one way. Tomorrow, more mockery. Henry James should look away.