Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"German professors!" groaned out the chancellor - Trollope the comedian

Rummaging around at the website of the Trollope Society, I see that someone has put all of Anthony Trollope’s novels into the following categories: Barset, Palliser, Irish, Overseas, Dramatic, Comic.  Keen-eyed readers might notice that some of those classifications overlap, and if The Way We Live Now is not a comic novel than I have completely misunderstood what it’s about.  I would prefer just two categories: Funny and Not Funny.  The Barset novels are also Comic, and also, to me, Funny.

Sometimes Trollope is as good as Evelyn Waugh:

"My dear Lady De Courcy, I am so delighted," said [Mrs. Proudie], looking as little grim as it was in her nature to do.  "I hardly expected to see you here.  It is such a distance, and then, you know, such a crowd."

"And such roads, Mrs. Proudie!  I really wonder how the people ever get about.  But I don't suppose they ever do." (Barchester Towers, Ch. 37)

Or do I mean, as good as Oscar Wilde?  If I were told that this dialogue came from a Wilde play, would I know the difference?  I would lose that little stab at Mrs. Proudie, though, which Wilde would have to leave to the actress.

Trollope has two comic modes, which he alternates.  He creates a cast of characters, types and more-than-types, two-and-a-half dimensional, not quite real people – I mean in the way that imaginary people like Elizabeth Bennet and Don Quixote and Huck Finn are real people – but really extraordinarily well-made marionettes.  Then he deftly bashes them against each other in ever-varying combinations.  See Chapters 10 and 11 of Barchester Towers, “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception,” for Trollope Mode 1 at its best:

"The German professors are men of learning," said Mr. Harding, "but ---"

"German professors!" groaned out the chancellor, as though his nervous system had received a shock which nothing but a week of Oxford air could cure. (Ch. 11)

That quotation has nothing to do with my point, come to think of it.  Still, I think we have all felt just that shock.

The other comic mode is the comment on the action, Trollope-the-narrator having his fun.  I'm back in Chapter 37:

A man must be an idiot or else an angel who, after the age of forty, shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.

Trollope was, at the time of the publication of Barchester Towers, forty-two.  He’s not an idiot.  Perhaps he is claiming to be an angel.  Perhaps something else.

My favorite joke, which might not look like much:

[Mr. Slope] had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne's champagne to have any inward misgivings.  He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything.  It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie. (Ch. 40)

Mr. Slope is a first-rate comic character; Mrs. Proudie, who we met above, surely among Trollope’s finest.  At this point in the novel, they are enemies.  Why does the narrator think it a pity that the bold and tipsy Slope does not meet the grim Mrs. Proudie?  Because the scene would be really funny.  Trollope would like to write it, has perhaps even imagined it.  But they cannot meet.  The plot calls.  Such a shame.  And what a classic comedian’s trick, the joke about the even funnier joke he's not allowed to tell.


  1. I think I need to read more Trollope to get the comedy....The Palliser books I read were not funny, so much. But maybe I don't have the right sense of humor...

  2. The Palliser books not funny! I deny it.

    I have opened a copy of Phineas Finn, which I own but have not read. I turn to - let's see - Chapter 42, "Lady Baldock Does Not Send a Card to Phineas Finn," because it sounds promisingly ridiculous. I find this line:

    "Lord Fawn!" he said, "the greatest ass in all London!"

    And this one:

    There is a satisfaction in turning out of doors a nephew or niece who is pecuniarily dependent, but when the youthful relative is richly endowed, the satisfaction is much diminished.

    And then there's the long argument about the appropriateness of calling someone "A1". Wonderful absurdity.

    Now, none of this is actually evidence that the novel is funny, but rather that the novel, the tone, is comic. I leave funny to the reader.

  3. I agree that the categorisation of Trollope's novels is rather arbitrary. Is there even any need to categorise the non-Barset and Palliser volumes?

    I also agree that Trollope is a great comic writer. The stand-off between Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope in 'Barchester Towers' left me squealing with delight.

    My current read, 'Dr Thorne', refers to a character speaking "in a voice that would melt a hermit". That made me snort on the bus, but then I'm a simple soul.

  4. I don't think He Knew He Was Right was comic (heartbreaking, even, in places), but it had good jokes, comic characters, and set scenes that were extremely funny. So even Not Funny novels can have their moments -- and I frequently find Trollope's sly and acute observation amusing, if not comic.

  5. Any appearance by Mrs. Proudie was a source of pleasure. The two chapters covering her reception are fantastic.

    That "hermit" scene is one of my favorites, beginning to end. It is a scene of abject despair. The despair is caused by not having enough sauce for one's salmon.

    Jenny - I don't want to go into my possibly idiosyncratic ideas about comic literature, but "comic" and "heartbreaking" are by no means exclusive. Chaplin's City Lights is heartbreaking! You make the tone of He Knew He Was Right sound comic. Maybe it's a question of balance or emphasis.

  6. No, I really think the tone of it is not comic, so I must have misspoken. I agree that "comic" and "heartbreaking" are not at all at odds (and perhaps film is even the best venue for this.) But though He Knew He Was Right has comic characters and scenes, they don't make the overall tone of the novel comic. Far more serious, at any rate, than the Barset novels.

  7. Jenny, misspoken, no. We're just calibrating the comic \ not comic ratio. Your characterization is helpful.

    This goes back to Shakespeare, at least. Hamlet, Lear, etc. - they all have comic scenes, comic characters. The insertion of the comic into the dramatic or tragic is common in great literature. Maybe even necessary.