Monday, July 11, 2011

He had been brought thither to be scoffed at and scorned at, that he might be a laughing-stock to his enemies, and food for mirth to the vile-minded - cruel Trollope, cruel reader

I’m still thinking about bad ideas, or at least one specific bad idea, which is to spend part of the week, or worse, all of it, writing about Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger, the third of the six Barchester books.  The reason this is a bad idea is that not so long ago I spent – what was it – four days on the previous Barchester book, Barchester Towers, and I would be hard pressed to argue that The Loves and Adventures etc. is much different.

At one point, for example, I thought I might write a post about Trollope as a gag-writer, as a joke-teller.  This was while reading Chapter 12, in which two doctors spar over a patient.  One of them, Dr. Fillgrave (get it, get it?), is round and short, and Trollope cannot keep from telling jokes about Dr. Fillgrave’s height.  It’s pretty low humor, really, and darn funny.  And Trollope is himself aware of the level of the humor:

Here was an aggravation to the already lacerated feelings of the injured man. He had been brought thither to be scoffed at and scorned at, that he might be a laughing-stock to his enemies, and food for mirth to the vile-minded. He swelled with noble anger till he would have burst, had it not been for the opportune padding of his frock-coat.

The vile-minded!  Ha ha ha ha!  That’s a bit strong.  The joke here is about Fillgrave’s roundness, isn’t it, but the short jokes are more common – one follows three sentences later: Dr. Thorne “address[es] Lady Scatcherd over the head and across the hairs of the irritated man below him” and so on.

Anyway, that would be a good post, Anthony Trollope as sitcom writer, Trollope as Wodehouse.  Something like this piece that I already wrote.  Hmm.  Well, never mind then.  No point now in writing about Trollope the comedian.

I see another curious and edifying point to make, though.  In my previous post on the subject, I singled out a scene in which a tipsy Mr. Slope is about to make a fool of himself, and a line which I called a good joke:  “It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie,” his arch-enemy.  I interpreted this line as if it were the narrator, “Trollope,” who thought it was a pity etc. that the characters could not meet because of the foregone comic possibilities, .  But the line is also Mr. Slope’s – he also thinks it is a pity etc., because he could really give Mrs. Proudie what for, tell her a thing or two, and on like that.

The line simultaneously belongs to the narrator and the character, but has a different meaning for each.  In the passage about Dr. Fillgrave from Francis Newbold Gresham, particularly in that second sentence, the technique is the same.  Dr. Fillgrave is fuming about why he was asked to see this patient, why he has encountered his enemy Dr. Thorne.  “Vile-minded” is his language.  He thinks there has been a conspiracy to make a fool of him.

He is right; there has been a plot against him.  If I attribute the line to “Trollope,” to the narrator, the meaning changes.  Dr. Fillgrave has, in fact, been brought into this scene, into this novel, to be a laughing-stock.  His primary purpose in the novel is to be the object of jokes and laughter.  The novel’s readers are his enemies.  The doctor calls us “vile-minded” and means it; Trollope calls us, and himself, “vile-minded” so we can laugh at the doctor’s hyperbole and hysteria.  Then he pokes the doctor in his big belly.

Maybe I should mention that this novel is more commonly known as Doctor Thorne.  That’s something I could write about.


  1. Ohhh, Doctor Thorne. I'm a sporadic reader of Trollope. I've read three or four all the way to the end and the first half of two or three others. I've not read this one of the Barchester series.

    I think you're right about his novels having a certain sameness to them, much the way P.G. Wodehouse does. (Probably much the way all authors do, really.) I also think pairing him with Wodehouse is a good idea. They are like second cousins really. Like Wodehouse, the sameness, or formula, is part of the fun. There's a lot to be said for giving the reader what the reader expects and being able to do so again and again.

  2. Oh well. Some jokes are timeless and universal. As a short person, perhaps it is a good thing that I am female, as short men seem to bear the brunt of the height-related mockery.

  3. I keep putting it off myself, but someone has to force me to read a real Victorian novel again someday. This stuff used to be my bread and butter, though I never did make it more than 20% through a Trollope novel (didn't help that I picked a big one to try, The Way We Live Now).

    Can I blame the internets for reducing my attention span? I can still manage 300- or 400-page books, but not these real hefty ones that used to be my staple comfort reads.

  4. EL - the timeless joke is really the puncturing of over-inflated dignity. Wodehouse may be the wrong comparison. Trollope is a precursor of Fawlty Towers and The Office.

    I mean, this side of him. He has many modes, and this is far from the most important. It's just that I don't know if his canonical contemporaries, even Dickens, were writing this sort of scene.

    CB, the sameness is really in tone and voice, in style. If I were a person who wrote about plot - should Mary marry Frank, should Dr. Thorne resolve his ethical dilemma this way or that way, and so on - I would not have the same problem.

    Of course Mary should marry Frank. They're perfect for each other.

    nicole - 20% of The Way We Live Now is a healthy piece of Trollope. I always recommened The Warden as a starting point. It is a) early, b) maybe Trollope's first "important" book, c) it leads off the Barchester set, and d) it's really short. Oh, e), f), etc. - it's good. g) it openly mocks Dickens and Carlyle.

  5. Interesting that you should bring up Trollope and the Barchester series. A f-t-f discussion group that I belong to is finishing up that series this Wednesday when we take on _The Last Chronicle of Barset_.

    Trollope brings everybody back to wrap it up--Dr. Harding, Frank Gresham, Dr. Thorne, the Proudies, Lily Dale, Johnny Eames, the Crawleys, the Grantlys . . .

    As you may have guessed, it's also a bit over 700 pages long.

  6. It may be no coincidence that in my latest reread of the series, I picked this one as the weakest of the six...

  7. i really enjoyed dr thorne.

  8. Me too, asterisk, me too. You have, by the way, a most elegant blog. I am surprised it is on blogspot. Perhaps I should give a little more thought to the appearance of Wuthering Expectations. Add some hideous Victorian wallpaper or something.

    Tony - I remember the last three novels, the long ones, too poorly to have an opinion, but Doctor Thorne seemed similar, as far as the quality of writing, invention of characters and so on, to the earlier two. I used your post as a spur for what I wrote today - many thanks.

    I do remember that the last three get awfully long, as Fred says. In fact, I somehow remember The Small House at Allington as being endless, but that cannot be right.

  9. thank you. how about some silvery sheep and moor landscape as background -- but what is the upkeep of appearances when it's the content that counts...maybe...

  10. The content, well - it's just that since Wuthering Expectations is entirely about aesthetics, a little more attention to the visual side might not be out of place. A little infusion of William Morris or something.