Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill - the badly-told Doctor Thorne

If I have been referring to Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne by another name, it is only because its author suggested that I do so:

Those who don't approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, "The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger." (Ch. 1)

I have, then, been using the Love and Adventures title under false pretences, as I am perfectly comfortable with the bachelor country doctor as hero.  He is good company and spends the novel working through a reasonably knotty ethical problem, pitting profession against family, money against love, that if not as profound as, oh, Levin’s agonizing about the purpose of life in Anna Karenina is nearly sufficient to give substance to a three volume Victorian novel.

There’s also a romantic plot – will Frank be able to wed Mary?  The latter is the novel’s heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone” (Ch. 2).  Frank would be the hero:

had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may so regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.

Trollope was forty-three, so judge “too old” accordingly.  I remind the reader that we are still in Chapter 1, on page 7 of 569 in my orange Penguin, where we have been told how the “story” “ends.”  Tony, of Tony’s Reading List reminds me that “Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur.”  Why does Trollope do that?

Perhaps Trollope is incompetent.  Such is his own claim at the beginning of Chapter 2:

It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.  I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy…  This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill.  Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling--that, indeed, is very doubtful.

He is as bad as Thackeray or Fielding, isn’t he, a terrible liar.  I, as a reader, should be insulted.  As a quite different reader – instead, I am openly laughing at Trollope’s mockery of simple story-telling.

I do believe this will be a two-part post.  Here’s where I am going with this:  straightforward, simple, plain story-telling is boring.  Boring to read – well, let me leave that to the peculiarities of the individual reader.  Boring to write – that’s where I am going.


  1. Boring to write: yes, that's it exactly! Trollope is creating a higher degree of difficulty for himself. It's much harder--and more interesting--to write a story when you ignore all the established tropes and standard cheats. Good on him, I say.

    -Scott Bailey

  2. i always thought, fine, he tells you what happens, but i still found it not boring, as you never know HOW he will do it... and that keeps the tension just as much in the book as if he didn't tell you the end....

  3. Scott - you're a practitioner. I knew you would get my point.

    * - I'm going to expand on that today. Yes, the how, or even the how of the how. No, that last phrase makes no sense.

  4. It would have been better as "The Loves and Adventures of Francis Ubuld Gresham the Younger."

    Nabokov plays the same trick, I think it's in Laughter in the Dark, telling you the plot on p.1 and then reckoning you'll read on anyhow.

  5. Oh, yes, I had forgotten that one. The entire plot in the first two short sentences, although the second sentence does employ four semi-colons.

    Why continue with the novel? Because "detail is always welcome."

    Hey, there's my new motto.

  6. I would argue though that with this one he stretches the trick a little too much - the problem I have with it is that interest wanes too early as events come together (in contrast to other Trollope novels where he neatly ties up loose ends in a chapter or two).

  7. Your interest wanes, Tony. How about Trollope's?

    I think you are describing exactly what kept my interest, Trollope's steady narrowing of the possible path of the plot.