Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If you were in love you would not speak of it like that – dialogue as performance in Framley Parsonage

In theory I should continue my angry anti-dialogue screed, or at least address the enormous holes in the argument, commonly known as “plays.”  I’m going to pursue Trollope first, though.

My favorite scene, the most original scene, in Framley Parsonage is right in the center of both the novel and its romantic plot.  Young, insignificant Lucy Robarts has refused, for various complicated social and familial reasons, the hand of the great Lord Lufton, despite being in love with him.  In Chapter 26, titled “Impulsive,” Lucy confesses all to her sensible sister-in-law.

The conversation begins with banality, a discussion about how to help a poor neighbor girl:

“I don”t know how to set about it,” said Mrs. Robarts.

“No; one never does,” Lucy said.

“I was thinking about it all that day as I drove home,” said Fanny.  “The difficulty is this: What can we do with her?”

“Exactly,” said Lucy.

What a drag, all of this dialogue.  But I have cheated, grievously; I have given only the third line as Trollope wrote it.  The last line is actually:

“Exactly,” said Lucy, remembering the very point of the road at which she had declared that she did like Lord Lufton very much.

So even the ordinary dialogue is more interesting than it seems, once I know Lucy’s hidden thoughts.  They soon move into the open:

“I'll tell you what he has: he has fine straight legs, and a smooth forehead, and a good-humoured eye, and white teeth.  Was it possible to see such a catalogue of perfections, and not fall down, stricken to the very bone?  But it was not that that did it all, Fanny.  I could have stood against that.  I think I could at least.  It was his title that killed me.  I had never spoken to a lord before.  Oh, me! what a fool, what a beast I have been!”  And then she burst out into tears.

By this point, I had spent plenty of time in Lucy’s head, and had witnessed the proposal scene, way back in chapter 16, hilariously titled “Mrs. Podgens’ Baby.”  Lucy certainly has not fallen in love with Lord Lufton because of his legs and title.  Her sister-in-law is put in the place of the puzzled reader:

It was evident enough that [Lucy’s] misery was real; but yet she spoke of herself and her sufferings with so much irony, with so near an approach to joking, that it was very hard to tell how far she was in earnest.

Lucy, a dedicated ironist of a talent at least as great as Trollope’s, is not merely confessing her love and heartbreak, but performing it.  The ten page scene is barely a dialogue at all, but a monologue with commentary, from Fanny Roberts and from Trollope, who describes Lucy’s performance as “half tragic and half jeering.”  Lucy, the most self-aware of Trollope’s Barchester heroines, is engaging in a form of self-therapy:

“Lucy, I do not believe that you care for him one jot.  If you were in love you would not speak of it like that."

"There, there.  That's my only hope.  If I could laugh at myself till it had become incredible to you, I also, by degrees, should cease to believe that I had cared for him.  But, Fanny, it is very hard.  If I were to starve, and rise before daybreak, and pinch myself, or do some nasty work,-- clean the pots and pans and the candlesticks; that I think would do the most good.  I have got a piece of sack-cloth, and I mean to wear that, when I have made it up."

"You are joking now, Lucy, I know."

"No, by my word; not in the spirit of what I am saying.”

If I wanted less of anything in this scene, it was not less dialogue but less Trollope, less interpretation.  But he is kindly thinking of his poor reader, who, like Fanny, is wondering what to do with this strange, breathless, hysterical, yet tightly controlled performance of Lucy’s.  Brava, brava!


  1. As a writer (and a woman), I enjoyed this, and I have always felt that Trollope deserves way, way more credit for creating fully human female characters during the (for women) extremely dehumanizing Victorian years....

  2. i like this.... very much.... ^________^
    & i've been searching for a book to start.. you may have just inspired one :D
    many thanks :)

  3. In Framley Parsonage, Trollope emphasizes the constrained lives of women more than in the other Barchester novels, although I frankly to not remember a thing about A Small House at Allington. He has several variations on the theme in major and minor keys. He is also pretty tough on the men who are not so constrained and then squander their freedom.