When I wrote, or did not write, about Middlemarch last month, I offhandedly complained that the novel had too much dialogue. I am in an explainin’ kind of mood, so I will spend some time baring my prejudices. Or – what is a more positive way to say that? – explicating my critical principles. Better stick with prejudices.
Many readers rejoice to come across an unexpected patch of dialogue in a complex novel, like hikers in a dense forest emerging into a meadow full of wildflowers, butterflies, and a clearly marked trail. Look at all of that white space! The pages suddenly turn so quickly, as if the ink of the extra words had actually been weighing down the page. I am not above this feeling, but the vagaries of my mental state while reclining with a book is about as far from a critical principle as I can get. Reading Middlemarch, or any great book, writing about it, I want to be able to push back as hard as I can. The novel can handle the pressure.
The problem with certain passages of dialogue in Middlemarch is not that they are bad, or even mediocre, or even merely good. The dialogue is consistently quite good. The voices of the characters are distinguishable, the conversations further both the action and themes of the novel, and the dross of ordinary conversation has been artfully trimmed.
My prejudice is not that an author should not solve the problems of her novel with dialogue, but rather that good, even very good dialogue, is a common virtue of fiction writers. Not universal, but easy to find. Writers with a fifth of the talent of Eliot write dialogue of similar quality all the time. Dialogue is a problem that most professional writers solve quickly. Imagery and structure take longer, or are always problems. Genuine human insight is rare; genuine ideas almost endangered. Valuing what is unique, or at least rare, I grow restless when a writer of Eliot’s power solves the problems of her novels with a device or a passage that I can find all over the place. “Good” is not a high enough standard.
I do not know why I keep talking about Middlemarch, since it is Anthony Trollope’s lesser Framley Parsonage (1860-1) that I have in front of me. A sample of Trollope, from what is, I have read, the greatest novel in the English language:
‘Do you remember that day, Lucy?’ he said again.
‘Yes, I remember it,’ she said.
‘Why did you say it was impossible?’
‘Did I say impossible?’ She knew that she had said so. (Ch. 48)
And then another page or so in this vein. In context, we are a few pages from the end of the novel, and are likely racing forward in order to finish the book, not putting too much pressure on any particular word or sentence or phrase, so this ordinarily good dialogue writing, which lets us eavesdrop on the central romantic couple, for whom we presumably, at this point, have significant sympathy and interest, works just how it ought to work. Trollope has to do something to let the lovebirds spend some time together under our invisible gaze, and his standard solution (discuss and resolve an earlier courtship difficulty) is effective. It is just not as artful or surprising as the non-standard solution, whatever that might be.
All of this is just a backwards preface to some further writing I want to do about Framley Parsonage. The single most surprising chapter, the one that impressed me the most, is almost entirely in dialogue.
I make strong claims only in order to prove myself wrong.