Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Somebody ought to write a book about it - The Last Chronicle of Barset

I go away for just a few days and can’t write a dang – wait, here I go. Never mind.

Perhaps the problem is actually that I want to write a bit about Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7), an accurately titled novel, and therefore a book unlikely to inspire original thought, even by the standards of Wuthering Expectations.  It is a lot like the first five Barchester books, except longer, and the last one.

Except it is in some ways not like the other five.   It is, for example, not full of comments about itself, not a novel about the conventions of a novel.  Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, has so much text about How Fiction Works that it sometimes feels like a sequel to Tom Jones.  The amount and type of meta-ness varies from novel to novel, but in The Last Chronicle it is finally gone.  Trollope either 1) got tired of it, 2) suppressed it, 3) had no room for it, or 4) ran out of jokes.

The book is so stuffed with story and characters that my guess is 3), although I have suspicions about 4).  Last Chronicle contains a sequel to Barchester book #2 (itself close to a sequel to #1), a sequel to book #5, as well as a new novel centered on a minor character from #4, not the one many readers would have guessed, that by itself would have filled an ordinary three volume novel.  A grid of the characters, chapter by chapter, would be useful.

 I will have to read the novel again to know if there is any logic to the movement from subplot to subplot.  I presume there is.  The novel is Trollope’s experiment with weekly serialization, so it even more repetitious than usual, since for the original readers it could take three or four installments to return to a character.  “Who was the major’s aunt Eleanor?” a character thinks late in the novel, in Chapter 74, standing in for the readers who have not been keeping up.  Eleanor is from way back in the first book, from The Warden.  Trollope has to write a number of variations on this sentence.

Perhaps The Last Chronicle is more meta-fictional than I think:

“I never heard of such a man in all my experience.  [plot recap snipped]  Somebody ought to write a book about it – indeed they ought.”  (Ch. 77)

No, that is an exception, a weak joke a bit beneath Trollope, honestly.  What I mean is that even the title declares that this is a book that depends on other books, a book with a particular shape and purpose.  Unresolved plots may well resolve, characters who have survived this far will be allowed to die.  Almost every major character is pushed back on stage, almost every country house is revisited, but for the last time, the title says.  Say your farewells.  Read this book differently.

Anyway, Trollope is a perpetual motion machine.  The first of the six Palliser books was published in 1864, years earlier, and Palliser #2, Phineas Finn, gets going in just a few months.  The Last Chronicle of Trollope is something like 27 novels in the future.

Maybe I have another thing or two to write about this book.


  1. Oh, it's all good (except the London part - Johnny should have kept right out of it this time...).

  2. So it's not just me. Yes, the London part, the one piece of the novel built out of new characters, is weak. The painter and his romantic troubles - who cares.

    That subplot give Johnny Eames something to so, but that is about it.

  3. Trollope really misread his own intentions here. The whole point of the book was that it was a reunion special, an opportunity to gather a host of much-loved (and detested) characters for one last hurrah. Nobody cares about a few thin new nobodies when Josiah Crawley's reputation is on the line!

  4. Yes, good, that is a good extension of the argument. One reason I am impatient with the new characters is that Trollope has told me directly that in this book they cannot really matter.

  5. Or maybe Trollope didn't misread his own intentions so much as was unable to follow through with them. The thing about Trollope (well, one thing about Trollope) is that he can't stop--these worlds were not static worlds for him. For some reason, he thought he should stop after 6 novels--but I don't think he wanted to. Those nobodies would most certainly have become somebodies if he'd been allowed/allowed himself to just keep going...It hurt me to read of Septimus Harding's death--think of the agony it caused Trollope!!

  6. In a sense he did not stop, I guess, since the first Palliser novel is actually set up in a chapter of Barchester #5. That world keeps moving along - not at all static, as you say. He shuts down one popular show and goes to work on the spin-off.

    The death of Harding is part of why Spider-Man has lasted 50 years. Harding's story would hardly be as affecting if he were confined to this one novel. But over the course of six he acquires a greater reality somehow, even when he barely appears in a particular book. His one chapter in Small House at Allington is quite important, evidence of Trollope's careful planning.