Friday, July 26, 2013

Trollope's knights and saints

Reading Erich Auerbach’s literary history Mimesis (1946), I came across a description of Anthony Trollope’s novels in a surprising place, the chapter on Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th century courtly romances.  I will add some boldface to bend the long quotation to my purposes:

The ethics of feudalism, the ideal conception of the perfect knight, thus attained a very considerable and very long-lived influence.  Concepts associated with it – courage, honor, loyalty, mutual respect, refined manners, service to women – continued to cast their spell on the contemporaries of completely changed cultural periods.  Social strata of later urban and bourgeois provenance adopted this ideal, although it is not only class-conditioned and exclusive but also completely devoid of reality.  As soon as it transcends the sphere of mere conventions of intercourse and has to do with the practical business of the world, it proves inadequate and needs to be supplemented, often in a manner most unpleasantly in contrast to it.  But precisely because it is so removed from reality, it could – as an ideal – adapt itself to any and every situation, at least as long as there were ruling classes at all.  (Ch. 6, 137)

Auerbach’s main purpose in this chapter is to describe the strange way Chrétien’s fictional world of knightly adventures includes nothing unrelated to the adventures themselves, nothing in the landscape or society.  The purpose of a knight is to go on adventures; the purpose of adventures is to create knights.  This is all completely contrary to the technique of Trollope; almost  contrary to the form of the modern novel.

Except it is clear, if I adjust my lens a bit, that Trollope tests and develops his young gentlemen by sending them on perilous adventures.  Johnny Eames, in The Small House at Allington, defeats a fierce beast and in the service of a lady wins a joust with a more powerful knight.  In The Last Chronicle, Eames goes on a long quest, escapes the clutches of a Morgan le Fay sort of woman, and nearly jousts with Major Grantly, the novel’s romantic lead.  He is even on horseback in that scene, with the Major in a gig.  It is all a misunderstanding.  I am talking about Chapter 27, “A Hero at Home.”  I am not making this up.

Major Grantly’s knightly duty is actually borrowed from the courtly love period, a bit later than Chrétien.  He must sacrifice (some of) his wealth and happiness to protect a lady from disgrace – I mentioned this plot yesterday.  He is perhaps less of a knight and more of a perfect courtier, doing the most honorable if not necessarily most wise action possible.

It would be possible to work through this exercise with other characters and in other novels (in Orley Farm and Framley Parsonage, at least).  The great tension is that Trollope simultaneously believes in the value of courage, honor, etc. exhibited by his heroes but simultaneously intuits Auerbach’s notion that this particular configuration of these ideals were developed hundreds of years ago for a class that no longer exists.

Similarly, one could map the behavior of Trollope’s women onto feminine ideals of courtly love, although I do not detect the same anxiety – look at  a character like the nouveau riche yet genteel Miss Dunstable who is ideally adept at casting aside social constraint when necessary.  Perhaps he trusts the women more.  As a knightly gentlemen, that is his duty.

Two important characters are built from a different ideology.  Curiously it, too, is a medieval survival.  Reverend Harding, introduced in The Warden and appearing throughout the series, and Reverend Crawley, center of The Last Chronicle, are modeled after saints.  Crawley, accused of a crime, fearing for his sanity, at one point fantasizes that “[a] sentence of penal servitude for life, without any trial, would be of all things the most desirable” (Ch. 62).  Crawley is, metaphorically, a flagellant.  An earlier passage, where Crawley compares his sufferings to those of a stylite hermit, is almost shocking – these are the thoughts of an Anglican priest?

Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar?  But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him.  And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man's suffering, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. (Ch. 41)

Crawley is a great sinner, as this passage shows, a proud man aspiring to sainthood, while Harding is a saint of the meek and mild, good and kind species.  They are both gentlemen, too, just like the cavaliers John Eames and Major Grantly, but an alternative type, perhaps also becoming obsolete.

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