Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Umbrageous Trollope

I think I have no more than one real point to make about The Last Chronicle of Barset, but I am going to back into it, so to speak.  Trollope never seems to be in any hurry.

Trollope is not much of a descriptive writer.  There are some nicely meaningful pieces of furniture in Last Chronicle, and some choice clothes, but he mostly provides some kind of type and abandons anything more specific.  Are we in the house of a rich or poor person?  Now furnish accordingly.

The exceptions, the areas where Trollope is careful and precise, are place and time.  Some of the places are invented, some, mostly London and its neighborhoods, are real, but Trollope is always clear about position.  How long does it take to get from Barchester to London by train?  Barchester is invented, yet the trains run on fixed schedules.  Now that you are in Barchester, what is the way to Hogglestock, and what do you pass on the way (you pass Framley, setting of Barchester novel #4).  Time is handled with similar crispness, sometimes even following the pace of the novel’s serialization.

See, for example, this strange sentence from Chapter 32:

He was in Raymond's Buildings at half-past nine, and for half an hour walked up and down the umbrageous pavement – it used to be umbrageous, but perhaps the trees have gone now – before the doors of the various chambers.  He could hear the clock strike from Gray’s Inn…

As usual, I do not believe the context matters much.  The “he” is the novel’s main protagonist, Reverend Josiah Crawley, who because of his uncompromising principles has fallen into some legal trouble – this is the primary story in the novel – and is, against his principles, about to consult with a London attorney.

Forget all that.  What caught my attention was the parenthetical, which belongs to the omniscient narrator, who I will call Trollope.  The narrator is doing his ordinary novelistic job of scene-setting when his own use of an adjective distracts him.  It distracted me, too, even before I got to the dash.  “Shadowy,” right?  Or maybe “shady” is closer, and note thesecond definition, “inclined to take offense easily,” which accurately describes Josiah Crawley.  So there is a double meaning, presumably why Trollope did not just write “shady.”  But this is my digression, not Trollope’s.

Trollope mentions the shade, which makes him think of the trees that provide it.  However little descriptive detail he provides for me (the place name, shade, and clock are pretty much it), Trollope is imagining the sidewalk as he has seen it with his own squinty eyes.  Now the strange part – he is suddenly struck with doubt, mid-sentence.  Maybe the trees are gone.

Why would the trees be gone?  Some trees seem to be there now (although Crawley is on the street, a little way to the west, not in the park).  Trollope is slipping in a little example of the great anxiety of the novel, of several of the Barchester novels, that everything is changing too quickly.  Nothing in London is guaranteed, nothing anywhere.

Trollope is not writing a Sebald novel, so the greatest source of his unease is not environmental but social.  Tomorrow I return to Trollope’s “gentleman.”


  1. "perhaps the trees have gone now" is a good authorial trick to introduce uncertainty into the narrative. Doesn't Trollope know? Why doesn't Trollope know? He gives the reader that idea of change, which is interesting in a book that's supposed to be about closure, right? He is subtley refusing the tidy sewing up of all the threads and putting a definite end to the story, if I understand correctly about a series of books I've never read. So it's a neat trick and nicely done. Well spotted.

  2. "umbrageous" is good, too, the anthropomorphised setting. Dickens would've built up big patterns of this, and Nabokov would've just said "the sidewalks took offense" or something like. Does Trollope do much of this sort of thing? Some day I'll get around to actually reading Trollope. We have a shelf full of him.

  3. Does Trollope do much of this sort of thing - No. No, I do not think so. Thus my surprise. I guess it might count as some sort of pathetic fallacy.

    You first comment is spot on and unlike the way some people have tried to say the same thing, succinct.

    Trollope appears to hate not knowing. His entire method, the use of the omniscient narrator, is to give the reader all information available to all characters - this is the source of much of his irony - so this kind of doubt really shakes the foundation of the novel. Even if this aside is just a tremor.

  4. I read your post last night and it put me in the right frame of mind to detect Ada Cambridge when I saw her, early this morning, doing a slightly similar thing in A Mere Chance. She wasn't doing it for the same reason. She was about to make the history of the story firmer by describing it, she wasn't introducing the idea of change and then moving on, the way Trollope does. I suppose in fact she was doing the opposite thing. But she was doing it from a similar direction.

  5. Oh sure, the uncertainty can act to make the narrator more credible, and thus make the narration more true.

  6. How does it do that though: by mimicking the separation between a real person and the real world, so that the narrator seems further away from a literary-self, closer to a real world-self and a fallible accomplice? The Ada Cambridge bit was all about furniture changing over time, which made me think of Proust, even though Cambridge is nothing like Proust. But just that hint was enough.

  7. Yes, I think that's right - wait, you've actually been there. And there is an illusion of greater solidity, even thought the real Temple is no more solid in the novel than the invented Barchester.

    Trollope, in this novel, also plays a funny game with the dates. It is all set in "186-," so recent, and people discuss the American Civil War, so that dash is on a range of 1 to 5, not a 0 or a 6. There is also a curious passage about the recent craze for Alpine climbing - almost inspired a post. All real. Real, real, real. Yet there is that "-".