This new novel of Mr. Trollope’s has nothing to teach us either about Mr. Trollope himself as a novelist, about English society as a theme for the novelist, or, failing information on these points, about the complex human heart. Take any one of his former tales, change the names of half the characters, leave the others standing, and transpose the incidents, and you will have “Can You Forgive Her?”
Henry James reviewing Trollope in the Nation, September 26, 1865 (Library of America, p. 1,317).
In his reviews of Trollope, James is often wildly, bafflingly wrong – in an 1883 overview he seems to have figured Trollope out more, and maybe I should point out that James quite young in 1865 – but he is funny, is he ever funny. The part about changing the names, or not, that’s a good one.
With each Trollope novel, I have mentioned its degree of metafictiveness. I should invent a five point scale. Can You Forgive Her? is on the low end. The Trollope narrator by itself obliterates any sense that the novel is something other than a novel. It is not just his eavesdropping, his telepathy, or his nosiness but his frequent commentary on the action, on motives, and issues of the day. On the one side, Trollope is scrupulous about staying within the bounds of probability (so-called “realism”), on the other he makes no attempt to hide the fictiveness of his fiction, even if he is not, in this novel, pointing to it like he did in Barchester Towers.
Fairly scrupulous, I should say.
“And, Mr. Cheesacre,” continued Mrs. Greenow. “I did mean to send the music; I did, indeed.”
“I couldn't hear of it, Mrs. Greenow.”
“But I mention it now, because I was thinking of getting Blowehard to come. That other man, Flutey, wouldn't do at all out in the open air.”
“It shall be Blowehard,” said Mr. Cheesacre; and it was Blowehard. (Ch. 8)
The East Anglian musicians for hire Flutey and Blowehard are never mentioned by name again. The prosperous Norfolk farmer Cheesacre is a fairly important character, the sweaty romantic foil of the handsome sponge Captain Bellfield.
To me the great joke is not that a farmer is named Cheesacre or a physician named Dr. Fillgrave, but that none of the other characters seem to notice that this is funny. Of course in real life we find ecologists named Dr. Green and ornithologists named Dr. Hawk and phlebotomists named Dr. Blood, but we enjoy the joke.
How Henry James hates this sort of thing.
… there are certain precautions in the way of producing that illusion dear to the intending novelist which Trollope not only habitually scorned to take, but really, as we may say, asking pardon for the heat of the thing, delighted wantonly to violate. He took a suicidal [!] satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe. (1,342-3)
Now I am in the 1883 posthumous appreciation; James is still at it in “The Art of Fiction” in 1884, where he calls Trollope’s games “a betrayal of a sacred office… a terrible crime” (46) and a derogation of the search for truth.
Trollope would have had a good laugh at this language, although he was not one for theoretical arguments about fiction. I do not understand why James was so little interested in Trollope’s purpose. Perhaps Trollope meant something.
I do not actually plan to spend the entire week using Trollope to ask questions I do not know how to answer.