Three more examples of Trollope’s use of the sympathy device. The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s angriest novel (disclaimer: that I have read).
First, the inversion and eventual removal of sympathy, Trollope playing against the natural tendency to fall in line with the interests of whichever character happens to be in front of me. Some of the funniest scenes star a group of degenerate proto-Wodehouse characters, dissolute noblemen squandering their money, status, and livers. Bertie without Jeeves and with a gambling problem.
One of them describes their club:
“Not a vestige of propriety, or any beastly rules to be kept! That’s what I liked,” said Nidderdale. (Ch. 96)
I know Trollope well enough to know that in the ethos of his novels, these are the words of a monster. And Nidderdale is hardly the worst of them.
A different one, worse but also not the worst, Felix Carbury, gets the most attention, the closest interior inspection. Trollope gives him a chance to reform. The key moment is when he discovers that a friend cheats at cards and is bothered. Perhaps cheating at cards is wrong. And if that is wrong, a number of ideas follow. Trollope brings the character, and my sympathy, up to a precipice. Do we dare jump?
The villain of the novel, Melmotte the financier, is a blank for most of the novel, but Trollope eventually takes him up, too. In ordinary terms, the possibilities for sympathy are limited here. Trollope even waits until he has committed a plain crime to spend time alone with him. A character in Orley Farm (1862) commits a similar crime, yet receives the full sympathetic attention of the narrator. Melmotte is allowed to induce pity while also indicting himself. And even the narrator will not quite follow him to the end of his story. No, reader, I will not put you in danger by suggesting you pity that. A bit like what George Eliot does in Adam Bede, but with an easier case.
The complex case in The Way We Live Now is that of Georgiana Longestaffe, an aging (you know, 28) aristocrat who has priced herself too high in the marriage market and is ready to start cutting deals. Georgiana is awful – sarcastic, peevish, petty, shallow. Hilarious as a background character, but what a surprise when I found that she got her own subplot. What a character to spend time with. I knew that The Way We Live Now had an anti-Jewish component; it is pretty much entirely contained in this subplot. One way to create sympathy around a bad person is to make everyone around her worse. The narrator, usually plenty chatty, keeps his mouth shut during these scenes.
By the end, I had plenty of sympathy for horrible Georgiana, who was making the best of a bad hand. Well done, Trollope.
Georgiana’s subplot was cruel, in the fictional sense. The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s cruelest novel (disclaimer as above). It is most exquisitely cruel in this line, near the end:
How Mr. Flatfleece went to law, and tried to sell the furniture, and threatened everybody, and at last singled out poor Dolly Longestaffe as his special victim; and how Dolly Longestaffe, by the aid of Mr. Squercum, utterly confounded Mr. Flatfleece, and brought that ingenious but unfortunate man, with his wife and small family, to absolute ruin, the reader will hardly expect to have told to him in detail in this chronicle. (Ch. 96)
Dolly Longestaffe is Georgiana’s appalling brother. Mr. Flatfleece is nobody, just a name and a function, turned into a character, barely, with one phrase just before his ruin, along with a “wife and small family” who are introduced only to be instantaneously crushed by the narrator, who blames the unfeeling, impatient reader, me.
The question for me now is: did Trollope become angrier and crueler in spite of his gentleness towards his earlier characters, or because of it? Does sympathy destroy sympathy?