Thursday, January 13, 2011

And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust.

My last run through Anthony Trollope’s Barset novels was eighteen years ago, I think.  Please do not quiz me on the later ones.  I remember them in scraps.  A few characters, a few scenes.

Except for Trollope’s voice.  Of course I remember that; it’s the one thing all six novels share, the one thing I suspect all of his novels share.  Playful, mock-serious, really, careful with proprieties but occasionally willing to tweak the reader, incessantly referring to the fictionality of his own novels.  That last item drove as sophisticated a critic as Henry James straight up the wall.  To James, that was a true impropriety, a violation of the rules of good fiction.  See Rohan Maitzen's essay, near the end.

What I did not know was how close a relative Trollope's voice was to that of William Thackeray, or at least the Thackeray of Vanity Fair.  Thackeray is more outrageous more often, more willing to entangle the reader in the worst failings of his characters.  When the reader is most tempted to condemn a character’s behavior, there’s Thackeray, reminding us that, after all, isn’t this simply the way of the world, and aren’t you and I just as bad?  Trollope softens Thackeray.  He still implicates us in his characters’ actions, but they’re rarely all that outrageous in the first place.

The Barchester novels, at least, do not have villains, not really.  Barchester Towers has characters who fill the roles a melodramatic villain ought to fill, but Trollope apologizes for them:

It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel and a male and a female devil. If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie. But she was not all devil. There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible. (Ch. 26)

This is the sort of thing Henry James begs Trollope to stop doing, to stop talking about the novel itself.  But in this case, Trollope is deliberately extending sympathy to the unsympathizable, or, more precisely, he is undermining the reader’s typical, perhaps natural, desire to identify the angels and devils of the novel.  The devils, at the end of the novel, are actually rewarded.  As are the angels.

At the novel’s true climax, the female angel commits a serious social impropriety against the male devil.  Thus Trollope’s anticipation of the delicate reader’s shock:

And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust, feeling that, after all, the heroine is unworthy of sympathy.  She is a hoyden, one will say.  At any rate she is not a lady, another will exclaim.  I have suspected her all through, a third will declare; she has no idea of the dignity of a matron, or of the peculiar propriety which her position demands. (Ch. 40)

Trollope fears that she “cannot altogether be defended,” before defending her at length in a peculiar string of incoherent, back-handed arguments that are in fact directed at no one, because any actual reader is delighted that the angel finally let the devil have it.  Trollope’s delighted, too:

And then Mr. Slope's face, tinted with a deeper dye than usual by the wine he had drunk, simpering and puckering itself with pseudo-pity and tender grimaces, seemed specially to call for such punishment.

That, by the way, is a primo slice of Trollope.  Now, to go back to the title, since no actual reader laid down the book with disgust, and yet every well bred reader would, is it not then true that no actual reader is well bred?  This is how Trollope mocks me.  Or one way.  Tomorrow, more mockery.  Henry James should look away.


  1. One wonders what James thought about Sterne, or would have thought about Nabokov's games.

    Tangential to Trollope: Have you read Thirkell?

  2. I would guess that James on Nabokov would not be so different than Nabokov on James. But who knows. As if James was above playing around with the narrator!

    James-on-Sterne I should look up in the relevant Library of America volume. Amateur-Reader-on-Sterne: Best novelist of the 18th century.

    Now, Thirkell. I had to use the ol' internet to refresh myself. How good is her stuff? I have no idea. I have doubts, I guess, but am easily persuaded.

    For the uninitiated: Angela Thirkell adopted Trollope's Barsetshire as her literary home and wrote a long string of novels set there. Barsetshire during World War II and so on.

  3. It's true: you can always see James tiptoeing around the edges of his own scenes, making sure the hedges and flower arrangements are obscuring just the right amount of meaning. I love old Henry, but again I'd rather drink with Nabokov.

    Sterne was brilliant. I wish "Tristram Shandy" was twice as long as it is. I miss Trim and Toby and the Widow Wadman almost every day.

    I have not read Thirkell; I've had some fabulous excerpts read to me. She's considered something of a lightweight, I think, but she had a great eye for the flaws and contradictions that make people human. From what I've heard, the war years novels are her best.

  4. I like your style of writing. It really sounds like some of these old books. LOL

  5. Scott-I assume as a Sterne supporter you've read "A Sentimental Journey"? Great Yorick moments. And it's a nice antidote to Richardsonian sentimentalism.

    Amateur Reader-I haven't decided if I agree with you that Stern is the best novelist. I'm more of an 18th century/Romanticist girl than a Victorian, so it's hard for me to pick who is the best novelist of a fantastic century. But to my mind, "Clarissa" is perhaps the most important British novel of the 18th century to the extent that it shaped ("influence" is too loaded a word) everything that was written after it (including, to some extent, "Tristram Shandy").

    This should not be read, however, as any condemnation of Sterne. On the contrary, I have a mind to re-read Trollope through the lens of 18th century skepticism. Or have I missed the point entirely?

  6. I wish A Sentimental Journey were three times as long! No, twice. Boy, that's a weird book.

    As for importance, oh, sure - I'll grant you Clarissa, and also La Nouvelle Heloise, Candide, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Vicar of Wakefield, etc., etc. Sterne's influence (I'm lost without that word) was strong in German literature, absent everywhere else, aside from Sartor Resartus.

    "Best" is aesthetic, outside of literary history. I'm secretly an aestheticized Modernist, so it's easy for me to pick the best! Nabokov somewhere calls the 18th the "least artistic of centuries."

    For Trollope, though, the key novel is Tom Jones, not the story, but that series of introductory chapters, Fielding on How Fiction Works.

    So that's Trollope through Fielding. But you want Trollope through, what, David Hume? I have no idea how that would work. In the face of actual philosophy, I lose my phony breezy confidence. Do it! See what happens. If you've missed one point, you'll find another.

    Now, Sonia, that LOL disconcerts me, but I'll just take the compliment and say thanks. It's just the complex-compound sentences, right? I don't actually sound archaic, do I?

  7. Do you think that the books you discuss sound archaic?

  8. "Archaic" can have a suggestion of "ancient" that I mean only as a joke here, but otherwise, yes, the books often do sound archaic, in the sense that they are recognizably of their time. The difference between Jane Austen and a good Austen imitator of our time should be immediately evident.

    I swear, I don't write like a 19th century critic! I like to think I write like - or aspire to write like - a more informal Ruth Franklin or William Pritchard, 21st century critics I admire.

    Although, you know, I kind of wish I wrote like this.

  9. I caught the humor in the reference to yourself. Your writing is certainly not archaic. But I have a hard time considering Jane Austen "more primitive" "antediluvian" "little evolved" or "no longer applicable" while, of course, she is "characteristic of an earlier time".
    I also freaked out when one of my students couldn't read Dickens because it was written in "Old English".

  10. Strike "archaic." Replace with "old timey."

  11. Absolutely! That refusal to accept black-and-white characters makes him so much more--well, something--than that I thought he would be. After reading Flaubert and thinking no-one seemed very likable, I read Trollope and found everyone likable, even those who were sort of creepy. Both styles seem awfully modern compared to the John Bunyan/Disney style of pure good vs pure bad. (Wonder if they've ever been linked before? Probably.)

  12. Trollope is the anti-Flaubert in so many ways. Thus the Henry James objections - the Flaubertian author is supposed to expunge all traces of the author, not constantly point at them.

    But you're right, they share a modern literary sensibility - they're both opposed to the melodrama of much earlier fiction. I suppose this goes under the name of "realism." They're both realists, even if their approach is so different.

  13. Interesting point that 'realism' connects Flaubert to Trollope, despite the huge differences in narrative style. I think I'm right in saying Trollope was the first British novelist to create his own county (Barsetshire) for a series of books and recycle characters so the reader feels immersed in a real society. George Eliot, who as far as I can see is the best proponent of realism in Victorian English lit, probably had the same objections to Trollope's authorial voice as Henry James did but I once read that Trollope's demonstration of how to create a realistic world was a major influence on Eliot's writing of 'Middlemarch'.

  14. Nope, sorry - John Galt was first! He hardly works it all up to the extent Trollope or Balzac does, but his novels refer to each other, mention each other's places and characters, etc. Galt's probably not actually first, either.

    I would be surprised if Eliot is too hard on Trollope's metafictions. See the "defense of realism" chapter of Adam Bede (Ch. 17). Eliot is hardly in the "erase all traces of the author" school.

    There's another post I didn't right - how the big party scenes in Adam Bede comment on, parody, pilfer, etc. the long, pivotal fête champêtre in Barchester Towers. So the Trollope-Eliot links make sense to me.

  15. Mr. Anonymous is actually me, Mr. Amateur Reader. Wonder what happened.

  16. Thanks for that: I'd never even heard of John Galt before! Interesting stuff. I don't think I'll be reading him for a while though as my TBR pile is heaving (and I've only read one Balzac as it is).

  17. I have an easy solution to that problem. Remove the two worst books from the TBR pile and replace them with The Entail and Eugénie Grandet.

    Remove the worst three books, and you've actually shortened the pile. Two birds with one stone.

  18. The thing about Trollope that I value most highly is his comprehensive sympathy. It's as if he himself were Septimus Harding.

    Thirkell lacks this utterly. I admit (not proudly) to have read them all, most more than once (lightweight alert) and they do get lazy and formulaic. There is some real charm, though, in some of the early books. Try "Summer Half." If you can't get through that you can cross her off your list for ever.