Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And thus Frank married money, and became a great man. - tension in Trollope

Frank Gresham, heir to a name but no longer a fortune, needs to marry money to save the family estate.

Mary Thorne is not penniless but is not “money,” and is secretly illegitimate and worse.  Not worse to Trollope, or me, but to various other characters.

At the end of the Doctor Thorne, as Trollope informs his readers on page 7, Frank and Mary will wed.  Obstacles will be overcome.  The interest of the story is then, presumably, in how.  Except that quite early in the novel, in Chapter 10 (the wedding is in Chapter 47), Trollope unveils the how.  At every point afterwards where he might introduce a complication, he actually removes one.  Now what?

Reading Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate, I discovered that she spent the first quarter of the novel coming up with a number of paths that would allow her romantic protagonists to wed; a true disciple of Trollope, Oliphant made sure that each one would be unsatisfying to an experienced reader, that each solution was too easy, too trivial.  Oliphant was creating constraints on herself – she had to solve the puzzle of the novel without resorting to any of the easy solutions.  Trollope, by contrast, picks a single unsatisfying solution and works within its limits.

By satisfying, I mean that the resolution of the story of Frank and Mary needs to be psychologically and ethically meaningful – the characters, confronted with difficulties, become better people (or worse, but that’s a different story).  This is also the romantic, the “true love,” ending, not necessarily the most original ending imaginable, but more appealing than one where the lovebirds have a giant pile of money dropped on them.

Any tension comes from the fact that the pile of money is on its way.  The plot of the novel is a sort of race between the “true love” ending and the money ending.  Trollope’s challenge is make the race as close as possible, with all the protagonists reaching an ethical peak before the tidal wave of money hits them.  Or, to stick with the horse race, his fun is having True Love win by a nose, because once the money arrives the questions of maturity, perseverance, and so on become uninteresting.  Whether a reader finds this entirely satisfying, I defer on that, but it is what Trollope is doing with the romantic plot, and he does it quite openly, since he keeps no secrets from the reader.  Doctor Thorne’s plot is, mechanically, all about information management and timing, as are, I suppose, all good plots.

Then, in the final chapter, he blatantly mocks readers interested in the wedding itself.  First:

She [Mary] wore on that occasion — But it will be too much, perhaps, to tell the reader what she wore as Beatrice's bridesmaid, seeing that a couple of pages, at least, must be devoted to her marriage-dress, and seeing, also, that we have only a few pages to finish everything; the list of visitors, the marriage settlements, the dress, and all included.

And then, six pages later:

And now I find that I have not one page — not half a page — for the wedding-dress.  But what matters?  Will it not be all found written in the columns of the Morning Post?

All of which is followed by what may or may not be mockery, or is mockery, but of whom?

And thus Frank married money, and became a great man.

Or does it just resemble mockery?  Because Doctor Thorne really may be the story of how Frank became a great man (and, entirely incidentally, married money), with the emphasis on, the interest in, the how.

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