Friday, July 15, 2011

I am only giving you the world's opinion - challenging Trollope; complacent Trollope

I was not really planning to write about Doctor Thorne for five full days.  Because I have so much Trollope ahead of me, or so I hope, and because Trollope novels are not so extraordinarily varied, I should hoard my ideas.  Or, on the contrary, I should feel reassured that Trollope alone will provide an endless source of material for Wuthering Expectations.  Just wait until you see my ten part series on Orley Farm.  At least three of the posts will be on the fictional treatment and metaphorical meaning of 19th century manuring techniques.

Still, I am wondering what to make of a couple of passages, something following from that outstanding chapter I wrote about yesterday.  The next chapter is titled “What the World Says about Blood,” and it states the central ethical problem of Doctor Thorne as clearly as I can remember.  The speaker is our hero Frank’s father; Porlock is a cousin who is heir to an earldom:

"You must take it as you find it, Frank.  I only say that such is the fact.  If Porlock were to marry the daughter of a shoeblack, without a farthing, he would make a mésalliance; but if the daughter of the shoeblack had half a million of money, nobody would dream of saying so.  I am stating no opinion of my own: I am only giving you the world's opinion."

I have no doubt that Trollope is observing his world accurately.  The old order is not collapsing, but is already gone, and only the ideology of blood and breeding remains.  Trollope’s characters must wend their way through the obsolete cant.  Poor Augusta is trapped in it; our protagonists defeat it.

What I wonder is, did Trollope’s readers, his contemporaries, agree with this?  Did they argue with it?  Were they challenged by Trollope – were they surprised into sympathy, or was this more of a pander – you and I, dear readers, have moved beyond those snobby dinosaurs who are bothered by this sort of thing.

In the end, the young couple succeed ethically – love trumps money – and receive their novelistic rewards.  Young Frank Gresham will not have to sully himself by becoming an attorney or managing a farm (heaven forbid if he actually did any farming!).  He will be able to devote his time to his hounds and horses and perhaps a dab of politics.  Frank has matured admirably – I saw it with my own eyes, so to speak, by reading Doctor Thorne – but I have no idea what value that brings.  He ends the novel a better person.  And then?

Doctor Thorne features a stonemason who becomes a wealthy railroad builder, a baronet, and even, very briefly, a member of Parliament.  He and his son do not become better people. This is his widow:

"This comes of their barro-niting," she continued.  "If they had let him alone, he would have been here now, and so would the other one.  Why did they do it? why did they do it?  Ah, doctor! people such as us should never meddle with them above us.  See what has come of it; see what has come of it!"

I see no reason to take Lady Scatcherd’s lament at face value, as a deliberate claim by Trollope that folks shouldn’t get above their raisin’, but I do wonder how far Trollope’s class criticisms go, if the queen can marry a jockey.  Not that I want Trollope to be a radical.  Rohan Maitzen describes his stories as “the small-scale battles of everyday life,” and I only wish that every time and place had a military historian as skilled as Anthony Trollope.


  1. I only just started getting acquainted with Trollope (I have read The Warden and The Way We Live Now so far), so I'm loving this series of posts.

  2. This whole idea of a rigid class system (in Western Europe at least, I don't know about the rest of the world) is a myth. It never existed. There has always been a large turnover of aristocratic families in all ages - poor people becoming rich / rich people becoming poor: - every history book I read about medieval times, for instance, points this out. - Naturally, though, snobbishness (and its reverse) is ever constant.

  3. This makes me sad that I haven't included Doctor Thorne on my Vic Lit list...

    Because class in the Victorian novel is something I'm trying to figure out too, please come over to my blog on Saturday and tell me if my second post on Mary Barton makes any sense. I find her as cagey and unwilling to commit clearly re: class as I've found Trollope to be (though, as I'm reading the Palliser novels, I'm being distracted by politics somewhat).

  4. obooki - absolutely. I initially wrote "obsolete since the 17th century" or something like that, but I realized that any century I picked was just a fiction. It's the attitudes that matter for the novel, not any actual social change.

    Clarissa - thanks so much for stopping by. I'm glad you got something out of these posts. They said what I was trying to say, which does not always happen.

    As a side note, that recipe for pan-fried mullet on your blog made me weep. I am afraid I now live in a fresh fish desert.

    Colleen - I will be there. I understand your problem. Gaskell is actually trying to work through the contradictions within a novel. She continues the process in North and South. It is awkward.

  5. Trollope is very much a fan of the class system, objecting to competitive entry to the public service on the grounds that the wrong sort of person may get in (dealt with fictionally in 'The Three Clerks'). Trollope is an incorrigible snob - but not above acknowledging here and there that this is the case and that he may well be in the wrong...

    One thread running throughout his fiction is the idea of being a gentleman - something he can't describe but which he knows when he sees. I'm stopping here before I go off and scour my shelves for quotes relevant to Trollope's views on nature v nurture ;)

  6. Tony - thanks, I will keep my eye out for "gentleman." In Doctor Thorne, the heroine has a nice little colloquy on the meaning of the term, and "gentlewoman" which signals both her generosity and her confusion.

    It does not surprise me that Trollope is not ideologically coherent or consistent, or that his views vary from book to book. Doctor Thorne certainly is not pro-class system. The narrator's snobbery in this novel is generally treated ironically.

  7. I love Trollope, and I think he's scandalously underrated. He is admirably radical in the sense that Austen is radical--not perhaps in his politics, but in his refusal to not see all the realities that impinge on his characters.

    That's radical enough for me.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. Rohan Maitzen has a nice paragraph on why Trollope might by underrated, how he somehow defeats interpretation. Critics are left unsure of what to do with him. I took that as a challenge!