Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Loose, Baggy, Soapy Trollope

Although I have never been exactly sure what Henry James meant when he described War and Peace and The Three Musketeers as “loose baggy monsters,” I can at least see that the Dumas novel could be endlessly extended with more adventurous episodes, and that War and Peace could easily – easily in theory – be extended out in scope, could weave in the stories of even more characters.  Both novels have a structure, but one that is capacious and flexible.

Framley Parsonage is, if not so monstrous, easily the loosest and baggiest of the first four Barchester novels.  Trollope is never exactly the tightest of writers, but the structure – the parallel plots and so on – of the earlier novels is clear enough to distinguish.  Framley Parsonage, almost exactly the same length as its predecessor Doctor Thorne, at first trots along a well-marked path, but at some point the road grows indistinct, and the frame begins to dissolve.

The novel was serialized in sixteen parts of three chapters each, one a month, which by itself should provide a fair amount of structure, and, for a while, does.  The first nine chapters and three parts tell the straight-line story of a clergyman, Mark Robarts, who rises too quickly and falls in with a crowd that is too fast for him; money trouble ensues that will be serious enough to take the story to the end of the novel.

As good as Trollope is with stories about money, it should be clear that something is missing.  Mark Robarts is married; where is our romantic heroine?  She is mentioned in Chapter 1, briefly, and only because “it will come to pass that my readers will know her hereafter.” Chapter 10, the beginning of the fourth installment, bears her name (“Lucy Robarts” – she is the clergyman’s sister), telling the impatient reader that the romantic plot can finally begin.

But now a new structure appears:  two chapters of Lucy \ romance, one chapter of Mark \ money, or occasionally two money and one love.  The money chapters, though, begin to shift.  Entire chapters pass without Mark Robarts appearing at all, with no one but (no longer) incidental characters: the dissolute MP Sowerby, for example, or the skin cream heiress Miss Dunstable.  We met the admirable Miss Dunstable in Doctor Thorne, and soon more Barchester characters appear not just in cameos and party scenes, but in full-fledged subplots.  Were we not done with these people?  Reading Doctor Thorne, it did not once occur to me to wonder who the title character might marry.  Now I knew.  Well, I knew the last time I read the novel, but I had forgotten.  Now I knew again.

The subplots eventually resolve and recede, allowing the original story to wrap itself up, if that is the right metaphor, which it is not, as Trollope demonstrates in Framley Parsonage.  In this useful post, The Argumentative Old Git attempts to narrow the meaning of “soap opera” enough to make it critically fruitful, working on the structure of the soap opera, its potential unendingness.  Framley Parsonage is Trollope’s first real soap opera.  It never has to end.

Looking back, I should perhaps label this post a “loose, baggy monster.”  Oh well, onward, endlessly.

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