Thursday, August 2, 2012

As I have told her story that sympathy has grown upon myself till I have learned to forgive her - Trollope manipulates my sympathies

Lady Mason may or may not have altered her husband’s will, but the dispute was resolved in her favor twenty years earlier in “the Great Orley Farm Case” (Ch. I). Her stepson, nursing his wrong, receives new information that causes him to try the court system again, this time accusing his stepmother of forgery.  That is more or less the big story at the core of Orley Farm

Lady Mason has an adult son, and some sympathetic neighbors, and then there are all of the lawyers, so that almost but not quite gives us a cast that can fill 825 pages.  The son plus two of the attorneys and also one of the neighbors are young men of marriageable age, but by the middle of the book we only have two eligible young women, which gives us a romantic plot and the certainty that not every character will be happy in the end.

Two examples of the basic character arc of the novel:  Mr. Furnival defended Lady Mason’s position in the first trial and won the case.  Although now “his hair was grizzled and his nose was blue” (Ch. X) he is irresistibly attracted to the still-handsome Lady Mason, more, it seems, than to the “stout, solid” Mrs. Furnival.  So of course Furnival will assist Lady Mason when her legal troubles revive, and of course he thinks her innocent.  As time passes, though, he begins to have doubts – what if Lady Mason is, in fact, guilty? –  and his story changes.

Or:  A gentleman – Sir Peregrine Orme, an elderly baronet, a neighbor  – is obligated, given Lady Mason’s fine character and social status (and innocence), to be publicly supportive against her vulgar enemies.  But what if he begins to have doubts, too?  And what if he has doubts only after he has fallen in love with her?  Sir Peregrine’s story is about as moving as anything I have read in Trollope, but it is only one  variation on the theme.

All of this re-positioning happens gradually.  Much of the repetition in Orley Farm comes from characters thinking and re-thinking, changing their ideas by inches.  The pace and psychology is admirably realistic.  Realism can at times be awfully dull.  As can blog posts about Trollope novels.

Trollope’s point, stated plainly in Chapter LXXIX, all the way at the end:

I may, perhaps be thought to owe an apology to my readers in that I have asked their sympathy for a woman who had so sinned as to have placed her beyond the general sympathy of the world at large.  If so, I tender my apology, and perhaps feel that I should confess a fault.  But as I have told her story that sympathy has grown upon myself till I have learned to forgive her, and to feel that I too could have regarded her as a friend.  Of her future life I will not venture to say anything.  But no lesson is truer than that which teaches us to believe that God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

And then that of course goes on for a while, but what is interesting to me is how sympathy for Lady Mason grows in Trollope, how it moves from being taken for granted, from being shallow, to being earned and meaningful.  The multiple positions and points of view, each narrow and partial, allows the reader, me, to change in ways that the characters cannot since I can see the narrowness and know everyone’s argument.  The big clumsy omniscient narrator is powerful, and perhaps not actually all that clumsy.


  1. That's a lovely bit (both Trollope's and yours) about the growth of sympathy for Lady Mason. What can it mean to say, as the narrator, that you have learned to feel differently about your own character? What a twisty -- but, I agree, not necessarily clumsy -- relationship between that "omniscient" narrator (who apparently isn't omniscient enough to see this coming) and Lady Mason, and us.

  2. How encouraging that you got through my muddle to my point, the point that might well be worth developing, the way the Trollope narrator is not just directing or manipulating his readers but actually reading along with us. Or how his writing is not as far from our reading as it first seems.

    The narrator is a bit like a Shakespeare character overhearing his own monologue and changing in response to himself.

    Trollope is as strict with his narrator as any tricky Modernist. He, and we, are allowed to know everything - thoughts, secrets - about the present and past, but no more about the future than we do in real life (except that I can see how long the book is, or I know how many serial episodes are left). The narrator/author surely does know more but he usually acts as if he does not. I get to be as omniscient as the narrator. The pleasant illusion is maintained that he and I are watching events unfold together.

  3. A surprised omniscient narrator really is a Modernist device, isn't it? I should ask ma femme about Trollope; she's read loads. I think she gave The Warden another read this spring. It might aid my nefarious long-term goal of disabusing her of certain myths about the "modern" novel. Tristram Shandy didn't quite do the trick.

  4. I want to be careful not to claim too much, but Trollope is surprisingly playful with the conventions of fiction. He is not a formal innovator, exactly, but he keeps himself entertained.

    And I am beginning to wonder if this specific device, this paralleling or sharing with the reader, is not an important part of the ethics of Trollope. It is quite different than omniscient Dickens or Trollope's real precursor, Thackeray.

    Well, as I read more Trollope I will keep this in mind.

    I would enjoy hearing about those myths. I have loved mythology since I was a child.

    1. Oh, it's all stuff you've heard already, about the linear development of the form of the novel and a movement from stylized "classical" forms through "romance" through "realism" through "modernism" and "postmodernism" to whatever we're supposed to be suffering nowadays. "Indeterminate endings are a newfangled invention" and the like. "Deliberately broken chronologies are a hallmark of Modernism" et the cetera. I point to Chekhov. I point to The Iliad. I point to Cervantes. My audience, more widely and deeply read than I am, doesn't care about any my proposed history of literature. "When are you going to finish those last six volumes of Proust?" she asks.

      Still, I might write some posts about the Mythology of Literature.

    2. Dickens certainly knows how he feels about his characters from page one, and how we are to feel about them as well. I have only read four or five Dickens' novels, so I'm no expert but I don't recall the narrator changing his mind about anything. Thackery wrote what? a billion books? and I've only read The Luck of Barry Lyndon, way back in high school. We do however have a shelf full of Thackery at home, so I might avail myself of one or two volumes. I should at least read Vanity Fair, right?

      The only thing I can say about Thackery with any certainty is that my friend Ted the Librarian bears a startling resemblance to older Thackery. Ted the Librarian is a fan of Gertrude Stein. How's that for informed literary criticism?

  5. Vanity Fair is fantastic. A masterful use of the intrusive and omniscient narrator, at least one all-time great character, a few knockout scenes, not all comic by any means. The narrator in that novel is the starting point for Trollope's voice.

    Try to read an edition with Th.'s own illustrations. That's Lil' Thackeray, my expressionless mascot, up on the top of Wuthering Expectations.

    Dickens performs some amazing improvisatory feats, but I think you're right about his narrators.

  6. I recommend "Thackerayana," a collection of Thackeray's sketches, mostly drawn in the margins of books he was reading. There are online versions; worth browsing through.

    One of my favorite uses of the pre-Modernist narrator is in "The Manuscript Found at Saragossa": stories within stories, all told by narrators who might be lying, drugged, or mistaken. All this from 1815 or so...

  7. Sadly, none of the Thackery on our shelves is illustrated. I had high hopes for the four editions that are over a century old, but nothing, darn it. I'll have to go shopping now. Alas, poor budget.

  8. Ah ha - via Google Books, Thackerayana. Fascinating.

    The Norton Critical Edition has the Vanity Fair illustrations, although that edition has other annoyances. Ignore the footnotes, more or less. Exasperating textual variants, mostly, which should not be on the page of a student edition.

    I have not read Saragossa for no good reason - it is clearly my kind of book.