Friday, August 3, 2012

Not without a touch of poetry - sublime, savage Trollope

I do not always think of Anthony Trollope as a novelist of especially strong technical skill or imaginative power, but every novel of his I know contains a scene or two that shows otherwise.  If someone else would read Orley Farm and work through the big fox-hunting scene, chapters XXVII through XXIX, I would appreciate it - there you will find the skill.  I want to instead look at the “newly invented metallic tables and chairs lately brought out by the Patent Steel Furniture Company”:

“There's three tables, eight chairs, easy rocking-chair, music-stand, stool to match, and pair of stand-up screens, all gilt in real Louey catorse; and it goes in three boxes 4-2 by 2-1 and 2-3.  Think of that, sir.”

The salesman Mr. Kantwise is working the magic of his own craft on the lawyer Mr. Dockwrath.  We are  at this point only in the sixth chapter of eighty.  The lawyer is an enemy of Lady Mason, so I know he will be important.  But what am I supposed to do with this group of traveling salesmen he has encountered, Mr. Kantwise and his collapsible tables, the obese Mr. Moulder (“What did the firm care whether or no he killed himself by eating and drinking?  He sold his goods, collected his money, and made his remittances”)?  Will I need them later?  Trollope is more efficient than he first seems, so the answer is yes; the commercial travelers are eventually pulled into the plot, but just at its fringe.

Comic is not quite the right word.  Sublime relief.  Mr. Kantwise has assembled his wares and given us a paragraph to admire them:

The top of the table was blue, with a red bird of paradise in the middle; and the edges of the table, to the breadth of a couple of inches, were yellow. The pillar also was yellow, as were the three legs. "It's the real Louey catorse," said Mr. Kantwise…

And then he does something amazing:

And then Mr. Kantwise, taking two of the pieces of whitey-brown paper which had been laid aside, carefully spread one on the centre of the round table, and the other on the seat of one of the chairs. Then lightly poising himself on his toe, he stepped on to the chair, and from thence on to the table. In that position he skillfully brought his feet together, so that his weight was directly on the leg, and gracefully waved his hands over his head. James and Boots stood by admiring, with open mouths…

I am with Boots – what a performance.  “Gracefully” is a well-employed word.  Kantwise perched on the bird of paradise, flapping his wings, has become for me the emblematic image not of the Orley Farm Trollope actually wrote, but of the Evelyn Waugh-like novel hidden within it, a novel of high merit.  This set of furniture, for example, is put to almost savage use as it becomes (see Ch. XXIII) the worst Christmas gift in all of England.

Speaking of Christmas, I will join the grotesque Moulder and his wife for theirs.  Mr. Kantwise is a guest, but he stays off the table, which is already full.  Mr. Moulder is carving:

When he had done all this, and his own plate was laden, he gave a long sigh.  "I shall never cut up such another bird as that, the longest day that I have to live," he said; and then he took out his large red silk handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"Deary me, M.; don't think of that now," said the wife...

"And how does it taste?" asked Moulder, shaking the gloomy thoughts from his mind.

"Uncommon," said Snengkeld, with his mouth quite full. "I never eat such a turkey in all my life."

"Like melted diamonds," said Mrs. Moulder, who was not without a touch of poetry. (Ch. XXIV)

I of course omitted many other interesting bits about the turkey in order to have room for that one unimprovable line, by itself worth reading 825 pages of Trollope, pages worse than those found in Orley Farm.


  1. Now I want to read it. The problem is that his books are so huge it would take me ages to read them in English and that French publishers don't seem to like him.

    I love the names of the characters. I noticed that too when I read Miss McKenzie.

  2. PS : I hope you enjoy reading Promise at Dawn.

  3. It is interesting to see the recent little burst of Trollope-in-French.

    The Gary is excellent. I am reading it slowly. It lends itself to a "chapter a day" pace. One little amusing episode every day. I am still in his childhood.

    1. Yes, there are new translations of Trollope. All in hard covers. *sigh*

      I'm glad you're enjoying Promise at Dawn, it's always a risk when you recommend a book.

  4. I kept reading "Moulder" as "Mulder" and picturing the guy from the X-Files. This actually enhanced my experience, if possible. Oh, what I have to look forward to! Will the real Louey catorse please stand up.

  5. He's the master of including the odd scene which shows his brilliance - if only he'd been able to stitch together more of them in one book on a more frequent basis...

    ...which is not saying that he only wrote a couple of good books.

  6. Seven novels and seven good books so far. Plus one mediocre travel book.