Tuesday, March 26, 2013

But then so many readers are fools - reading in The Small House at Allington

I have written before about Trollope’s meta-fiction, his incessant commentary on his own fiction.  The earlier Barchester books have so much of this kind of thing that I doubted he could keep it up.  If nothing else, he would run out of jokes.  And The Small House at Allington contains far less direct commentary on itself than does, say, Barchester Towers.

Or so it seemed at first.  The omniscient narrator saves his opinions for the characters and their actions, but, in a surprising move, the comments on fictionality have been shifted from the narrator to the characters and action.  This novel is unusually concerned with novels and the activity of reading.

Sometimes reading is a form of characterization, as in this description of an old nobleman, almost a villain of the novel:

He always breakfasted alone, and after breakfast found in a French novel and a cigar what solace those innocent recreations were still able to afford him.  When the novel no longer excited him and when he was saturated with smoke, he would send for his wife. (Ch. 26)

Or reading is a revealing action, as in Chapter 45:

Then, for some quarter of an hour, he did take out his newspaper, and she, when she saw him do so, did take out her novel.

This is a couple embarking on their honeymoon, two people who should not be so interested in reading.

In one case, novels feature in the action, when during a fistfight on a train platform, the combatants “fall back upon Mr. Smith’s book stall” (Ch. 34), with the despicable Crosbie falling on the newspapers and our hero John Eames landing on the yellow shilling-novels.  A footnote in the Penguin Classics edition (p. 685) tells me that Trollope’s own novels would not appear on the W. H. Smith stands until 1866, so Eames does not crush another Trollope novel.

And then once in a while the characters just chatter about fiction.

"I hate books I can't understand," said Bell. "I like a book to be clear as running water, so that the whole meaning may be seen at once."

"The quick seeing of the meaning must depend a little on the reader, must it not?" said Mrs. Dale.

"The reader mustn't be a fool, of course," said Bell.

"But then so many readers are fools," said Lily. "And yet they get something out of their reading. "  (Ch. 44)

Should I feel insulted?  I feel that Trollope has somehow insulted me.  Someone should feel insulted.

A couple of chapters earlier, Bell claims to dislike novels because they are “too sweet” (Ch. 42), which is, Lily says, exactly why she likes them.  Bell singles out The Heart of Midlothian and Vanity Fair as exceptions, novels that are especially “real” – not bad, Bell, not bad.  But Lily protests: "No, Bell, no!...  Real life sometimes is so painful."  So says the character who experiences the most pain in the most painful of the Barchester novels.


  1. "Someone should feel insulted." Bell, perhaps? He seems (from these snippets) to present a sort of man-in-the-street view of fiction.

    I love it when fictional characters are reading books. I always want to know the titles of the books they're reading, and what they think of them. "I sat me down and read on a book" is no good; I want details, damn it.

  2. Very interesting thread running through it that I shall have to keep my eye out for. I've read bits and pieces of Trollope's works in the past but am on Barchester Towers currently and working my way through this series slowly to savour it. :)

  3. This immediately precedes the passage I excepr above:

    "I declare, Bell," she said, "it's the greatest rubbish I ever attempted to read." This was specially ungrateful, because Bell had recommended the book. "All the books have got to be so stupid! I think I'll read Pilgrim's Progress again."

    But we never learn which book rude Lily is rubbishing. Poor Bell, what bad taste she must have - but then she loves Vanity Fair, a huge plus for Trollope.

    Barchester Towers is especially full of meta-fiction. In the comments to the post I linked to, the one up top, I said it has as much as Tom Jones, only less organized. It is "only" his fifth novel, and Trollope is absolutely gleeful about what can be done with fiction. He is having fun.

  4. And yet, Vanity Fair was not Trollope's favourite Thackeray novel...a true Trollopian hero would read Henry Esmond while chasing hounds and delivering the mail simultaneously.

    But seriously, perhaps the biggest fools are Crosbie and Eames--have two men, supposedly so in love, ever mis-read a lady as thoroughly as they mis-read Miss Lily Dale?

  5. Does Trollope ever write about writers? Those are the only characters who would prefer Henry Esmond, a brilliant conceptual novel. A novel for novelists, or readers who read like novelists.

    You are right that many non-readers, even fictional ones, are also fools.