Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All that comfort and all that strength had left her now. - the uncomfortable Can You Forgive Her?

The title is from Chapter 36 of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5), the first of the six Palliser novels, and just the eighth Trollope novel I have read.

Curiously, in the last few days I have seen Trollope described as a “comfort” by two separate book bloggers, at Tony’s Reading List in a review of The American Senator and at The Age of Uncertainty in a squib about the very novel I was reading.  The word struck me because although at first Can You Forgive Her? seemed like more of the same solidly built Trollope stuff, enjoyable, maybe material for a little overview kind of post, as I read more I became increasingly uncomfortable.

Mahogany-furnitured bedrooms assist one's comfort in this life; and heaps of manure, though they are not brilliant in romance, are very efficacious in farming.  (Ch. 47)

The manure theme is, of course, one of Trollope’s fictional specialties.

As the novel progressed, the good-natured even temper of the omniscient narrator remained intact, often begging his readers not to judge a character too harshly for his, or her, obstinacy or idiocy or corruption.  The narrator’s very protests, though, suggested that I should be disgusted or angry with what was going on the book.  They suggested that the narrator was perhaps a bit angry, too.

“Perhaps it may be a comfort to you in your troubles to know that I am, at any rate, as badly off as you are?”  (Ch. 71)

It has taken me a while, but I am beginning to think of Trollope as a great satirist, mild compared to Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh, but at times as fierce as his mentor William Thackeray.  Or Jane Austen, another writer with fangs and claws who is most frequently read for comfort, available by means of ignoring substantial portions of her writing.

He was a man who required to have such comfort backed by patés and curaçoa to a very large extent, and now it might be doubted whether the amount of patés and curaçoa at his command would last him much longer.  (Ch. 47)

The satirist writes about fools.  The ranks of fools include everyone.  They include himself.  Like Austen, Trollope holds out the possibility that a select, fortunate few are only fools part of their life, and can with luck and effort recover from their idiotic mistakes.  The heroines of Can You Forgive Her?, as you might guess from the title, make some doozies.

Mr. Palliser, who may be regarded as the fox who had lost his tail, – the tail being, in this instance, the comfort of domestic privacy, – was eager in recommending his new friend to cut off his tail also.  (Ch. 77)

Compared to Swift, Trollope is an optimist.  He will forgive almost anyone.  But he does so through a strong sympathy for folly, human and inevitable.

The word “comfort” comes up a lot in this novel.

“It is such a comfort that it is over,” said the mother.

“You are the most ungrateful of women.”  (final chapter)

All week, Can You Forgive Her?


  1. Never - although we know that Trollope (and everyone else) will by the end...

    As for comfort - despite the bumpy ride, we know that we'll reach our destination safely, leaving us to enjoy the scenery in comfort, despite the lack of springs (or our seat on the roof).

  2. The ride you describe does not sound at all comfortable. Nor all that safe.

  3. He's a comfort for me too. Have you read The Claverings? Sophie Gordeloup is a remarkable character, but George in CYFH is also worth some consideration. A nasty piece of work indeed.

  4. Trollope is another 19th century I'm always wary of reading because his novels are massive and I fear they'll be dull; I always feel this way about 19th century novelists, before I read them and realize they're great. In this case, the passages you quoted are very good.

  5. Trollope can be dull, for good and bad reasons. He wrote so many books - there must be some that are dull pretty much all the way through.

    But he also can be tart, even sour at times.

    Guy, not The Claverings, no. This is just my 8th Trollope novel.

    What do you mean by comfort? I asked Tony, and he said it related to familiarity. In that case, my comfort reads include Flaubert, Kafka, and Faulkner. Familiarity seems kind of idiosyncratic.

    Or do the happy endings vitiate everything in the middle of the books?

    1. I sent a comment but received an error message, so I'll try to reconstruct it.
      Reading Trollope is like returning to an old friend. I never find him boring but there is a familiarity there (in common with Tony). He still manages to surprise. It's not the happy endings as lots of bad things happen, but for this reader, he's very calming.
      I always read a classic at night before bed--no crime. I recently started Proust which I am loving BTW, but I found myself tossing and turning--perhaps dwelling on my own memories? Anyway, I had to switch to Trollope. Perhaps his books release chemicals in my brain. You'd have to hook me up to an MRI and monitor my brain waves or something.

  6. Re: comfort. For me, reading Trollope is like returning to an old friend. I always read classics at night before sleep (no crime). I recently started reading Proust which I love, btw, but I found that I was tossing and turning. Was I chewing it over? I don't know, but when I read Trollope I sleep better. I have no explanation beyond that really. His books are so genial--even the nasty characters are rendered impotent by events most of the time. Or they walk off the page. I don't think it's the happy endings. It's the narrative...perhaps even some sort of chemical release in the brain. You'd probably have to hook me up to some brain machine and monitor the brain waves.

  7. This is very interesting. It is obviously hard to look at with any objectivity. We are talking about physiological responses to literature! What could be more idiosyncratic?

    My task as a critic is to pull the response back into the text. How can the idea of comfort help us understand the art of Trollope? What does it help us see?

    1. Things don't always end exactly well. Some characters are run off the page. Some people don't get what they want. For this reader, I think Trollope's generosity to his characters may be where the 'comfort' comes from--if that's an adequate term.

      Compare to Hardy for example--the other end of the spectrum. I think Hardy is merciless with his characters.I wouldn't mind living in a Trollope novel, but Hardy's world is harsh and unforgiving.

      Some of Trollope's characters are BAD but their venom is contained and less destructive.

  8. Guy, you have gone right to a serious weakness in my argument. What exactly do I think a "satirist" is? I do not think this is a problem I will take care of this week - too difficult.

    So, thanks!

    The question is something like: which part of he story is fiction? What if the generosity is exactly that, a gift of he author? Very interesting, to me at least.

    1. I'd say that a big part is a gift of the author. There's a meaner world out there

  9. Satirists see their fellow men as fools, not demons; they also see our lives as taking place in a moral cosmos, not inside an evil or absurd chaos.

    Because of those reasons, satire can be comforting, it can tell us that others are there to make us laugh and we're here to make those others laugh in turn. And that is a very comfortable vantage point.

    Writers like Hardy, if his poem Hap is to be trusted, have very different and discomforting opinions about our lives and sufferings in this world from those held by satirists like Austen, Trollope or even Swift.

  10. On a side note, some satirists like Cazotte (Le diable amoureux) and Andreyev (Satan's Diary ) go as far as to present the Demon as a bigger fool than most humans.

  11. Now you are the generous one! Generous to a lot of Austen readers, I fear.

    Perhaps we are really just distinguishing among worldviews. Since I do not have a heart of stone, I laugh at Hardy's vision of things, but am brought up short by Swift's, or, less sharply, Trollope's.

    I believe Cazotte's devil is more human than most humans. Haven't read Andreyev.

  12. One of the greatest of satirical devils is in Flann O'Brien's play "Faustus Kelly." There, Satan flees in horror from Irish politics.

    Me, I'm buoyed by Swift's misanthropy; I cheer him on.

    I'm not sure what "comfort" means in literature. Alphonse Allais wrote a story called "Comfort"; it's about the lack of public toilets in London.

  13. Whaqt it means - no, nor do I. That is just why I am interested in how people use it. Ellen Moody has written a paper titled "Trollope's Comfort Romances for Men." She actually only uses the word once, as if everyone knows what it means.

    Some people seem to read Trollope without noticing the Yahoos. I am with you on Swift - I have kept reading Trollope because of the Yahoos.