Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"I was thinking of getting Blowehard to come. That other man, Flutey, wouldn't do at all." - Trollope betrays his sacred office

This new novel of Mr. Trollope’s has nothing to teach us either about Mr. Trollope himself as a novelist, about English society as a theme for the novelist, or, failing information on these points, about the complex human heart.  Take any one of his former tales, change the names of half the characters, leave the others standing, and transpose the incidents, and you will have “Can You Forgive Her?”

Henry James reviewing Trollope in the Nation, September 26, 1865 (Library of America, p. 1,317).

In his reviews of Trollope, James is often wildly, bafflingly wrong – in an 1883 overview he seems to have figured Trollope out more, and  maybe I should point out that James quite young in 1865 – but he is funny, is he ever funny.  The part about changing the names, or not, that’s a good one.

With each Trollope novel, I have mentioned its degree of metafictiveness.  I should invent a five point scale.  Can You Forgive Her? is on the low end.  The Trollope narrator by itself obliterates any sense that the novel is something other than a novel.  It is not just his eavesdropping, his telepathy, or his nosiness but his frequent commentary on the action, on motives, and issues of the day.  On the one side, Trollope is scrupulous about staying within the bounds of probability (so-called “realism”), on the other he makes no attempt to hide the fictiveness of his fiction, even if he is not, in this novel, pointing to it like he did in Barchester Towers.

Fairly scrupulous, I should say.

“And, Mr. Cheesacre,” continued Mrs. Greenow.  “I did mean to send the music; I did, indeed.”

“I couldn't hear of it, Mrs. Greenow.”

“But I mention it now, because I was thinking of getting Blowehard to come.  That other man, Flutey, wouldn't do at all out in the open air.”

“It shall be Blowehard,” said Mr. Cheesacre; and it was Blowehard.  (Ch. 8)

The East Anglian musicians for hire Flutey and Blowehard are never mentioned by name again.  The prosperous Norfolk farmer Cheesacre is a fairly important character, the sweaty romantic foil of the handsome sponge Captain Bellfield.

To me the great joke is not that a farmer is named Cheesacre or a physician named Dr. Fillgrave, but that none of the other characters seem to notice that this is funny.  Of course in real life we find ecologists named Dr. Green and ornithologists named Dr. Hawk and phlebotomists named Dr. Blood, but we enjoy the joke.

How Henry James hates this sort of thing.

… there are certain precautions in the way of producing that illusion dear to the intending novelist which Trollope not only habitually scorned to take, but really, as we may say, asking pardon for the heat of the thing, delighted wantonly to violate.  He took a suicidal [!] satisfaction  in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe.  (1,342-3)

Now I am in the 1883 posthumous appreciation; James is still at it in “The Art of Fiction” in 1884, where he calls Trollope’s games “a betrayal of a sacred office…  a terrible crime” (46) and a derogation of the search for truth.

Trollope would have had a good laugh at this language, although he was not one for theoretical arguments about fiction.  I do not understand why James was so little interested in Trollope’s purpose.  Perhaps Trollope meant something.

I do not actually plan to spend the entire week using Trollope to ask questions I do not know how to answer.


  1. I am currently in the middle of Barchester Towers and loving it. I have not read Can You Forgive Her? I find that the meta fiction aspects of Barchester Towers clever and at times hilarious. By co incidence I have a mostly finished post already written in this aspect of the book.

  2. I believe this one here is my Barchester Towers meta-fiction post, in the middle of that week's five post run.

    But I seem to mention the issue with every book. It is a central problem. Can You Forgive Him? for his goofing around.

    1. I was going to wait to read your linked commentary until after I had had posted mine as I did not want to inadvertently steal your ideas. However I went ahead and read it anyway. I noticed that one of the passages that you quoted partially overlapped a quote that I planned to use (the one about Mrs. Proudie not being all devil). I had not read your post previously. The only logical explanation is that you traveled forward in time and stole my idea. Very dirty trick :) Seriously I may make a few changes. Strange how readers sometimes think alike.

      Meta - fiction is indeed an interesting subject. I could understand how someone might be tempted to making and exhaustive study of it in its many forms.

    2. If I had the energy I would read much more criticism before I wrote my own. I would prefer to be thoroughly corrupted by the ideas of others.

      One of many good reasons to read criticism is that it destroys my sense of my own originality.

      Meta-fiction is implicit in fiction. The weirdos are the writers who try to suppress it, not those who take advantage of it.

  3. Even if I did not already think Henry James was a pompous, verbose, self-important windbag otherwise -- which I do -- your snippets of his sniping confirm the PVSIW assessment. In fact, his low estimate of Trollope has the opposite of what must have been his desired effect: I am off to library to grab some Trollopes. (Hmmm! There is a pun there that doesn't sound quite right. Perhaps the library ought to alert security of my impending arrival.) In any case, I remain among the heretics in my former profession: I have no time for Henry James.

  4. I am not the one to defend James, really, because of ignorance and taste. But I will say two things.

    First, James was young when he was reviewing Trollope. 22, 23. A punk. Anyone who thinks that internet critics invented snark should read early James criticism (or Poe, or...) James prefers being funny to being fair.

    Second, two decades later, James really is fair to Trollope. The overview essay is insightful. James cannot get over the meta-fiction, but at that point it is a serious aesthetic difference between two craftsmen.

    Still, "sacred office." You've got to look at a phrase like that cock-eyed, right? James can't quite mean it.

    Good luck at the library. I still am not clear how much variation in quality there is in Trollope.

  5. "Sacred office" sounds like James. Writing was the most serious thing he knew how to do, I think, and maybe his only real way to think (or to think he was thinking). I suggest that a lot of writers look at the work of other writers and judge it not on its own merits, but on how it relates to a conception of what they're trying to do in their own work. James looked at Trollope and shuddered at the lightheartedness of some of Trollope's decisions. No no no, I can hear him say. That's all wrong. "All wrong" for James' idea of the writing of James, which is the only standard. I think, as I say, that a lot of writers react in this manner to writing.

    Still, to RT I say that James seems like he'd be a difficult person to get on with, maybe an impossible person to spend time alongside, but he was a hell of a writer, a great writer. How often do great writers really make great critics? I don't know.

  6. Scott, yes, that is exactly what James is doing. In the later articles, I mean, when he was a pro, not in his earlier, funnier reviews. He is holding up Trollope's work to his own. James and Trollope are similar in so many ways that it is even more important for James to mark their differences.

    I do not know how James would be to get on with personally, but he was an all-time great dinner guest, so I wish I had known him.

    Now, your last question - I do not know either, but in English, and in the olden times, a surprising proportion of the great critics were drawn from the pool of great writers. Dryden, Johnson, Poe, Arnold, James, Stevenson, Wilde, Shaw, Woolf, TS Eliot. There are more.

    But I am not so sure the relationship holds any more, and I am almost sure that it does not necessarily hold in the literatures of other languages.

  7. I would love to have had cocktails with James.

    Yeah, I was thinking in terms of today. I read reviews of contemporary books, reviews written by living authors, and I rarely feel as if I've been shown anything at all. I was quite surprised when I read Poe's literary criticism; he went way up in my estimation.

    I have read no Trollope, but Ma Femme has read a few thousand pages of him. She reads the metafictional bits, the authorial intrusions and commentary, out loud to me sometimes. It seems like a lot of fun.

    I wonder if James ever gave his opinion of Tristram Shandy.

  8. The big Library of America collection of James's criticism has an offhand reference to Sentimental Journey, and nothing else.

    A few thousand pages of Trollope - it does add up! I have only read eight novels, but that puts me well over 4,000 pages. You would think it would get old. He is quite a bit of fun.