Friday, January 17, 2014

I'll be the late turnips! - Trollope's ebullition of gravy

Reviewing a later Trollope novel, The American Senator (1877), Tony of Reading List fame mentioned its fox-hunting scenes – its many fox-hunting scenes, I think – and was kind enough to describe a bit how Trollope uses them.  I was curious because Orley Farm (1862) had a long, complicated fox-hunting section that is close to the best thing in that book, and because Can You Forgive Her? has a fox-hunting chapter that is also one of the best things in that novel.

In his 1883 Trollope appreciation, James writes that “one may perhaps characterize him best… by saying that he was a novelist who hunted the fox” (LOA 1,348).  Poking at the topic, I concluded that I should not mess with the fox hunting until I read The Eustace Diamonds (1873), at the very least.  Those scenes do a lot of work.

How about, instead a picnic, all from the comic subplot that is best skipped.  Kate, a poor cousin (not actually poor, but with an independent income insufficient to live on) of the heroine has to live with her Aunt Greenow, who is wealthy due to a kind but mercenary marriage to an elderly gentleman.  The aunt is now genteel on her own:

“Jeannette, get me a fly.”  These were the first words Mrs. Greenow spoke as she put her foot upon the platform at the Yarmouth station.  Her maid's name was Jenny; but Kate had already found, somewhat to her dismay, that orders had been issued before they left London that the girl was henceforth to be called Jeannette.

Mrs. Greenow first act after putting on her mourning clothes is to rename her maid to make her more classy.  This is what I am advised to skip.  Jeannette is useful as a means  of filling in the reader about the plot, the competition of two men, a rich farmer and a penniless dandy, for Mrs. Greenow’s hand; the aunt, meanwhile, pretends that she is looking for a husband for poor cousin Kate.  The first opportunity to do so is at a seaside picnic, which features passages like this:

She had in her hand an outspread clean napkin, and she wore fastened round her dress a huge coarse apron, that she might thus be protected from some possible ebullition of gravy, or escape of salad mixture, or cream; but in other respects she was clothed in the fullest honours of widowhood.  She had not mitigated her weeds by half an inch.  She had scorned to make any compromise between the world of pleasure and the world of woe.  There she was, a widow, declared by herself to be of four months' standing, with a buried heart, making ready a dainty banquet with skill and liberality.  She was ready on the instant to sit down upon the baskets in which the grouse pie had been just carefully inhumed, and talked about her sainted lamb with a deluge of tears.  If anybody didn't like it, that person--might do the other thing.

Perhaps I should trim that, but it contains the essence of Trollope the humorist.  Is “possible ebullition of gravy” a pleasing phrase?  Does the repetition heighten the joke, or kill it?  Note that the second, third, and much of the fourth sentences say exactly the same thing.  The play is in the rhetorical variation.  The mention of the time since her husband’s death is a running joke.  If Mrs. Greenow says she has been a widow for four months, the true figure is likely two months.  The sooner the period of mourning is over , the sooner she can remarry.

The late husband is a lamb here, but soon enough  he is turned into animal feed by the farmer in pursuit of the widow:

“I never knew what was the good of being unhappy.  If I find early mangels don't do on a bit of land, then I sow late turnips; and never cry after spilt milk.  Greenow was the early mangels; I'll be the late turnips.  Come then, say the word.  There ain't a bedroom in my house,--not one of the front ones,--that isn't mahogany furnished!”  (Ch. 8)

I believe this is the first proposal scene, the first of many in the novel, and we are only in Chapter 8, much too early for Farmer Cheesacre’s appealing offer to be accepted.

I find all of this and much more awfully funny.  So I keep reading Trollope.


  1. You're not the only one - in fact, I quite enjoy the East Anglian interludes.

  2. Good. Sir Edward Marsh, who is he, what does he know. The courting is funny, the jokes about the farm are funny, the corruption of "Jeannette" is funny, the mostly false mourning is funny, etc. etc. Good stuff.