Sunday, January 19, 2014

Opening his wound at him and cursing him inwardly - Trollope and evil

Trollope’s Barchester novels have no villains.  They have some especially foolish fools, like Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope, but even these characters are presented with a certain amount of sympathy – start from their position, and take into account their pride, and maybe you would not behave so differently.   Certainly nobody is evil.  The same can be said for Orley Farm.

So Can You Forgive Her? is the first place I have encountered a Trollope villain, evil as Trollope sees it.  I mean something specific.  The novel has a character from whom Trollope withdraws his sympathy.

The bad man is George Vavasor, the cousin of the novel’s heroine, and one of the suitors in her love triangle, the fun and lively one.  The novel begins with her having jilted him once already, not because he is evil but because he is “George Vavasor, the Wild Man,” as the title of Chapter 4 tell me.

Incidentally, George is handsome but has a huge gash on his face, “a dark indented line down from his left eye to his lower jaw,” more dramatic than a mere scar.

On some occasions, when he was angry or disappointed, it was very hideous; for he would so contort his face that the scar would, as it were, stretch itself out, revealing all its horrors, and his countenance would become all scar.  “He looked at me like the devil himself--making the hole in his face gape at me,” the old squire had said…  (Ch. 4)

Somebody has been enjoying sensation novels.  “Vavasor looked at him angrily, opening his wound at him and cursing him inwardly,” (Ch. 60), ha ha, yuck!  Trollope is a half-hearted sensationalist, as he proved with the earlier Orley Farm, but he stole what he found useful.  One result is something almost as rare in Trollope as an unsympathetic character, a scene set in the past.  It is just a paragraph explaining how George received his scar as a boy, but it jolts:

when, in the dark, dressed only in his nightshirt, wholly unarmed, George Vavasor flew at the fellow's throat.  Two hours elapsed before the horror-stricken women of the house could bring men to the place.  George's face had then been ripped open from the eye downwards, with some chisel, or house-breaking instrument.  But the man was dead.  (Ch. 4)

The most ‘orrible thing I have found in Trollope, that is.

If George were merely evil, stained by that original killing, perhaps, it would ruin the heroine’s story.  Her choice between George and the stodgy fellow needs to be a legitimate problem, which is destroyed if George is simply a monster.  So Trollope has to show George’s devolution, which is interesting to watch.  The most curious feature is that George, who spends a good part of the novel attempting to be elected to Parliament, becomes morally worse the more successful he is.  This is psychologically acute.

It does mean that Trollope now has a Member of Parliament running around thinking about murdering people.  Here Trollope smooths away the difficulty:

The reader is not to suppose that the Member for the Chelsea Districts had, in truth, resolved to gratify his revenge by murder,--by murdering any of those persons whom he hated so vigorously.  He did not, himself, think it probable that he would become a murderer.  But he received some secret satisfaction in allowing his mind to dwell upon the subject, and in making those calculations.  (Ch. 60)

Yes, “probable.”  I suspect sarcasm.  And after George completely falls apart, Trollope does not treat him like a Dickens villain, the fairy tale creatures that are hit by a train or drown in the Thames, but rather like an ordinary bad man who does what many bad men did.  Trollope still has a little bit of sympathy to offer.


  1. Trollopian villains: what an interesting topic. Now I'm mentally puzzling over who else falls into this category of characters from whom Trollope withdraws his sympathy. I do remember that The Prime Minister zooms right in on the problem of remaining upright while succeeding in politics - he anticipates our currently endemic cynicism, I think, about that possibility. A political career means, at best, compromise; at worst, corruption.

  2. I was tempted to write about just that, but as with the fox hunting I thought I would read some more of the Palliser novels first. In Can You Forgive Her? politics is an inextricable mix of corruption and public service. Cynical and idealistic. A real insight, I think.

    I really marvel at Trollope's ability to sympathize, or at least pretend to sympathize, with everyone, at least a little bit.

  3. I hope you get to The Claverings soon. There's a very nasty character there (Ongar) and then the very strange Sophie. I read an article (somewhere) in which the question was asked: where did this character come from? In other words, a bit of an anomaly. She's hilarious though.

    Anyway you have a good point. Perhaps that's why I like Trollope so much--it's a world in which the evil people have been removed.

  4. Your description of those characters is itself reason enough to read The Claverings.