Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, June 18, 2010

revisiting Barsetshire (2)

The second major impression that strikes me, on this re-reading, is Trollope’s almost metafictional refusal to play some of the typical games of the novelist. A great example comes in Barchester Towers when we see our heroine, Eleanor Harding, pursued simultaneously by the feckless and improvident Bertie Stanhope and the scheming, oily Reverend Obadiah Slope. Trollope pauses in the midst of his narration and makes this rather surprising statement:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

He does the same thing in Doctor Thorne, when he introduces a digression on a minor character thusly: “Though, by so doing, we shall somewhat anticipate the end of our story, it may be desirable that the full tale of Mr Gazebee's loves should be told here. When Mary is breaking her heart on her death-bed in the last chapter, or otherwise accomplishing her destiny, we shall hardly find a fit opportunity of saying much about Mr Gazebee and his aristocratic bride.” Just a sly reminder that — of course — Trollope has no intention of allowing his beloved Mary Thorne to “break her heart on her death-bed.” Which is why I didn't introduce this post with the words “SPOILER ALERT.”

4 comments:

  • Once you have finished with Trollope, you might enjoy Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels. Not great literature, but she wrote about one a year from the early 1930s into the 1950s, so she covered a tumultuous period in real time. At worst the stories are charming, and if over the course of those decades she grew to love her characters a bit too much it is hard to blame her. Her world and theirs is crumbling. One delightful note: I don't believe Trollope is every mentioned--all of her characters are Dickens fans.

  • I read Trollope for lots of reasons, but perhaps most for his narrator's voice. He turns the "show, don't tell" mantra on its head by exploiting so many possibilities in omniscient POV, turning the reader into a sort of co-conspirator in observing the foibles of his characters. And his choice of when to pull back a character's surface and make some telling points about the character's internal life, separating the action that illustrates the character from his analysis, is part of his narrative bag of tricks.

    So as you pointed out in yesterday's Trollope thread, he waits till the end to give us that remarkable humanizing look at Mrs Proudie, which keeps from spoiling her "villain" status. But for other characters he may give a full exposition of "character traits and what that will produce at the end of the story" much earlier. Sometimes he tells us a key plot outcome at the moment the character is first introduced. Or suggests a character-outcome arc that foreshadows the entire action to come.

    What would seem to be a distancing technique actually pulls the reader in. It produces in the reader (or at least this one) a peculiar identification with the characters, even though superficially it would seem to do the reverse, as Trollope pins the psychology of the character like a butterfly in a collection.

    Anyhow, one of the things I love most in reading is opening a Trollope novel and settling into that voice, which I find both comforting and astringent, cozily intimate and also slightly arms-length.

  • So, my wife and I are in a multi-year program of Trollope-reading. I'm through the two big "series" and on to many of the one-offs.

    What you're describing here was shocking to me the first time I read him do this, but it's a technique that appears throughout his books. It's so post-modernist that I find it hilarious in Trollope of all people.

    I think the "arms-length" comment is very tricky. As far as I know, he's viewed (and I understand why) as a "light" novelist, but I think he is almost unequaled at getting inside the head of his characters (admittedly, all Victorian Britons and occasional "cousins" like Americans of a certain class) as he describes the subtle shadings of how they react, decide to speak or not speak (as he often puts it "without being conscious of why"), and so on. I've come to view these asides to the reader as being like sorbet between intense courses in a meal, or a cooling breeze in the hothouse of engagement inside the motivations of the characters.

    And, with respect to your last post, "Small House" kicks a**. I've always thought it would make the best movie of just about any Trollope novel (though it would be a total chick flick - that I would stand in line to see).

    Keep it coming,
    Jim Manzi

  • @Jim -- I should make my "arms-length" comment a bit clearer. Yes, his narrator voice switches in tone and in how "tight" he is inside the characters, drawing back periodically to comment, often wryly. And many of those times, his affection for his characters comes through. So at those points, I remain in the cozy embrace of his narrator's voice.

    However, one of his great strengths is the interplay of character traits with a biting politico-socio-economic critique, especially when seemingly minor character flaws produce dreadful results with the help of social structures. When he draws back to comment in those situations, the narrator's voice often pushes me out of the intimacy he otherwise creates.

    It works well for me -- it's how Trollope illustrates his social criticism so effectively -- but it's at those sorts of moments that I have the sense of being at arms' length from the characters and the proceedings.

    It's especially noticeable for me when it comes to his female characters, about which he can be judgmental to a fault. He writes some fabulous, complex female characters. But when he lets his Victorian prejudices (and I expect a bit of his personal sexual issues) show forth during his social-critique moments, the female characters can lose some of their individuality. Sometimes they descend almost into illustrative types.

    The strong or sexually provocative ones usually get put in their place plot-wise, and he takes time out to explain why their moral comeuppance is appropriate. For his idealized, virtuous types - who also often suffer like Job, but are usually victims of their own good intentions or virtues that allow others to victimize them - he instructs us as to how we're supposed to sympathize.

    Unfortunately, I tend to sympathize with the headstrong, sexually-aware ones, which are often wonderfully drawn, and find his virtuous heroines simps. And I wonder if in his heart-of-hearts he also preferred his strong females.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]