Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 17, 2010

revisiting Barsetshire

It’s been ten years or more since I read Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, and I am returning to them now with great delight. I have now re-read the first four, and will probably move along to The Last Chronicle of Barset because of my particular dislike for Lily Dale, the masochistic heroine of The Small House at Allington. There’s no reason why I should force myself, you know.

A number of impressions strike me this time around, and I’ll just mention a couple of them — one today, one tomorrow.

Trollope is wonderful with characters who are bad but could have been good, or good but could have been bad. This is particularly evident in Framley Parsonage. One of my favorite Trollope characters is Lady Lufton, whose pride in her family and class could easily have turned her into a snobbish tyrant — were it not for the essential goodness of her heart, her deep desire to love and be loved. Conversely, after going to considerable trouble to portray Mr. Sowerby as a scoundrel, Trollope then pivots and goes to almost equal trouble to show us that he could have been something much better:

We know not what may be the nature of that eternal punishment to which those will be doomed who shall be judged to have been evil at the last; but methinks that no more terrible torment can be devised than the memory of self-imposed ruin. What wretchedness can exceed that of remembering from day to day that the race has been all run, and has been altogether lost; that the last chance has gone, and has gone in vain; that the end has come, and with it disgrace, contempt, and self-scorn — disgrace that never can be redeemed, contempt that never can be removed, and self-scorn that will eat into one's vitals for ever? Mr. Sowerby was now fifty; he had enjoyed his chances in life; and as he walked back, up South Audley Street, he could not but think of the uses he had made of them. He had fallen into the possession of a fine property on the attainment of his manhood; he had been endowed with more than average gifts of intellect; never-failing health had been given to him, and a vision fairly clear in discerning good from evil; and now to what a pass had he brought himself!

Somewhat later in the book, Sowerby is speaking to Mark Robarts, a man whom he has entangled in financial difficulties, and is moved to tears, real tears, by Robarts's plight. He would do something to help him if he could, but there's nothing he can do — he has compromised himself too thoroughly, is too deep in debt, is so utterly discredited that he's helpless. Moreover, Robarts doesn't believe in Sowerby's good will, which grieves Sowerby but does not surprise him.
And here's one more layer: Trollope also points out that, in the midst of his self-condemnation and his attempts to help his friends, if not himself, Sowerby still dresses elegantly, still pays for cabs rather than walking anywhere. Somehow, Trollope comments, such ruined men always manage to find ready cash for life's little luxuries, to which they are so accustomed that no real choice occurs to their minds. A cab in London isn't a luxury to Sowerby, it's just what one does.
Trollope is never given enough credit for the subtlety and complexity with which he renders such points.

3 comments:

  • Would the little luxuries that don't appear like choices today be starbucks or netflix or cable? I wonder.

  • Betsy Childs said...

    Yes, Lily Dale is a masochist, but if you skip The Small House at Allington, you will miss Adolphus Crosbie, one of those complexly misguided characters who Trollope paints with a fine brush.

    I consider Trollope's finest moment his humanizing of Mrs. Proudie in The Last Chronicle:

    In spite of all her roughness and temper, Mrs Proudie was in this like other women,—that she would fain have been loved had it been possible. She had always meant to serve him. She was conscious of that; conscious also in a way that, although she had been industrious, although she had been faithful, although she was clever, yet she had failed. At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife. And yet she had meant to be a pattern wife! She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided! She had sufficient insight to the minds and feelings of those around her to be aware of this. And now her husband had told her that her tyranny to him was so overbearing that he must throw up his great position, and retire to an obscurity that would be exceptionally disgraceful to them both, because he could no longer endure the public disgrace which her conduct brought upon him in his high place before the world! Her heart was too full for speech; and she left him, very quietly closing the door behind her.

  • David: that's an interesting question. From what I know about Victorian economics, I think closer analogies woud be insisting on designer suits and new BMWs. But I'm not sure.

    Hi Betsy! Interesting that you mention that powerful passage, because I have mixed feelings about it. I wonder whether Trollope waits too late to humanize Mrs. Proudie. "At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife" — that's something you would never guess from any of the earlier volumes (though she's only a major figure in Barchester Towers). I wonder if there should have been hints of this earlier. Of course, if he had done that she would have been a less terrible villain. . . .

    And you are right about Crosbie, which is why I'm glad I read The Small House once — but LIly will keep me from reading it again!

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