Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire

It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy....By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.

....This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year;...which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.
—Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, Ch. 15

This three hours of literary labor was accomplished before Trollope headed off to his full-time job at the Post Office. And since London is further north than Calgary, Canada, it must often have been pitch-dark when Trollope's servant brought his coffee (the servant, of course, having been awake a half-hour earlier to make it).

This work regime enabled Trollope to be incredibly productive. He wrote 47 novels, plus several volumes of short stories, a number of travel books, plays, sketches, essays and criticism, translations, and even a school textbook. In all he published something like five dozen books in his lifetime.

Beyond his work's sheer volume, which far exceeds that of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or Elizabeth Gaskell, another source of amazement is how good most of it is. Trollope had real insight into the emotional dilemmas of everyday life and the subtle power dynamics encoded in ordinary conversation. He often portrays characters who, faced with difficult choices, are hesitating and uncertain (the ones who lack doubt, such as Mrs. Proudie in the Barsetshire novels, are generally unpleasant). And the author is uncertain as well, making occasional direct asides to the reader about his imperfect knowledge of his own characters: "It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task—a novel in one volume..." (The Warden, Ch. 6) Trollope portrays his characters in the main with warmth and gentle humor, though he can also be unsparing.

I've spent the last year or so pleasurably immersed in Trollope's fictional world. What will follow over the next several posts is a brief survey of the novels I've read so far, which include most of his best-known works plus an unjustly neglected gem or two.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire

If you think that a series of six novels about rural English clergy sounds boring, think again. Trollope's Barsetshire novels are filled with power struggles, class dynamics, financial disasters, and impossible loves. Fierce emotions seethe under the placid surfaces of the proper Victorian characters.

The Warden (1855): A story about just how badly awry good intentions can go. A trust—originally created to feed, clothe and house a dozen elderly Barchester men selected from the ranks of the working poor—has over the years grown exponentially in value. It now provides a very substantial income to the warden who oversees the men's care, the kindly and generous Septimus Harding. When reformer John Bold begins to agitate for the men to receive a greater share of the money from the trust, it creates havoc—especially for the warden's daughter Eleanor, who is in love with John but is deeply loyal to her father.

The Warden introduced a number of situations and themes that Trollope revisited in his later novels: a young man trying to make his way in the world, a young woman trying to negotiate love's hazards, and the hard choices forced on those who try to act in accord with their sense of duty and justice. It also introduced the fictional cathedral town of Barchester and its surroundings, which Trollope would explore over another five substantial books.

...in matters of love men do not see clearly in their own affairs. They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts! Were it not for the kindness of their nature, that seeing the weakness of our courage they will occasionally descend from their impregnable fortresses, and themselves aid us in effecting their own defeat, too often would they escape unconquered if not unscathed, and free of body if not of heart. (The Warden, Ch. 7)

Barchester Towers (1857): Probably Trollope's best-known work, and for good reason. The novel features many of the characters introduced in The Warden, including Septimus Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and his son-in-law Archdeacon Grantly (who married Harding's first daughter Susan).

The novel has two main (and intertwined) plots. The first concerns the low-intensity war fought between Archdeacon Grantly and the Proudies, Barchester's new bishop and his domineering wife. The second plot relates to Eleanor; and if it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, then it is equally true that a single woman of good fortune will never be in want of suitors.

Eleanor has three: Mr. Slope, an unreliable ally of the Proudies; Bertie Stanhope, the indolent and indebted son of the pleasure-loving prebendary Dr. Stanhope; and Mr. Arabin, a fortyish Oxford scholar summoned to Barchester to aid Archdeacon Grantly in his battle to oppose the Proudies. Overseeing and directing much of the action is Signora Madeline Neroni (née Stanhope), who scandalizes everyone with her feminine wiles and frank talk, and who quickly perceives how the lines of both sacred and secular battles have been drawn.

All the characters come together on the day of Miss Thorne's garden party. The garden party at Ullathorne, and its preparation and aftermath, is a remarkable (and very funny) set-piece that spans several chapters and over a hundred pages. Over the course of the party the ecclesiastical enemies plot and scheme against (and bow stiffly towards) one another, while Eleanor encounters each of her suitors alone and, to her and their discomfort, together. Overtures are rebuffed, hopes are crushed, and faces are slapped before the day is over. Mr. Arabin to Eleanor:

'We have had a very pleasant party,' said he, using the same tone he would have used had he declared that the sun was shining very brightly, or the rain falling very fast.
'Very,' said Eleanor, who never in her life had passed a more unpleasant day. (Barchester Towers, Ch. 41)

Doctor Thorne (1858): probably the weakest novel in the Barsetshire series because of its dependence on a somewhat contrived and drawn-out inheritance plot that seems like it was taken from Charles Dickens' reject pile. Still, the novel introduces us to the lovely Mary Thorne and the delightful Miss Martha Dunstable, a woman in early middle age whose immense wealth (derived from a dubious patent remedy) enables her to say what she thinks and do what she pleases.

Mary is the illegitimate daughter of Dr. Thorne's rakish brother Henry and Mary Scatcherd, a young bonnet-maker, and has been raised by Dr. Thorne, who is the only one who knows her true parentage. She becomes a close companion to the daughters of the local squire, Mr. Gresham, and catches the eye of the squire's son Frank.

As so often in Trollope, though, debt, financial problems and issues of propriety loom over the characters and constrain their choices. Frank is under immense pressure to disembarrass the family estate by marrying a woman with money and social standing; Mary has neither.

Though Frank was only a boy, it behoved Mary to be something more than a girl. Frank might be allowed, without laying himself open to much just reproach, to throw all of what he believed to be his heart into a protestation of what he believed to be love; but Mary was in duty bound to be more thoughtful, more reticent, more aware of the facts of their position, more careful of her own feelings, and more careful also of his. (Doctor Thorne, Ch. 6)

Framley Parsonage (1860): Lord Lufton, the heir to Framley Court, has fallen in love with Lucy Robarts, the sister of local clergyman Mark Robarts. Not only is there a social gulf between Lord Lufton and Lucy, but Mark owes his position to the patronage of Lady Lufton, Lord Lufton's mother. Lucy also finds herself engulfed by a scandal involving her brother, who unwisely agreed to sign a large bill of debt for a notoriously insolvent neighbor, and is now unable to repay it. All of these factors make Lucy keenly aware that Lady Lufton will strongly disapprove of her as a potential daughter-in-law, and that her disapproval may have disastrous consequences for her brother and his family.

'Look here, Mark;' and she walked over to her brother, and put both her hands upon his arm. 'I do love Lord Lufton. I had no such meaning or thought when I first knew him. But I do love him—I love him dearly;—almost as well as Fanny loves you, I suppose. You may tell him so if you think proper—nay, you must tell him so, or he will not understand me. But tell him this, as coming from me: that I will never marry him, unless his mother asks me.'
'She will not do that, I fear,' said Mark, sorrowfully. (Framley Parsonage, Ch. 31)

Framely Parsonage also introduces us to the strict, prideful, and impoverished clergyman Josiah Crawley, his long-suffering wife Mary, and their daughter Grace, who will feature prominently in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

The Small House At Allington (1864) centers on Lily Dale, one of Trollope's most appealing heroines. She has all the steadfast, honest virtues of a Lucy Robarts or Eleanor Harding, but in addition has a sparkling, playful wit. Lily is loved, silently but profoundly, by the boyish Johnny Eames, who grew up with Lily and her sister Bell and is now seeking to make his way in the world. Johnny is crushed when he discovers that after a whirlwind courtship Lily has accepted the marriage proposal of Adolphus Crosbie. He's then enraged to discover that Crosbie has jilted Lily in order to marry Lady Alexandrina De Courcy, and vows both to take his revenge and to win Lily's heart.

Sunday though it was, she had fully enjoyed the last hour of daylight, reading that exquisite new novel which had just completed itself, amidst the jarring criticisms of the youth and age of the reading public.

'I am quite sure she was right in accepting him, Bell,' she said, putting down the book as the light was fading, and beginning to praise the story.

'It was a matter of course," said Bell. "It always is right in the novels. That's why I don't like them. They are too sweet.'

'That's why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you'd like to get.'

'If so, then, I'd go back to the old school, and have the heroine really a heroine, walking all the way up from Edinburgh to London, and falling among thieves; or else nursing a wounded hero, and describing the battle from the window. We've got tired of that; or else the people who write can't do it nowadays. But if we are to have real life, let it be real.'

'No, Bell, no,' said Lily. 'Real life sometimes is so painful.' Then her sister, in a moment, was down on the floor at her feet, kissing her hand and caressing her knees, and praying that the wound might be healed. (The Small House At Allington, Ch. 23)

Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) is the final novel in the Barsetshire series. It centers on the travails of the Reverend Josiah Crawley, who is accused of stealing a cheque for £20, and who, try as he might, cannot remember how it came into his hands. Crawley is a remarkable portrait: a largely unsympathetic character, he is still portrayed with an almost Tolstoyan richness and complexity.

Crawley is put on trial in both criminal and ecclesiastical courts, and his financial and legal struggles have a profound effect on everyone around him—especially his daughter Grace, who has received a declaration of love from Major Henry Grantly, the Archdeacon's widowed son. The Archdeacon finds out about his son's emotional entanglement with Grace, and—in a scene with echoes of the great Germont-Violetta confrontation in Verdi's La Traviata (see my earlier post)—goes to her to exact a pledge that she will separate herself from him:

'If you love him you will not wish to injure him.'

'I will not injure him. Sir, there is my promise.' And now as she spoke she rose from her chair, and standing close to the archdeacon, laid her hand very lightly on the sleeve of his coat. 'There is my promise. As long as people say that papa stole the money, I will never marry your son. There.'

The archdeacon was still looking down at her, and feeling the slight touch of her fingers, raised his arm a little as though to welcome the pressure. He looked into her eyes, which were turned eagerly towards his, and when doing so was quite sure that the promise would be kept. It would have been a sacrilege—he felt that it would have been a sacrilege—to doubt such a promise. He almost relented. His soft heart, which was never very well under his own control, gave way so far that he was nearly moved to tell her that, on his son's behalf, he acquitted her of the promise. What could any man's son do better than have such a woman for his wife? It would have been of no avail had he made her such offer. The pledge she had given had not been wrung from her by his influence, nor could his influence have availed aught with her towards the alteration of her purpose. It was not the archdeacon who had taught her that it would not be her duty to take disgrace into the house of the man she loved. As he looked down upon her face two tears formed themselves in his eyes, and gradually trickled down his old nose. 'My dear,' he said, 'if this cloud passes away from you, you shall come to us and be our daughter.' And thus he also pledged himself. There was a dash of generosity about the man, in spite of his selfishness, which always made him desirous of giving largely to those who gave largely to him. He would fain that his gifts should be bigger, if it were possible. He longed at this moment to tell her that the dirty cheque should go for nothing. He would have done it, I think, but that it was impossible for him to speak in her presence of that which moved her so greatly.

He had contrived that her hand should fall from his arm into his grasp, and now for a moment he held it. 'You are a good girl,' he said—'a dear, dear, good girl. When this cloud has passed away, you shall come to us and be our daughter.'

'But it will never pass away,' said Grace. (The Last Chronicle of Barset, Ch. 57)

In future posts I'll survey the Palliser novels, Trollope's other justly famous series, and some of his other novels.

Update 8 October 2011: The first two novels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire were adapted by BBC Television as The Barchester Chronicles (1982). The seven-episode series is superbly cast: especially fine are Donald Pleasance as the gentle Warden Harding, Alan Rickman as a sibilant and loathsomely snake-like Mr. Slope, Geraldine McEwan as the peremptory Mrs. Proudie, Clive Swift (later the hapless Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances) as the hapless Bishop Proudie, Susan Hampshire (miscast in The Pallisers but perfect here) as Signora Madeline Neroni, and Barbara Flynn (later of Wives and Daughters (1999), He Knew He Was Right (2004), and Cranford (2007)) as Mary Bold, while Nigel Hawthorne entertainingly chews the scenery as Archdeacon Grantly. The one minor bit of miscasting is Derek New as Mr. Arabin, who seems a bit too buttoned-up (especially when he's standing next to Nigel Hawthorne). Alan Plater's wonderful script is both dramatically compelling and a model of faithfulness to the source; perhaps the only disappointment is in the handling of the garden party scene in Episode 6, which doesn't quite express all of the emotional nuances and dark humor of the novel (the scene is only one of the most brilliant set-pieces in all of Trollope). Highly recommended.

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