Sunday, September 25, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels

This post continues my survey of Trollope's novels begun in Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

The Palliser Novels

In order to read and enjoy the Chronicles of Barsetshire you need to know very little about English religion in the 19th century. As long as you're aware that there were tensions between the ritualistic High Church and the evangelical Low Church, you know enough.

The six Palliser novels, though, feature the complex interplay of Parliamentary politics over fifteen years, from the mid-1860s to the late 1870s. To fully enjoy these, it really does help to understand something of the political parties, personalities and issues of the day. So I recommend that you choose a reading edition that features extensive textual notes, such as Oxford's World Classics or Penguin. You'll find those notes to be helpful in giving you a context for the attitudes and actions of many of the characters.

Can You Forgive Her? (1864) features three women who each face two radically different choices in their potential husbands. Alice Vavasor wants to live a life of excitement and political significance, but as a woman she is prevented even from voting. She must choose between her mercurial and unscrupulous cousin George Vavasor, who wants to run for Parliament using her money, and the uninspiring but steadfast John Grey.

The second dilemma belongs to Alice's wealthy, widowed aunt Arabella Greenow, who is comically besieged by two bungling rivals: the vain, impecunious ex-soldier Captain Bellfield, and the vain, coarse farmer Mr. Cheesacre.

But the most compelling love triangle in Can You Forgive Her? centers on Lady Glencora Palliser, wife of the emotionally reticent politician Plantagenet Palliser. Before her marriage Lady Glencora loved the unworthy but alluring Burgo Fitzgerald; her family intervened, however, and arranged her marriage with Palliser. Her attraction to Burgo Fitzgerald has persisted even after her marriage, fed by the certainty that she and her husband are unsuited to one another. Fitzgerald makes plans to run off with Lady Glencora on the night of a gala party. As Lady Glencora dances in Burgo's arms she finds herself faced with making her final, fateful choice.

'I am not such a fool as to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress...But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Can You Forgive Her?, Ch. 47)

Glencora Palliser is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies.

Phineas Finn (1867) is a strikingly handsome young Irishman who has come to London to try to win a seat in Parliament. He is probably the fullest representation of a common type in Trollope: the young man of modest means who hopes to make both his fortune and his future by attracting the interest of the wealthy and powerful.

His own interest is particularly engaged in turn by three women of fortune: Lady Laura Standish, Violet Effingham, and the widowed Madame Max Goesler. Meanwhile, at home in Ireland he is betrothed to a simple country girl, Mary Flood Jones. Somehow we forgive Phineas his changeability, because he seems so fundamentally decent otherwise.

'I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine, but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing.'
'You want to be flattered without plain flattery.'
'Of course I do. A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can't show me that he thinks me so without saying a word about it, is a lout.' (Violet Effingham talking with Lady Laura, Phineas Finn, Ch. 22)

The Eustace Diamonds (1871): Before the aged Sir Florian Eustace died, he bestowed on his beautiful young wife Lizzie a magnificent and hugely valuable diamond necklace. Lizzie now claims that necklace as her own. Sir Florian's family, however, demands that the diamonds be returned to the Eustace estate, and has the weight of legal opinion on their side.

Lizzie, worried that agents of the Eustace family will try to obtain the necklace by means fair or foul, takes it with her whenever she travels. One night the strongbox in which it kept is stolen. Everyone assumes that the necklace is gone forever. Lizzie, though, had slept with it under her pillow, and now thinks that it will work to her advantage if everyone thinks that the diamonds were stolen. In fact, it just creates more complications—especially when the necklace really disappears...

The Eustace Diamonds has, perhaps, the cleverest plot that Trollope ever created. He was evidently inspired by his friend Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), published just a few years earlier. The Eustace Diamonds is also unusual in that its heroine is unsympathetic: a compulsively dishonest woman who married for money and who is a spectacularly poor judge of men.

When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself. And if this, the beginning of it, was so bad, how was she to drink the cup to the bitter dregs? Other girls, she knew, were fond of their lovers—some so fond of them that all moments of absence were moments, if not of pain, at any rate of regret. To her, as she stood there ready to tear herself because of the vileness of her own condition, it now seemed as though no such love as that were possible to her. For the sake of this man who was to be her husband, she hated all men. Was not everything around her base, and mean, and sordid?...How should she escape? And yet she knew that she meant to go on and bear it all. Perhaps by study and due practice she might become—as were some others—a beast of prey and nothing more. The feeling that had made these few minutes so inexpressibly loathsome to her might, perhaps, be driven from her heart. She washed the tears from her eyes with savage energy, and descended to her lover with a veil fastened closely under her hat. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting,' she said. (The Eustace Diamonds, Ch. 42)

Phineas Redux (1873) continues the story of Phineas Finn, and his relationships with Lady Laura, Violet Effingham, and Madame Goesler amid Parliamentary political struggles. The central incident of the novel is Phineas being put on trial for the murder of a hated political rival, a murder that he insists he did not commit.

'People go on quarrelling and fancying this and that, and thinking that the world is full of romance and poetry. When they get married they know better.'

'I hope the romance and poetry do not all vanish.'

'Romance and poetry are for the most part lies, Mr. Maule, and are
very apt to bring people into difficulty.' (Lady Glencora to Gerard Maule, Phineas Redux, Ch. 76)

The Prime Minister (1876): The reserved and apparently unemotional Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium, is called on to lead a coalition government when the two major parties fail to reach a compromise. While he struggles to lead the country, his wife interests herself in the political and romantic career of the young, handsome financial speculator Ferdinand Lopez—a career that soon entangles the Duke and Duchess in scandal.

He did doubt his ability to fill that place which it would now be his duty to occupy. He more than doubted. He told himself again and again that there was wanting to him a certain noble capacity for commanding support and homage from other men. With things and facts he could deal, but human beings had not opened themselves to him. (The Prime Minister, Ch. 7)

The Duke's Children (1879): The Duke's children are Mary, who to the Duke's distress has fallen in love with a penniless friend of her brother's; Lord Silverbridge, who to the Duke's distress is pursuing the beautiful American heiress Isabel Boncassen; and Gerald, who to the Duke's distress has been expelled from Cambridge.

'I do not think that ever in your life you have constrained yourself to the civility of a lie.'

'I hope not.'

'To be civil and false is often better than to be harsh and true. I may be soothed by the courtesy and yet not deceived by the lie.' (Lady Mabel Grex to Lord Silverbridge, The Duke's Children, Ch. 77)

The Palliser novels were adapted by BBC Television in 1974 as a 26-episode series. Unfortunately, the series is poorly cast (most of the actors are far too old for their roles) and the script makes various attempts to "improve" on its source, with dire results.

Next time: The Way We Live Now (1875), He Knew He Was Right (1869), and some overlooked Trollope novels.

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.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The new Bollywood romantic comedy

In the classic romantic comedy, love must surmount obstacles—romantic rivals, disapproving parents, class or caste differences, and the misunderstandings and misapprehensions of the lovers themselves—before the couple can be united for the happy ending. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for example, it is not only Darcy's stubborn pride and Elizabeth's hasty prejudice that must be overcome, but differences in social status (he is immensely wealthy while her family is beset by money difficulties), other potential matches (Darcy is intended by his aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh to marry her daughter Anne, while Elizabeth is wooed by both Wickham and Mr. Collins, and has a brief flirtation with Colonel Fitzwilliam), and social disgrace (the near-ruin that Lydia's elopement brings on the Bennet family).

So in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible? The evidence from three recent Bollywood movies only leaves a little room for optimism.

Tanu Weds ManuTanu Weds Manu (2011)

"Opposites attract" is a time-honored device in romantic comedy, dating back at least to Beatrice and Benedick's "kind of merry war" in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. There are too many Hollywood "opposites attract" movies to list, but some classic examples include Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934), Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). Latter-day versions include Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day (1993). I'm sure you can think of many more.

For an "opposites attract" movie to work, though, we need to have some feeling of hope for the couple, some sense that each of them is trying to bridge the differences that divide them. That's not a feeling I had while watching Tanu Weds Manu. NRI doctor Manu (Madhavan) returns to India to look for a bride and encounters the free-spirited Tanu (Kangna Ranaut), who has been forced to meet Manu against her will. There are some subtle signs that Tanu might not be the best choice for Manu, such as her revelation that her boyfriend's name is tattooed on her breast, or her plea for Manu's help so she can elope with that boyfriend, street-thug Raja (an effective Jimmy Shergill).

It's possible to understand why the quiet, dutiful Manu might be attracted to the vivacious Tanu: she embodies freedoms that he has never allowed himself. But Himanshu Sharma's script doesn't show us enough of what might attract Tanu to Manu, or give us any long-term hope for this couple. I found myself thinking "This is such a bad idea" throughout the final Tanu-Manu wedding scene—not exactly the note on which you want to end a romantic comedy. At least Krsna's Punjabi-inflected soundtrack is enjoyable.

AishaAisha (2010)

Aisha is based on Jane Austen's Emma (1815), and like that novel features a heroine who can't keep from meddling in the lives of everyone around her—usually to ill effect. But Emma's interventions are motivated by a spirit of generosity; while they are generally misguided, they are not mean-spirited.

That's not case with Aisha (Sonam Kapoor). In one particularly ugly incident, she tries to fix up her friends Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar) and Shefali (Amrita Puri) by taking them to an out-of-the-way restaurant. She drives off, and Randhir and Shefali discover that there's no restaurant: instead they've been left in front of a hotel at which a room has been booked in Randhir's name. After paying for the expensive room Randhir walks back to town with Shefali as she struggles in her unfamiliar high heels (are there no cabs or auto rickshaws around?).

So exactly why Arjun (Abhay Deol), the Mr. Knightley character, winds up professing his longtime passion for Aisha isn't really clear. It doesn't help that Aisha is played by Sonam Kapoor, who as an actress is pretty enough, but blank: her performance suggests that Aisha really is as shallow as she seems. By the end of the movie we've seen three couples united, and all of the romantic happy endings feel unearned. Why any of these folks wind up with each other rather than with someone else seems entirely arbitrary; and if it's arbitrary, why should we care?

Band Baaja BaaraatBand Baaja Baaraat (Bands, Horns, Revelry, 2010)

BBB almost gets it right, but (if you must rely on subtitles, as I do) has a serious misstep at the end—the most crucial moment in a romantic comedy, of course. Shruti (the appealing Anushka Sharma) goes into a wedding-planning partnership with Bittoo (the appealing Ranveer Singh). Shruti is all business, and she has a firm rule never to mix that business with pleasure.

But after "Shaadi Mubarak" successfully carries out their biggest wedding to date, Shruti and Bittoo's drunken celebration ends up with them in bed together. It's clear that the discovery of the unexpected depth of her feelings for Bittoo has unnerved Shruti; uncertain whether Bittoo returns those feelings, she hints to him the next morning that she only wants to be friends. His utter relief at her suggestion stabs her right in the heart.

Anushka's portrayal of Shruti's complex and contradictory emotions in these scenes is heartbreaking. In an earlier post on Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009) I wrote that "love overcoming obstacles is indeed a classic story line, but the obstacles have to be something other than the couple's willful disconnection from their own feelings." But now I'm not so sure: BBB makes that disconnection dramatically and emotionally compelling.

The two split up personally and professionally, and discover that—like Lennon and McCartney or Strummer and Jones—separately neither one is as good or as successful as they were together. When a client demands that they work together once again, they must come to terms with their true feelings for one another—only in the meantime Shruti has become engaged to a wealthy businessman.

So far, and in combination with Salim-Sulaiman's catchy soundtrack, so excellent. As a sample, watch Bittoo and Shruti get the party started in "Ainvayi Ainvayi"; I love Anushka's exasperated expressions:


Warning: If you're in any suspense about how BBB turns out you should stop reading here! Of course as he works with Shruti again Bittoo finally realizes that he has loved her all along. He takes her aside to confess his love for her—a key romantic-comedy moment. But as the subtitles render Bittoo's speech, it's all about why he wants to get back together with Shruti ("I have so much fun when I'm around you," etc.)—not why she should want to get back together with him.

For a lesson in how a romantic comedy confession scene should be handled, scriptwriter Habib Faisal should watch Ball of Fire (1941) ("I love him because he's the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn't know how to kiss, the jerk!") or When Harry Met Sally ("I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts...."). Bittoo's speech is all about himself, not Shruti. As I wrote in a comment on Beth Loves Bollywood's post on BBB, "I would hope a woman who had such ample evidence of how clueless and out of touch with his own emotions Bittoo is would want to hear something about how he's changed and grown."

In response to that comment, though, both Aparna and maxqnz offered thoughtful and passionate defenses of this scene. Subtitles, of course, often abridge or misrepresent what's being said onscreen, so it may be that I can't be a fair judge Bittoo's speech. As a prisoner of subtitles, though, I felt a bit let down. Still, BBB gives me at least a little hope that in an era when the obstacles to love are mainly self-created, there are still possibilities for romantic comedy.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi

Poster for La Traviata, London, 1864, from the East London Theatre Archive

Act II of Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata (1853) contains one of the greatest scenes in opera. It is a confrontation between the courtesan Violetta and the father of her lover Alfredo Germont. Alfredo's father has come to demand that Violetta break off her affair with his son: it is damaging not only Alfredo's own prospects and reputation, but those of Alfredo's sister. She is engaged to the son of a wealthy family who are disturbed by the rumors that are reaching them of Alfredo's involvement with Violetta.

At first the elder Germont is peremptory, and Violetta is defiant. But he soon realizes that she truly loves his son, and is touched in spite of himself. He then makes an emotional appeal to her on behalf of his daughter, and Violetta realizes that she must sacrifice her own happiness to protect that of her lover and his family. From mutual hostility, their conversation moves to understanding and then deep sympathy. At the end, the elder Germont understands how badly he has misjudged Violetta, and both are in tears.

Here is an excerpt of this scene taken from the 1994 Covent Garden production by Richard Eyre conducted by Sir Georg Solti, with Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta and Leo Nucci as Germont:


In Anthony Trollope's novel The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), the wealthy Archdeacon Grantly learns that his widower son Henry has proposed marriage to Grace Crawley, the daughter of an impoverished and disgraced local parson who is under suspicion for the theft of a check for twenty pounds. He goes to meet her in order to separate them forever:
'Of course you must understand, Miss Crawley, that I should not venture to speak to you on this subject unless I myself were very closely interested in it.' He had not yet said what was the subject, and it was not probable that Grace should give him any assistance by affecting to understand this without direct explanation from him. She sat quite motionless, and did not even aid him by showing by her altered colour that she understood his purpose. 'My son has told me,' said he, 'that he has professed an attachment for you, Miss Crawley.'

Then there was another pause, and Grace felt that she was compelled to say something. 'Major Grantly has been very good to me,' she said, and then she hated herself for having uttered words which were so tame and unwomanly in their spirit. Of course her lover's father would despise her for having so spoken. After all it did not much signify. If he would only despise her and go away, it would perhaps be for the best.

'I do not know about being good,' said the archdeacon. 'I think he is good. I think he means to be good.'

'I am sure he is good,' said Grace warmly.

'You know he has a daughter, Miss Crawley?'

'Oh, yes; I know Edith well.'

'Of course his first duty is to her. Is it not? and he owes much to his family. Do you not feel that?'

'Of course I feel it, sir.' The poor girl had always heard Dr Grantly spoken of as the archdeacon, but she did not in the least know what she ought to call him.

'Now, Miss Crawley, pray listen to me; I will speak to you very openly. I must speak to you openly, because it is my duty on my son's behalf—but I will endeavour to speak to you kindly also. Of yourself I have heard nothing but what is favourable, and there is no reason as yet why I should not respect and esteem you.' Grace told herself that she would do nothing which ought to forfeit his respect and esteem, but that she did not care two straws whether his respect and esteem were bestowed on her or not. She was striving after something very different from that. 'If my son were to marry you, he would greatly injure himself, and would very greatly injure his child.' Again he paused. He had told her to listen, and she was resolved that she would listen—unless he would say something which might make a word from her necessary at the moment. 'I do not know whether there does at present exist any engagement between you.'

'There is no engagement, sir.'

'I am glad of that—very glad of it....Now, Miss Crawley, of course I cannot wish to say a word that will hurt your feelings. But there are reasons—'

'I know,' said she, interrupting him. 'Papa is accused of stealing money. He did not steal it, but people think he did. And then we are so very poor.'

'You do understand me then—and I feel grateful; I do indeed.'

'I don't think our being poor ought to signify a bit,' said Grace. 'Papa is a gentleman, and a clergyman, and mamma is a lady.'

'But, my dear—'

'I know I ought not to be your son's wife as long as people think that papa stole the money. If he had stolen it, I ought never to be Major Grantly's wife—or anybody else's. I know that very well. And as for Edith—I would sooner die than do anything that would be bad to her.'

The archdeacon had now left the rug, and advanced till he was almost close to the chair on which Grace was sitting. 'My dear,' he said,' what you say does you very much honour—very much honour indeed.' Now that he was close to her, he could look into her eyes, and he could see the exact form of her features, and could understand—could not help understanding—the character of her countenance. It was a noble face, having in it nothing that was poor, nothing that was mean, nothing that was shapeless. It was a face that promised infinite beauty, with a promise that was on the very verge of fulfilment. There was a play about her mouth as she spoke and a curl in her nostrils as the eager words came from her, which almost made the selfish father give way. Why had they not told him that she was such a one as this?...

'What you say does you very much honour indeed,' said the archdeacon.

'I should not mind at all about being poor,' said Grace.

'No; no; no,' said the archdeacon.

'Poor as we are—and no clergyman, I think, was ever so poor—I should have done as your son asked me at once, if it had been only that—because I love 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.
—Chapter 57, "A Double Pledge"

The parallels between these two scenes are striking. I have looked for evidence that Trollope might have seen performances of La Traviata, and have found it. From late 1859 Trollope lived in Waltham Cross, a suburb of London, and London productions of La Traviata in 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 and 1866 are documented. The 1864 production at the Standard Theatre (see the playbill above) is advertised as using "Boosey's Edition," which had both an Italian and English text. The cast of that production is largely English except for one "Madame Tonenelier" (probably Tonnelier) as Violetta; and although the character names are not Anglicized, my suspicion is that on this occasion the opera was sung in English. The 1866 Italian-language production featured 24-year-old Aglaja Orgeni as Violetta. An anonymous reviewer in The Musical World of April 14, 1866 wrote that "She is young, has a graceful stage presence, abundance of feeling, and unmistakable intelligence. Then in her voice—especially the pure soprano tones, which are at once clear, resonant, and sweet—there is a freshness which of itself is an indefinable charm." [1]


Aglaja Orgeni in 1865, by Anselm Feuerbach

Even more suggestive is the chronology of the composition of The Last Chronicle. According to Mary Hamer, the discoverer of Trollope's working diary for this novel, it was begun on January 21, 1866, and finished on September 15, 34 weeks later. [2] Unfortunately I have not been able to track down a facsimile of the diary, but Trollope's writing habits were generally very regular. Extrapolating from these dates, Trollope would have reached Chapter 57 after about 23 weeks of writing, or in early July—after the spring performances of La Traviata.

There are a surprising number of references to opera in Trollope's work, suggesting a continuing awareness of and interest in opera on the writer's part. Characters in The Kellys and O'Kellys (1848), The Bertrams (1859), Framley Parsonage (1861), and The Last Chronicle itself attend and/or mention opera, as do characters in the later novels He Knew He was Right (1869) and The Eustace Diamonds (1873). A character in The Landleaguers (1883) is an opera singer.

Even if Trollope didn't personally attend the April performances of La Traviata, by the mid-1860s he was an established member of London's literary and artistic circles, and—shortly after the highly successful Covent Garden debut of Mlle. Orgeni—the opera would surely have been in his awareness.

Of course, we may never know definitively whether Trollope had seen performances of Verdi's work (or of Alexandre Dumas' play La dame aux camelias/Camille (1852), on which Francesco Maria Piave based the opera's libretto). But even though the evidence is circumstantial, I strongly suspect that the connection is real.

--

1. "Royal Italian Opera." The Musical World, April 14, 1866, p. 232.

2. Mary Hamer, "Working Diary for The Last Chronicle of Barset," Times Literary Supplement, December 24, 1971, p. 1606.