Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On Reading Trollope

If you know me well, you know I love to read Anthony Trollope. Some readers of 19th century novels love Dickens. I do not. Some adore Austen. I've enjoyed her books. But I'm a Trollope woman through and through.
I began re-reading some Trollope books this year. I've read both his Barchester and Palliser series, and I prefer the former, perhaps because I enjoy satire directed toward the ecclesiastical culture even more than that directed at the political sphere. I own only two Barchester novels:  Barchester Towers and Framley Parsonage.

As I began Framley Parsonage again, it was not long before I found myself filled with a downright loathing, a thorough revulsion in the throat, at encountering one of its story lines. This is the tale of Rev. Mark Robarts and his financial follies. I'm not joking when I say that for several days, I had difficulty picking up the book to read what would occur next.  When I first read the book, of course, I couldn't know what horrible weakness, what despicable betrayal of his wife, what embarrassments and stupidities, Rev. Robarts would display. Trollope, in his masterly characterization, gave me a character whose story I could barely tolerate reading, it brought such pain. I didn't want to do it again.

Here is Rev. Robarts, with his loving and forgiving wife Fanny. Their belongings are being carted away by his creditors. His humiliation is complete.
And I realized the sheer power of Trollope's pen. It wasn't Robarts himself that offended me -- he was perfect, believable, real. His mistakes could easily be anyone's. He tried to help a friend, and in the weakness of trying to impress other men, lent his name to a bill of debt. But the slow, grueling decline of the man, as the debt grew and buried him, his denial and false hopes, his self-assurances that he need not tell his wife quite yet -- these make for agonizing reading. You see, Trollope carefully knits his characters and their plots together in such a way that one is never left thinking it impossible (as one is with Dickens). And the reality of the story is its terror. I identify with Fanny Robarts.  What if a husband did such a thing? 

Anyway, I started to skip the chapters about Robarts's financial distresses.  I had better things to delve into:  romance!!  Here we see Lord Lufton, at the doorway, bidding adieu to Lucy Robarts (Mark's little sister).  They love each other.  His love is still waffling and superficial.  Hers is deep and passionate.  One force opposes the match: his mother, Lady Lufton. Lord Lufton proposes to Lucy early in the novel, primarily because he knows his mother opposes it, and although he loves her, he does not want to be her slave.  Lucy declines him, however, even stating that she can never love him!  She will not accept him, because she knows Lady Lufton disapproves, and she will not lower herself (viewed as "too low" by the ma-in-law) to marry him, until Lady Lufton will admit that she is the best possible candidate.  What a tangled web!  All three persons are noble and good, with noble, good intentions.  There are no villains here. All have some degree of pride -- a reasonable, realistic degree of it -- and yet all three of their prides together is just enough to prevent a match, and lead to great foolishness and delay.
Next, I'm going to re-read The Last Chronicle of Barset.  From reading the whole series a number of years ago, I recall this one as my favorite.  It is a more serious tome than Barchester Towers.  At its center is Rev. Crawley, an exceedingly poor parson with a needy family and a sick wife. He is brilliant, overlooked, rigid, pious, sour, depressed. Life has treated him harshly, but he will not bend. He accepts no charity. He courts no man's favor.  You know the type.
Crawley is falsely accused of stealing and cashing a 10 pound check.  For the entire -- entire! -- novel, we are led down a long, sad, detailed, and ultimately gratifying road toward his vindication.  But what is vindication to such a man? Will he crow in the street?  Throw a party?  No, he will only return to his wobbly desk, write his next sermon, and go on with his poor life.

But Trollope loves his characters (he truly does) too much to leave them to their own weaknesses fully. He rescues the good ones in the end, and gives them dessert after all their beans.  And the bad ones?  I once read that Trollope was in his club one day, and passed two men talking. They talked about his books, and his characters.  He listened intently.  One man said how he fully despised Mrs. Proudie (the wife of the bishop of Barchester cathedral).  What a horrid woman! "Why does he keep such a character in his books?"  the man asked (or something to that effect).  The next day, taking his reader's advice to heart, Trollope went to writing, and killed her off. I know this is true because I've read the passage myself.

So, Rev. Crawley is soothed in his hard little soul, and I think visits the deanery for a party before the last page.
What kind of writer can craft plots that are so memorably painful you avoid them like a sharp knife?
What kind of writer can mold characters so complicated and real you think, "I've been there"?
What kind of writer talks to you himself throughout the story, encouraging you along with humor?
Trollope does.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for linking! This makes me want to get Trollope out again.


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