(originally posted June 15, 2007)
Since writing this post I haven’t read any more Joanna Trollope, but I have read Anne Tyler’s Digging to America and basically enjoyed it–though not as much as some of my old favourites. And I have continued to worry about the problem of reconciling duty to self with duty to others, certainly one of the central difficulties of George Eliot’s novels. (Is this a particularly female theme, I wonder?)
When I decided to take a break from more “serious” reading with Joanna Trollope‘s A Village Affair, I wasn’t really expecting the novel to reach towards the serious itself. I had read it before, but what I had retained was admiration for the clarity with which Trollope gives us the people she has devised: many (though not all) of her novels that I have read have struck me as achieving an enviable quality in their characters: they are enormously specific and individual and often intensely, even poignantly, believable. Here, Alice’s father-in-law, Richard, seems especially well conceived. Everything he says communicates to us who he is and how he has lived, particularly in his marriage to a woman he persists in loving but who cannot, in her turn, recognize in him someone as complex and fully human as she is. He lives this hampered life in full knowledge of its limits, neither tragic nor stoic. Alice’s discontent is the stuff of cliches; her affair seems contrived (by the author) to break up the seemingly calm surface, the routines and compromises of daily life. In fact, this is how Trollope’s plots generally work: the ordinary people, the change or revelation, the repercussions. For me, it’s the repercussions she does really well. Having set up her experiment in life, she works out plausibly how it will play out, and she does not sentimentalize–as, in this case, Alice’s “coming alive” through a new and different experience of love creates more problems than it solves.
In this case, as in another of her novels that I think is very smart, Marrying the Mistress, Trollope sets her characters up to confront what is a central dilemma in many 19th-century novels as well, namely how to resolve the conflict between, or how to decide between, duty to self and duty to others. That she is aware of her predecessors in this investigation is indicated by the quotation from Adam Bede recited (OK, improbably) by one of the characters in A Village Affair. As that quotation forcefully indicates, George Eliot placed a high value on renunciation and on accepting (as gracefully as possible) the burden of duty: resignation to less than you want, or less than you can imagine, is a constant refrain, and this with no promise of rapturous happiness. Hence the melancholic tinge at the end of Romola, for instance, or Daniel Deronda, or, for all its lightning flashes of romantic fulfilment, Middlemarch. (Of course, famously, it is her heroines who must resign or, like Maggie Tulliver, die.)
Although much has changed socially and politically since George Eliot found it unrealistic to give Romola, Maggie, or Dorothea uncompromised happy endings, the struggle between what we want for ourselves and what is expected or demanded of us by others continues to be a staple of fiction. Though Trollope’s scenario is much more contemporary, she too accepts that one’s individual desire cannot (or not easily, or not ethically) be one’s guiding principle, because of the “visible and invisible relations beyond any of which our present or prospective self is the centre” (Adam Bede). So Trollope, with admirable restraint, refuses a fairy tale ending for her protagonist, though, with a different kind of insistence that perhaps George Eliot would respect, she also pushes her out of the unsatisfactory life that was her reality before, and into what, given this context, seems like a narrative limbo, or a waiting room. This is not to say that Alice’s single life is an incomplete one, but she herself acknowledges that it is not, in fact, what she really wanted–only what she was capable of achieving.
I think this novel makes an interesting comparison to another quiet novel about a woman reconsidering her life, Anne Tyler‘s Ladder of Years, which I have always admired. But Tyler, though far from offering simplistic fairy tales, offers her own version of the resignation narrative. In Ladder of Years, as in Back When We Were Grownups, it proves mistaken for the heroine to try to start a new life, however much she is, or believes she is, following the promptings of her innermost self. Again, the “visible and invisible relations” exert a powerful pressure, like the entangling webs of family and society in Middlemarch but perceived, overall, as more kindly, less petty and destructive. The plain litte room Delia takes and uses as a staging ground to reinvent her life is a room of her own, but her story is not rightly understood as being just about her own life (“was she alone,” Dorothea asks herself). In these novels Tyler’s women learn to appreciate the value of what they tried to leave, to see their own identities as having become inseparable from those of the others whose demands and complications hamper their desires. The vision seems starker in Trollope’s novel (“Aga saga” though it certainly is).