Blogging the Victorians

It seems like I haven’t been writing about much Victorian literature recently (except for my teaching posts, and even there, last term I didn’t have nearly as much Victorian content as usual!). Happily for us all, though, there are other bloggers who have lots of good things to say about the good stuff. Recently, for instance, Amateur Reader, over at Wuthering Expectations, had all kinds of fun with Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I particularly enjoyed his very savvy (and admirably terse–how does he do that!) discussion of Trollope’s sly and self-referential sense of humor:

Trollope has two comic modes, which he alternates.  He creates a cast of characters, types and more-than-types, two-and-a-half dimensional, not quite real people – I mean in the way that imaginary people like Elizabeth Bennet and Don Quixote and Huck Finn are real people – but really extraordinarily well-made marionettes.  Then he deftly bashes them against each other in ever-varying combinations.  See Chapters 10 and 11 of Barchester Towers, “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception,” for Trollope Mode 1 at its best:

“The German professors are men of learning,” said Mr. Harding, “but —“

“German professors!” groaned out the chancellor, as though his nervous system had received a shock which nothing but a week of Oxford air could cure. (Ch. 11)

That quotation has nothing to do with my point, come to think of it.  Still, I think we have all felt just that shock.

The other comic mode is the comment on the action, Trollope-the-narrator having his fun.  I’m back in Chapter 37:

A man must be an idiot or else an angel who, after the age of forty, shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.

Trollope was, at the time of the publication of Barchester Towers, forty-two.  He’s not an idiot.  Perhaps he is claiming to be an angel.  Perhaps something else.

My favorite joke, which might not look like much:

[Mr. Slope] had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne’s champagne to have any inward misgivings.  He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything.  It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie. (Ch. 40)

Mr. Slope is a first-rate comic character; Mrs. Proudie, who we met above, surely among Trollope’s finest.  At this point in the novel, they are enemies.  Why does the narrator think it a pity that the bold and tipsy Slope does not meet the grim Mrs. Proudie?  Because the scene would be really funny.  Trollope would like to write it, has perhaps even imagined it.  But they cannot meet.  The plot calls.  Such a shame.  And what a classic comedian’s trick, the joke about the even funnier joke he’s not allowed to tell.

Read more here, and here. (Read the comments, too. AR also gets some of the best comments threads of any blog I read. I credit his diligence in participating in them, as well, of course, as the engaging qualities of his posts themselves.) I really must not let my sabbatical go by without reading more Trollope. On my very first sabbatical I read the entire Palliser series straight through. At the time it felt a little self-indulgent, but in retrospect it was an excellent use of my time!

There’s more Victorian goodness at Tales from the Reading Room, where litlove has managed to bring Mary Elizabeth Braddon and (wait for this) Slavoj Zizek into the same post. Didn’t see that coming, did you? She does it by way of the anxiety on display throughout Lady Audley’s Secret about action:

But no, this is the Victorian period, and so women acting is WRONG, and must be stopped. And yet, if you look a little more closely at the narrative, it’s possible to see that anxiety surrounds all forms of action. Robert Audley’s story, for instance, is no better in this respect. . . . By the end of the story, Robert has reconciled himself to a degree of action, and looks back at his original lethargy with distaste. But Lady Audley… ah I will not tell you what happens to her, but those who know the story already will recall how her relationship to action unfolds.

The emotional conflict that surrounds action is by no means purely a Victorian problem. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that the move to action is a fraught one because it involves leaving the comfort of our fantasies behind. After all, what do we do before we act, but think and dream and plan? When confined to our heads, we keep control over both our behaviour and its outcome, but stepping away from that reassuring fantasy and into the unpredictability of the real world often looks just too dangerous to attempt. . . . Žižek’s theories are not perfect, you can argue against them, but they do give pause for thought, and they do raise the question of why we feel so anxious about acting.

Perhaps we can trace our fear of action back to its manifestation here in Lady Audley’s Secret, where it is not secret at all but brought into the bright light of the narrative. . .

I have tended to begin my own analysis of Lady Audley’s Secrets from the Elaine Showalter line alluded to by one of litlove’s commenters: Showalter proclaims that Lady Audley is “not only sane, but representative.” But litlove is certainly right that the anxieties in the novel are not exclusively about Lady Audley.

Many of the posts from Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor are of Victorian interest, of course. Recently she has been “live-blogging” what sounds like a particularly deadly example of the Victorian religious fiction she reads (as she often says) so the rest of us don’t have to:

P. 42: “…we shall delight to hear your narrative, in which we hope you will tell us every particular.”  No.  Please no.

P. 44: Now, why is this novel, which seemed to be leading up to an attack on the Oxford Movement in the preface, actually set in 1788?

P. 48: “I find I have occupied your time longer than I at first intended, and I perceive also that I have but weakly expressed what was in my mind.”  The story of this novel’s life.  Luckily, the reader was distracted by the length of the letter: nearly five pages in print, which would make it how long in manuscript…? Our humble correspondent either wrote in really tiny print, or crossed, recrossed, and rerecrossed his letter.

P. 48: “I have many more interesting communications…” The innocent reader feels vaguely threatened by this announcement.

Complete, and completely gripping, details can be found here, here, and here. Oh, and also here:

P. 519: “Should the reader wish to hear of the Oxford Students, after leaving college, and to peruse the chequered events of their riper years, when they became settled and married, and the fathers of families, and vicars and rectors, they must call for the Second Series of ‘Truth without Fiction;’ or, ‘The Oxonians after leaving College.'”  Ha-ha! Good one, there!

…You mean you’re serious? Oh, my.

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5 Responses to Blogging the Victorians

  1. Why, thanks so much. As for terse, though – you put up a generous excerpt like that and I start looking for the red pen. Or the scissors. Or the dynamite.

    But, you’re exactly right, the Trollope novel and those posts were great fun to work on. “German professors!” – that still makes me laugh.

    Spot on about the comments, too. My readers have kept me on my toes lately. I sometimes wonder if my hands-on responses keep people from commenting, people who are not so interested in an argument. Not so much, I guess. Good, good, good.

    Prof. Burstein’s mini-series was riveting.

  2. litlove says:

    I agree that amateur reader is admirably concise! This is a trick I have never learned…. I am suddenly into Victorians in a way I have never been in my life before. Oliphant’s up next, I do believe, although I am also going to read The Mill on the Floss, Rohan, following your suggestion.

  3. Rohan says:

    AR, I think hands-on responses to comments are unlikely to scare people away unless they are combative and defensive–which your responses never are. And speaking of concision, I think my own tendency to write very long posts inhibits comments to some extent because the posts seem more finished than they might actually be in my head–I may sound as if I’m done with a book, whereas you raise questions and provoke people to make connections. In any case, I think it’s a sign of respect to engage with people who take the trouble to comment (litlove always does this too!). It annoys me that writers who blog for ‘big’ sites (say, the NY Times) never bother–though I appreciate that it’s a big job to trawl through the hundreds of comments someone like Stanley Fish gets and actually say something back, in my mind that’s part of what makes writing a blog something different from writing a column.

    Litlove, I may be wrong, but I think you are going to find Mill on the Floss enthralling. Frustrating, ultimately, but enthralling.

  4. It’s not just columns, but “big” blogs, too. What kind of response does a comment at the New Yorker‘s Book Bench get, or the LA Times book blog? Nothing, as far as I can tell, although I might well have missed old posts with lots of interaction.

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I think you’re right about the Book Bench, at least: I can’t remember ever seeing a comment thread break out. Maybe we should see if we can stir things up over there!

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