Jane Gardam, Old Filth

I enjoyed Old Filth a lot. It has everything I like in a novel: thoughtful, often elegant prose, artful (but not gimmicky) construction that allows the gradual unfolding of plot and character, heartfelt emotion conveyed without sentiment, a story that ranges across time and place. It does all the right things, and does them well–and yet now, thinking back over the book, I’m uneasy by just how ‘right’ it felt. Is it possible that the novel made it too easy for me to like it? Deft, pointed, dry as it is, is it also, in a way, formulaic? Not as a mystery novel or a romance is formulaic, but in a specifically literary fiction way, and a very British literary fiction way too? The evocation of Britain’s fading imperial past, the old judge with his upright bearing like a last symbolic remnant of its problematic dignity, the indifference of his young associates to the complexities of his personal history, the staunch wife with her own, never fully specified side of the story (she gets her own novel, later), the eccentric family, London during the wars: how much of this is really very new or different? Perhaps I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand too recently (and Old Filth is the earlier novel), but even the shades of Kipling seem, in retrospect, a little too easy, a little too familiar. Of course I liked it: it was practically custom-made for readers like me. Not (as the saying goes) that there’s anything wrong with that…but somehow realizing how nicely the novel fits into a certain niche thins it out for me, in retrospect.

Yet I did like it; I admired it, even. The writing is persistently satisfying. Gardam finds and places details so that they surprise our attention; her people, especially Old Filth himself, are made admirably distinct through deft touches rather than extensive exposition. Old Filth–properly Sir Edward Feathers–is a wonderful mix of acerbic intelligence and suppressed humanity; the early episode with his old rival Veneering is deliciously comic. The cuts between time frames are occasionally disorienting, but the gradual accumulation of knowledge about his difficult past adds poignancy to the story of his old age, poignancy that is deliberately enhanced (a little too deliberately?) by the sniffing carelessness of the current Benchers. ‘Pretty easy life,’ they mutter, looking at him as he seems to doze after lunch in the Inner Temple; ‘Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.’ The novel is built on the dramatic irony thus introduced, as we come to know the inadequacy of this summation. ‘Nothing’ is not the sum of anyone’s experience, and yet how easy it is for them to underestimate him. The novel eloquently substitutes, for that casual ‘nothing,’ a complicated blend of suffering and happiness, work, sickness, friendship, passion, violence and humor. It ranges widely; it is engaging, often amusing, often moving. The only false note in it, I thought, was the melodramatic story of Filth’s abusive foster mother and its traumatic outcome: this is used to provide a unifying thread for other aspects of the plot as well as to develop the central problem of his emotional detachment (“You became no good at love,” his cousin tells him). Again, this is all artfully handled, but it didn’t seem necessary to me to give him such a past. It’s a concession to the idea–rejected so beautifully by the novel in its other aspects–that ordinary life is “nothing.”

Trollope Time!

Not here at Novel Readings, unfortunately–indeed, I’ve been a pretty poor source of Victorian material lately. But two of my favourite bloggers have recent Trollope posts well worth reading–and every much in their own distinctive styles, which makes it particularly fun to juxtapose them. At stevereads, it’s The Duke’s Children:

when the first chapters of The Duke’s Children began appearing in 1879, readers were thunderstruck:

No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died … It was not only that his heart was torn to pieces, but that he did not know how to look out into the world. It was as though a man should be suddenly called upon to live without hands or even arms. He was helpless, and knew himself to be helpless.

The Duchess … dead? It seemed inconceivable, and Trollope is entirely right to shock us so (in the realm of television much later, after “All in the Family” had ended, an oddly similar shock was delivered to viewing audiences when the show’s sequel, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” featured the funeral of Archie’s ‘dingbat’ wife Edith – as one stunned critic aptly put it, “Oh Edith, how could you up and die on us?”). The main action of the first half of The Duke’s Children, at least for those in the Duke’s personal orbit, is one of shocked spasm at the sudden vacuum where once so much life had been. The Duke is all but destroyed by the loss, as Trollope writes with exceptional sensitivity:

In spite of all her faults her name was so holy to him that it had never once passed his lips since her death, except in low whispers to himself, – low whispers made in the perfect, double-guarded seclusion of his own chamber. ‘Cora, Cora’ he had murmured, so that the sense of the sound and not the sound itself had come to him from his own lips.

And his troubles are only beginning. His eldest son and heir, Lord Silverbridge (at one point Trollope drolly remarks that everybody had been calling the young oaf ‘Silverbridge’ so long they’d almost forgotten his actual name), in addition to racking up astronomical racing debts, has also fallen under the amorous sway of Isabel Boncasson, a high-spirted and wealthy young American heiress. His younger son Gerald is in trouble with his school. And his daughter Mary is in love with a nearly penniless young man named Frank Tregear – and had been encouraged in the match by her mother before her death, much to the Duke’s confused mortification (readers of the earlier Palliser novels noted that the family appeared to have mislaid a daughter, since a second girl is mentioned in The Prime Minister; I have my theories as to what became of her). The workings of the novel center on these inroads being blasted into the Duke’s privileged world – he fights both encroachments with a desperate, incremental determination.Trollope’s audience can’t for an instant entertain any serious doubt as to how either plot will eventually resolve – times are changing, after all, and it would be merely perverse for a novelist like Trollope to stand in their way.

And at Wuthering Expectations, it’s a series (here, here, and here) on The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger, better known as Doctor Thorne:

There’s also a romantic plot – will Frank be able to wed Mary?  The latter is the novel’s heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone” (Ch. 2).  Frank would be the hero:

had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may so regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.

Trollope was forty-three, so judge “too old” accordingly.  I remind the reader that we are still in Chapter 1, on page 7 of 569 in my orange Penguin, where we have been told how the “story” “ends.”  Tony, of Tony’s Reading List reminds me that “Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur.”  Why does Trollope do that?

Perhaps Trollope is incompetent.  Such is his own claim at the beginning of Chapter 2:

It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.  I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy…  This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill.  Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling–that, indeed, is very doubtful.

He is as bad as Thackeray or Fielding, isn’t he, a terrible liar.  I, as a reader, should be insulted.  As a quite different reader – instead, I am openly laughing at Trollope’s mockery of simple story-telling.

I’ve had a few things to say about Trollope over the years myself, and of course these posts make me feel it has been too long since I read him (especially the Palliser series, which I last read fully a decade ago).

Update: There’s more at Wuthering Expectations, here and here…and the promise (or is it a threat)? of a “ten part series on Orley Farm” in which “at least three of the posts will be on the fictional treatment and metaphorical meaning of 19th century manuring techniques.” I think he’s kidding. Actually, I’m not sure–and I don’t think I want him to be!