“Mellow Music”: Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw


My title comes from one of Walton’s epigraphs and also inspirations for Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH, specifically the famous bit about nature being “red in tooth and claw.” The premise of Walton’s novel, as she explains in her author’s note, is to see “what a world would be like … if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” Picking up on Tennyson’s line about “dragons of the prime” and a passing reference to dragons in Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Walton’s thought experiment recasts Trollopian characters as dragons, complete with scales, wings, treasure hoards, and (best of all) fancy hats. She sets them in motion in a Trollopian plot (close, I think, to the plot of Framley Parsonage, though it has been a long time since I read it, and Tooth and Claw is so much shorter that I assume a lot of Trollope’s subplots are tidied away), complete with contested wills, shifting social classes, unpleasant suitors, sweet love stories, and religious quibbling.

waltonThe result is delightful but (perhaps inevitably) also sort of silly. The incongruity of dragons behaving exactly like Trollope characters is sometimes hilarious and sometimes (for me at least) too much: references to their swirling eyes and burnished scales and “beds” of gold coins made it hard for me to engage with them as characters with the usual kinds of motives and feelings. But there’s also something slyly thought-provoking in Walton’s literalization of the inequalities and hang-ups of the period – or, probably more accurately, of the novels of the period. One clever aspect of Tooth and Claw, for example, is that the female dragons “pink up” when in love – though they may also, and this proves problematic, pink up when approached too closely even by a male they don’t love, and that can have serious consequences for their reputations. It is both appropriate and necessary for female dragons to react this way to their potential spouse – and once married they turn increasingly rosy, a sign of their sexual maturity. Any reader of Victorian novels is familiar with the novelists’ trick of having heroines blush as a delicate sign of sexual attraction or arousal, and also with the impossible trick these heroines are supposed to perform of never desiring except where and when it’s acceptable, staying ignorant and virtuous until the switch is flipped and they go from innocent girl to bride, wife, and mother (and thus, implicitly but by definition sexually active). Navigating this terrain is treacherous for both the heroines themselves and their authors; reconciling sexuality and propriety or principle is a key theme of 19th-century novelists from Austen to Hardy and Gissing. Walton’s spin on this doesn’t tell us anything about it that her Victorian predecessors haven’t explored already, but it’s still ingenious and amusing to follow.

clawAnother smart aspect of Tooth and Claw is its attention to the ways wealth is hoarded and shared (or not shared), so that the powerful elite not only maintain their status but expand it, while the weaker and more vulnerable compete (quite literally) for the scraps. When a dragon dies, for instance, its heirs eat it, their shares apportioned by custom and privilege. Eating a dragon makes the consuming dragon bigger and stronger: thus the laws of inheritance perpetuate inequality. Weakling members of families are also eaten, thus guaranteeing the greater size and strength of the survivors (hello, Darwin); servants who have outlived their usefulness are eaten – and so too, sometimes, are servants who disobey or betray the family they serve. Legal disputes can be settled by combat, with the loser getting eaten – which would certainly have had implications for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce! Again, it’s ingenious, a dynamic of competition and entitlement familiar to readers of Trollope but shown up as more ruthless than Trollope’s gentle satire typically acknowledges.

framleyI don’t think Tooth and Claw is more revealing or insightful, or more critical, about Victorian society than the actual Victorian novelists I know best, but Walton’s novel is a lot of fun to read: it is satisfying in the way that watching any highly original concept be executed well is satisfying. I found it thoroughly entertaining. Her dragons are fearsome but also pretty lovable; she finds a way to make “mellow music” with them. Unlike one of the reviewers quoted on the cover, I didn’t finish it “wishing it were twice as long,” but Framley Parsonage is twice as long and more, and Tooth and Claw did make me think it might be time to reread it.

P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

“The Doctor Drinks His Tea”: Taking a Time Out with Trollope

doctor-thorne-adaptation2When I visited my parents in Vancouver last May, one of the many nice things we did was watch the recent adaptation of Doctor Thorne. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Trollope (like Austen) adapts very well–much better, in my opinion, than Dickens or George Eliot, the brilliance of whose fiction lies so much in the narrator’s voice and in the other very written qualities of their novels that (for me) adaptations almost always seem inadequate.

It has been many years since I read Doctor Thorne: I think it was in 2002 or thereabouts that I read straight through both the complete Barsetshire series and all of the Palliser novels. What I remember most about that experience is how after a while you just accept the pace of Trollope’s fiction, and how complete and engrossing his world becomes–as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, it  seems “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.”

the-wardenThe very qualities that make Trollope such a pleasure to read, though, also make him a bit challenging to teach. The thing about people just “going about their daily business” is that often not much is really happening–there’s not much action, or at least not much dramatic action. To put it another way, the action and the drama in Trollope are often internal, and usually subtle: the characters puzzle through personal and moral problems in infinite shades of grey, rather than the more “glaring colours” of a writer like Dickens (that’s Trollope’s own characterization of Dickens’s method, from the parody of him as “Mr. Popular Sentiment” in The Warden). Given that Trollope’s novels are mostly also quite long, there’s a significant risk that students’ reaction will be boredom: pressed for time as they are, and unaccustomed to fiction that rolls out quite so slowly, they can struggle to find pleasure or interest in the process.

barchester-towersThat, at least, has been my experience with Barchester Towers, which I have tried in my standard 19th-century fiction class a couple of times. I’ve had somewhat better reactions to The Warden, which is delightful (if odd) and also short. He Knew He Was Right was a surprise hit in my undergraduate seminar on the ‘Woman Question,’ though I’ve never dared try to replicate that success; The Eustace Diamonds went just okay (as I recall) when I assigned it in a graduate seminar.

I bring up teaching because by and large I only reread 19th-century fiction these days for work. Much as I liked the Doctor Thorne adaptation, I didn’t rush back to that or any other Trollope novel. One reason is that my non-work reading is a zero sum game and when there are so many other novels (including other classic novels) I want to read for the first time, rereading seems (perhaps oddly) kind of wasteful. Another is that when I’m reading “just” for pleasure there’s always, in the back of my mind, the distracting hum of other things I need to get to, and so I too can get restless taking a leisurely stroll in Trollope’s world: I start looking around and lose the rhythm.

new-oxford-doctor-thorneIt was the longing to get away from just those humming distractions that sent me back to Doctor Thorne last week: not just my own to-do list, but the overwhelming clatter and clutter of the rest of the world. Especially on the news and on social media, what a constant clamor of catastrophes there is, big and small, near and far away, with everything from Can Lit to the CDC in crisis, all demanding attention, all generating takes and counter-takes in an unceasing cascade of anger, fear, and weaponized self-righteousness–much of it wholly justified, but all of it eventually exhausting. It’s all very well to advise simply “unplugging,” but even setting aside the obligation we might have to be informed citizens of both our personal and our political worlds, for me there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad–a lot of people and issues I don’t want to lose contact with or miss insight into.

What I needed was an alternative reality to visit for a while, a place where there’s room for nuance and indecision and confusion over competing and seemingly incompatible goods; where not knowing exactly what to do is a strength, not a weakness; where, above all, there’s time to spend thinking things through. Trollope’s Barsetshire is just such a place. Most of its people are decent, kind, and loving, but they’re often imperfect, as are their circumstances. There are villains in Barsetshire, but usually they aren’t so bad; even when they do irreparable harm, it’s more often out of flawed humanity than real malevolence.


There’s a chapter in Doctor Thorne called “The Doctor Drinks His Tea.” The chapter title alone epitomizes the small scale of Trollopian drama! But of course it’s not just about the doctor’s tea, though he does knock back a fair amount of it (six “jorums” by the end). It’s actually about his struggle to decide what to do about the possibility that his beloved niece will inherit a fortune. How could that be a bad thing? Well, for lots of reasons, from Doctor Thorne’s uneasy knowledge that the relevant will was made without knowing Mary’s true identity to his longstanding view “that of all the vile objects of a man’s ambition, wealth, wealth merely for its own sake, was the vilest.” But what about wealth for Mary’s sake? Would he be right to “fling away the golden chance which might accrue to his niece”? “After all,” he remarks to Mary, apropos (as far as she knows) of nothing in particular,

“money is a fine thing.”

“Very fine, when it is well come by,” she answered; “that is, without detriment to the heart or soul.”

Mary, it seems, is immune to the lure of “wealth merely for its own sake,” but what else might be the consequences of such an upset to her life, and their life together, the doctor can hardly imagine. And so for the moment he does nothing in particular, not because he doesn’t care but because he cares too much to risk doing the wrong thing. Virtue, in Trollope’s world, is a process as  much as a product; what makes Doctor Thorne the hero of his novel is less any specific action that he takes than his determination to act with integrity. Then there’s Mary herself–smart, proud, and loving–and Frank Gresham, who grows from being “an arrant puppy, and an egregious ass” (“but then, it must be remembered in his favour that he was only twenty-one”) into a resolute, principled man who not only loves her but deserves her. There is not a moment of doubt from the beginning to the end of the novel about how things will turn out–but that certainty makes the twists and turns of the journey all the more enjoyable.

I’ve been thinking since I finished rereading Doctor Thorne that right now the real world seems to be dominated by those “glaring” and surreal Dickensian colors–certainly by a glaringly Dickensian villain. I think that’s one reason it gets so exhausting. Of course, Dickens offers us salvation, too, or rather he reminds us that it lies within our own hearts (“Dear readers,” he concludes Hard Times, “it rests with you and me…”). Trollope’s world offers some welcome respite from the noise and the glare, but in his quiet way he makes the same point: the real world is what we make it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make it a little more like Barsetshire! In the meantime, at least we can take a time out there and come back soothed by its charm, moderation, and fundamental optimism.

This Week in My Classes: Contact Hours

One of my goals for this term was to increase the amount of direct contact between me and my students. One step towards that goal was my (re)introduction of seminar groups into my 3rd-year “lecture” class on the Victorian novel. It’s not a straight lecture class: hostile media reports to the contrary, I know no professors who literally only lecture, and in English, some degree of back-and-forth with the class is, I’m confident, 100% the norm in every class. English is not a fact-finding discipline at heart, after all: though we need to teach vocabulary, provide contexts, and model interpretation, the overall goal is students who can think and write their own way through the course material. My Victorian novels classes are probably pretty typical, in that sometimes I do hold forth for most of the 50 minute session, especially when introducing new material, but most often I gather ideas from the class and return them reorganized, or challenge them, or complicate them, or offer illustrative examples for them. The classes are capped at 40 and are usually full (this term, Barchester Towers seems to have scared a few away during the last bit of the add-drop period, and we are down to 34, which is an atypically small group). In a class that size you can get quite a bit of student involvement, but it’s still not possible to hear from everyone or to give everyone’s ideas a lot of sustained attention. And the more I talk specifically to a student, the more I find that student engages and learns. So I’ve broken them up into two groups, one meeting basically every Friday while the other had a dedicated reading hour (Friday afternoons–yes, I’m positive they will all use that hour to go to the library, definitely!).

We had our first small group session last Friday, and I was extremely encouraged about the plan: it went great! Although it was clear that many of them were not falling in love with Barchester Towers (the word ‘dry’ was used!!), the discussion was very lively and did not require a lot of intervention from me to keep it going. It was great to hear what they were thinking about and responding to, and to have a chance to steer them from observation to analysis in a more immediate way. Some students were particularly keen on the Stanhopes–one said that they had “saved” the novel for her by livening it up just as she was worrying that it would be all dull clergymen all the time (I’m paraphrasing loosely, but that seemed to be the gist of it). I am so fond of Mr Harding and the Archdeacon that I admit I hadn’t been focusing that intently on the Stanhopes (except the Signora, of course) but it’s quite right that they bring a degree of informality into the book, as well as a careless cosmopolitanism that does break up the intense provincialism of the other characters. That very looseness of theirs enables some key developments in the plot (for instance, it’s the Signora’s interference, improper as it is from some perspectives, that finally gets Eleanor and Arabin together), so that was a great place to take the discussion. The general topic I had settled on as the focus of the session was the women of Barchester Towers, as in the first lecture meetings our focus was primarily on the men and their ‘parties.’ Eleanor was not a great favorite! I guess she is rather dull at first. I hope by the time she boxes Mr Slope’s ears, they were giving her more credit.

So that’s one way I am changing things up. I’m doing something quite different in my Close Reading class that turns out to be another way of increasing direct contact, although that isn’t exactly how I’d thought of it–and that’s regular homework. We have tutorial groups already in Close Reading, as it is a skills-oriented course and supposed to include plenty of hands-on, collaborative, and consultative time. Because of that hands-on emphasis and my previous experience when reading assignments are light that students rather blow off class preparation (sure, you can breeze through a sonnet while waiting for the classroom to open and be ready to go, right? wrong! especially, though not exclusively, when it’s a Donne sonnet!)–because of those features of the class, and because for the first time I’m using an actual textbook that includes question sets and practice exercises, I thought it made sense to assign specific things to get done before each class, usually fairly simple questions that apply the current topic (say, meter and scansion, or figurative language, or poetic structure) to select texts. I actually called it ‘homework’ in the syllabus and have been feeling kind of self-conscious about that; I even acknowledged to the class that I know that terminology sounds a bit high schoolish. But I also stressed that all the homework does is make tangible what would be my expectation anyway, namely that they would actually work on the material before class, and practice applying what they have learned.

The thing is, I have graded four sets now, and to my surprise (I expected to find it tedious) I quite like the experience of it, precisely because it does put me in contact with the students so often and in such a non-threatening way (well, non-threatening to me, at least). The homework sets are not “worth” a lot each (2%), and as long as they are responsibly completed, I’m giving them full marks: it’s not about deducting points for scanning it wrong or calling something “anaphora” when it’s not. The point is I can see their work, see how they are doing, what they get and what they don’t, and give them prompt feedback. I can also see who’s doing the work and who’s not, and as the evidence about this accumulates, I’ll use it to nudge the slackers, because I bet there will be a strong correlation between doing the weekly work for the class and doing well in the class! It’s not like I haven’t given regular small assignments of one kind or another in a lot of classes. Often they are in the form of discussion questions and reading responses, or in-class writing starts, or reading journals (which is what these homework assignments will become when we have finished our time with the textbook). It’s just that these exercises feel very straightforward, both in their relationship to the course objectives and in terms of my interaction with them: they are about practising, for them, and about coaching, for me. I hope that getting that kind of personal feedback, even on such a small scale, will help them feel connected to me and to the work we are doing: as they see that I do go over their homework and use it to prompt them towards better work, I hope they won’t see it as “busywork” but as a meaningful, if minute, interaction between us.

We Are All Mr. Harding

Substitute, say, “education or technology” for “politics or religion,” and doesn’t this sound familiar?

“New men are carrying out new measures and are carting away the useless rubbish of past centuries!” What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era, an era in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at everything that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh — or else beware the cart. We must talk, think, and live up to the spirit of the times, and write up to it too, if that cacoethes be upon us, or else we are nought. New men and new measures, long credit and few scruples, great success or wonderful ruin, such are now the tastes of Englishmen who know how to live. Alas, alas! Under such circumstances Mr. Harding could not but feel that he was an Englishman who did not know how to live. This new doctrine of Mr. Slope and the rubbish cart, new at least at Barchester, sadly disturbed his equanimity.

That’s a little snippet from Chapter XIII of Barchester Towers. Poor Mr. Harding: he just wants to be left alone to enjoy his quiet life and be a generally good person. Is that too much to ask? And yet in true Trollopian fashion, the answer is not as easy as we’d like, as Mr. Harding himself is sadly aware:

Had he in truth so lived as to be now in his old age justly reckoned as rubbish fit only to be hidden away in some huge dust-hole? The school of men to whom he professes to belong, the Grantlys, the Gwynnes, and the old high set of Oxford divines, are afflicted with no such self-accusations as these which troubled Mr. Harding. They, as a rule, are as satisfied with the wisdom and propriety of their own conduct as can be any Mr. Slope, or any Dr. Proudie, with his own. But unfortunately for himself Mr. Harding had little of this self-reliance. When he heard himself designated as rubbish by the Slopes of the world, he had no other resource than to make inquiry within his own bosom as to the truth of the designation. Alas, alas! The evidence seemed generally to go against him.

Just because the old ways are comfortable does not mean they are right–and worse yet, just because Mr. Slope is the agent of change does not mean change is altogether wrong. If only! When Barchester Towers is not being extremely funny, it’s often being surprisingly wise. Sometimes it’s both at once.

This Week in My Classes: Poems and Prelates

And we’re underway! It’s still a bit chaotic (cue rant about Pet Peeve #47, the long class add-drop period, which sends students the message that they can join a 12-week course 2 weeks in and expect not to be behind) but most of the students seem to have made it back from the break (PP #53, why don’t they just come back for the first day of term?) and even if they haven’t, it seems reasonable to start acting as if they have, including holding them accountable for catching up to us. Though this makes me sound cranky, I’m actually feeling pretty perky today, mostly because I enjoy being back in the classroom and I’m pretty keen about the material we’re working on in both of my classes.

In Close Reading, we’re working through some basic elements of poetic analysis: last week, we talked about diction; today, I reviewed major types of figurative language; and Wednesday and Friday we’ll focus on scansion. In theory, this is review for most students, but in practice, especially since we have muddied diluted diversified our core curriculum and program requirements so much, there’s no guarantee they will have spent time on it. And if they have, there’s no guarantee, of course, that they will have retained, much less mastered, it. So I really do focus on the basics. The immediate goal is to grasp what the elements are–to be able to recognize and name them. But this in itself is not much of an objective, and especially because this is an upper-level course, I try hard to emphasize that the real goal is to be able to talk better about poetry, to be able to recognize what’s going on in a poem when we read it, to be as precise as we can about its effects. In the handout I prepared for them, I quoted this excerpt from a good book called Poetic Designs:

No one reads the rules for the game of … hockey for pleasure; yet no one can possibly understand the game without knowing the meaning of ‘icing the puck’ or ‘offside.’  Without this understanding, the game is a meaningless blur.  Only with it does the game begin to ‘make sense.’  But prosody, like the rules of hockey, is not simply a body of information that one learns and then ‘applies.’  The truly informed fan sees the offside happen before the whistle blows, experiences it in the stir of action.  In poetry as in sport, the observer’s eyes—and ears—must be educated to this same point of instinctive understanding.

Yes, I had some hope that the hockey analogy would appeal to a room full of Canadian 20-somethings! But the same principle applies to, say, quilting: if you know what the norms and standards and challenges are, you can appreciate “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when you see it, not just at an analytic level, but “in the stir of action.” If you don’t know much about it, you might like it just fine, and you might have a strong personal response to it, but you couldn’t appreciate it in the same way you could if you had that “instinctive understanding” that combines knowledge and excitement, insight and affect. One of our first readings was Frost’s “Design,” for instance. It’s a deceptively simple poem; it adds to my appreciation of its deceptive simplicity that I see how regular the first line is–that sing-song rhythm leads us along as if into a harmless nursery rhyme–and then find my poetic innocence betrayed by the irregularities that follow. I’m not a hard-core poetry expert, and I sometimes think that helps in this particular class: we’re not going after the most obscure or complex levels of analysis, just practicing how to develop and support our reading. We’re trying to understand how we know what we think we know about our readings, as well as why they have the effects and meanings they do.

In 19th-Century Fiction, today was our first day on Barchester Towers. I took pretty much the whole time myself, with some introductory framing comments about Trollope and his aesthetic, and then an explanation of the basic hierarchy and social significance of the Church of England in the mid-Victorian period. About Trollope, I noted the ways his rather literal novels resist ideas about what is literary, being neither difficult nor particularly poetic. He was never really the go-to novelist for the fancier kinds of literary theory, not yielding as well to symbolic, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive approaches. But he has proved amenable particularly to ethical criticism (as with Ruth ap Roberts’s nicely titled The Moral Trollope). I talked about his interest in institutions, not just the church in the Barsetshire novels but the law and government in the Palliser series, and about his exploration of the interaction between institutions–which have their own abstract logic and their larger missions and priorities–and the individuals who actually constitute those institutions. That’s the point at which some explanation of the Church of England becomes essential, from the general, such as the extent to which it is always already a political institution (not to mention a social and educational one), to the particular–such as what it means for the position of Warden to be ‘in the Bishop’s gift’ or why the impending change of government matters so much to the novel’s very opening question, who will be the new Bishop of Barchester? I always feel a bit bad when I talk so much, but then, it’s pretty hard to navigate intelligently in Barchester Towers without knowing something about these matters. Once you get the idea, you can be “in the stir of action” as you read it. Next time we will get into the novel itself, and into class discussion, starting (as you always must and should, in Trollope) with people: we’ll talk about Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Slope, and Mr Harding to start with, I think, sorting out what they stand for and what the larger implications are of the antagonisms among them.

I really hope that the students are finding Barchester Towers amusing. How could they not? There’s the brilliant comedy of Mrs Proudie’s reception, for instance, at which Signora Neroni’s sofa strips the Bishop’s haughtily arrogant wife of her finery, and there’s the constant entertainment of Trollope’s narrator, who really comes into his own here, after warming up so charmingly with The Warden: “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” Good heavens!

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!

Trollope at Open Letters

I wrote a little piece on ‘reading Anthony Trollope’ for Open Letters Monthly which has now gone ‘live’ in their October issue. Come check it out (the folks at the New Yorker’s Book Bench did and liked it!)–and while you’re over there, read around in the rest of the issue, which, as usual, is full of lively and interesting material.

Summer Trollope

If Adam Bede isn’t enough Victorian reading for you for one summer, the Trollope discussion group is nearly finished Orley Farm. Next up, beginning July 7, is The Small House at Allington. From the back of my Oxford edition: “The Small House at Allington introduces Trollope’s most charming heroine, the bewitching Lily Dale . . . She so endeared herself to readers of the Cornhill Magazine, where A Small House was first published in serial form, that Trollope was bombarded by letters begging him to marry her to her lifelong adorer Johnny Eames.” I read it once when, as a sabbatical project, I undertook to go through the whole of the Barsetshire series in order (great idea, by the way). I remember enjoying it a lot, and I just might see if I can fit it in along with Adam Bede

Recent Reading (and a little Recent Watching, too)

Despite He Knew He Was Right (currently on the table in my Victorian ‘Woman Question’ seminar), graduate admissions, and the ordinary middle-of-term business (incoming assignments, class preparation, committee meetings, and so on), I have been able to do a little ‘pleasure’ reading lately. Here are some ‘thumbnail’ responses.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. I find this series reliable: literate, well plotted, with its main characters well enough developed that the prospect of Dalziel’s demise had some poignancy. This particular novel did not blow me away, though (for those who have read it, sorry for the pun). Although I appreciate Hill’s attempt to engage with big issues and international conflicts as they register on a local scale, his Knights Templar seemed like foolish medieval joust re-enactors rather than a genuine force of menace worthy of their intended opposition. On the other hand, I wondered as I was reading whether that was Hill’s point: that secret societies, blood vengeance, beheadings, and so forth are relics of medieval concepts of justice, religion, and warfare–that the Islamicist movements the Knights imitate represent anachronistic, regressive forces that are incongruous with contemporary mores.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls. I expected more from this much-touted ‘crossover’ work by Booker-Prize winner John Banville. It is elegantly written, and some of the characters–especially his dour protagonist, the pathologist Quirke–are compellingly portrayed, but I didn’t find that was true of all of them (Rose and Josh Crawford, for instance, or even Phoebe, who seems to be supposed to carry a pretty heavy thematic burden). Quirke’s love for Sarah seemed based on nothing in particular (maybe I just miss fuller exposition?). The central ‘crime’ had few surprises for a novel set in 1950s Ireland (corruption in the Catholic church? unwanted babies? no kidding!). Atmospheric, I guess, but a thin atmosphere unless the people live in it intensely, and Banville’s spare style did not establish that kind of intensity for me. I suppose I would sum up the novel’s theme as ‘being orphaned’ (literally, but also emotionally and metaphysically). It did not bring home to me what the costs of such a condition are, maybe because on closer inspection pretty much all of the characters are in it together–which in itself is a potentially powerful (poignant, frightening) vision. I’ll probably re-read it, as I admit my immersion in baggy Victorian novels that tell me everything (sometimes over and over) does not always make me the best reader of novels that leave more out.

On Friday I rented The Jane Austen Book Club. I found the book OK, if a bit gimmicky, but I thought it would make a decent movie. It did, but also an odd one: I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it, for instance, who doesn’t know all six of Austen’s novels pretty well–well enough to take an interest in watching other people debate, say, Fanny Price’s character, or Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightly. Superficial as the movie’s book club discussions are (in fact, maybe because they are so superficial and rapid), non-Janeites seem likely to tune out, and then the plot that surrounds these scenes is itself not particularly rich. It’s striking that only rarely did the book club scenes turn on issues of construction or literary technique: they were pretty much all about the characters all the time, generally in the spirit of “these people seem real to us, so let’s debate their motives and choices.” I have almost no personal experience of book clubs, but my sense is that this is indeed typical. Of course, this is also precisely the kind of conversation I think most English professors eventually shut down in class. And yet working my way through He Knew He Was Right with my students, I have been finding that it seems like the most natural and appropriate approach, because Trollope’s most notable literary technique is precisely characterization, and his primary concern is what his characters do, with what motives, to what ends, and with what consequences. Also, as my students have pointed out, in many crucial cases he does not take sides, or if so, only equivocally, so that we are poised ourselves on the cusp of decisions or moral judgements and prompted to keep weighing the pros and cons of actions, the honesty, self-knowledge, or self-deceptions of his people, and so on. Who is right, Emily or Louis? Is Priscilla right to want Emily and Nora to leave the Clock House? Should Dorothy accept Mr Gibson? We spend so much time thinking about these questions with the characters that backing off into other kinds of interpretive questions sometimes seems like missing the point. In Middlemarch we know Dorothea’s first marriage is an awful mistake. We are pressed to understand it, even to sympathize with it, nonetheless, and we may perhaps acknowledge the beauty of such an error: there’s plenty of room for nuance and ambivalence. But somehow in that case a spirited discussion on the relative merits of Sir James and Mr Casaubon seems out of place, because clearly there are larger philosophical and historical and moral issues being brought into focus by Dorothea’s choice. In Trollope, the choices seem more literal, more ordinary, and no less important–perhaps even more so in a way, because you have no confidence that the wise narrator will resolve or even analyze the full significance of the options for you. As many of the characters keep discovering, you may have to rely on your own judgment.