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…
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.
We wrapped up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. I enjoy going over the details of the text to demonstrate just how ingeniously Christie (by way of her narrator, of course) uses language to play the game in it, stating the truth but keeping, as Poirot points out, ‘becomingly reticent’ about Sheppard’s precise role in events. Of its kind, Ackroyd is no doubt close to perfect. If in the end I judge it an inferior book, which I do, that judgment rests on my sense that its kind is inferior: clever, amusing, entertaining, but also superficial, trivial–worst, trivializing, including of its central subject, murder. These are hardly new criticisms; they are made derisively and at length of the genre overall by Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” and more constructively by Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I think Chandler is right that the degree of realism introduced into mystery fiction by, for instance, Dashiell Hammett (and there already, though Chandler does not say as much, in earlier examples such as The Moonstone) is necessary to make the genre substantially meaningful as well as literary. The scene in which various members of Ackroyd’s household carry on a perfectly cool and collected conversation in the presence of his corpse, complete with dagger sticking out of his neck, is entirely ludicrous and morally objectionable except that emotional detachment (by both characters and readers) is a prerequisite of this type of detective story. Harmless enough for diversion, I suppose, but perhaps Carlyle’s comments on Scott’s achievement have some application here:
But after all, in the loudest blaring and trumpeting of popularity, it is ever to be held in mind, as a truth remaining true forever, that Literature has other aims than that of harmlessly amusing indolent languid men: or if Literature have them not, then Literature is a very poor affair; and something else must have them, and must accomplish them, with thanks or without thanks; the thankful or thankless world were not long a world otherwise!
Once we admit that literature (including mystery fiction) can be much more than a harmless amusement, I think the ‘cozy’ necessarily sinks to a low rung on the merit ladder. Mind you, I have related reservations about hard-boiled fiction, with what one critic has called its ‘poetics of violence’; that’s where we’re headed next this week, with one of Hammett’s “Continental Op” stories and Chandler’s “No Crime in the Mountains.” It’s P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (of the novels on our reading list) that really takes up the ethical challenge of literary treatments of detection where the Victorians left off, in my opinion, and that’s no surprise given that James points to Trollope and George Eliot as her influences rather than her predecessors in detection. More on that when the time comes!
In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we’ve had our first session on He Knew He Was Right and I’m feeling good so far about the synergy between it and our previous novels. The thematic and plot links are obvious, but the structure of Trollope’s multiplot monster is also of interest; like its other loose baggy cousins, HKHWR works as a kind of theme and variations, so the juxtaposition of the various stories, especially those of unmarried women in different contexts confronting their options, or their lack of options, cumulatively creates a rich sense of the complexities of social and political life for women. While Helen’s disastrous marriage to Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall comes to seem exemplary, if in an extreme way, of the novel’s whole concept of the relations between the sexes, here every case has its clear individual features even as the laws and rules of propriety are fairly fixed structures within which everyone has to find a way forward. My students were also intrigued at, and pleased by, what they felt was his complex presentation of the male characters, particularly Louis but also Colonel Osborne. No simple polarization of right and wrong here–and so we were able also to give some time to critical views of Trollope as a practitioner of a form of ‘virtue ethics,’ developing morality through practice and particulars, rather than precepts and prescriptions. I took the unusual step (for me) of leading off also with a clip from the BBC adaptation. My thinking was that it’s a very long book that relies heavily on our forming relationships with the characters: Trollope writes about people more than themes, abstractions, or anything else (our next book is Middlemarch, which I think will make a fascinating comparison in this respect). Given all the things competing for my students’ attention, I thought it would help to bring the people to life dramatically, even at the risk of substituting Andrew Davies’s ideas of them for Trollope’s. As always, showing an adaptation also helps us see some things about how the material is managed in the original. In this case, for example, the adaptation seemed more melodramatic, the action more sensational–and, as one of my students pointed out, it seemed to make Emily more clearly sympathetic. So I think we managed to use our clip to further our thinking about the novel. We’ll be working on the book for almost a month, so we need to build up enough momentum that finishing it does not become a chore. I’m optimistic! But of course I am, or I would never have assigned it in the first place…
Here’s what my students and I will be reading and talking about this week:
1. English 3032, 19th-Century Novel: We are finishing up Trollope’s The Warden, with a special focus on Trollope’s redefinition of heroism on a small scale and on his interest in the way public questions are always “a conglomeration of private interests.” We’ll also be looking at the role of his intrusive narrator, and at his parodies of Carlyle (as Dr. Pessimist Anticant) and Dickens (as Mr Popular Sentiment) as he works towards his own theory of fiction. “What story was ever written without a demon?” he asks in Chapter XV; “What novel, what history, what work of any sort, what world, would be perfect without existing principles both of good and evil?” As every reader of The Warden comes to see, this novel does not allow us to perceive the world as consisting of such extremes, despite John Bold’s frustrated exclamation, “If there be a devil, a real devil here on earth, it is Dr. Grantly.”
2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers: This week it’s Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography, which shifts us sharply away from last week’s more abstract discussion of Victorian arguments over femininity and women’s ‘mission’ into a life full of contradictions and compromises, struggle and suffering (economic and mental). While Oliphant’s consideration of her own fiction, and her comparisons (often rueful or resentful) between her own hard-earned modest success and her more triumphant literary ‘sisters’ (especially George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte) will be of much interest to us, I am sure we will also talk about the form, mode, and tone of the Autobiography itself, with its long passages of heartbreaking lamentation for lost children interwoven with (often, seeming to slice apart) its record of ordinary domestic life and travels. Here’s an excerpt from just after the death of Maggie, aged 10, after a sudden and very brief illness:
I ask myself why, why, and I cannot find any answer. I had but one woman-child and she was just beginning to sympathize with me, to comfort me, and at this dear moment, her little heart expanding, her little mind growing, her sweet life blossoming day by day, God has taken her away out of my arms and refuses to hear my cry and prayer. My heart feels dead. . . . Now I have to go limping and anxious through the world all the days of my life. . . . Oh God forgive me and help me. O God convey to me a sense of my darling’s happiness, a feeling that she will not forget me and that I shall find her again, and have pity upon a poor heartbroken creature who does not know what she is saying. . . .Those curls I was so proud of were never more beautiful than when they were all rippling back with the gold string through them from her dear head as she lay ill, and when they lay all peaceful and still with her white wreath of hyacinths and snowdrops, she as as lovely as the angel she is. Oh my child, my child.
She would lose all of her children before her own death, “writing steadily,” as she says, “all the time” to support the ne’er-do-well sons who survived into adulthood and the array of relatives who came to depend on her industry and charity. The poignant conclusion:
And now here I am all alone.
I cannot write anymore.
So much goes on in He Knew He Was Right that it’s hard for me to focus for long on any one point of interest while this reading of it is still so fresh. Since I’ve been remarking the novel’s relationship to sensation fiction, I’ll add that while I knew the main plot of the novel was ‘sensational,’ I was surprised at the way Trollope puts other sensational bits into the novel’s most comic segments and registers, especially the saga of Mr Gibson and the two Misses French. Here’s Camilla reflecting on Mr Gibson’s possible perfidy:
A sister, a mother, a promised lover, all false,–all so damnably, cruelly false! It was impossible. No history, no novel of most sensational interest, no wonderful villany that had ever been wrought into prose or poetry, would have been equal to this. It was impossible. She told herself so a score of times a day. And yet the circumstances were so terribly suspicious! (Ch. LXXIV)
As the tragic drama at Casalunga advances towards its painful conclusions, so too the ridiculous affair at Heavitree lurches along, until this:
The maid-servant, in making Miss Camilla’s bed and in ‘putting the room to rights,’ as she called it,–which description probably was intended to cover the circumstances of an accurate search,–had discovered, hidden among some linen,–a carving knife! . . . The knife [Camilla] declared, had been taken up-stairs, because she had wanted something very sharp to cut,–the bones of her stays. (Ch. LXXXII)
At times I found myself impatiently skimming these sections, as my interest and sympathies were far more engaged with the Trevelyans’ trials and, eventually, most of all with Nora and her steadfast determination to achieve a new (indeed, a manifestly modern) marriage with Hugh. But at the same time they pique my critical curiosity: are they simply diversions, a break into silliness to offset the sometimes lugubrious development of the ‘main’ plot? The overt mock-sensationalism suggests Trollope is having fun with generic conventions and disrupting the sensation/realism distinction he rejects in his critical writing (e.g. his Autobiography) while also amplifying many of his main themes, including the not-so-mock desperation of surplus women on the marriage market and the degradation of morals that results. Still, why do so comically, when the serious plot lines of the novel offer a pretty complete theme and variations along these lines? Perhaps the best answer is just “because he can.”
More evidence of self-consciousness about genre and form comes (in true Trollope style) through narrative intrusions. There aren’t many extended ones, at least for a novel of these proportions, but there’s a really good one at the opening of Chapter LXXXVIII:
It is rather hard upon readers that they should be thus hurried from the completion of hymeneals at Florence to the preparations for other hymeneals in Devonshire; but it is the nature of a complex story to be entangled with many weddings towards its close. [insert faint sigh of relief at the idea of ‘its close’] In this little history there are, we fear, three or four more to come. We will not anticipate by alluding prematurely to Hugh Stanbury’s treachery, or death,–or the possibility that he after all may turn out to be the real descendant of the true Lord Peterborough and the actual inheritor of the title and estate of Monkhams, nor will we speak of Nora’s certain fortitude under either of these emergencies. But the instructed reader must be aware that Camilla French ought to have a husband found for her; that Colonel Osborne should be caught in some matrimonial trap [there’s a motif that runs throughout the novel, sometimes without much hint of humour];–as, how otherwise should he be fitly punished? [and the number of characters who end up reflecting on marriage as a punishment or threat is actually remarkable]–and that something should at least be attempted for Priscilla Stanbury, who from the first has been intended to be the real heroine of these pages [interesting, that, since to me Nora emerges as the finest female character]. That Martha should marry Giles Hickbody, and Barty Burgess run away with Mrs MacHugh, is of course evident to the meanest novel-expounding capacity; but the fate of Brooke Burgess and of Dorothy will require to be evolved with some delicacy and much detail [do we detect a bit of glee in that last phrase, as he cracks his knuckles and settles in for another 100 pages?].
Trollope’s world has an odd and, in my reading experience, unique quality: his novels are at once so fully realized and capacious that he can link them together with coy little cross-references (in this one, we get both Phineas Finn and Lady Glencora, from the Pallisers series, and Bishop Proudie from Barchester), and so contrived and overt in their artifice that they defy what would otherwise seem simple categorization as ‘naive’ realism. It’s like being in some kind of virtual reality simulator, in which you are always aware at some level that you are playing a game but can look all around without really seeing its limits.
There’s no doubt this is a great novel to consider in a course on the ‘woman question’. It’s as direct in its confrontation with women’s political, social, and marital rights and obligations as any 19thC novel I know, if perhaps more ambiguous or ambivalent in its attitudes than some. But its 903 pages are difficulty simply to carry around, or hold while reading, and it’s hard to imagine just how to manage it pedagogically to maintain students’ enthusiasm when they are taking four other courses. If they’ve read Mill’s Subjection of Women and Cobbe and others on ‘old maids,’ though, along with the other novels I have in mind, won’t they find it irresistible? And failing those intellectual reasons, won’t they love it because of all the friends they’ll make reading it? I guess I’ll find out.
I may just be preoccupied with these comparisons because of having spent so much time and thought on sensation novels this summer, but He Knew He Was Right continues to seem like a reworking of a number of key sensation themes and elements. (I haven’t looked around yet to see if there’s ‘official’ criticism addressing the connections.) I’m struck, for instance, by the close proximity between Louis Trevelyan and Robert Audley: both are motivated by intense suspicion of a woman and are driven to what others perceive as madness because of their relentless pursuit of justification for these suspicions. The key differences, of course, are first that Louis’s suspicions are groundless, and second, that his monomania thus truly puts him on the wrong side of what both authors describe as the thin line separating sanity from insanity. One result of these differences is that while Lady Audley’s Secret can be read as confirming all of Robert’s worst fears about women, He Knew He Was Right reads like an indictment of just those fears, a critique of that kind of misogynistic paranoia. The comparison brings out the darker side of Robert’s quest for justice: he is on a quest for control and domination as much as for truth, as is also clearly the case in HKHWR.
The further I read (and I’m now about 2/3 through, which is no small feat, let me tell you), the more I am enjoying thinking about how He Knew He Was Right would play off against the other novels I have in mind for my class. It’s a seminar on the Victorian ‘woman question,’ and I have taught it several times before, always with a reading list that includes a fair mix of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction prose. I have always thought (and the students have always seemd to agree) that it has been successful, and discussion has always been vigorous, but I decided it was time for a change, and so this time I’m focusing on novels, and in particular on novels that follow couples past the ‘matrimonial barrier.’ That means I’ll keep The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Odd Women, two of my favourites, but I’m going to replace The Mill on the Floss with Middlemarch and (I’m now thinking) bring in HKHWR…and maybe East Lynne also, for a more ‘sensational’ take. I’m finding HKHWR has a lot of links to The Odd Women in particular, starting with the obvious similarity of an excess of female characters. The notes to my edition of HKHWR suggest links between Priscilla Stanbury and Dorothea in Middlemarch; at the moment I don’t really see it, but I’m interested in the possibility. East Lynne has an actual infidelity that would provide an interesting comparison with the suspected offense in Trollope’s much more literal (and yet, in many ways, ‘sensational’) novel. If the students don’t get completely overwhelmed with the reading load, this could be a lot of fun. (That does seem like a big ‘if’ at this point. Well, I haven’t actually ordered the books yet, so there’s time to pull back.)