Blogging Trollope IV

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.

Blogging Trollope III

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.

Blogging Trollope II

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.)

Blogging Trollope I

I’m rereading He Knew He Was Right with an eye to assigning it in a winter term class. I have remarked a couple of times on this blog that there’s something about Trollope that makes his novels not entirely amenable to the kinds of critical analysis we are most accustomed to. For one thing, he’s (almost) all about plot and character–there’s a tremendously literal quality about his approach that makes much reading between the lines seem beside the point. I have always loved his accounts of walking in the woods imagining what his characters would do and say in the scenes to come, and his insistence that his people were entirely real to him; once I am immersed in one of these big blockbuster books, its very expansiveness, almost excessiveness, gives me the same sense of having spent my time among actual people whose lives have all the dimensions of ours. Here’s a little example from fairly early on in HKHWR that contributes to this sense that Trollope is putting his immediate plot together by selecting among dozens, even hundreds or thousands, of untold stories; this is a bit of background on the wonderful Miss Jemima Stanbury (“All change was to her hateful and unncessary”!):

It need not be told here how various misfortunes arose, how Mr. Burgess quarrelled with the Stanbury family, how Jemima quarrelled with her own family, how, when her father died, she went out from Nuncombe Putney parsonage, and lived on the smallest pittance in a city lodging, how her lover was untrue to her and did not marry her, and how at last he died and left her every shilling that he possessed. (Ch. VII)

Of course the story is “told here” after all, but he passess off in one paragraph what could easily be enough plot for another whole novel–it’s just that he is telling us a different one and sets this one aside. Though it is in a much more comic register, this passage reminds me of the bit in Carlyle’s French Revolution about the five act tragedy inside every man, or of the roar on the other side of silence evoked (again, with quite a different tone) in Middlemarch. If there can seem to be a certain formlessness about the way his novels just keep going on and on and on and on (I have been known to refer to him as the “Energizer Bunny” of Victorian fiction), at the same time they capture in their own way that notion of the multitudinousness of human experience and stories.