Orwell’s Catalonia

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Having just been to Mallorca and read Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, a novel about the impact of the Spanish Civil War on rural families in Catalonia (and parallel descriptions by Bernanos of atrocities perpetrated in Mallorca by fascist Francoists), about which I posted last week, I needed to reread George Orwell’s contemporary account of his experiences as a militia volunteer in Homage to Catalonia. It’s decades since I first read it, but it remained pretty clear in my memory as a searing, sad, highly personal story.

Salvayre Orwell covers First published in 1938, it describes his experiences in Spain from December 1936, soon after the war broke out, to June 1937. He’d served at the Aragón front, where to his frustration ‘little or nothing happened’, having spent the first weeks in desultory training in the Lenin Barracks, Barcelona, then recuperating in horribly ill-equipped and inexpertly staffed medical facilities after being shot in the throat.

On leave in Barcelona in May ’37 he found that bourgeois class distinctions had returned and the revolutionary idyll had ended. He also found himself caught up in internecine street fighting instigated by the communist assault on the trade-union controlled Telephone Exchange, which resulted not surprisingly in an armed response from the non-Stalinist leftists. The loosely Trotskyist POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), to which Orwell had been assigned, naively unaware of the significance of its political allegiance, was anathematised by Moscow’s Comintern as traitors in the pay of the fascists, and hence a divisive and fatally distracting crisis ensued, probably enabling Franco’s forces to prevail while his opponents fought each other. It was an only too familiar leftist splintering and infighting that produced his enduring hatred of the Stalinist hard line with its intolerance of anything other than one-nation revolution and unwavering party loyalty, that he later satirised in 1984 and Animal Farm, and was to criticise in much of his non-fiction.

In his 1989 introduction to this PMC paperback edition Julian Symons rather harshly suggests that Orwell combined a ‘capacity for subtle and complex thought and argument with a sometimes tactless ardour and simplicity.’

Orwell got to Spain under the auspices of the British Independent Labour Party, (and, as he later learned to his cost, links with the largely Trotskyist POUM militia), whose recommendation took him to the revolutionary hotbed of Barcelona (setting of the key testing ground for the anarchist fervour of the two idealistic siblings in Salvayre’s novel), which was still under the control of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, rather than to Madrid, where the struggle against the fascists was led by the Soviet-supported communists.

Orwell was surprised and ingenuously delighted to find ‘one breathed the air of equality’ in a classless Catalonian capital, ‘where the working class was in the saddle.’ Symons isn’t far wrong when he describes the ‘romantic puritan’ Orwell’s reaction as ‘childlike wonder’. Who can blame him. Salvayre’s José was also delirious with excitement at what seemed the Spanish utopia: a truly classless society.

But the euphoria was partial and short-lived. Orwell quickly realised there was something ‘pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution.’ Like José, he became disillusioned with the endemic lack of organisation , urgency or discipline in the militia (the ‘mañana’ mentality), largely peasant and urban trade unionist men with little military aptitude, and an average age of about twenty, with many as young as fifteen: ‘we were not real soldiers’.

Life at the front, and his experience of war, was far from romantic or heroic; weapons were scarce, antiquated and more dangerous to the users than to the enemy. He rarely got to fire his decrepit rifle. ‘Above all it meant mud, lice, hunger and cold.’ He caustically lists, in decreasing order of importance, the five key things in the warfare he experienced: ‘firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy.’ He notes the things only a person who’d been there could know, like the fact that ‘At the front, everyone stole’. So much for class solidarity. Even idealistic revolutionaries, he implies, are ultimately venal, materialistic and corrupt.

The story of the communist purge of ‘undesirable elements’, meaning those who’d fought so bravely with Orwell at the front, including his own brave and selfless commander, and the POUM leader Andreu Nin, who disappeared, were tortured to death or allowed to die from neglect in prison by the communists, disgusted him. Yet I think he’s honest when he insists this book is not ‘a book of propaganda’ and that he does not intend to ‘idealize the POUM militia.’

As I noted in my post on Salvayre’s semi-fictional account of the war in Catalonia, there are timely references to the use of media and other propagandist modes of manipulation of opinion; in Orwell’s case this includes his scathing criticism of the blatantly biased reporting in the European press, either pro-Franco from such right-wing papers as the British Daily Mail (which continues to produce xenophobic, counterfactual ‘news’, in a manner encouraged and endorsed by the so-called alt right), or pro-Moscow in the leftist press.

This is not a dry, political or even socio-historical treatise, though it doesn’t flinch from exploring such aspects of the complexities of this terrible war – that ‘appalling disaster’ he calls it near the end. There are numerous touches that reveal the flawed and only too human personality of the writer, who ruefully acknowledges that he played ‘so ineffectual a part’ in the war. He admits that when he was frightened in combat he didn’t function well as a soldier, or became so infuriated at the factionalism that, like José, he lost patience with those around him, revealing perhaps unwittingly his upper-class, Eton-educated origins, which he rejected but couldn’t entirely transcend.

But it’s that bitterness about what could have been that lingers: those heady days in ‘equalitarian’, classless Barcelona, that so quickly reverted to the normal hierarchies of rich and poor. We still endure that legacy of power wielded by the power elites, who increasingly denounce, as the commissars did in Spain, any deviation from their truth, as fake news and, most cynical of all, unpatriotic.

Ken Loach’s 1995 film ‘Land and Freedom’ depicts the experiences of a young working-class Liverpudlian man fighting in a POUM unit and undergoing a similar process to Orwell’s of elation followed by disillusionment.

My thanks to Jacqui for her comment to my post on Salvayre, pointing out this piece on the novel by Naomi at The Writes of Woman blog.

More obscure lives by Woolf: Edgeworth and Day

More on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in V. Woolf’s The Common Reader, vol.1.

Last time I noted her portraits and analyses not just of the literary greats like Austen and Eliot, but also the vignettes of marginal, forgotten characters, mainly women, whose obscurity seemed to resonate with her poignantly. This is what follows the mention of Miss Biffen:

It is Mrs Dyer who pours out tea for them in Clifford’s Inn. Mr Charles Lamb has just left the room. Mrs Dyer says she married George because his washerwoman cheated him so. What do you think George paid for his shirts, she asks?

These sketches, apparently random and fragmentary, cohere into an impressionistic whole, a galaxy of minor stars. She goes on:

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

More fragments follow, sense impressions, then she notices an ‘enormous wheel’ careering down a Berkshire hill in the 18C. Suddenly the young son of a bricklayer jumps out ‘from within’ and it’s smashed ‘to smithereens’:

This is Edgeworth’s doing – Richard Lovell Edgeworth, we mean, the portentous bore.

This must be one of his crackpot invention/experiments; Woolf doesn’t think it necessary to explain, preferring to let the weirdness speak for itself. Her attention turns to ‘his two volumes of memoirs’ and his extraordinary life:

Byron’s bore, Day’s friend, Maria’s father, the man who almost invented the telegraph, and did, in fact, invent machines for cutting turnips, climbing walls, contracting on narrow bridges…a man meritorious, industrious, advanced, but still, as we investigate his memoirs, mainly a bore.

This Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor (1744-1817), is said by Wikipedia to have invented the caterpillar track, among other things, and he was the father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. He seems to have been an unpleasant character. As Woolf says of this gifted egoist he married four times – two of the wives were sisters Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd (the former a writer and proto-feminist who shared his interest in educational theory) – and fathered with them not 19 (as Woolf says) but 22 children. He and his even more unpleasant friend Thomas Day were prominent members of the Lunar Society (c. 1765-1813), a loose association of scientists, philosophers and artists forming the Midlands Enlightenment; other members included Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood, the entrepreneur and ceramicist – see this review in the Guardian of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future, 1730-1810. London: Faber, 2002. Its name alludes to their practice of meeting for dinner and conversation at each others’ houses on the Sunday nearest the full moon so that they could ride home illuminated by it.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. It depicts one of the ‘natural philosophy’ experiments with the vacuum device invented by Boyle. Public domain via National Gallery, London/Tate Gallery: Wikimedia Commons

Edgeworth wrote with daughter Maria a tract on education heavily influenced by Rousseau’s theories. He in turn influenced boring Day, who hardly distinguished himself by proposing to Edgeworth’s sister, and to Honora before she married his friend – who had also fallen in love with her while still married to his previous wife. Not surprising they were friends, really.

He attracts Woolf’s attention because of his associations with ‘diffident, shrinking figures who would otherwise be drowned in darkness’. It is through their eyes, she says, that we see him: a tyrant unaware of his own cruelty, bemused that his wife had ‘taken a strong dislike to Mr Day’ – that serial proposer.

Here Woolf acknowledges one of the ‘pitfalls’ of ‘this nocturnal rambling among forgotten worthies’: it’s difficult, she explains, to stick ‘strictly to the facts.’ This is especially true of Day, ‘whose history surpasses the bounds of the credible,’ showing more of the characteristics of fiction. Mrs Edgeworth must, she speculates, have ‘dreaded’ visits from her husband’s friend, ‘with his pompous, melancholy face, marked by the smallpox’, his antisocial manners, his desperation to marry (he’d taught himself to dance in the vain hope of winning the hand of Honora’s sister, later Edgeworth’s wife; as Woolf says, she, ‘of course, refused him’) and his fawning encouragement of Edgeworth’s crazier schemes. Honora’s friend the poet Anna Seward perhaps misguidedly described Day as ‘a sable-haired hero.’

Then we hear of Day’s now notorious scheme to create for himself the perfect wife by adopting two young orphan girls and bringing them up according to some tenets supposedly taken from Rousseau. The more successful girl he’d marry – he named her Sabrina Sidney.

Woolf’s account of how Sabrina failed to pass Day’s exacting tests for a wife is slightly askew. She implies he rushed in a rage after rejection by Elizabeth:

flew into a passion at the sight of her; fired a pistol at her skirts, poured melted sealing-wax over her arms, and boxed her ears.

From what I’ve read these details are accurate, but Day didn’t perform these violent acts out of temper, but as trials calculated to imbue Sabrina with the calm stoicism, fortitude and endurance in the face of the greatest provocation that he felt ideal in his prospective wife. Not surprisingly she disappointed him profoundly when tested so cruelly, by screaming and displaying all of the undesirable flightiness and intemperance, as he saw it, of her sex.

Woolf doesn’t mention that Sabrina, after being cast off by Day, married another man, was widowed, and ended her days as a housekeeper to the family of Fanny Burney’s brother.

She does conclude, with pointed accuracy, what the ‘inconsistent philosopher’ Day’s character really was like:

at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound…

This section of Obscure Lives ends with a bizarre scene in which Edgeworth is decribed in a disturbing meeting with an unkempt, ‘mad clergyman’ in an ‘untidy house’ with a garden full of celestial globes. A beautiful young girl brings them tea, ‘a scholar and an artist!’ the clergyman exclaims – but Edgeworth can’t determine if she’s the old man’s daughter, mistress, or what: ‘Who was she?’ And why was the house so filthy, the front door locked? ‘Why was the clergyman apparently a prisoner? Questions began to crowd into Edgeworth’s head…’

‘Something was not right’, he sadly concludes.

The essays in The CR vol. 1 aren’t only essential reading for their discussions of the literary giants, but also for passages of strange charm like this.

I’ve drawn here on Jenny Uglow’s article on Day in the Guardian in 2002. See also the 2013 novel by Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, reviewed in the Guardian that year, which points out ‘Day was a paradoxical character: he became known for his charitable work, giving away much of his fortune to the poor though never giving much thought about Sabrina and her well–being after he abandoned her. He was an adamant abolitionist while at the same time making Sabrina practically his slave’

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1 – obscure lives

Yesterday I introduced this compilation of 21 literary reviews and specially written essays by Virginia Woolf brought out by the Hogarth Press in 1925 shortly before Mrs Dalloway was published.

Woolf Common Reader contents

The table of contents of vol. 1. The paper isn’t great quality: the ink has bled and blotted slightly

The range of subjects is broad. She covers authors and texts from the Pastons and Chaucer in the 14C to her contemporaries. The majority consider English prose fiction writers from Defoe, Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot to Conrad and Joyce, but she also analyses the Russian greats, especially Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s an excursion into Greek drama, too; fellow blogger Melissa posted about it recently here.

Woolf also reflects on the essay genre itself, with pieces on Montaigne, one of its inventors, and the main English practitioners.

Other prose genres are discussed, from the diaries of Evelyn to the memoirs and other writings of the likes of the Duchess of Newcastle, with her desire for fame. A unifying feature that threads through most of the essays is the nature of reading and writing in different historical periods, and the reflexive, creative relationship between readers and authors. I hope to return to this aspect of the collection after my holidays.

I wanted rapidly to post here about one essay that stood out for me, and brought to my attention an aspect of Woolf that I hadn’t noticed before in the novels: she can be very funny. She makes a point of turning her analytical attention to marginal, largely overlooked and forgotten figures in the past – perhaps, as I noted yesterday, out of a sense of fellow-feeling as a woman in the early 20C. In her introductory paragraph to ‘Lives of the Obscure’ (presumably an ironic take on hagiographical ‘Lives of the Saints’) she playfully pictures herself as a sad antiquarian, taking out a ‘life subscription’ to a ‘faded, out-of-date obsolete library’, perhaps in her holiday haunt of St Ives, for she imagines it by the sea, ‘with the shouts of men crying pilchards for sale’ outside. It’s a library largely stocked unpromisingly ‘from the shelves of clergymen’s widows, and country gentlemen inheriting more books than their wives care to dust.’

The only other people there are clearly as lost a cause as this fictitious, unflattering version of herself: ‘The elderly, the marooned, the bored’ – they don’t seem to want to read these texts, just shelter from the world’s bustle:

No one has spoken aloud here since the room was opened in 1854.

Then she weirdly depicts the books themselves as just as lost – perhaps dead, certainly not expecting to be disturbed, so long have they been neglected:

The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright. Their backs are flaking off; their titles often vanished. Why disturb their sleep? Why reopen those peaceful graves, the librarian seems to ask, peering over his spectacles, and resenting the duty, which has indeed become laborious, of retrieving from among those nameless tombstones Nos. 1763, 1080, and 606.

The first of three sections in this essay opens by absurdly stretching this conceit to great comic effect:

For one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost – a Mrs Pilkington, a Rev Henry Elman, a Mrs Ann Gilbert – waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom. Possibly they hear one coming. They shuffle, they preen, they bridle. Old secrets well up to their lips. The divine relief of communication will soon again be theirs.

There’s a seriousness underneath this surreal playfulness: it’s that recurring theme of the almost symbiotic relationship between texts, writers and readers. By opening these dusty, unread, largely tedious volumes the modern reader in a sense restores to life these long defunct minor figures.

She goes on with an amazing and scintillatingly impressionistic portrait of several groups of people from around 1800 onwards, principally the Taylor and the Edgeworth families, but including such vivid miniatures as the sad story of one Fanny Hill (no relation, I presume, to the eponym of Cleland’s racy novel) who ill-advisedly married a dashing but treacherous Captain M. who predictably treated her abominably. She returns years later, ‘worn and sunk’, when formerly she was ‘so sprightly’:

She was living in a lone house not far from the Taylors, forced to drudge for her husband’s mistress, for Captain M. had wasted all her fortune, ruined all her life.

And so the ‘words toil persistently through these obscure volumes’:

For in the vast world to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of something inescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail flotilla and carrying it.

The portentous imagery perhaps parodies that of these old memoirs, but does so affectionately, without patronising or condescending (well, not too much). And Woolf is genuine in perceiving this ‘flotilla’ borne along to her over a century later, making a connection with her and taking on new life, despite its ancient strangeness, and she acknowledges its jaded, once-sprightly significance:

It is one of the attractions of the unknown, their multitude, their vastness; for, instead of keeping their identity separate, as remarkable people do, they seem to merge into one another, their very boards and title-pages and frontispieces dissolving, and their innumerable pages melting into continuous years so that we can lie back and look up into the fine mist-like substance of countless lives, and pass unhindered from century to century, from life to life.

Despite the ironic tone she’s not entirely joking any more. The figures she goes on to delineate, those faded portraits she dusts off, include all kinds of strange figures, like a Mr Elman talking in Brighton to Miss Biffen, who has no arms or legs: ‘a footman carries her in and out. She teaches miniature painting to his sister.’ One wonders how. Years later in his rectory he’ll think of her and other ‘great men’ he thinks he’s known, ‘and making – it is his great consolation – string bags, for missionaries.’

Wonderful. There I’d better stop. I hadn’t intended lingering so long on this essay, but it beguiled me. I’d like to show the other outlandish characters and extraordinary vignettes in it brought lovingly back into the light – maybe another time.

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. Vol. 1, Vintage Classics paperback (2003). First published by the  Hogarth Press, 1925

V. Woolf, cover of vol. 1 of The Common ReaderMany of the essays in this first volume of The Common Reader first appeared as book reviews, many of them in the TLS. She revised and reworked this material and added more essays specially written for this collection. She was seeking to produce a shaped text that resembled the kind of reflective conversation that might be held around a Bloomsbury dinner-table on the topic of the art of reading.

I’m about to go on holiday, so intend returning to an examination of these essays in more detail when I return. As a taster, here’s her short introductory essay that acts as a foreword or preface: it explains her intentions and emphasises  what seems to be the unscholarly, amateur and idiosyncratic nature of her enterprise (she tackles some of the major canonical authors, but deliberately includes many obscurities – she clearly sympathised with the obscure ones). This apparently self-deprecatory tone (highlighted by the ambivalent, gender-free use of ‘common’ in conjunction with the notion of ‘reader’) disguises her true serious artistic and personal role and agency as reader and writer, already adumbrated in the character of Rachel in The Voyage Out, her first novel, published in 1915, in which the protagonist’s choice of reading indicates a spirited and independent determination to avoid the literary choices and tastes of the male-dominated (academic) world and its authoritative canon, favouring, for example, the elemental power and wildness of Wuthering Heights over Jane Austen’s more demure depictions of the emotional life of women (there are essays on both subjects in this first volume).

Here she presents her manifesto for her own canon, defending her own approach and literary philosophy and instincts, later mapped out more broadly and systematically in non-fiction works like ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Three Guineas’. Being a woman and therefore excluded from the benefits of the classical education enjoyed by males of her class, she was conscious of her ‘outsider’ status as a critic  – despite being formidably well read, having access to her father Leslie Stephen’s extensive library – she too was determined to exercise the right to choose her reading and to express her views on what she’d read. Despite the ‘amateur’ tone, then, of this opening essay, she had a serious and positive aesthetic. More on this in later posts, hopefully.

The Common Reader: introductory essay

There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “ . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

This could almost serve as a template for those of us who attempt to write blog posts on literary topics: we acknowledge our deficiencies and the superficiality or eccentricity of our criticisms, but strive to ‘write down a few of the ideas and opinions’ – no matter how insignificant – that might just contribute to the distribution of bookish honours. Except, to my mind, ‘honours’ is too grand a term for my own enterprise. I’m content to settle for ‘ideas and opinions’, and hope that they will stimulate thought, debate – and more reading.

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season. Virago Modern Classics, 2006

In a Summer Season takes its title from the opening line of the medieval alliterative poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman. This alerts us to the likelihood of a story that will involve a quest for a good, honest life and essential truth in the face of vice and worldly obstacles – a search for a vision of what the world might be, uncorrupted. This will involve epiphanies and life-changing experiences.

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season cover VMC editionThe surprising amount of sex in the novel is largely due to the mid-life crisis of the protagonist, Kate Heron, an attractive woman in her early 40s who lives in a comfortable former vicarage in a middle-class commuter neighbourhood of big houses and what Kate sourly calls ‘Underwriter Georgian’ developments (it’s the Thames Valley, just an hour by train from London). It’s the era when Kate’s class of women didn’t work (husbands did that) and kept servants; Kate has the eccentric cook-housekeeper Mrs Meacock and an irascible gardener.

After the death of her first husband Alan she’d quickly married again, a year before the action of this novel begins. Her second husband is a charming but irresponsible ‘drifter’ called Dermot, ten years her junior, only ten years older than her son Tom. His only interests are gambling and drinking and feeling sorry for himself. Kate’s maiden aunt, Ethel, who lives with her in a state of sadly genteel dependency, considers Dermot a fellow ‘parasite’ – a view that’s harder on herself than on Dermot. At least she teaches cello to Kate’s untalented 16-year-old boarding school daughter Louisa, on the long summer holiday during which the novel’s action takes place, emphasising that sense of change and mutability that the title hints at. Ethel encourages in Lou the passion for classical music that Kate’s late husband shared with his wife and daughter, and which bores Dermot and Tom (who prefers jazz) – they’re like twins, not stepfather and son. Two Hamlet types (more on that later).

Most other people in this affluent, worldly neighbourhood assume Dermot married Kate for her money. Even he dimly perceives the truth of this, though he likes to think he’s passionately in love with her – hence all the sex – and this enables him to convince himself that he is no parasite. Kate’s self-deceit mirrors his: for her the sex sustains and justifies this mismatched marriage; she’s allowing lust to cloud her judgement and overcome her growing sense of guilt and shame. Even teenaged Louisa perceives that her mother is competing with her older brother Tom’s string of girlfriends, of whom Kate feels jealous, and that in marrying Dermot she thought she’d be getting a sexually fulfilling partner and a loving son. He’s the Oedipal Hamlet to a Gertrude who doubles as Ophelia.

In a series of keenly observed scenes characters and relationships are revealed: Kate at the hairdresser’s, apparently unaware that dyeing her greying hair and ‘making herself look young for her husband’ makes her seem pathetic – or maybe she chooses not to see this. In the opening scene she visits Dermot’s wealthy, elegant mother Edwina, who never rises from her bed before noon, and who greets Kate superciliously:

“That’s a nice suit,” she said in a surprised voice.

Kate had felt just right, perfectly dressed for a day in London, until Edwina had come downstairs. She still thought she could not have chosen better and wondered if what was wrong with the effect – and something was now seen to be – was herself. She hadn’t a London face like her mother-in-law’s, her skin was a different colour and she looked too healthy for the dark suit – a country woman dressed up in London clothes.

In the introduction to this VMC edition Elizabeth Russell Taylor writes that In a Summer Season has a ‘nugatory’ plot, and no ‘concern with consciousness or big themes’. She cites Taylor’s comment that she could ‘never write about tragedies’. But the novel has other elements like those in Hamlet, and there are verbal echoes that subtly indicate this.

When Kate’s closest friend Dorothea died some years earlier, the widower Charles – the two couples had been best friends – left to work overseas, taking his daughter Araminta with him. Halfway through the novel they return, bringing to a crisis Kate’s crumbling confidence in feckless Dermot, as she realises Charles has the cultural sophistication and emotional maturity she’d loved in Alan, and which Dermot so palpably lacks. Araminta has grown up to become a beautiful but shallow young woman, training to be a fashion model. She’s the same age as Kate’s son Tom: 22. He unwisely falls madly in love with her, but she’s not cut out to be his Ophelia, for she enjoys simply flirting and being admired by men, preferring Dermot’s carefree superficiality – and propensity for driving his sports car too fast. All very tangled and ominous.

When the two families resume their intimacy Charles ruefully admits he ‘hardly knows’ his glamorous, vampish daughter. She makes him feel ‘as old as Polonius’, he jokes. Kate’s reply, that she can’t understand why Polonius was always made to look so old, subtly reveals her own discomfort at playing Gertrude to child-like Dermot (and his twin soul, Tom).

Dermot behaves like a petulant child. She gives him ‘motherly smile[s]’, indulging his latest hare-brained money-making scheme (growing mushrooms in an outhouse). When Charles and Kate share a private joke about a woman they know (who’d introduced Kate and Dermot, so it’s not a trivial topic) name-checking a character in Alan and Kate’s favourite novel, The Spoils of Poynton, Dermot, culturally void, is nonplussed and feels excluded – adding to his default emotional state of disgruntled thirty-something moody adolescent, unable to understand why he’s so angry with everyone.

When he finds James’s novel lying around and reads the inscription in it that Alan had written for Kate – a couplet from Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’, with the line ‘Who is so safe as we?’, he again feels excluded and ignorant, ashamed when he realises he’d missed the literary allusion, and that the grown-ups had pretended not to notice in order not to embarrass him. Kate, on the other hand, is aware that the “safety” she’d found with Alan has been lost with Dermot.

Dermot’s mother Edwina, briefly mentioned above, ‘a proper Harrods woman’ in his dismissive opinion because of her passion for shopping, is a poor role model for him. When Kate in the opening scene pays her a duty call (Dermot is too feckless to endure visiting his mother and exposing himself to her misguided attempts to find him a job he might hold down) Edwina proposes her latest business scheme for Dermot – as hare-brained as his mushroom-growing. Sensing Kate’s resistant embarrassment, she says she’s worried about her reprobate son, and had hoped that marriage would ‘make him settle down.’ Her elder son Gordon had ‘always said so’, and he’s a ‘model husband and father… An actuary. “Whatever the hell that may be,” Dermot had said.’ As ‘industrious’ and ‘utterly selfless’ as his father had been (a Claudius figure?). She’d always wondered why Dermot was ‘so different’:

“Perhaps he takes after you,” Kate said. Her voice was bold, and no longer under control.

To her surprise, Edwina’s face softened. She looked dreamy and pleased with herself. “I was certainly a handful when I was a girl,” she said. “Gracious, the escapades, the parties, the young men. ‘She is like a butterfly and no one will ever manage to catch her,’ they used to say.”

“Then Patrick [Dermot’s father] caught you and shut you up all alone in the drawing-room, while he went off to work on his papers.”

“It was the beauty of his voice I couldn’t escape. The Irish in it.”

 

The ironies in this brief exchange are typical of the novel’s subtlety throughout. For Edwina goes on to mention that although Gordon has no ‘trace of it’, Dermot has that Irish brogue ‘only when he was trying to get round [her].’

“Oh, it was a very happy marriage. I had everything I wanted. He worshipped the ground I walked on . I was just a little bored sometimes in the evenings.”

“Harrods being closed,” thought Kate.

 

Kate allows herself this moment of superiority over Edwina’s shallow complacency, but is blind to the similarity of her own Freudian-Shakespearean domestic/marital trap with Dermot.

I’ve posted in the past about these ‘Madame Bovary’ narratives that deal with commuter-belt middle-aged women in despair at the dreariness and lack of fulfilment in their lives, their dim sense of being defined only in terms of their husbands, from Evan Connell’s Mr and Mrs Bridge to Taylor’s own short stories. The ‘summer season’ in which the narrative takes place heightens the sense of temporariness and looming disaster for the meticulously, perceptively anatomised central characters, all with their own defects and thwarted dreams. I particularly like prurient Aunt Ethel, and teenage Louisa with her hopeless schoolgirl crush on the virginal curate with the wonderful name of Father Blizzard.

Apologies for writing at such length; this novel is packed with so much understated, apparently inconsequential but essential and artfully constructed detail that it’s difficult to do it justice in brief.

PS 11 July: I asked fellow bloggers to supply links to any posts they’d done on IASS: in case you don’t scroll down through the comments to find them, here they are:

Liz Dexter, Adventures in Reading, Running and Working From Home

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has links to four of her own posts HERE

…and this link is to her roundup of other bloggers’ posts who’d joined in her readalong – including HeavenAli’s

Trollope’s Framley Parsonage – 2

Yesterday I looked at Anthony Trollope’s unheroic heroes in Framley Parsonage. By this the fourth Chronicle of Barsetshire he’s starting to get the hang of women, too. So far the romantic heroines have tended to be typically demure Victorian angels in the house, with maybe a hint of feistiness. There were some dragons among the older women, and some bourgeois and aristocratic snobs. But then in Doctor Thorne he introduced Miss Martha Dunstable and several other strong, clever women, and upped his game.

There she served as a recipient of innumerable unwanted marriage proposals from gold-digging men anxious to get their hands on her fortune. It was Frank Gresham’s honest half-heartedness in this task, put up to it by his mother, who was anxious to save the mortgaged family estate, that endeared him to that wealthy heiress, and showed she had more depth and class than the landed gentry among whom she moved with amused scorn.

In Framley Parsonage she’s mysteriously aged a decade, for she’s now said to be in her forties. This time it’s the irresponsible gambler and cadger Sowerby who’s interested in marrying her money, but it’s the resourceful  Mrs Harold Smith (née Harriet Sowerby) who shows more mettle and spirit than her reckless, irresponsible brother. She loves him, and is his true ‘ally’ in seeking to save him from destitution, and again Trollope shows how well he can do a morally murky character and make her attractive:

He was probably the only human being that she did love. Children she had none, and as for her husband, it had never occurred to her to love him. She had married him for a position; and being a clever woman, with a good digestion and command of her temper, had managed to get through the world without much of that unhappiness which usually follows ill-assorted marriages. At home she managed to keep the upper hand, but she did so in an easy, good-humoured way that made her rule bearable.

So she’s clever, ruthless and scheming, but has a sense of humour and fierce loyalty to that undeserving, extravagant scoundrel Sowerby (though even he is shown to be not all bad). She’s befriended Miss Dunstable with a view to helping him. She’s quick-eyed enough to realise that this heiress:

was to be won, not by indulgence of caprices, but by free and easy intercourse, with a dash of fun, and, at any rate, a dash of honesty…[She] was not, perhaps, herself very honest by disposition; but in these latter days she had taken up a theory of honesty for the sake of Miss Dunstable…

This astuteness had enabled her to become ‘intimate’ with Martha. She advises Sowerby to ‘tell her the truth’- not hide the fact that his ‘first object is her money’. When he chickens out of doing this ungallant act himself, she does it for him. Enterprising and bold, too. She’s discerned that those countless other suitors annoyed Martha by pretending to love her; she’s far too perceptive to fall for that, and simply despises their duplicity and transparent greed.

Ch. 24 is called ‘Magna est veritas’ – the truth is mighty – a Latin tag that Miss Dunstable cites when Harriet makes her pitch on behalf of her brother. She’d been taught it, she says with typical irony, by the Bishop of Barchester, who’d added some more, ‘but there was a long word, and I forgot it.’ She too has a wicked sense of humour, and her interlocutors often have trouble figuring out her true meaning – which is what she intends.

Miss Dunstable urges her on, but Harriet falters at this obviously deceptive pose of self-deprecation:

There was a hardness about Miss Dunstable when matters of business were concerned on which it seemed almost impossible to make any impression.

These two are well matched. Even though she does what she’d intended, saying her brother isn’t dying for love of Miss Dunstable, but harbours ‘as true a regard’ for her ‘as any man of his age does have’ (he’s 50)…’For any woman of mine’, returns the heiress – ruthlessly honest and tough. ‘They are very hard to manage,’ says Harriet to herself, ‘thinking of her own sex’.

It’s not going well, she knows. When she says Sowerby intended coming himself to make his proposal but thought she’d speak more ‘openly and freely’, Miss Dunstable sees through this, too. His intentions were ‘honourable’ she’s sure, she says: ‘He does not want to deceive me in that way.’ Implying, of course, that his deception is of another order:

It was impossible to help laughing, and Mrs Harold Smith did laugh. ‘Upon my word you would provoke a saint,’ said she.

This is arguably a funnier, more subtly done scene than anything in the previous three Barsetshire novels (though I’ve probably forgotten some already), and the humour arises naturally out of the characters and the carefully observed situation that’s been created for them. Both women are shown as resourceful, quick-thinking, shrewd and sharp (a word much used hereafter in the novel about Miss Dunstable) – and able to laugh at themselves and at the absurdity of life. There’s not much laughter of that rich quality among the men, that I recall.

Miss Dunstable refuses this ungracious (if unflatteringly honest) proposal: she explains bluntly to Harriet:

…he wants to marry me because I have got that which he wants. But, my dear, I do not want that which he has got, and therefore the bargain would not be a fair one.

She pays Harriet the dubious compliment of using the language of commerce, for the proposal was presented as a commercial transaction – one in which Miss Dunstable, with admirable frankness, acknowledges she has nothing to gain.

There are other finely portrayed women characters in this novel, but that’s perhaps enough on them for now. I need to read something very different to clear the mind from rural Barsetshire before the fifth Chronicle.

 

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 3: to purify the blood of the tribe

One of Trollope’s greatest strengths is that his good characters are far from perfect, his villains not just all bad. When Dr Thorne was first presented in Ch. 2 he was described ambiguously for the man proclaimed the novel’s hero, preferred over the handsome young squire’s son who loves the doctor’s niece Mary:

No man plumed himself on good blood more than Dr Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree.

‘High blood’ is a relative or illusory concept, then, and possession of wealth without ‘family’ not necessarily a barrier to the highest station or moral probity – as the rise of Sir Roger Scatcherd from stonemason to plutocrat shows – another richly drawn character, part drunken oaf, part genius, with a generous heart, morally sickly son, and fatal addictions (so much for blood). Here’s how the narrator carries on his portrait of the hero:

Let it not be thought that our doctor was a perfect character. No, indeed; most far from perfect. He had a pride in being a poor man of a high family; he had a pride in repudiating the very family of which he was proud; and he had a special pride in keeping his pride silently to himself.

Here it must be remembered that the doctor’s brother raped the village girl, ‘of good character and honest, womanly conduct’, Roger Scatcherd’s sister, who resulted in becoming Mary’s mother – even the doctor’s pride in his family isn’t entirely merited.

The novel can be seen, then, as a dramatization of the ways a symbolic blood transfusion can serve to revitalise a decadent and atrophied upper class; blood and money can mingle. Sort of reverse vampires. There are frequent repulsive images of upper-class ‘blood’ being ‘diluted’, ‘sullied’ or even ‘polluted’ by upper class types marrying beneath them, ‘paving the way for revolutions’, as the Lady Amelia de Courcy – a ‘consummate hypocrite’, we learn later, when she betrays her cousin despicably – puts it to her cousins Augusta and Arabella.

Trollope shows throughout the novel that the aristocracy and gentry, intent on preserving their blood’s supposed “purity”, are prepared to ‘marry money’ if they can’t marry each other. Ch. 39 is called ‘What the World Says About Blood’ (no prizes for guessing what that might be), and it ends with besieged Frank proclaiming: ‘Will my blood ever get me a half crown?’ He represents the new generation of gentry, rejecting the snobbery and hypocrisy of his elders and embracing change, ‘human quality’ rather than rank.

Wealthy, spirited Miss Dunstable – one of Trollope’s most appealing female characters so far – urges Frank after his half-hearted proposal (forced upon him by his mother, Lady Arabella) not to ‘sell [himself] for money!’ It’s she who encourages him to follow his heart and persist with his love for Mary, rather than to submit to the edicts of his rank-obsessed, gold-digging mother (his father, the squire Gresham, is a far kinder, more decent example of the gentry; Trollope doesn’t praise or dismiss social groups, but individuals, as we saw with his first two in this series about clergy). Wealthy people without ‘family’, that is, can be virtuous, unselfish and morally stalwart.

The status quo can be maintained, however, and stability restored, without a revolution. That inoculation of better blood is provided by the truly ‘perfect’ Mary — a much more significant role for her, as Trollope presents it, than that of her father’s ‘angel who brightened his own hearthstone’, the romantic heroine, the ‘base born’ and ‘nameless’ protagonist of the inheritance plot mentioned last time. Her importance resides in her purity of spirit and moral integrity, inherited from her father, but divested of the pride, pretensions, arrogance and contrariness which prevents him from effecting such a social change himself. He can challenge the aristocracy, force it to regroup, but not defeat it definitively.

That’s Mary’s role – and she does it by sticking to her own principles to win her battles against the snobs. She’s ultimately able to ascertain what her own ‘rank’ might be – a question she often asks herself since she only learns about the true identity of her parents at the novel’s end – and that discovery neatly resolves all the class conflicts that have occupied the rest of the narrative:

On one point Mary’s mind was strongly made up. No wealth, no mere worldly advantage could make anyone her superior. If she were born a gentlewoman, then was she fit to match with any gentleman…If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualized quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

The narrator calls the characters who think like this (Dr Thorne is the other main example) ‘democrats’. Not entirely an insult from this conservative writer: he’s learning to show latitude.

So instead of this ‘bastard child’ potentially infecting what ‘the world’ calls her social ‘superiors’ like the Greshams with her ‘ill blood’, as even her own father worries at one point, bringing about ‘poverty’ and ‘sullied’ offspring, tainting or defiling the family line, she will reinvigorate it, restore its dwindling vitality.

Not ultimately a particularly revolutionary novel, then. But it’s not an entirely reactionary one.

Property and human quality: Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 2

In Dr Thorne the dangers threatening the pastoral, idyllic, conservative world of Barsetshire appear not in the ‘clerical aristocracy’, as in the first two novels in the Chronicles, but in ‘the old, feudal and now so-called landed interests’. The novel poses the question, What makes a gentleman (or woman)? It’s another way of asking, What makes one person another’s superior? The answers he provides are more complicated and ambivalent than might have been suspected of a novelist with the reactionary reputation of Trollope.

Raymond Williams (in The English Novel: From Dickens to Hardy) concedes that assessed against certain ‘abstract criteria’ Trollope is George Eliot’s superior as a writer, but lacks the perception she shares with Hardy of the ‘creative disturbance’ of that ‘unprecedented time’, that capacity to question ‘in a profoundly moral way’ the ‘real and assumed relations between property and human quality’. Trollope, I’d suggest, shows that it’s not a sufficient or even necessary qualification just to be nobly born, and does attempt to explore ‘human quality’. Trollope is assuredly no George Eliot, but he’s not entirely blind to the corruption and venality of the inheriting classes he portrays; neither does he idealise the rising moneyed middle classes.

In the first chapter it’s the Greshams of Greshambury who largely represent this imperilled upper class, facing ‘[s]uch changes’ that ‘had taken place in England’ since their estate was founded that they find themselves having to ‘protect themselves like common folk, or live uprotected’. In other words, there’s not much to distinguish them from these ‘common folk’; their sense of superiority is deluded. Our narrator continues:

But the old symbols remained and may such symbols long remain among us; they are still lovely and fit to be loved. They tell us of the true and manly feelings of other times: and to him who can read aright, they explain more truly than any written history can do, how Englishmen have become what they are. England is not yet a commercial country…and let us hope that she will not soon become so. She might surely as well be called feudal England or chivalrous England.

He goes on to concede that in fact England has become ‘a commercial country’ but only in the sense that Venice was –

yet it is not that in which she most prides herself, in which she most excels. Merchants as such are not the first men among us; though it perhaps be open, barely open, to a merchant to become one of them. Buying and selling is good and necessary…but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

Trollope appears to side then with the forces of conservatism and against the hostile invasions of the newly rich. Typically, though, he goes on in the rest of the novel to show that some of these dangerous invaders are in many ways morally and personally superior to the effete and atrophied aristocracy and the traditions they represent that he’d defended so stoutly here. His vision of a restored, revitalised rural gentry involves an injection of new blood from a more robust class – as I hope to show next time – and a severe self-examination as their faults are exposed and exploited by smarter and more morally and personally robust characters.

He resorts frequently to the imagery of battle and warfare, as he had in the power struggles among the clergy in the first two novels, to dramatise this social-economic-political shift; it’s a battle between an uneasy alliance of the ‘high blood and plenty of money’ of the haughtily aristocratic but morally deficient de Courcy class – we met the Countess of that ilk in all her supercilious arrogance in Barchester Towers — and their allies by birth the Greshams (albeit they’ve impoverished themselves, and lack the noble title, and who represent the pastoral gentry), and the rising, irresistible, ambitious bourgeoisie – the professional and merchant-commercial classes.

Ch. 26 is entitled ‘War’ – the conflict between stubborn, proud, middle-class professional Dr Thorne and Lady Arabella Gresham, Frank’s mother, sister of Earl de Courcy, ‘full of the de Courcy arrogance’. The chapter shows Trollope at his serious-comic best: Arabella had earlier defeated the upstart doctor by banishing his daughter from her intimate friendship with the Gresham household because Frank had proposed to Thorne’s daughter Mary, illegitimate and dowry-less, and therefore not a suitable match for the heir to the heavily mortgaged Gresham estate; he’d had his orders – to ‘marry money’ and restore the estate to its own family out of the hands of their creditors.

Encouraged by this apparent victory, she’d come to ‘despise the enemy she had conquered, and to think that the foe, once beaten, could never rally.’ She’s condescended to make a rare visit the doctor’s own house to broaden her anti-Thorne campaign by insisting that ‘all confidential intercourse between [her daughter] Beatrice and Mary’ be ended; the two young women had grown up together in the Gresham household and become close friends, but Arabella fears this intimacy will fortify Mary in her betrothal to the foolish ‘boy’ Frank.

It’s a wonderful scene, consisting mostly of fizzing, sparring dialogue almost as sharp and subtle as any in Jane Austen, as Thorne refuses to acquiesce to her imperious, insulting demands. Lady Arabella is routed this time, ‘not destined to gain any great victory’:

It was not the man’s vehemence that provoked her so much as his evident determination to break down the prestige of her rank, and place her on a footing in no respect superior to his own. He had never before been so audaciously arrogant…

This brilliantly depicted defeat problematizes Trollope’s snobbish assertion in Ch. 1 that the landed gentry represent the highest form of civilisation. The way in which the narrator focalises through Arabella in Ch. 26 serves to highlight her own arrogance; the doctor’s lèse majesté is her perception; Trollope’s ironic narrative voice ensures his readers are on Thorne’s side. The class struggle represented in Dr Thorne is more nuanced and complicated than the simple, polar struggle between good and evil that he appeared to present at the novel’s start.

This post is becoming too long, so I’ll stop there, and continue next time with the portrayal of the flawed hero and not-so-awful villains, and examine this notion of ‘human quality’ further.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 1: narrative voice

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne. Oxford World’s Classics, 1994. First published 1858: the third of the ‘Barsetshire Chronicles’.

Trollope’s fiction has often been dismissed as commonplace, conventional and pedestrian, from his own Victorian period to Leavis and after, of ‘low literary worth’ (as David Skilton points out in this OWC edition Introduction). As Henry James sniffily suggested, ‘With Trollope we are always safe’; sinking into one of his romantic comedies of manners is like ‘sinking into a gentle slumber’; he provides ‘a complete appreciation of the usual’. Virginia Woolf wrote that he provides ‘assurance’: a Valium comfort-novelist who provides a cosy, undemanding warmth. This is unfair. After my uncertain start with The Warden and the superior second Barsetshire Chronicle, Barchester Towers, (links to posts here) I’ve come to value his unconventional, idiosyncratic ironic narrative approach, his slippery,  sometimes over-reactionary moral stance, and the duality/complexity of narrative voice and approach. This might take a few posts to show what I mean.

I’ll start with that narrative voice – more subtle in its intrusions and comments than in the first two in the series, and therefore more insidiously suggestive of that unconventional, disruptive, maybe even pre-modernist inconclusiveness, that draws attention to the artificiality of the novel’s own structural and generic nature in order to justify focusing on richness of characterisation and seriousness of theme.

Trollope Thorne cover

Charity shop price sticker damaged the cover when I peeled it off. It’s a detail from a painting by Richard Redgrave, ‘The Walk from the Church’, 1846

The novel’s first three chapters consist of complicated, and frankly rather tedious introductory back-story, in which the narrator begins by ironically insisting that handsome young gentleman Frank Gresham, heir to the large but financially precarious country estate that his father has dissipated, is not the hero of ‘our tale’. That place is occupied by ‘the village doctor’ – an unusual choice; there aren’t many Victorian fictional heroes from the medical world. Like Dr Watson, they tend to be bit-part players. Those who prefer, our knowingly genial narrator concedes, may choose to favour callow Frank; but as far as this narrator is concerned, Frank serves as window-dressing:

It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshambury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger’.

This ambivalent refusal to admire the genre to which he’s required to conform signals its real focus. He goes on to extol Frank’s creakily stereotypical credentials for this role as romantic pseudo-hero: vigour, good looks, and a ‘pleasant, aristocratic, dangerous curl of the upper lip which can equally express good humour or scorn’. But Trollope is just going through the motions of starting a romantic novel with its familiar ‘inheritance plot’. As EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, ‘oh dear, yes’, the novel must tell a story. That’s Trollope’s view, too. He tells his story, but as early as p. 7 has indicated there’s a happy ending. He deliberately disrupts the mystery element of the plot of this sprawling 600-page triple-decker by giving the game away at the outset. He’s not terribly interested in whether the vapid young heroine, illegitimate and therefore a social pariah, not a suitable match for a young scion of the gentry who must ‘marry money’ to save the family estate, will become a wealthy heiress and enable the lovers to marry and save the family estate (who cares?). Trollope knows his readers expect a teasing plot of that kind, so with grudging irony provides it. But don’t expect him to relish the task; his disdain is palpable. His real interest lies elsewhere.

This is not the conventional Victorian approach to writing the ‘cosy’ realist novel his detractors accuse him of, even the popular light comedy kind; Trollope is more concerned with exploring (admittedly with limited subversive intentions) the social conditions and tensions in his changing, doubt-filled, unstable world of landed gentry and rising middle classes; I’ll consider this aspect in another post. Back to that disruptive narrative voice:

As Dr Thorne is our hero – or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to my readers – and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner.

Really? He knows this is not ‘necessary’. Trollope chooses to get this tedious, predictable plot and character-introduction (preamble to the ‘necessary’ inheritance plot) stuff out of the way so that he can return to his more pressing themes and interesting characters. To counteract the potential tedium he makes a joke of it by foregrounding that shift of possessive pronouns from the grandly inclusive ‘our’ to more personal ‘my’ (ironic echoes perhaps of Jane Austen’s proprietary ‘my Fanny’ in Mansfield Park), thus highlighting the relative frivolity of this conventional aspect of the narrative, and thereby implicitly accusing the superficial romance-loving reader of demanding such undemanding material. This is neatly done, for like all the best ironic-satiric humour, it’s incontestable by the accused reader who demands her/his page-turner and pining lovers. Trollope rolls his eyes and provides that plot, but signposts his (not entirely sincere) distaste for such dross:

I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognized by novelists, myself among the number. 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…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.

I’ve quoted most of this opening to Ch. 2 so you can savour that double-edged self-deprecation, deployed here with feigned ingenuous artlessness that wittily draws attention to its rhetorical artfulness.

Near the end of these ‘dull chapters’ he makes another such joke, by saying he needs to say ‘[a] few words more’ about ‘Miss Mary’ before ‘we rush into our story’ (back to that inclusive ‘we’ again; again he makes a show of suggesting he’s got the reader back on narrative board) with an audaciously inappropriate, romance-deflating metaphor:

…the crust will then have been broken, and the pie will be open to the guests.

Those who want the meaty innards of the suspense-filled rom-com ‘pie’ will just have to put up with the dry, crusty serious stuff. The joke isn’t on the posing-as-humble-and-inept-jobbing author, but on the low-brow reader who demands instant gratification.

He used a similar ironic narrative technique to delightful comic effect in Barchester Towers when he reassured his worried readers early on that Eleanor wasn’t going to marry any of the awful suitors.