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.

 

 

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

First published in 1857, Barchester Towers is the second of the six Chronicles of Barsetshire series of novels. It picks up the story that The Warden related (1855), concerning Septimus Harding’s renunciation of the wardenship of Hiram’s charitable hospital for old men, and the forces of opposing factions that pressed him into that course of (in)action, or urged him to stay on.

Barchester Towers cover

My Oxford World’s Classics paperback has a blemish where the charity shop sticker was peeled off; the illustration is a detail from ‘The Suitor’ by Jean Carolus. Oddly, the figure of the suitor has been cropped out.

This second novel picks up the thread four years on. As I’m about to travel for a few days, I don’t have time to say much about it here, so shall limit myself to a general introductory post. First: it’s a far superior novel to The Warden, which I found morally dubious, even though the story itself was entertainingly told. It’s more than twice as long, and has a wider, more interesting range of characters, some familiar, some new. The morality is now handled with much less clumsiness. There’s so much to say about the novel I may have to do a few posts to do it justice.

I’ll focus here on the opening chapter, ‘Who will be the new bishop?’ – the first of many such questions (ultimately, moral dilemmas) the narrative poses. Archdeacon Grantly, the high church stalwart who’d always been strongly opposed to Harding’s resignation (in all senses of that word), is sitting by his father the bishop’s deathbed. His is the first of a number of those moral dilemmas the novel portrays. The outgoing government administration is ‘well understood’ to favour the son’s succession to the mitre, and the local rumour machine has ‘whispered’ a similar opinion (there were similar whispers and rumours aplenty in The Warden). In many respects this is an improved reprise of that novel – Trollope seems to have realised where he went wrong.

Grantly is an ambitious man. He ‘tried to keep his mind away from the subject, but he could not. The race was so very close.’ For the ministry would be ‘out’ within five days, and the new administration would favour a different candidate. He gazed at his dying father’s ‘still living’ face,

and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death./The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man, sank on his knees by the bedside, and taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

Trollope excels at showing conflicting traits and impulses in his characters, especially at crucial moments like this. Grantly had been presented in The Warden (as I attempted to show in my posts on it) as too worldly and ambitious, so that he bullies those who dare oppose him, like meek, warm-hearted Harding. Here he shows a potential for generosity and, almost, love. He’s not an out and out villain – he will appear a few chapters later.

But just as we warm slightly to this brittle, morally compromised man, Trollope shifts the ground again: the bishop dies, and he needs to get a telegram off immediately if the PM is to be notified and able to make his decision about a replacement before he goes out of office. How to do this without seeming indecently hasty? ‘Now that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost…useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretence of a foolish sentiment.’ That sympathy Trollope had gently adduced for Grantly begins to wane.

Harding enters and comforts him; his dilemma deepens:

But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? how, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father the bishop – to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?

Grantly writes the telegram himself and gets Harding to send it under his own name – so he doesn’t seem too importunate. Harding is surprised to find Grantly, ‘as he thought, so much affected,’ but reluctantly complies.

What’s so satisfying in this scene, and the novel, is Trollope’s adept manipulation of his readers’ responses. We’re coaxed into feeling for Grantly, then let down with a bump as his stronger impulse triumphs over filial love. Look too at that sly aside as Harding surveys his son-in-law’s apparent grief: ‘as he thought’. Our narrator knows more, and hints at it.

There follows the first of many narrative intrusions. A long passage ironically defends Grantly, ostentatiously refusing to condemn him as he grieves – not for his father, but for his lost bishopric:

With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree…A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge…A young diplomate [sic] [is ambitious]…and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish…If we look to our clergymen to be more than men, we shall probably teach ourselves to think that they are less, and can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.

The irony is double-edged. He is censuring Grantly for his vaulting ambition, but acknowledges that he’s a flawed individual, not a representative of the clergy – this is Trollope’s principle; groups cannot be universally judged on the flaws or merits of individual representatives.

He goes on:

Our archdeacon was worldly – who among us is not so? He was ambitious – who among us is ashamed to own ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’? He was avaricious, my readers will say. No – it was not for love of lucre that he wished to be Bishop of Barchester. [He would be rich without it]…But he certainly did desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called ‘My Lord’ by his reverend brethren.

But these hopes, ‘were they innocent or sinful’, were not ‘fated to be realized’. The rhetorical symmetries in that passage are perhaps a little heavy-handed; a greater writer would have done this more subtly. Trollope may not be too interested in subtlety; he’s content to weave in and out of the positions we might normally expect of a narrator of a comedy with a moral message and keep unsettling us. Hence that piquant use of the first person plural: he turns the table on the reader, acknowledging Grantly’s venality, but confronting us with our own – and his. In refusing to preach, Trollope’s narrator demonstrates that moral rectitude is rarely straightforward.

My posts on The Warden are HERE and HERE

 

Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Anthony Trollope (1815-82), The Warden. First published 1855. Oxford World’s Classics 1994.

Trollope’s fourth novel is set in the cathedral town (based in part on Salisbury) of Barchester, and is the first of six in the Barsetshire sequence.

Its subject was highly topical: the ‘malapropriation of church funds’ (p. 24) and other financial/corruption scandals that beset the Church of England in the mid-19C, such as that involving the already wealthy Earl of Guilford’s nepotistically acquired Mastership of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester: from this role he earned an income far greater than the amount allocated for the charity he ostensibly headed (David Skilton’s Introduction gives useful context).

Trollope Warden cover

This rather sweet cover illustration is from ‘The Only Daughter’ by J. Hallyar. It conveys the loving bond between Warden Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

A similarly dubious charitable institution inspires the plot of The Warden. The clergy of Barchester are described in the opening pages as the town’s ‘aristocracy’, and Septimus Harding, precentor of the cathedral for the previous ten years (he’s about sixty as the novel opens) has been appointed by the Bishop as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support. In return for neglible pastoral duties he’s awarded a moderately large annual income of £800 and a pleasant house with garden, while the charity’s supposed beneficiaries, the bedesmen, get a paltry daily allowance (supplemented by 2d daily out of Harding’s own pocket – though this doesn’t make much of a dent in his own income) and a home.

When local physician and ‘strong reformer’ of ‘all abuses’ John Bold takes up the old men’s case, advocating reform of this unjust division of the alms the hospital’s 15C founder surely intended was to benefit the old men, and not the titular head, the stage is set for a contentious and litigious conflict, for Archdeacon Grantly, married to Harding’s elder daughter Susan, is a fierce defender of the church’s reputation, and he enlists the services of the Sir Abraham Haphazard, the highest and toughest QC in the land, a ‘machine with a mind’, driven only by ‘success’, to fight the reformers. Meanwhile a campaigning, reforming newspaper ‘The Jupiter’, based loosely on The Times, takes up the case on the old men’s behalf, printing highly rhetorical and sensational stories that fuel the personified ‘Scandal’ in the town and its ‘murmurs’ and ‘whispers’ about the injustice of the Warden’s position.

To complicate things further, the naively (over-)zealous reformer Bold is in love with Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, and she intervenes on her father’s behalf, knowing he is too mild-mannered and self-effacing to put up a fight for his own benefit.

The novel is charming, amusing and highly entertaining, and written (mostly) with great zest, pace and gentle irony. It’s weakened, however, by Trollope’s tendency to hedge his moral bets. On the one hand, he presents the reforming side as hypocritical, amoral and misguided; Bold, for example, is described thus by the narrator:

There is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others.

Although there’s a whiff of irony in this critique of sanctimonious reformers, it still portrays Trollope’s view: that the church may well have some corrupt or greedy individuals, but that by and large as an institution it would be excessive to reform it from top to bottom; individuals are flawed, not institutions, he seems to suggest. Bold is comforts himself smugly in the ‘warmth of his own virtue’, according to this partial narrator.

On the other hand, the church is presented as a deeply corrupt, decadent institution full of ‘grasping priests’ and ‘gorged on wealth’ that’s badly in need of reform. But again it’s just a few individuals who are singled out for critical appraisal. Chief of these is Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and Bishop’s son; here’s that same ironical first-person, garrulous narrative voice describing him early on:

He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop; he is always the same; he is always the archdeacon; unlike Homer, he never nods…[and has a] sonorous tone and lofty deportment which strikes awe into the young hearts of Barchester, and absolutely cows the whole parish of Plumstead Episcopi [his parish].

‘Sleekness’ is excellent.

Later he’s likened to an ‘indomitable cock’ sharpening his spurs, readying for combat with the Warden, who he perceives as full of weakness and treachery (towards the church and the ‘sacred justice of al ecclesiastical revenues’); his ‘holy cause’ is to defend ‘the holy of holies from the touch of the profane’ and ‘pestilent dissenters’ – the reformers and the insurrectionary, ungrateful bedesmen. Oh, and he secretly reads Rabelais, hiding and locking the salacious book away when visitors call, and pretending instead to be composing sermons.

These bedesmen, largely illiterate old men, like Dickens’s trade unionists in Hard Times, are shown (with one noble but rather sycophantic exception, called Bunce) motivated by avarice rather than a sense of moral rectitude; their advocates are ‘raising immoderate hopes’ in their previously contented minds, and making them ‘hostile’ towards their kindly Warden. Here’s that sententious, floridly oratorical narrative voice on this in ch. 4:

Poor old men! Whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and, above all…a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

This is both disingenuous and patronising – these men are given a pittance to live on, so would benefit greatly from a larger income. Trollope seems to side with the establishment view (like Grantly’s) that money is wasted on the labouring classes – they can’t appreciate the finer things of life, and don’t therefore deserve them. And Trollope ensures at the end that they don’t receive an extra penny when the Warden does the decent, honourable thing and resigns, unable to justify his ‘hated income’; ‘I have no right to be here’, he confesses  (and detects a savour of ‘simony’ in an offer of an alternative living by Grantly near the end) – a stance much to the horror and against the urgings of the hypocritical archdeacon, self-serving lawyers and fake-news-purveyors of the Jupiter.

Rather like Dickens’s equivocal position on social injustice and industrial exploitation of workers in Hard Times,published the previous year, Trollope seems genuinely disconcerted by the injustices he portrays, but can’t bring himself to turn his satirical guns on to the culpable institutions or their representatives. Instead he represents Warden Harding as a meek, saintly, pious and harmless old man, while the warring factions, as I’ve indicated, are all tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Whereas Dickens seems to think that if the poor can just have circuses and be amused, all will be well in the world, Trollope suggests in this novel that if do-gooders just kept their noses out of other people’s business, the few good men like Harding would keep in check the venality and greed of the few bad, weak men who spoil a system which, though flawed, serves pretty well most of the time.

I realise I’ve started off sounding rather negative about this novel; so I need another post to indicate some of this novel’s virtues and delights. And maybe a few more cavils.

A haul of Trollopes – an aside

I don’t usually post these ‘look at these books I just bought’ pieces, but today I can’t resist.

A trip to town yesterday ended with a happy book haul at a charity shop.

Trollope book haul

I wonder what’s the significance of the colour-coded bands at the top of the spine? Different sequences or series of novels? I need to check.

I’ve only read one Trollope novel, and that was The Warden, many years ago. Here in this unprepossessing shop was a complete row of pristine OWC paperbacks of the Barsetshire and Palliser novels.

I toyed with the idea of buying just the first one or two in each series; but at the giveaway price being charged, decided to buy the lot.

It was for a good charitable cause.

All those good intentions not to buy more books…Hope I’m not turning in my dotage into John Major, the lacklustre ex-Prime Minister who named Trollope as one of his favourite authors.

Robert Louis Stevenson Day

13 November is the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, I learned from a post today by Karen at Kaggsysbookishramblings. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died in the Samoan Islands, where he has gone for the sake of his ailing health, in 1894.

Portrait of Stevenson

Photo c. 1880 of RLS from the ‘Knox series’ via Wikimedia Commons

At Karen’s suggestion I’d like to celebrate this fine author’s work with an extract from one of the first of his books I read (some years ago): Travels in the Cevennes with a Donkey. It was one of his first works of literature, an account of his 12-day journey in 1878 over some 200 km in this region of south-central rural France. It was published the following year.

This extract is from the chapter ‘In the valley of the Tarn’. He’s been hiking and camping most days – a practice which baffles the local peasants – sleeping without a tent in an early, rather heavy, cumbersome sleeping bag which requires a recalcitrant and headstrong donkey named Modestine to carry it:

Sleep for a long time fled my eyelids; and just as I was beginning to feel quiet stealing over my limbs, and settling densely on my mind, a noise at my head startled me broad awake again, and, I will frankly confess it, brought my heart into my mouth.

It was such a noise as a person would make scratching loudly with a finger-nail; it came from under the knapsack which served me for a pillow, and it was thrice repeated before I had time to sit up and turn about. Nothing was to be seen, nothing more was to be heard, but a few of these mysterious rustlings far and near, and the ceaseless accompaniment of the river and the frogs. I learned next day that the chestnut gardens are infested by rats; rustling, chirping, and scraping were probably all due to these; but the puzzle, for the moment, was insoluble, and I had to compose myself for sleep, as best I could, in wondering uncertainty about my neighbours.

I was wakened in the grey of the morning (Monday, 30th September) by the sound of foot-steps not far off upon the stones, and opening my eyes, I beheld a peasant going by among the chestnuts by a footpath that I had not hitherto observed. He turned his head neither to the right nor to the left, and disappeared in a few strides among the foliage. Here was an escape! But it was plainly more than time to be moving. The peasantry were abroad; scarce less terrible to me in my nondescript position than the soldiers of Captain Poul to an undaunted Camisard. I fed Modestine with what haste I could; but as I was returning to my sack, I saw a man and a boy come down the hillside in a direction crossing mine. They unintelligibly hailed me, and I replied with inarticulate but cheerful sounds, and hurried forward to get into my gaiters.

OWC edition of Travels with a Donkey

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. and Introduction by Emma Letley (1992)

The Camisards were 18C Protestants who rebelled against the French government; even after their revolt was crushed, the tradition of Protestantism remained strong in the region. Stevenson was fascinated by them, for they reminded him of the Scots Covenanters from the previous century. The reference to Captain Poul concerns a ‘soldier of fortune’ who, Stevenson had written a few pages earlier, captured and killed a renowned Camisard named Séguier (I’m indebted to the notes and Introduction of my OWC edition for these details).