O, lucky Finn. Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, the Irish member. Oxford World’s Classics (1991?) First published as a magazine serial, 1867-68; first book edition, illustrated by Millais (not his best work), 1869

It took me a month to read this huge novel, and another to summon the energy to post about it. Energy was something Anthony Trollope must have had enormous quantities of – he published his first novel in 1847 at the age of 32, and many more followed, sometimes several per year (there were two more, for example, in 1869, when Phineas Finn came out in book form).

The phenomenal rate at which Trollope produced prose fiction came at the cost at times of subtlety and originality. There’s the usual large cast of characters in this novel, but quite a few of them could have been dispensed with at little damage to the fabric or structure of the whole – especially the lower-class characters, who lack the sense of familiarity and sympathy of another prolific Victorian, Dickens.

The cover is from ‘In the Conservatory’ by James Tissot

What I found the most interesting and topical aspect of PF was the portrayal of political life, and in particular of parliamentary life in reform-era England and Ireland. In his Autobiography (1883) Trollope expressed regret at having made his protagonist Irish; this probably reflects the way in which Irish-British politics had become more divisive and volatile in the years that had elapsed after 1869. It’s important for the novel that Phineas is the son of an Irish country doctor, and that his political career suffers its first major crisis as a consequence of his discovery of strong radical convictions about tenant rights and land tenure in his homeland – treated then as a primitive, submissive colony of Britain, another outpost of the exploited Empire.

Politics, then. As early as vol.1, p. 26 (this OWC edition preserves the two-volume structure of the original), Phineas’s cynical politician friend, Fitzgibbon, tells his callow fellow countryman (Phineas is only 25 at the start of the novel), about to set out on his political career, some home truths about the parliamentary system. As Liberals, the two are discussing the faults and merits of their Tory opponents, who at that time held a majority in the Commons. Phineas had objected that under a Tory government, the country got nothing done:

‘As to that, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other [retorts Fitzgibbon]. I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power, – for patronage and pay.’

Much of the political element of the novel (the other element is a tangled web of love and marriage plots, including a duel between two male rivals for a pretty woman – plus a bit of the usual tedious Trollope obsession, fox-hunting) depicts the gradual coming of age of Phineas in this callous, factional world of party politics. He comes to realise that party has to come before principles if he’s to rise to a senior post that paid a salary (MPs at that time were unpaid, hence they had to be rich landowning gentry, or have wealthy sponsors) – a struggle that ultimately forces him to make a self-destructive choice.

That cynical view of British (and American) politics still applies today. During the present crisis it’s apparent that many in government are more interested in keeping in office and eyeing their standing in the polls than in ‘doing something’ for the country.

Phineas is a lucky rather than talented young man. He has little apart from his good looks and pleasant manner to recommend him. He’s fortunate to fall into a ‘pocket borough’ constituency where its aristocratic patron can guarantee his election: ‘The use of a little borough of his own…is a convenience to a great peer’, our narrator says of this as yet unreformed trait of the electoral system in mid-Victorian times.

This luck stays with him for most of the novel – until those pesky convictions enter his head: ‘Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence?’ is the problem he confronts. “But what is a man to do?” he asks an MP colleague late in the novel: “He can’t smother his convictions.” The reply he’s given is witheringly dismissive of such convictions in a young MP – this is the worst of all possible defects, he’s advised.

He’s less lucky in his love life. He falls in love with several women in the course of the narrative, is rejected twice, more successful twice – but again he has to balance expediency or ‘business’ (meaning money to support his career) against romance. One of the women who turns him down does so for similar reasons: she marries a dull but wealthy man to extricate her profligate brother from debt. As a consequence she denies herself a potentially happy love match with Phineas.

It has to be said that his broken heart heals remarkably quickly, and he’s soon in pursuit of another quarry.

The final part of the novel ties up the numerous loose ends in what looks like a hasty and poorly conceived way, and I tended to agree with one of the women who turned down Phineas’s proposal of marriage: his character lacks depth.

The women characters are more interesting (as they were in Can You Forgive Her?). They face the usual dilemma of spirited, intelligent women of the time: their role in society was largelyrestricted to that of domestic goddess and mother. Although Trollope stops short of promoting a ‘new woman’ or suffragist heroine, he shows a great deal of sympathy for the submissive, unfulfilling life that was such women’s destiny. Characters like Phineas’s first love, Lady Laura, yearn to be able to be ‘useful’ and ‘politically powerful’ – but their capacity to be so is denied them.

Despite the rather silly duel and some flimsy characterisation and clunky plotting, this novel is worth reading for the insight into nascent and much needed political reform.

 

 

 

 

June – July in Cornwall and procrastination

I’ve been quite busy with a longstanding work project lately, hence the lack of posts for a while. The other reason for the hiatus has been procrastination: I finished Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t summoned the energy to post about it yet.

Meanwhile I’ve almost finished Elizabeth Bowen’s novel Eva Trout. I chose it as a contrast with the Trollope, but it turned out to be something I’ve not enjoyed much, so I’m not sure I have a post in me about that one, either. Maybe next week I’ll feel more energetic or inspired.

So today some updates on recent walks. Now that the UK lockdown has been relaxed a little we’ve continued, Mrs TD and I, to take walks a short drive away (but the local ones have continued too).

Poppies at PentireLast week the sun shone for two whole days in a row – this hasn’t happened much since May. We took advantage of an afternoon at one of our favourite beaches: Polly Joke. The poppies on the headland above are just coming out; soon the fields there will be a blaze of scarlet and gold (the meadow marigolds). It’s a spiritually uplifting sight.

The surf in this north coast cove was fairly wild after the unsettled weather earlier in the week – and month. It wasn’t exactly a glorious June for weather. The water was very cold.

Surf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spaniel swimming

Spaniel about to emerge after his marathon swim

Yesterday we went to the Roseland peninsula on the south coast. There the sea is always more sedate – not so good for surfing. Also not quite so cold. After a cloudy start, the day turned beautifully sunny about four o’clock. We sat and had a picnic lunch on Porthcurnick beach (near the famous Hidden Hut café). A young man in a wetsuit walked into the water near us followed by his black-and-white spaniel. We thought the dog would turn round and swim back once the guy had swum so far, but he didn’t. We watched in amazement as the pair swam further and further. Right across the bay – and back. A distance of about a mile each way. The owner told us they do this a few times a week. The dog loves it, he said, but not when he was a pup.

PortscathoWe walked back along the coastal path to the nearby village of Portscatho. By this time the cloud was starting to disperse and the water was crystal clear.

We drove on to Carne beach. Like Porthcurnick, it was almost deserted. Two children played in the shallows, watched by their grandmother and parents. No doubt this will all change after Saturday, which our media insists on calling Super Saturday. Hospital EDs are bracing themselves for carnage similar to what they experience usually on New Year’s Eve, as the pubs officially reopen that day. Our doughty prime minister has helped to calm the situation by exhorting us all to go out and enjoy ourselves. Hibernation is over, he crowed. Yaroo.

We no longer need to keep two metres apart: the virus is beaten, defeated. Even though we still have over a thousand new cases a day. The ring of steel around our care homes has done the trick – maybe the virus is just running out of people to infect in them. Pubs and restaurants are safe to open, but not schools, yet. Makes sense, in the minds of our PM, and his Rasputin chief aide, the rule-breaker.

I won’t indulge in another rant. Here’s a picture of Carne instead.

Carne

 

 

Kingfishers, halcyon days, and walks

Last time I mentioned the painted kingfishers on a branch above the river just below my house. In Greek mythology, the bird is known as halcyon. Our expression ‘halcyon days’ derives from the legend that Alkyone or Alcyone and her husband Ceyx angered Zeus by setting themselves up as his equal. Zeus wrecked Ceyx’s ship while he was at sea and he drowned. When she heard the news his wife drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and transformed the couple into kingfishers.

According to other legends, the halcyon laid her eggs on sea rocks or the beach during the winter solstice. Alcyone called upon her father Aeolus, god of the winds (hence Aeolian harp) to produce this period of calm to enable her to care for her brood safely. The expression therefore referred originally to any period of calm weather, then, by extension, to any period of calm and tranquillity.

It’s the feeling we get when we witness a scene like the river in those pictures in my previous post.

A few days ago, when our government in its wisdom relaxed lockdown constraints to allow us to drive to remote places for our walks, I went with Mrs TD to Goss Moor, some ten miles away. It’s a nature reserve on the edge of the area where china clay was once extracted, leaving the landscape scarred with quarries and spoil heaps. This moor is a huge, Fluffy seed headsswampy, pool-filled area of wilderness: lichen-draped trees, reeds and wildlife abound.

It’s a popular cycle and walking trail, being so flat. We saw plenty of these strange fluffy bundles like cotton wool balls. They seem to be the seed heads of certain kinds of reed.

My trusty plant identifier app confidently informs me that the pretty purple-violet flower here is a marsh orchid.marsh orchid

Another day we drove a shorter distance for a walk to one of the tidal creeks on the coast. Not quite the sea, but almost. Many of the neighbourhood houses were guarded by these peculiar plants that resemble miniature Thai temples. They’re called echium pininana, aka giant viper’s bugloss. This popular name apparently derives from the alleged Echiumresemblance of parts of the flowering stem (a favourite haunt of bees) to the head of this snake.

They flourish here in Cornwall, but are more striking than handsome, in my view.

Today we ventured further down the county and had our first walk by the sea since lockdown. This area of dunes is called the Towans. The lighthouse is Godrevy, across the bay from St Ives. This is the one that Virginia Woolf and her family would see from their holiday home Godrevythere. In her novel To the Lighthouse she transposed it to Scotland.

The beautiful weather of the last weeks (halcyon days during the pandemic?) has gone, and it was grey, blustery and much cooler. Still lovely to see the surf and breathe the ozone. A handsome stonechat sat on a gorse bush a few feet from us and sang us a song.

I’m still making glacial progress through Phineas Finn. Just reached one of those tedious foxhunting scenes that Trollope is so fond of. Wish he’d stick to the more interesting parliamentary shenanigans.

Which takes me seamlessly to our illustrious leader of the house of commons, the unctuous Rees-Mogg. He insists on returning to physical co-presence during parliamentary debates, risking the lives of the MPs, and disenfranchising those who have to isolate or who can’t attend for other reasons (carers, etc.). It’s his way of trying to cover up the haplessness of the PM, which has been badly exposed while the chamber is nearly empty for sessions to ensure social distancing, and when the usual braying claque of sycophantic Tory toadies can’t drown out opposition while cheering on the inane blustering of their leader.

With solipsistic narcissists in charge, who will care for the people?

 

 

Comfrey and peacocks

Rural walks continue to be a brief solace in days that resemble each other too closely during this lockdown. At least we can inject a bit of variety by taking different routes, explore new ones. But we’re running out of unexplored country lanes and paths, Mrs TD and I.

Peacock on fenceOne of our default walks takes us past the place where a group of peacocks live. I recently posted a picture of one with his magnificent tail fanned out as he slowly rotated to show himself off to best effect. A couple of days ago there he was – or one of his colleagues – perched rather glumly on a fence. It was a bright sunny day, but he was under trees in dappled shade, so my pictures don’t do justice to his shimmering petrol-blue/green plumage.Peacock on fence

When I checked the origin of the name at the OED online, I wasn’t surprised to see the ‘pea’ element has nothing to do with the legume. What did surprise me was that it derives ultimately from the Latin name, pavo. I recognised this as the modern Spanish for ‘turkey’. OK, so peacocks do slightly resemble these fan-tailed strutters – so what’s the Spanish for ‘peacock’? Turns out it’s ‘pavo real’ – royal turkey. Figures.

ComfreyAlong another lane I came across this pretty blue flower. My plant identifier app informed me it was comfrey.

I vaguely recalled hearing this plant was traditionally used medicinally; a quick search online confirmed this. Its old name was knitbone, alluding to its healing properties when used as a poultice for healing burns, sprains and broken bones. It is also said to be beneficial when taken internally as a potion to treat symptoms of stomach ailments. I was alarmed therefore to read that it also has toxic qualities, and this internal use has been banned in the USA.

Its name in Latin, according to the OED online, is consolida or conferva – reflecting its healing properties. The etymology of the English word is unknown, but the earliest citation from c. 1000 refers to it as confirma(n), and this might be where ‘comfrey’ derives from.

I liked this later OED citation:

1578    H. Lyte tr. R. Dodoens Niewe Herball  i. ciii. 145   The rootes of Comfery..healeth all inwarde woundes, and burstings.

I shudder to think what inward burstings are.

Also pleasing was the description in this OED entry of comfrey as a vulnerary – employed in healing wounds, or having curative properties in respect of external injuries. A useful word, as Dr Johnson might have said.

My reading progress is slow still. I’m up to p.160 of Anthony Trollope’s second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn. I’m enjoying it so far, especially the spooky parallels with modern political hypocrisy and chicanery. Nothing much has changed in the power elite. Recent events in Britain demonstrate that there’s still one set of rules for them, and another, harsher one for the plebs. Our political leaders feign caring for us, but have during this crisis increasingly failed to disguise their arrogant contempt for the ordinary people.

End of rant.

Trollope, pubs and gin

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Post number 2

As this disturbing period of enforced social isolation intensifies, I find myself able again to engage with the online literary blogging world, and to offer my own attempt at keeping our spirits up.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her cover

The cover image is from the painting ‘Yes’ by Millais – a young woman shown replying to her lover’s proposal of marriage – such a prominent theme in Trollope novels

Last time I wrote about the key sequence in Trollope’s 1865 novel Can You Forgive Her? in which the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald sees a mirror image of himself in the teenage beggar girl who accosts him in the street to solicit money with which to buy drink. For perhaps the first time in his life he shows compassion and generosity towards a person in distress, and takes her to a pub to buy her a meal.

I was interested in H.K. Browne’s illustration of this scene in the first edition of 1864 (vol. 1, for which Browne did all twenty illustrations; vol. 2 came out the following year, illustrated by a Miss Stevens). Browne, aka Phiz, is best known as one of the main illustrators of ten of Dickens’ novels. In this image he reins in a little his tendency to crude caricature, and shows rare sympathy for Trollope’s more restrained mode of novel-writing than Dickens’.

He depicts Burgo, whom the girl had ingenuously gasped was too ‘beautiful’ to be as poor as her when she confronted him in Oxford Street, in a sleazy working-class pub, the centre of admiring attention.

Here’s how the scene is narrated:

He took her to a public-house and gave her bread and meat and beer, and stood by her while she ate it. She was shy with him then, and would fain have taken it to a corner by herself, had he allowed her. He perceived this, and turned his back to her, but still spoke to her a word or two as she ate.

It seems odd that she’s standing to eat, but this is presumably a feature of such a low pub: the only seat depicted is a barrel on which sits one of the male customers. The passage continues to describe the striking effect Burgo has on the others in the pub, not just the women:

HK Browne's illustration to ch. 29 of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The woman at the bar who served him looked at him wonderingly, staring into his face; and the pot-boy woke himself thoroughly that he might look at Burgo; and the watermen from the cab-stand stared at him; and women who came in for gin looked almost lovingly up into his eyes. He regarded them all not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler.

Browne conveys all this skilfully, marking the social status of each figure with his usual eye for telling detail: the unkempt clothes, hirsute faces and scruffy hats and clay pipes of the water-cabmen; the shabby-chic hats, bonnets and hints of alcohol-flushed cheeks and addled eyes of the gin-drinking women; the young girl’s clothing, described in the earlier street scene, quoted in my previous post, is suitably impoverished.

Her attempt to shrink away into invisibility as she eats is poignantly drawn, and hints at the similar attempts of the two main romantically conflicted female characters, Alice and Lady Glencora, to do the same in their struggle with the competing courtship of their ‘wild men’ and dour, upstanding and insensitive rivals. Women of all ranks, this scene shows, have no possibility of independence or freedom of choice. The only options open to them lead to self-effacement, entrapment and nothingness.

Browne does give an indication of Burgo’s arrogance and selfishness in the exaggeratedly weak chin, the arch expression, and the louche, lazy pose as he leans complacently on the bar, clearly relishing the undisguised adoration, even as he ostensibly disregards it. He’s clearly used to it:

He regarded them not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler [slang for arrogant swaggerer].

Burgos morally ambiguous behaviour here, and the portrayal of the darker aspects of Victorian society, is narrated (and drawn by Browne) with deft irony – a very different tone from the bucolic comedy in the Barsetshire novels. After paying for her meal, Burgo gives the young woman enough money to pay for a bed for the night, provided she promises not to spend it on gin. If only he showed as much fellow-feeling in his dealings with other people in his life. He could be a decent man, as the start of the final paragraph of this chapter suggests:

Poor Burgo! All who had seen him since life had begun  with him had loved him and striven to cherish him. And with it all, to what a state had he come! Poor Burgo! had his eyes been less brightly blue, and his face less godlike in form, it may be that things would have gone better with him…

I was interested in the two barrels on a shelf high up behind the bar. I assumed they held beer or wine, but one of them has the words ‘Old Tom’ painted on it (I’m afraid the detail isn’t very sharp as reproduced here). After a bit of online digging I discovered this was a make of cheap and potent gin, hence its popularity with the urban poor.

This seems to be one of Browne’s signature details: he habitually inserted an emblematic feature or two into his illustrations to give the reader visual hints at how to interpret the action that the narrative may or may not have made clear.

Back to Old Tom. In researching this online I came across this fascinating essay at the Victorian London website: ‘A Night with Old Tom’, by James Greenwood (1881, first published 1875). It’s too long to quote from here, but if you’re interested in sketches of Victorian London’s seamier side, and a footnote to this scene in Trollope, I’d recommend it.

I’d also recommend exploring the Victorian Web site. It has readable academic studies of Trollope, and the Pallisers in particular, as well as a great selection of useful material on social history; in the context of the penniless girl who Burgo takes pity on, see the sections related to gender matters and prostitution (although it’s not explicit in Trollope’s narrative that she is a sex worker). See also there the links to the prolific and hugely popular Victorian author George WM Reynolds, and in particular his 1845 novel The Mysteries of London. V Web has a chilling extract in which girls as young as eleven or twelve are trafficked by a sort of female Fagin; she then uses them as entrapment tools for blackmailing the ‘elderly voluptuar[ies]’ who were their unwitting customers. Sinister stuff.

Meanwhile, try to stay safe.

 

Can you forgive Anthony Trollope?

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Oxford World’s Classics, 1991. First published 1864-65

Here I am, back again after another long silence. Work again kept me away from reading and posting. The work project is now finished, and there’s a slight pause before the next one begins, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to catch up. Particularly while the world is going crazy; here in the UK we’re fast approaching lockdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her coverI don’t want to summarise the plot, as that’s not the most exciting or original feature of this first in the series of Palliser novels. Its interest lies mainly in Trollope’s dealing with the theme of women’s powerlessness, especially in their marital position (pretty much the only kind of social relation open to them at the time). In brief, there are three linked marriage stories, all of them involving women making potentially unforgivable choices. Alice Vavasor breaks off two engagements, first to an amoral swine, her cousin George, who betrays her in every conceivable way, and then to upstanding but dry John Grey.

More interesting is the story of Lady Glencora, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with the emotionally arid Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the dukedom of Omnium, who first appeared in the Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, about which I posted here. She’s still attracted to another caddish swine, the admirably named Burgo Fitzgerald, with whom she had a love affair before her marriage. He’s a beautiful, reckless parasite: ‘Every man to himself’ is his motto. Like George with Alice, he’s desperate to get his hands on this woman’s money.

Third is Alice’s lively middle-aged aunt, courted by, yes, another contrasting pair, a dull braggart miserly landowner-farmer and a dashing, amoral waster. You can see how these women’s dilemmas in choices of men produce the title of the novel; each choice they make is largely determined by the contrasting impulses of heart and head, in that context of their subservient positions socially.

Alice muses what a woman should do with her life; women lacked power and agency in an English world still decades away from universal suffrage, and everyone lacked political agency in a Parliamentary system that’s skewed to favour the wealthy males of the landowning and aristocratic classes. Trollope shows some interest in the plight of women in the sexual politics of the era, but like Gissing in The Odd Women, his sympathy for them in their desire for independence and autonomy is limited. But he’s not entirely incapable of sympathy for the disadvantaged, as we shall see.

What I want to focus on here is perhaps the best scene in this very long, prolix novel (the fox-hunting scene is too tedious for words). In ch. 29, the mercenary cad Burgo has been thwarted in his attempt at a party to lure Glencora into eloping with him. As he walks home his thoughts centre as usual on himself. He feels sorry for himself, as he sees his chances of netting the wealthy prize slip away. But he also starts to feel something resembling remorse: ‘He thoroughly despised himself.’ Could there possibly be, even for him,

…some hope of a redemption…some mode of extrication from his misery? 

He even realises that despite the allure of her money, he’d learned to love Glencora. His misery is almost real. He even strives to justify his attempt to persuade her to commit adultery with him by framing it as saving her from a miserable life with a man she doesn’t love. He persuades himself that her husband has less right to her love than he does, who truly loves her (insofar as he’s capable).

As he walks home from the party, he crosses into Oxford Street, in central London, where:

A poor wretched girl, lightly clad in thin raiment, into whose bones the sharp freezing air was penetrating, asked him for money. Would he give her something to get drink, so that for a moment she might feel the warmth of her life renewed?

Burgo is about to pass her by without a thought, well used to such a ‘petition’,

But she was urgent, and took hold of him. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘if it’s only a penny to get a glass of gin! Feel my hand – how cold it is.’ And she strove to put it up against his face.

He sees that she is very young, perhaps sixteen at most, and had been ‘very lately…exquisitely pretty.’ A look of the ‘pure innocency’ and faith that she must have had until just a year ago still lingers in her eyes.

And now, at midnight, in the middle of the streets, she was praying for a pennyworth of gin, as the only comfort she knew, or could expect!

Even though that exclamation mark probably reflects Burgo’s point of view, as he’s the focalisation at this point, I think that this is the bluff clubman narrator’s voice, the one that’s usually so urbane and aloof. Can Trollope possibly be expressing some compassion here for the urban poor – and a girl who’s probably soliciting men who look rich for money in return for sexual favours – in a manner we tend to associate more with Dickens? It seems so.

For Burgo stops to talk to her:

‘You are cold!’ said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.

‘Cold!’ said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer, in her rags, as she shivered.

I don’t read this gesture of hers as seductive, but more an instinctive attempt to gain some animal warmth (and kindness) from the well-wrapped gentleman.

‘Oh God! If you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world – not one penny, not a hole to lie in!’

‘We are alike then,’ said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. ‘I also have nothing. ‘You cannot be poorer than I am.’

‘You poor!’ she said. And then she looked up into his face. ‘Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.’

He laughs again, but in a different tone – surely one less cynical, self-pitying and callous. He says he will give her money provided it’s for something to eat. And he takes her to a pub for something to eat and drink.

I hope you agree that this is a touching scene, and better crafted than Trollope’s usual dashed-off narrative technique. Burgo is shown as a more complex, sympathetic character. By that I mean in his sympathy for the girl (the etymology of ‘sympathy’: sharing her suffering, unselfishly for once), and my feeling a touch of fleeting sympathy for him (it doesn’t last). He redeems himself for a short time in this scene.

And it seems to me achieved by Trollope in a less melodramatic, sentimental way than Dickens, usually Trollope’s superior as a novelist in every way, would have done it (and they do have radically different novelistic intentions and styles). Trollope rarely depicts the poor with any kind of profound understanding, sincerity or fellow-feeling, but he manages it here.

Next time I want to say a little more about that pub, and gin.

 

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington again

I hadn’t intended returning to Anthony Trollope’s fifth Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, after my post about it last time. But I felt I needed to indicate some of its strengths I didn’t have space for there.

Trollope is after all a writer of romantic comedies (though his interest in power struggles is more to his liking), and he can be pretty funny. In this scene the ghastly Lady de Courcy, whose snobbish cynicism has been portrayed in several of the earlier novels in the series, is visited by her daughter Lady Alexandrina, who’s come to complain about her ‘sufferings’ with her new husband. This is Crosbie, who’d jilted ‘dear Lily’ in favour of what he thought to be a more desirably glittering member of an aristocratic family, better suited to his ambitions as a ‘swell’ in fashionable London society – then quickly regrets his decision when his bride’s brittle coldness becomes apparent. (Their mutual contempt is shown with delightful dryness by Trollope even as they leave for their honeymoon and they each take out reading matter in the train to avoid having to converse.)

“Oh, mamma! you would not believe it; but he hardly ever speaks to me.”

“My dear, there are worse faults in a man than that.”

 

Lady de Courcy tells Alexandrina that she is to go to Baden-Baden indefinitely in order to escape from her increasingly boorish, goutish, abusive husband, the earl. She announces melodramatically to her unsympathetic daughter:

“Another year of it [life with the earl] will kill me. His language has become worse and worse, and I fear every day that he is going to strike me with his crutch.”

She hadn’t intended taking the daughter with her, and clearly resents the implicit request to join her in her escape:

She had endured for years, and now Alexandrina was unable to endure for six months. Her chief grievance, moreover, was this, – that her husband was silent. The mother felt that no woman had a right to complain of any such sorrow as that. If her earl had sinned only in that way, she would have been content to have remained by him till the last!

Great stuff.

In an earlier scene Johnny Eames, the annoyingly earnest, ingenuous young man who’d loved Lily since they were children together, has to do some enduring of his own. Lily’s engagement to Crosbie had been announced, and the dashing intruder ‘swell’ from London, his hated and now more successful rival, is on a visit to his mother’s humble home from the grander surroundings of the ‘big house’ at Allington where he was staying.

Crosbie reveals an early sign of his capacity for unpleasantness beneath the Apollonian surface: he haughtily refuses all of the flustered, awe-struck Mrs Eames’s offered refreshments, partly from snobbishness at the humble simplicity of this country cottage and hostess, and also because he knows of the son’s hopeless love for his fiancée, and ‘despises’ him for it.

Mrs Eames implores him with her eyes to accept a piece of cake ‘to do her so much honour.’ Understanding that the poor woman would be ‘broken-hearted’ if they all behaved so high-handedly, Lily and her sister Bell take some of the ‘delicacies’. And here Trollope shows his hand:

The little sacrifices of society are all made by women, as are all the great sacrifices of life. A man who is good for anything is always ready for his duty, and so is a good woman always ready for a sacrifice.

True, it’s hardly a great sacrifice, and there’s some irony here; but it’s a telling act of kindness by the Dale sisters, showing compassion for an honest, anxious woman who is suffering at the treatment of a callous cad who is supposed to be a gentleman – one who knows his ‘duty’, and is displaying here and about to show in his treatment of Lily his contempt for all that being a gentleman entails.

I hadn’t thought of Trollope as a humourist before starting these Barsetshire novels, even less as a proto-feminist. Although he does rather disappointingly often portray women characters as stereotypical ‘angels’, in these later novels he’s showing his ability to create complex, interesting ones, too (Amelia Roper is one of several in this novel), and narrative sympathy for their not always happy lot in Victorian society. And he can be very funny.

We get to meet Plantagenet Palliser here, too, who is to feature in the next series of novels, to which I hope to turn fairly soon. Kindly old Septimus Harding pops up unexpectedly, too (along with several others from the earlier novels), tellingly in the company of the treacherous Crosbie. The handsome young cad doesn’t show up well in this saintly company either.

Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

[Warning: for those who have yet to read this novel I dwell on what might be considered spoilers here]

This fifth novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, published 1862-64, is different from its predecessors. Anthony Trollope refrains from giving his central female character the happy ending enjoyed by the romantic ladies in the previous marriage plots. There are some satisfactory matches made, but here he seems more interested in other matters.

Lily Dale is that unfortunate young lady. In Trollope’s now familiar authorial voice he says as early as p. 14 that she’s ‘dear Lily Dale’ –

For my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him [sic] if he do not love Lily Dale.

The narrative goes on to portray her on first meeting Adolphus Crosbie, the morally slippery and caddish London visitor to their idyllic rural ‘small house’, shrewdly identifying him as a ‘swell’ – then promptly falling in love with him. Although the narrator quickly assures us he is not ‘altogether a bad fellow’, it’s clear he’s not good husband material for her:

He was not married. He had acknowledged to himself that he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money. He had put aside from him, as not within his reach, the comforts of marriage…

Lily has no money. Crosbie has just £700 and a small patrimony – not enough for him to marry a dear, delightful but penniless girl and carry on living the lavish bachelor life he enjoys in swanky London society. It’s not hard to figure where this is going. Lily is not destined, like some earlier versions of her in Trollope, to find herself conveniently a wealthy heiress in the final act, thus rendering her eligible to handsome, weak-willed predators like Crosbie.

Clues were given a few pages earlier:

I do not say that Mr Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments…among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen – to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action.

Those other ‘young gentlemen’ are neither heroic nor very interesting, and Trollope predictably provides them with bad first choices for wives, then most of them see the light and marry the right young ladies. In resisting the temptation to do this with Crosbie and Lily he darkens the tone that had threatened to become twee and formulaic in the earlier Barsetshire novels.

I found the non-romantic, older characters the most engaging, especially truculent Squire Dale. He’s the owner of both the Allington houses, having inherited his estate with £3000 per annum (Trollope as usual tells us exactly what his main characters are worth; with the younger ones in particular this has important consequences for their marriage prospects – see Crosbie above).

Trollope is getting better at creating complex conflicted characters like Dale. Earlier examples were also among the most interesting in the novels they appeared in, from henpecked Bishop Proudie representing the clergy, and sottish Roger Scruton among the uncultured rich, to Lady Lufton, of the more cultured but imperious variety.

It’s with Christopher Dale, squire in the big house at Allington, that the novel opens, and this is an indication of the importance of the role he’s going to play. In some respects he can be seen as the nearest thing to a true (if imperfect) ‘hero’ in the novel. He’s described at such length in the opening pages and subsequently that I can’t quote much here. It’s clear that he’s a flawed individual, having annoyed his fellow squires by flirting with politics (and failing) as a Liberal, even though he’s as Conservative at heart as they are (this political factionalism had become increasingly prominent in the earlier novels). More importantly, he’d suffered from an unrequited love:

In his hard, dry, unpleasant way he had loved the woman; and when at last he learned to know that she would not have his love, he had been unable to transfer his heart to another.

Not only does this help account for his irascible behaviour towards his dependent, impoverished relatives in the small house (and most other people), it foreshadows the bad choices and cynical or more judicious ‘transfers of heart’ that are to come in some of those fickle young ladies and gentlemen mentioned above. The portrait continues:

A constant, upright, and by no means insincere man was our Christopher Dale, – thin and meagre in his mental attributes…but yet worthy of regard in that he had realized a path of duty and did endeavour to walk therein. And, moreover, our Mr. Christopher Dale was a gentleman.

A ‘gentleman’ marks him as potentially good; Trollope doesn’t use this term lightly. And ‘duty’ is a key theme in all the novels in the series so far – usually seen in the context of penniless young ladies or gentlemen ensuring that they marry well and thereby keep their families financially buoyant, while ‘transferring their hearts’ without being too mercenary.

There follows a long description of his appearance – Trollope often gives an almost phrenological portrait, as here. Dale’s face is ‘destroyed by a mean mouth with thin lips’, and so on. These features

forbad you also to take him for a man of great parts, or of a wide capacity.

All of this helps explain his contrariness and petulance with others. When he drives away his nephew, who is effectively a son to him, he complains sorely, “He cannot bear to live with me”, without examining how he’d alienated the man. Similarly he treats Lily’s family so high-handedly that her mother can’t bear to dine with him, though she encourages her girls to do so; he is largely responsible for causing Crosbie to jilt Lily by refusing to settle the dowry on her that would have satisfied his swell’s need for a wife with money. So the narrator’s remark that he treats his nieces

with more generosity than the daughters of the House of Allington had usually received from their fathers – and they repelled his kindness, running away from him, and telling him openly that they would not be beholden to him…

is really an insight into how he perceives himself – it’s a bit of free indirect thought, not objective narrative comment. Unable to stop himself treating them imperiously, he then feels let down when they react as they do.

These ‘bitter thoughts’ reflect his maudlin tendency to see his relationships as doomed, because

he accused himself in his thoughts rather than others. He declared to himself that he was made to be hated, and protested to himself that it would be well that he should die and be buried out of memory, so that the remaining Dales might have a better chance of living happily; and then as he discussed all this within his own bosom, his thoughts were very tender, and though he was aggrieved, he was most affectionate to those who had most injured him. But it was absolutely beyond his power to reproduce outwardly, with words and outward signs, such thoughts and feelings.

This subtle psychological probing is where Trollope is gaining in prowess as a novelist. We get too little of it in his depiction of the central, supposedly most interesting characters (ie those in the romantic plots). His half-serious declarations, in the earlier novels, that he had little interest in plotting, are now not so openly stated; instead he just goes ahead and creates rounded characters like Dale. Lily, Crosbie and the rest of them play their parts to fill out their scenes; the public demanded such romantic comedy of him, and he churned it out. But he also wrote characters like this one, showing where his true authorial interest and skill lay.

Dale’s self-pity and wallowing in the consequences of his gruffness are reflected in Lily’s bizarre loyalty to the man who callously breaks her heart. It might annoy or upset readers who want a nice neat ending for the heroine, but thematically and psychologically it’s more like reality and less like the novels that Lily and her sister discuss in a revealing metafictional scene. Such novels are ‘too sweet’, says the more sensible Bell, who doesn’t like them; they’re not ‘real life’.

Lily takes the opposite view:

That’s why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.

She’s just ghost-written her own sad future and shown her fatal flaw. Like her uncle the squire, she’s too much of a Dale – unswerving to the point of rigidity once she’s decided something, but not good at analysing her own or other people’s characters. Unfortunately for her that decision was to give her heart to Crosbie. She’s a self-created victim, like her uncle.