Tyrone House, a ruined manor house in Galway
Dear friends and readers,
With a friend on the Net reading along too, and both commenting on Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo, last night I finished rereading The Macdermots of Ballycloran, Trollope’s first published novel (1847). We agreed it’s an “astonishing book:” It has some marks of a first promising novel, unsteady in its focus, the texture of its sentences simpler, less packed than say the style of the late The Way We Live Now ; it’s his only longer novel not to have a multi-plot, and the intensity of passion in the story would later have probably led Trollope to make it a novella (like say a later Irish book, An Eye for an Eye or say one of the sister-novellas, Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel). But it also presents content much more daring and politically sensitive than he ever does again. That it failed with the public at the time (middle class English) made him shy away from such treatments of his characters and stories.
I have written about this in my book, Trollope on the ‘Net in the context of a group read in 1995 (something like 20 people) and Trollope’s other Anglo-Irish novels and don’t want to repeat what I said there — at least not exactly. There I stressed the autobiographical context: Larry as Trollope’s mad, sick father; his bonding with Thady, while shaping what I write below in terms of the group read.
It is necessary to get the right text — the first one published in 1847 — for the later ones change the Irish brogue-style to middle class Victorian English with Irish lilt, cut three chapters and bowdlerized the story of the heroine, Feemy Macdermot. Two of the missing chapters focus on one of the book’s heroes, the character we most love, Father John, an Irish priest and may have been cut because of prejudice against Irish Catholic priests presented so favorably and effectively; the third, the last chapter, as necessary as the full trial scenes because the book is not just the tragedy of a single man and the pathos of his sister’s end, but about the circumstances, people, condition that led to it — about Irish and English society. Like his later books social and political analysis extends the meaning of the story.
You can find a short and accurate enough summary of the story and Trollope’s conscious aims at wikipedia. As in a number of the blogs I’ve written about books read and commented on on-line over a number of weeks, I here record thoughts I had as we went along.
The opening 6 chapters telling us how Trollope came to write the book (he came upon an “unnatural ruin” of a mansion in Drumsna), its mood, and introducing our main characters is told with quiet simplicity. The portrait of Ussher, the corrupt exciseman (a police officer) who enjoys arresting people for “crimes” (making liquor) whose sale he takes profits from is a real person, physically daring, thinking himself immortal, an instinctive bully, just the type hired today to act out the colonialist regimes around the world. when I was a young girl growing up in the Bronx I saw many a police officer on the take. Just like Ussher they would put people in jail for doing and selling drugs, at the same time they took a cut at many of the sales and encouraged violence when it was in their interest. Corrupt cops have a long history. They are still with us in new forms and (alas) growing respect for the wrong reasons. As far as I’m concerned Ussher is going to get his just deserts because he’s too arrogant to realize he’s not immortal and valued.
Feemy is already pregnant. That’s why Father John, is urging her brother, Thady, our primary hero, to urge Feemy to get the Captain to marry her. Beyond his position of power and relative access to money, he is the father of a coming baby. We are told they had sex very quickly: “she had given all she had … to him” (Ch 6, p. 46 in the Trollope Society edition). Here’s where it’s plain from a less direct euphemism she needs him to marry her or she’s shamed and disgraced, and risks ending up a prostitute: “people had for some time been saying that he meant to marry Feemy. They now began to say that he ought to do so” (Ch 3, Trollope Society edition, p 15) Pat Brady has told Thady before he goes to Father John that the captain is boasting about what he does: “the Captain doesn’t spake that dacently of Miss Feemy … ” (p. 15).
What I most admire about this first text is the truth he tells of this young girl. In most portraits of his heroines they never have sex with the man before marriage; Lily Dale he’s afraid to make it clear. Sigmund Eisner had a great posting showing she must have — but it’s not even given these euphemisms. Because when the woman does have sex outside marriage, she’s treated as a vile thing, a corrupted polluted woman and it’s implied only such have sex outside marriage. Here for once and almost the only time we get a real portrait of a girl having sex with a man as they did in that era and ours and we see how he treats her under the system of men allowed to badger and seduce women and women blamed and castigated and outcast. Trollope treats her as a real human being not “other.” I really bond with Feemy; the experience here is one I know and know my friends knew and still know.
I also love the portrait of Father John. He remains one of my favorite characters, his total lack of pretense, his readerly ways, his love (as we shall see) for Thady. Father John embodies values that Trollope’s fiction projects: he is genuinely humane, loyal to friends, kind, he’s no careerist, he loves to read, nothing phony or showing off, insightful, wise. What interests me as a person who likes Trollope is that if we say Trollope made two starts, first with Irish and serious political and tragic too fiction (Macdermots, Ballycloran — La Vendee the hero dies at mid-point), and then with an Engilsh fable, also political but this time a comic ending in the sense that Mr Harding displays supreme moral courage at the close — in both for me he has a key character I love each time he appears again.
Father John shows himself to be an astute politician. He is unlike Mr Harding who simply opts out; Mr Harding does not maneuver; insofar as he can he tells truth or he falls silent. Not so Father John. We have first seen him trying to induce Thady to understand he must do something about Feemy and that something should now probably be a promise of marriage from Ussher. Now when McGovery and Cullen come to him with what he knows (we discover after the scene is over) somewhat exaggerated versions of the truth, he denies what they say is at all probable. Note he does not say it didn’t happen, but instead using his authority and prestige get them to shut up. What he knows more than instinctively is this story of Thady joining the Ribbonmen (however tenuously and when drunk and angry) and threatening to kill Ussher can do Thady no good; may do him great harm. Anyway he does not believe Thady means to kill Ussher — which he doesn’t. We see Thady calm down when confronted with his sister and Ussher in his own urge to get her home, out of the public sight, protect her. Father McGrath also insinuates to both men that Keegan is to be stayed away from (the lawyer who wants the property and will use evidence where he finds it).
Trollope’s first good man is a better politician than Plantagenet Palliser. He is then off to Mrs McKeon to perform something harder: he’s got to convince her to take Feemy in in such as way that will not rouse Feemy’s suspicions she’s being removed from Ussher’s grasp. Father McGrath does sense Feemy could run away with Ussher. This is a hard task because he’s got to fight unwritten deep ideology: Feemy is pregnant, has transgressed and Mrs McKeon will not want her in her house or near her daughters.
In chapter 15 he’s hard at work not only getting Mrs McKeon to take Feemy in, but to act as a mother and guardian and try herself to help pressure Ussher into doing the “right thing,” marrying the girl instead of boasting about his prowess and ruining her reputation further.
So it’s not just a sentimental attachment or his values that makes me rate Father Mc Grath high.
It is interesting Trollope has chosen a Catholic priest. In my book I say he is kind to them in Kellys & OKellys by showing how hypocritical and manipulative are the Protestants who would keep food from Catholics to make them convert. Not for Trollope is the first concern with religion note. I also argue at length that Trollope found himself in Ireland, got over his long depressive state, and became energized. He says this in his Autobiography and he was ever after grateful. One of his stories also shows a fondness for Catholic priests. Maybe he had a good friend — he makes McGrath a reader too.
Chapter 8 gives us a real depiction of how a girl might really feel where a young man has taken advantage of her love for him and she cannot get herself to see that he does not love her and does not mean to marry her. Feemy is treated with real sympathy and respect by Trollope: she is clearly intelligent as is her friend, Mary, about to be married. We also from them get a franker account of the fears one might have of the marriage state were one a girl than Trollope provides afterwards. Father John’s inability to reach her and the vexed give-and-take is a dialogue that could have really happened in the US in the 1950s.
Trollope is not thinking how to or whether he will please the reader in the way he does later. The opening chapter insisting on how this is a story of “wrong, oppression, misery and despair” to me shows this novelist’s first deepest impulse. Trollope had to sell his books and when he was ridiculed, ignored, he learnt to repress in the case of women or present indirectly in the case of men the politics of state power as it works out in individual lives. Chapter 9: Is there any where any description of what Ireland was at the time to beat this and it’s set in the context of the absentee landlords and how they behaved. Extraordinary the iron pen which could get down this family of totally abysmal nothingness who yet pay rent for their hovel. They are eating potatoes and milk.
Pat Brady is quietly instigating Joe Reynolds to kill Ussher for understandable reasons. Ussher has deliberately put innocent and supposed guilty people he found making malt into jail and imposed a fine that is just beyond them, but not quite. Why? if they manage to pay it, he gets the money. He also gets a kickback for selling drink at a later stage and of course enjoys drinking it himself. At the same time he enjoys bullying and threatening everyone. He is a typical colonial police officer put before us. Joe can see that Thady would do better to join with him and the tenants than try to keep getting rent they can’t pay from them, but Thady himself wants to identify with the establishment and in fact does. We see how Thady is having a web woven around him by the pressures and needs of those around him, themselves reacting to the evil arrangements of the time. Joe says he will offer to help Thady offset Flannelly and Keagan and if they work together the other two will never get their hands on Thady’s lands, but the laws are of course on the side of Flannelly and Keagan. This is how people became ribbonmen — the “terrorists” of their time.
Trollope has given us enough to see that Pat is working both sides, keeping supposedly friendly with Ussher while plotting to get others to remove him.
There’s a powerful earthiness to it all — only equaled in some of the short stories (“Malachi’s Cove”), other Irish tales (An Eye for an Eye again).
Chapter 10 powerful — I suggest that’s because Thady finally emerges as a felt presence. I know he’s there with Father John and attempts to reason with Feemy and we see him in his “rental” office (a space in a hovel) but in none of these do we have the sense of his presence as we do in Chapter 10 when he speaks out. Keegan, the rent collector for Flannelly, is there simply to take that property. He proposes to give the old man 1 pound a week and that’s it, nothing for Feemy. And Thady sees this and brings it out at the conclusion. Larry sees the attempt to seize the property all along.
The plot thickens and you can see how the “noose” of the mole, Thady’s steward, Brady is using connection to the Ribbonmen is tightening around Thady; how Brady is luring him on to join so he can betray him later on — and thus win something from Keegan and Flannelly.
Thady’s remuninations as he considers his position more widely. He is the young man caught up understandably in a violent revolutionary group unable to get out — Father John is trying to help but is still not going to be there when Reynolds and Brady come to get Thady to come with them. Thady does not want to murder anyone though the truth of his rage is it’s also strong against Keegan who beat and humiliated him and threatens his property.
I agree Ussher does not deserve to be murdered. Nor does anyone deserve capital punishment. But certain kinds of behavior are so threatening that the people in a community who are desperate may feel that only by ridding themselves of the man can they be safe, and it’s precisely this kind of behavior Ussher is practising when he puts in jail people who are basically guiltless of any crime. How can the Reynolds brothers ever feel safe against Ussher. He will trump up any crime and he will be believed. Prisons were terrible places in the 19th century, hard labor, bad food, terrible conditions. Even worse than the hovels these people are living in.
The Reynolds are in the position of black people down south who rightly don’t feel safe. Of course murdering the people who are the great threats only makes things worse for all. Irish people let’s recall emigrated in huge numbers in the 19th century. But not everyone has the wherewithal to emigrate or feels free to or just is the type to try. I like Tyler’s citation of Ghandi but I have read that Indian liberation came about for many reasons beyond Ghandi; he was a lightening rod around which others gathered.
On revolution: sometimes it’s only by violence that you can get the harsh injustices of a powerful group in charge to stop. I’m convinced slavery would not have gone away for decades (if ever) had there not been a civil war. If one reads the social history of the US in the first half of the 19th century the violence over slavery was frequent because it hurt the lower orders who were not enslaved, destroyed the economies of free societies but they were not in charge. Many people up north made a lot of money through the slave system by connecting their business interests to the wealthy producers of cotton and indigo down south. When I gave a paper on the Poldark novels – where the hero does lead a scavenger riot — two of the people were giving papers on revolutionary heroes who were exemplary by being non-violent. The novels they were praising to my mind were thus fables, fairy tales; it’s anger and resentment and hatred and fear too which fuels revolutions. Such emotions led to the guillotine since the people running Paris were terrified of the emigre armies under the Austrians and English.
I agree the English did not want to hear what they were doing to the Irish across the sea. People today in Imperalist successful countries don’t want to hear the other side’s story and prefer to call them terrorists. Then they were the evil ribbonmen.From the get-go Trollope was deeply politically engaged and remarkably insightful and originally thinking author. What a remarkable first book, no?
The middle chapter are overlong and were they to have been written for instalments would have been shorter and more shapely.
Mrs McKeon does the right thing and invites Feemy, and thus Trollope (I realized after a bit) had set up another “set piece” of social life — the race, a ball — in which much theater and drama could play out. Chapter 17 is called “Sport of the West.” West here means western Ireland and I suspect it’s an editor who called it that (as in Playboy of the Western Islands) — Trollope did not title the chapters of this book. The vigor and robustness of the scene in the tavern among the men as well as the writer’s tolerance of all this, his entering into it is revealing of Trollope’s underlying continual acceptance of what is, and sometimes his ability to revel in it — however slightly ironically. Its ordinariness.
We can see how this writer might later loathe silver-fork novels — as Trollope did Disraeli’s books — and how far he came from his first when he sat down to write his first Palliser which is about the Silver Fork group, the top 10,000 as he names them then.
I was not only bored by what happened over the races, I didn’t understand it as I don’t understand betting. What I could get was the men were being mean to the guy they set up — and that Ussher could join in does show him to be (as Biddy says) “a hard man,” not I think good husband material we are to see. For my part I loathe such behavior; I see Trollope does accept it. In later novels he shows people behaving as badly to one another, but since it’s more upper class types he switches to, they are not as crude and obvious. This betting must’ve been the thing to do for working and upper class men until the 1930s at least – when it drops out of novels at last. We are told in Vanity Fair that Rawdon loved to rat-race or bet on rats, but Thackeray never shows these scenes. I feel Thackeray does not like them — and did not himself participate while I suspect Trollope at least would stand by as would George Moore.
OTOH, I did enjoy the dancing.
Outside, Ussher reveals he has no intention of marrying Feemy and she at last sees this but does not know how to manipulate him. She has nothing to offer him, no weapon — but her male relatives. Thady’s hatred of Ussher anticipates many of Trollope’s novels where the brother has this tight vicarious relationship with the sister, and there is a murder which today would get a manslaughter charge (unless of course the jury was white and the killer white and the victim black) in Dr Thorne by a brother of a lover over Mary Thorne’s mother who is impregnated by the man out of wedlock. Dr Thorne’s brother was killed by Scatcherd. It opens the book as past history and is often not remembered, but is there. Or the brother thinks he has the right to bully, own, even (when a bad man) hurt his sister (as Lynch in Kellys and OKellys, George Vavasour in CYFH?).
Tyler wrote about Thady’s accidental murder of Ussher when he assumes that Ussher is coercing Feemy to elope with him:
I did get through Chapter 20 and will just say that the murder scene came unexpectedly and suddenly for me. Although I knew someone would murder someone, I was surprised by how Trollope
pulled it off and did not suspect what would happen until Feemy was waiting for Ussher and realized Thady was watching nearby, and even then, I didn’t remember who is hung at the end of the book so I didn’t know if it would be Ussher or Thady who would be killed. I do know I could feel my heart thumping as I read, and then it just happened, so quickly, so unsensationally and by that I mean realistically. Thady doesn’t even stop to ask questions. He just acts. He doesn’t know if Ussher is attacking Feemy, trying to coerce her or what really. He doesn’t stop to ask Feemy what is going on. It’s as if all his frustration just needs release at that moment and it happens. Even after it’s over, he doesn’t ask what was happening when he acted, and I guess Feemy is no state for explanations. And I felt badly for Thady as he insisted the body be returned and that it be told he stayed with the body until he was sure it would be sent where it needed to go.
I can see why Ellen in her book said that she cried when the book
was over. As I write, I feel like crying for poor Thady. Not that I
think he did the right thing, but I think it is understandable what he did, and though people have denied it when I have said this before, I think every one of us, given the right situation, is capable of killing someone else, perhaps not maliciously, but in self-defense as needed, and in a way, Thady has done it in self-defense, or at least to defend those he cares about.
Thady has to flee and go to those who in some way egged him into this trouble – because I daresay he never would have killed Ussher if they hadn’t helped to stir the pot against him and make Thady think ill of him. That said, Joe Reynolds is admirable in how he helps Thady and even wishes he had been the one to killed Ussher.
It strikes me that what we have here may be one of the first examples of Naturalism – the Zola type novel where the characters are dropped into a situation to see how they will behave – had Thady been dropped in a different environment, he would have turned out differently. At heart, he is a gentleman, the kind who stands up for others, and is the victim of circumstances really.
When Thady flees with Joe Reynolds and the other Ribbonmen Trollope shows us his greatest strength: his ability to delve the mind, the consciousness of a thoroughly imagined believable character — here with deep sympathy. We should recall what an outcast Thady now is — again a predilection of Trollope’s, someone who would be seen by many as a criminal, or hopelessly self-indulgent, and yes a failure too. What makes us love him is his generosity of spirit, high-mindedness, well-meaning nature (like the later Frances Arabin), and how it’s all understandable — so it’s also a chapter which fits Lukacs’ thesis about the 19th century novel creating characters out of a process of culture, economics, class, time …. and I’ll add masculine norms.
Trollope intertwines the depth psychology with the way other characters see and react to Thady; the way they see and react to them is a product of their natures and cultural and economic and social background plus immediate things going on. Thady is very unlucky: the immediate things around him utterly disfavor him (as the racist paranoia did Trayvon Martin and alas horribly favored the murderer Zimmerman). The scenes are utterly naturalistic. There is no condescension to the lower types: Andy is a real presence no matter how silent; the silence is scary as well as ravaging appetite revealed. Thady’s determination that jail is better than this and walking away so simply. In my edition the first opposition of the two views that will emerge come at the point of “When Father John saw him, his heart melted …” (Ch 24) where there is the accurate ambiguous account — it is ambiguous, Thady did hit and hit hard — he was striking out at the universe in a way; and how the jurors on the saw the case. Feemy’s testimony helps make them think she wanted to go off.
Chapter 25 has been picked as the opener for Volume 3 by a later editor because it is Retrospective” and it’s a return to the wider purview, the private and public very much needed at this point, for this is not a story of one family but of Ireland during the English occupation – that’s how I’d put it. Trollope captures the views in three men; the good McKeon (we are to be on Thady’s side), the bad man Jones (against) and the wavering Sir Michael.
Then we get an incident which is astonishingly good in the sense of capturing reality. Joe and his friends naturally want to take revenge for all they’ve endured and think of themselves as striking a blow for Thady as Keegan is the man working hard and effectively to take the Madermot property away. What they do strikes a death blow to Thady’s chances as the people in the jury might fear the attack Keegan suffered will happen to them. Keegan’s inability to recognize how he’s seen reminds me of Ussher (as more contemporary analogies I’ll suggest that US officials in charge of Drone and death squads and the rest of the US apparatus do know how they are seen, why they are all the more ferocious). What I admire is he crude reality.
What other victorian novelist would write so plainly and effectively — grimly, determinedly, unmelodramatically, not omitting a gesture — and unforgettably:
Keegan, trusting to the assurance of Pat, that the tenants were all quiet and peaceable, at length began to go among them himself, and had, about the beginning of February, once or twice ridden over portions of the property. About five o’clock one evening in that month, he was riding towards home along the little lane that skirts Drumleesh bog, after having seen as much of that delectable neighbourhood as a man could do on horseback, when his horse was stopped by a man wrapped in a very large frieze coat, but whose face was not concealed, who asked him, ‘could he spake to his honer about a bit of land that he was thinking of axing after, when the man that was on it was put off, as he heard war to be done?’ As the man said this he laid his hands on the bridle, and Keegan fearing from this that something was not right, put his hand into his coat pocket, where his pistols were, and told the man to come to him at Carrick, if he wanted to say anything. The man, however, continued, ‘av his honer wouldn’t think it too much throuble jist to come down for one moment, he’d point out the cabin which he meant.’ Keegan was now sure from the man’s continuing to keep his hand on the bridle, that some injury to him was intended, and was in the act of drawing his pistol from his pocket, when he was knocked altogether from off his horse by a blow which he received on the head with a large stone, thrown from the other side of one of the banks which ran along the road. The blow and the fall completely stunned him, and when he came to himself he was lying on the road; the man who had stopped his horse was kneeling on his chest; a man, whose face was blackened, was holding down his two feet, and a third, whose face had also been blackened, was kneeling on the road beside him with a small axe in his hand. Keegan’s courage utterly failed him when he saw the sharp instrument in the ruffian’s grasp; he began to promise largely if they would let him escape — forgiveness — money — land — anything — everything for his life. Neither of them, however, answered him, and before the first sentence he uttered was well out of his mouth, the instrument fell on his leg, just above the ankle, with all the man’s force; the first blow only cut his trousers and his boot, and bruised him sorely — for his boots protected him; the second cut the flesh, and grated against the bone; in vain he struggled violently, and with all the) force of a man struggling for his life; a third, and a fourth, and a fifth descended, crushing the bone, dividing the marrow, and ultimately severing the foot from the leg. When they had done their work, they left him on the road, till some passer by should have
compassion on him, and obtain for him the means of conveyance to
It takes an unusual genius to write the above in quite the calm quiet way Trollope does and then describe Keegan going home, what he did, and how this played out in the community at large.
Of course the violence and injury inflicted on Keegan is sickening; and it is much worse than anything Thady did, and yet will not even be prosecuted. Trollope wants us to see that. What he has captured by his relentless keeping to what is in this dire colonialist state is showing us how these crimes we see daily in our newspaper — and are demonized — come to happen. Consider a community say in Pakistan where a small village has had a drone attack and several central families murdered. Then think about the people left and what they want to do to the next American they see. We call such people terrorists and then compound what’s happened by torture tactics of interrogation. Rather we should see — Trollope shows here — how such things come to be and are understandable. The crime inflicted on Keegan is understandable. Trollope has not demonized Joe; Dan and his wife are thugs, but no more. Keegan remains a rat in his behavior afterwards.
For the last third of the novel, see comments sections.