One of my favorite stills taken from a VHS Casette version of the 1974 Pallisers
Dear friends and readers,
Finally tomorrow I will (what’s called) teach the first of 10 sessions of a course wholly on Anthony Trollope’s life and writing. While I’ve taught individual works by Trollope, and over some 18 years now (!) have been leading groups of readers to read Trollope (among other Victorians & Edwardians) on a listserv dedicated to Trollope and his contemporaries (its original name as formulated by Mike Powe and me), I’ve never taught a single course on him. But by some perverse blind misunderstanding of my own (I have no memory of this whatsoever — a Freudian mistake?) I agreed to begin a week later than the official OLLI at AU term began this fall. Not too much harm done as I’m not so badly out of step with others; several people seem to have elected to start a week later, and as the staff decided to not offer any classes on Rosh Hashanah, the Thursday and whatever Friday people there are (not many) are starting this week too.
Worse for me: as in the spring term as bad luck would have it I’ve agreed to go to a conference that interferes with the second week, so we really won’t start in full force for 2 week after tomorrow. I regret this. Then, though, we will have 9 sessions (with time out for Thanksgiving), and I tell myself that I emailed the class last week (which I did) to suggest they read ahead with more an An Eye for An Eye, the passionate Anglo-Irish novella I asked them to read before the course started, and begin the short stories. I sent them the syllabus and told about the places on my website containing much on Trollope, the illustrations to his writing and some of his relatively unavailable essays too. I also remind myself salutarily no one cares about any of this as much me. A couple of students are away on vacation just now I was told …
Thus over the past couple of weeks I’ve been insofar as I can been immersing myself in Trollope once again. I reread (yet again) An Eye for an Eye, and several powerful short stories, and with the group, Nina Balatka;, and we are now about to embark on Phineas Finn, some 7 chapters (or more) per week (about 2 installments a week). I had recommended to the students for Trollope’s life story, his own Autobiography, but for myself I’m using the extra week to reread a book I’ve not read in quite a while: N. John Hall’s Trollope. I began with Glendinning’s biography, but after all I find her glib; there is something too promotional in her opening on “lips,” and however pleasant her fantasies about Ur-Texts underlying Trollope’s novels, telling us a hidden story about Trollope’s not altogether comfortable relationship with his wife, and (as it were) outside love life, there’s no proof at all; it’s non-serious. I’m about a third into Hall’s book; yes some of his discussions are slanted to the cheerful he’s determined to make prevail: he has a way of preferring the versions of Trollope’s brother, Tom’s about their child- and young man-hood to Trollope’s own; he will downplay Trollope’s present burning memories of earlier anguish, despair, hurt, mortification by substituting another contemporary’s far more cheerful assessment even if years later. Nonetheless, all that he writes of objective realities is rooted in verifiable documents. He quotes a lot of non-fiction for subjective ones, and his readings of Trollope’s life and opinions inside the fiction is persuasive. And he says what he sees, presents what does not fit into his own patterns. So he admits the tragic greatness of The Macdermots of Ballycloran even as he asserts it is atypical. (It’s not.)
(As to the other better known more recent biographies: Mullen’s book however wonderful on Trollope’s milieu and contexts shows him more Victorian than Trollope ever was, and Super’s book is, well, insufferably arrogant in his dismissal of Trollope’s version of his life and disdain for biographers like Helen Heinemann, the best and most candid on Frances, Trollope’s mother. To be more complete, quite a number of studies of his fiction also function as perceptive biographies, e.g., Skilton on the criticism of Trollope in periodicals, P. J. Edwards on his “art and scope.”)
Rereading Hall is not just a matter of renewing acquaintance with the ideas of the “old male school” on Trollope and seeing value in much of it, but I find I agree with some of what I rejected or didn’t notice before. Hall does far more justice to Anthony’s mother, Frances (Fanny anyone?) Trollope than Anthony could get himself to. Fanny was political, and despite the use of her texts by Tories, radical in her social fiction on slavery, factory workers, young women who had children outside a marriage.
We’ve been talking on Trollope19thCStudies on a disturbing pattern one finds across Trollope’s novels and is very strong in Nina: no other Victorian novelist, man or woman, shows the same continual obsessive dramatization of males demanding obedience from their wives. It bothered me when I read Nina and experienced how Anton Trendellsohn (see the AT, and double “l’s”) is ravaging this girl’s consciousness, tormenting her, making her kowtow to him — why take out his pressures on her. People prey on one another but it’s not pretty. And does not augur well. I note in the Pallisers film Raven tries to make Kennedy far more sympathetic than Trollope does, Raven’s man is really loving Laura and she won’t go to bed with him.
The normalizing reply, sweeping away, is to assert this is what all or most Victorian husbands expected from their wives, but I am not referring to what was said to be the norm, but what is written by Trollope’s peers: not one of them has this emphatic pattern, and reshaped to fit case after case, and while Trollope’s criticizes these characters he also empathizes. No other 19th century novelist makes this demand for obedience so central or presents in quite in the emphatic light of a man demanding obedience as a test of love, his manliness, her very gender as a woman, whatever the topic be. Now and again a conflict is seen in this light: as when in Eliot’s Middlemarch Lydgate tries to get Rosamund to agree to sell their house and allow him to carry on a course of life which is not shaped by the God material success and she thwarts him by going round him in secret. Then he fires up about his right of a husband to demand she obey because he gets to decide. But it’s only one part of a complex pattern, not put at the center.
J. E. Millais, “Orley Farm”,” frontispiece, Orley Farm
One source we on Trollope19thCStudies all agreed on: the pattern is partly a response to his mother: Fanny took over the household when his father couldn’t and Anthony in particular suffered shame, loneliness, went into a depression, was ignored, neglected. She fled Harrow Wealde, the dump they had to leave Julian Hills (aka Orley Farm) for: isolated, to her shameful, a come-down, just awful to survive in, probably unhealthy. There was some kind of romance with Hervieu (it didn’t survive long in the US context, made fun of as she was as an old lady, and ostracized as a woman living with a younger man); her second son, Henry, was no scholar, and maybe she would find something somewhere for him in Frances Wright’s idealistic schemes of communitarian living. She did send him to a college briefly: Henry lasted one day. She had nothing to offer him; indeed she dressed him up in a ridiculous mountebank outfit in an absurd bazaar she set up, but she was desperate for money by then. Fanny had thought to make a new life in the new country. But as one sees from her book, when she first laid eyes on the Mississippi she was astonished; she had no idea what this new world was like. Eventually they were driven to ask Trollope’s father to send money from whatever was left of his estate. She wrote a book as “burning” as any of her sons, about her experiences, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and with her earnings from this and further novels, she eventually returned the family to Julians until debt had them on the run again.
But there’s more here than Trollope’s relationship to his mother: Trollope wrote his Autobiography to stop or control, forestall other biographies. He says so: he had read the biographies of Dickens and was horrified. What he did was tell as much of the truth as he dared and hoped to share what would be told hereafter in the way he wanted it to be seen. That he told so much inclines us to think this a whole life, but even there he forestalls us by in the first pages calling his book a so-called autobiography and denying any can be written for real. A theme in A. S. Byatt’s work on biography is how much that is crucial in a life never gets written down, or if written is destroyed, or the person deliberately misleads. Trollope was a man who drove himself to success. Thomas his brother said he worked himself to death. That driving force is part of his intense compensation for deep burning shames. Years later he will remember a remark someone said and say see I won that election. This driving force is part of this obsessive pattern.
What does Hall’s book bring to this? Hall reminds us of how Trollope’s father as he sunk into total failure in his career, as a father, a husband, became more or more rigid and tyrannical. Gratingly he would insist on his way, and grow violent when he didn’t get it. Fanny wrote a book about this called One Fault. One reason Fanny left Trollope’s father was to escape that — he was an abusive husband. When he pulled his sons’ hair hard when they didn’t recite Latin verb patterns correctly while he shaved he required them to stand close to submit to him. He was cruel. Though Trollope excuses him and says while he, Trollope, knew his father his father’s life was one long tragedy, Trollope’s obsessive disturbing pattern of fierce demands and intense anxiety on the part of many males who cannot enforce this obedience (Anton Trendellsohn is an enforcer) is also a derivation from his experience of his father, memories of that. He is re-enacting this man — as he represents him over and over again from Larry MacDermot to the sexually anxious Louis Trevelyan. Hall also seems to feel that much of the strongest material in Trollope came to him like automatic writing he released — his dream life as controlled narratives over the years.
Josiah Crawley listening to a home truth: ‘It’s Dogged as Does It, F. A. Fraser, The Last Chronicle of Barset
The second half of Trollope’s autobiography notoriously omits the private life which dominates the first. He and Rose had but two children, so how did they stop more from coming? We can’t know how he felt about this, what mortifications he was subject to. Nor about the many casual encounters he had as a young man in London, and then again while traveling nor the one beyond his love of Kate Field where he invested a good deal of himself: while in The West Indies and Spanish Main he went riding with her; he says of the book it’s favorite: he did write two great great short stories during that time). True we have strong women characters in Trollope who get round their husbands. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence — and Trollope tells stories which justify this demand for utter obedience or at least say leave it in place since it does no harm. It did and where it reigns does still. And Trollope dramatizes how when you give people power they use it and often meanly.
Other undercurrents: Trollope regards all human relationships is a jockeying for power, as a pull-and-tug of domination and submission. He loathes the way religion is used by people who hate life, resent the enjoyments of others, and this is most often presented as female harridan who drives a girl to a man distasteful to her (sadism) or forbids her any connection with a young man the girl does like.
I am now a long way from how the “old male school” of writers on Trollope (which included Ruth apRoberts) wrote about Trollope: but they do provide evidence for 21st century delving readings. Why do we find what we find in his characters? The Stebbins have been the most frank to bring out a strong thread of depression in the books giving them their darker depths; A. O. Cockshutt comes at this through thematic close reading. I’ve tried here to reach into one of the living permutations in Trollope’s consciousness that is part of the groundwork of his characters and stories, bringing in Hall’s reading too.
To conclude with two more perspectives briefly: I’m told that The Way We Live Now is replaced The Last Chronicle of Barset as Trollope’s signature book, Josiah Crawley an embarrassment instead of a noble failure. Yet who doubts the centrality of Phineas Finn? I watch people ask one another on-line which book do you recommend beginning with? which is your favorite? which the richest? surely Phineas deserves this kind of accolade. It used to be treated as a central book in the development of the political novel in English; now it’s seen as about building a career, and ethnicity. Here Hall’s treatment of Trollope’s first years in the post office, in London and then Ireland, (looking ahead) the failed attempt to get into Parliament matter. Another strength of Hall’s approach is it’s not a thesis book at all so he provides matter I haven’t touch on here to understand Finny Finn more deeply too. If you’ve not read or heard of it, a new book I much admire on Trollope’s politics as history: Christopher Harvie’s The Centre of Things: Political Fiction in Britain from Disraeli to the Present.
Hall uses the Trollope’s travel books centrally too: they are enormously important for anyone who wants to understand him and his fiction. I’ll end on how I’ve now promised to go to the Belgium conference in Sept 2015, and will at long last write that paper I’ve gathered 4 folders of stuff for: “On Living in a New Country: Trollope’s Australia” (it’s a play on Patrick White’s great book, On Living in an Old Country.) There is an enormous amount in Trollope’s writing coming out of colonialism: I’m astonished to think how little it has been treated thus far. (I’m not sure Hall does justice to this. Nicolas Birns’s work is important here.) So I’ll be immersing myself for quite a while to come.