Posts Tagged ‘Thackeray’

Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy) the one strong man in the film who sees through Becky (Natasha Little) as a liar, thief but wants her intensely (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Marc Munden)

The Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) propositions Becky (Reese Witherspoon), played for comedy (2004 Focus Vanity Fair, directed Mira Nair, scripted Julian Fellowes)

the Dobbin figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys’ Dance has been liked by some and please to remark the richly-dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared — the Manager

Dear friends and readers,

I recently re-watched Andrew Davies’s magnificent film adaptation of Wm Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and felt I had walked into a terrain shared by Anthony Trollope & Thackeray too. In Davies’s depiction of the male characters in Vanity Fair he makes visible what drew Trollope to Thackeray and where Trollope’s texts resemble Thackeray’s. So much criticism and ordinary reader commentary concentrates on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley This criticism marginalizes a large group of characters by Thackeray given equal importance: Dobbin, George Osborne and his father; Joseph Sedley and his and Amelia’s father; Rawdon and Rawdon’s son (made more important in all the movies), the Marquis of Steyne; the older and younger Pitt Crawleys, not to omit Becky’s memories of her drawing master alcoholic father (and how no one else forgets such a man was her father).

I began to realize how in his Thackeray, Trollope’s perspective on Thackeray derived from how Trollope was consciously looking at Thackeray from the point of view of his success as a novelist and more generally as a man: Trollope had in mind criteria of masculinity and what makes a man admired. Trollope measured Thackeray from the point of view of the man’s career and unlucky marriage. In the sections in Thackeray on Thackeray’s novels Trollope shows a fascination with Thackeray’s strong women (Rachel and Beatrice as well) and ethical men. Thackeray’s is a strongly gendered fiction as is Trollope’s and Davies strongly gendered films.

Strong women, weak men — a development of this kind of contrast is central to Davies’s films, Thackeray’s VF and Henry Esmond, and some of Trollope’s novels, but especially He Knew He Was Right, one of the two Trollope novels that Davies has chosen to do, and the choice is highly unusual because of the explicitness of the theme of the partly despised because anguished male. I’d been reading Trollope steadily once again for months now, criticism, writing papers & proposals, and watching Davies’s movies. A couple of months ago I returned to Thackeray through Trollope’s literary life of him, and feel that it was Trollope’s life of Thackeray enables me to see a shared territory between the three of them in a nervous exploration of real men’s lives and psyches against what is expected of them.

The blog is about how one can see the convergence of Thackeray and Trollope’s points of view in the way Davies adapts them. As I’ve gone over these themes in other blogs on Trollope, I’ll concentrate on Vanity Fair here, one where the exploration of masculinity’s ordeals and losses is insufficiently emphasized, especially given how prevalent it is in the book & films.


First shots & male: POV child Becky looking at her sick, impoverished dying drawing master father (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

So, memory too a bitter desire for revenge may be part of Becky’s motives in Davies’s film, brought out as partial explanation for her coldness; but its source for Davies is her relationship with her father which Davies’s film begins with. This father is referred to many times in the film adaptation as that which in her background makes her unacceptable: Thackeray did make her a daughter of a drawing master and everyone refers to it at some poit. Who was her grandfather? In the film Becky’s memory is this picture. She’s getting back.

The young men are tied to and dependent on the women in this book and film:

George Osborne (Tom Ward) about to collapse into Amelia (Emmy’s) arms the night before Waterloo (Davies’s VF)

Lady Jane (Sylvestre le Touzel tells young Pitt she’ll leave him if he allows Rebecca to be part of their lives again (Davies’ VF)

Older men are part of the continuum. An unexpectedly powerful thread in the story-line of Davies’s film is a contrast between the anguished failure of Amelia’s father and the seething loneliness and self-hatred of George Osborne’s father in his scenes first with his son, then bullying his daughter, and then trying to reach his grandson (hopelessly) through drink:

Grief striken Mr Osborne (Tim Woodward) with his grandson (Davies’ VF)

The depiction of Mr Osborne is extensive: his grief for his son George and his mis-bringing up his grandson — he is but a child and cannot drink with his grandfather the way the son did.

Thackeray gave Davies’s the trajectory of the abject Dobbin finally at the close realizing he’d wasted his life in worship of a small foolish woman too late:

Philip Glenister brilliant in the part (Davies’ VF)

Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)

In a sense he dies of the loss (escape is his solution, but Coventry is a death sentence) giving the boy to Lady Jane who not having a child of her own, ironically the boy Rawdon becomes the owner of the estate

The accent is on heterosexual males except perhaps Joseph Sedley who modern critics tend to turn into the book’s closet (or unaware) homosexual, his debonair plumpness and lack of military prowess and woman companion inviting this.

The awkward Joseph (Jeremy Swift), the films first shot (Davies’ VF)

Some critics go so far as to suggest it’s not Dobbin or George Osborne Thackeray has put part of himself in, but Joseph Sedley with his love of gourmet eating too. At any rate, the sexual angle in Davies’s Vanity Fair brings home the vulnerability of males to female sexuality; the males whatever their orientation are presented as enthralled and subject to women again and again, even where it’s not admitted or maybe especially.

Characters degraded, debased, become, however sordid and ugly, poignant in their vulnerability to loneliness: thus the aging Pitt (David Bradley) whose children by his 2nd wife Becky first becomes governess to and is a harsh semi-grotesque character is pitiable when we last see him and he’s lost Becky:

Old man (David Bradley) lonely at desk (Davies’s VF)

Nair and Fellowes pick up the depiction of comic lechers in Thackeray as shattered pitiable. Davies gives Steyne insight into Becky’s lies, thievery, ridiculous veneration of ribbons and the highest-ranking people.

In my paper Trollope’s “Comfort Romances for Men” I argued Trollope was developing an unconventional portrait of manliness out of identification and concern; last week I came across similar approaches to a continuum of males in Trollope: from Gordon Ray and Peter Shillingsburg to Joseph Litvak (Strange Gourmets); I’ve been aware for a long time how Davies’s key identifications are with the non-macho transgressive males, the inept and inadequate, the Oedipal struggle, gay men. This is not the first time Davies has made me aware of an underlying stratem in work no one ever wrote about before.

I know that Davies changes the story. For his exploration of masculinity I’d call it (the term would be manliness in Victorian times), the story of Rawdon and Becky’s relationship is much extended and show more centrally — to the point that when Rawdon is rowed away to Coventry (and we know death), the series seemed to suddenly collapse for a moment or so; we had reached its natural ending. Davies though picks up strong with the reappearance of Dobbin and bringing Emmy centrally onto the stage, and again he has changed the story as it’s not until very late in the book that Emmy realizes the piano was from Dobbin. The way Davies at first shows them as clearly a pair after Dobbin returns from India, with Emmy appearing to fall in love with Dobbin is not in Thackeray

Dobbin (Glenister) given more dignity by having Emmy (Frances Grey) in love with him and her boy look up to him in Pumpernickel (Davies’ VF)

so that in the film adaptation Dobbin gets two powerful scenes of her betrayal while (if I’m remembering right) there is but one in the book, and Dobbin’s disillusion is omitted except that the words used in his second betrayal are about how she is not worth his devotion much more emphatically. The men’s bullying their wives is given full play — the way men treated women in the 1820s. Admittedly this is not in Trollope except late in his career (it’s in The Way We Live Now but early books has women liable to bully men) — that’s a real part of Thackeray’s and Davies’s feminism.

Steyne terrorizing his otherwise snobbish aristocratic wife by implicitly threatening to tear her ear with her earring (Davies’ VF)

Gambling and cheating (in all its aspects) are elements in the build up of perverted men, destroyed men (by the system they live in). Gentlemen must not work and when disinherited are simply without funds to carry on because they must inherit money as gentlemen or are businessmen, but they must not fail as Mr Sedley (David Ross) did:

His mind shattered, he clings to rolls of paper

This would have been George Osborne’s case had he lived. The woman are oddly not destroyed and remain strong psychologically — that is very much Davies, I am not sure about Thackeray not having read him enough but do remember how strong Beatrice was in Henry Esmond and something I read by Sutherland suggests the strong woman who is amoral and yet a heroine is what struck Thackeray’s contemporaries.

Gambling is bisexual in the sense that Rawdon acts with Becky until she goes too far and betrays him — and that life’s a gamble in the book.

First shot of Becky and Rawdon married — she’s counting up his winnings (Davies’ VF)

Davies shows how Rawdon allows himself to be corrupted and is cheating for Becky for years; but Becky has been stealing since she first left Miss Pinkerton’s and the stash of jewels found by Rawdon are many years in the making. This is re-emphasized in the coach when Lady Jane recognizes Becky’s super expensive shawl as a shawl that was in Queen’s Crawley years ago and has (she now realizes) gone missing. Becky does gamble to live by the end.

I have meant this blog to be about a convergence of themes in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies, so some areas I’ve not looked into as yet: for example Thackeray’s distaste for snobbery that Davies shares but Trollope defends. Seen in the light of depiction of problems of masculinities, its false materialistic values, “snobbery” destroys people — ethically too. Thackeray shows us how sentimental folk turn away from financially ruined snobs especially.

Davies’s Melmotte’s (David Suchet) downfall: he wanted to be an English gentleman: part 2 of film opens with dumb show of him having himself painted with a gun, dog, and backdrop of country house and curtain (2001 TWWLN, scripted Davies, directed Diarmuid Lawrence

Another is the characters’ urge to find a high status as a gentleman and the demands this elite image makes. Robin Gilmour’s 1981 book, *The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel*, contains a long chapter on Thackeray’s gentlemen, focusing on the shift from dandyism and military glory to domesticity. It’s the kind of book summaries don’t help with as the insights are intricate to the argument and come fast and many over each page. The best review I could find was by Alexander Welsh, half of whose review is on Mark Girouard’s Idea of Chivalry.

The nervous edgy violence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers captures this aspect of Osborne best (Nair’s VF)

Simon Raven’s book about the death of the ideal and type of gentlemen in the UK is relevant because Raven wrote the first The Way We Live Now script (1969), which I suspect Davies’s based his adaptation on — but I cannot get to see as I cannot travel to London this summer.

Emily (Laura Fraser) and Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) fail to cope with the arch rake, Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy) who knows just how to insinuate himself (2004 HKHWR, scripted Davies, directed Tom Vaughn)

I’ll close on parallel concerns with masculinity between Thackeray’s and Trollope’s books: He Knew He Was Right dwells on internal psychological intangible states as brought out in psycho-social dynamics, all shaped by sexuality, social norms and fears (especially male anxieties, ego needs), and money and power; The Way We Live Now an analysis of the larger forces of society as we see them enacted by individuals, not just prophetic of today, but enacting the same patterns we see today albeit different costumes.

Trollope’s attitudes emerge as closely similar through his paradigms and voice-presence. Davies of course saw this in his choice of the two and the ways he handled them, though his TWWLN reminds me of modern mini-series like the 1991-5 House of Cards, the modernity of his and Hooper’s Daniel Deronda and subversion of costume drama’s pieties in Davies’ Moll Flanders; HKHWR takes on some cheer and strong women from Plater’s Barchester Chronicles. Davies though specifically has his younger males, like Paul Montague, repudiates the model of the “mature” man marrying the girl (she forced into it) as tyrannical, egotistic, appetitive disgusting (so much for Plantagenet Palliser ….)

Davies in his one original novel, Getting Hurt, gives us a man as uncertain, anxious and shattered as Louis Trevelyan. And as lonely as Dobbin. Our aloneness another theme angled similarly in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies.

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatem! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out — the Manager


Read Full Post »

Thackeray’s drawing of the jester-narrator of Vanity Fair

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last several weeks a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read Trollope’s An Autobiography and, as a coda, his Thackeray. Trollope had spent the time of writing An Autobiography thinking about the relationship of his life to his fiction, and he carries on with a similar perspective in Thackeray. As his Thackeray is not much discussed, I thought an account of its parts might be welcome. It is much much better than those who have read it have acknowledged.

In The Cambridge Companion to Trollope, ed CDever and LNiles, Victoria Glendinning has an essay on Trollope as autobiographer & biographer and, unusually, deals with Trollope’s Thackeray and Life of Cicero. As she does in parts of her biography of Trollope, she says while Trollope clearly revered Thackeray Trollope’s tone is of a friend watching a good friend play tennis and “agonizing as he sees him knocking the ball into the tent.” It is true as she says though that Trollope is exasperated by Thackeray’s lack of work ethic, view of society, destestation of “snobbishness” (I’d call this in Thackeray hatred of what Thackeray sees as worship of rank and hierarchy), Thackeray’s “abnormally bad” characters (that’s Trollope’s view).

For those unfamiliar with Thackeray’s writing who are daunted by too many pages, you cannot do better than A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, as edited and beautifully introduced by D. J. Taylor in the Everyman edition. A Shabby Genteel Story is a sort of Vanity Fair in little; Thackeray’s “Going to a Hanging” is included; as Hugo’s Last Day in the life of a Condemned Man presents the cruelties of the rituals & realities of state murder from the condemned person’s point of view so Thackeray exposes the crowd enjoying it. There’s “On Being Found Out,” good notes.

Wm Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)

The Introduction: Trollope begins by telling us he is hampered by a lack of papers and knowledge of Thackeray’s intimate life, so has determined to write a literary study, consisting of a brief general sketch of Thackeray’s life and character, and individual discussions of Thackeray’s writing. He makes use of whatever he has, including Thackeray’s friends’ memories. What Trollope creates is the picture of a successful literary career. Trollope was unusual for his time in presenting his own life as an author as a life of a career professional, and now repeats this perspective for Thackeray. This is how he puts his aim:

it certainly is not my purpose now to write what may be called a life of Thackeray. In this preliminary chapter I will give such incidents and anecdotes of his life as will tell the reader perhaps all about him that a reader is entitled to ask: how he became an author, and will say how first he struggled, and then how he worked and prospered, and became a household word in English literature; — in this way, he passed through that course of mingled failure and success which, though the literary aspirant may suffer, is probably better both for the writer and for the writings than unclouded early glory. The suffering no doubt is acute, and a touch of melancholy, perhaps of indignation, may be given to words which have been written while the heart has been too full of its own wrongs; but this is better than the continued note of triumph which is still heard in the final voices of the spoilt child of literature, even when they are losing their music. Then I will tell hew Thackeray died, early indeed, but still having done a good life’s work. Something of his manner, something of his appearance I can say, something perhaps of his condition of mind because for some few years he was known to me. But of the continual intercourse of himself with the world, and of himself with his own works, I can tell little, because no record of his life has been made public.

So we learn of Thackeray’s birth in India, his father’s early death and his schooling in England. Thackeray did not lose his fortune sheerly by gambling, dissolute life or incompetence; he invested in a magazine, a very difficult way to make money. We see Thackeray slowly through journalism achieve reputation and financial success. He does not write hagiography, but his evaluation of Thackeray is conditioned by memories of his own arduous struggle. So although Trollope speaks of Thackeray with the highest respect, he harps on Thackeray’s lack of diligence and procrastination=someone who will do it badly. At one point he says had Thackeray gotten a gov’t job he tried for (using influence and for the money) he’d not have had what it takes to get up early in the morning — the portrait is of himself. Trollope does bring in Thackeray’s suffering helped cause the procrastination. Trollope does not specify that Thackeray found urination very painful, probably the result of venereal disease, for which there was no cure and no painkiller but opium. Nor that this disease probably caused Thackeray’s early death.

Trollope’s way of describing Thackeray’s early career rings with truth: how hard it was to break in, how a connection led him to Fraser’s, how his style and genius was recognized. He says again how easy it is to begin being a writer, but to make a career how one must go step-by-step. Thackeray’s way was through journalism. I was impressed by the candour which states that Thackeray fulflled his potential utterly three times really: Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Barry Lyndon and in some of the character portraits beyond these books (Colonel Newcombe and literary life in Pendennis). There is a striking comparison of Thackeray with Dickens: Thackeray distrusted his talents and Dickens thought well of his; Trollope feels that the public liked Dickens immediately was not a sign his work was greater at all, and that Trollope’s sympathies are with Thackeray.

Trollope says that Thackeray’s great flaw is a kind of holding back, a refusal to say fully what’s on his mind, a failure to present his vision fully. I suggest some of Thackeray’s holding back is that he was afraid to offend by telling the truth so wrote gentle satire when it was in him to write satire more in Swift and Johnson’s veins. That is the implication of Barry Lyndon which is more like Fielding’s Jonathan Wild in outlook than Tom Jones.

Trollope also critiques Thackeray as an artist: his drawings highlight and visualize the spirit and tone of his books superbly well, but Thackeray can’t draw (with verisimilitude is what Trollope means).

So there is much here on Thackeray as such, irrespective of Trollope. All biographies are after all a picture of the subject through the writer’s mind. Trollope is much troubled by Thackeray’s cynicism and tries to argue he was not a cynic based on his kind heart and generosity to friends and family. To assert that the latter precludes the former is to misunderstand cynicism. Because you generally see the world in bleak hard and realistic terms does not mean you don’t love people; indeed a cynic might be more inclined to help his family (as we see Thackeray desperate to do for his daughters – that’s why he did the lectures which were distasteful to him, very) because the word is such a hard (mean too) place. The false formula comes from a negative view of cynicism. It reminds me of how people — often of religious turns — think atheists are not moral. They are. I’ve found that if a person is religious is not guarantee he or she will be decent or moral; their religion is function of their character not the other way round so many religious people use their religion to justify cruel and inhumane behavior.

Thackeray in Punchblog
A Punch cartoon by Thackeray

Chapter 2: Fraser’s Magazine and Punch. Trollope’s as good as G. H. Lewes in pinpointing what is the central urge of his author’s texts as well as central techniques and use of just the right passage to convey these things. As Trollope says of Lewes’s limited audience, since few people themselves can see these things, this kind of writing often is not appreciated. Again Trollope is also judging Thackeray by his own conscious morality.

Since Trollope clearly enjoys Thackeray enormously and certainly understands his meaning, it may be suspected that without being able to admit it, Trollope sees the validity of Thackeray’s vision. Only Trollope won’t write it. He simply will not write a Catherine as the subject matter is so “deeply unpleasant.” He simply will not present the full amorality of society’s structuring, whether in the ancien regime with an aristocratic pattern the one lauded or after it with the bourgeous one. Trollope doesn’t approve of telling partly because he sees by telling you make what is — this cruel amorality — appealing, even if at end the hero ends up in a bad way (punished). Trollope sees the meanness of human kind as the real target of Thackeray’s snobs, but he says isn’t Thackeray “hard on people?” and they are having sparks of good nature and enjoyment while they behave in these phony ways. Trollope’s right that snobbery is hypocrisy and if you are genuinely wanting to show your luxuries, that’s not wanting to show them as a evidence of your status so as to definition yes the word snob won’t do, but it’s something else Thackeray is fueled by, and Trollope may be right that to make money Thackeray over-worked this vein, but the key here is Trollope doesn’t mind “the humbug” of people as much as Thackeray; he is not against snobbery, finds hierarchy and a climb up and satisfaction in that valid.

For myself everytime Trollope quoted Thackeray and I heard Thackeray’s words I agreed with Thackeray, e.g. “The Broker of the exchanges who bull[ies] … ” (p. 73) When Thackeray says ironically “it does my ‘art good” (p. 78) it is a kind Swiftian vision presented as utter good nature and makes me think of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. In each case Trollope analyses Thackeray’s texts to bring out their qualities. The opening with the satire on other novelists Trollope has picked passages which send up the very pith of what novelists had begun to claim was their genius: I’ve “fathomed the mysterious depths of the human mind’ (Trollope society edition, p 64). I love how Trollope marveled at how Thackeray was able to keep up the ironic stance of Barry Lyndon throughout (see paragraph beginning, “The marvel of the book … “, (pp. 72-73)

I rather enjoyed Trollope’s quotations. In the era presenting misspellings was seen as hilarious. There is a class-bias here, but I felt that Thackeray’s misspellings created satires of their own, on the concepts hypocritically supported, some were salacious puns. Stil this kind of thing is easily overdone — most modern readers seem not to have much tolerance for it.

There was only one place where I thought Trollope didn’t get it. The poem he quotes at length about a girl leaving home who almost kills herself. Trollope presents this as simply a ludicrous form of joking about a foolish girl (pp. 68-69). And perhaps consciously Thackeray presented it in this light — it’s quoted without its contextualizing story. But reading it myself straight it seems to me to have real feeling for this girl who wanted to escape and really wanted to kill herself but after all didn’t have he nerve and so went home to unsympathetic and dense people whose response was to “punish” her by depriving her of tea for a fortnight.

Thackeray’s character sketch of Becky Sharp — with dolls

Chapter 3: Vanity Fair. The chapter is much less wide-ranging and has fewer surprises than the previous. There is also not as much about Thackeray’s style in this chapter, but then he’d talked about that in the others. While it seems at first that Trollope has his doubts about Vanity Fair’s moral tendency and thus its value, by the end of the chapter, he has come round to say that the novel gives us a rich journey through the world where we learn something on each page; we see much of its evils and follies but are not allured (says Mr Trollope). First he follows Becky and is ironic himself over her continual successes: Trollope does not believe a Becky would have these successes and thus aims a quiet shaft at the book. He will have it that Becky did love at least a little her very stupid captain. Trollope cannot stand her at some level: over and over again we hear how false Becky is. His own Lizzy Eustace is a loser and not presented at all with any tenderness or identification. (He comes much closer to Thackeray’s Becky with Arabella Trefoil in The American Senator.

Trollope thus also half-disbelieves any man could be so besotted with Becky so Rawdon has got to be stupid. Trollope stands up for Amelia — even then most readers were frank enough to complain about the exemplary heroine – here Trollope does not seem to see that Thackeray is very ambivalent about
Amelia’s kind of goodness and he only quotes how Amelia gets her strong tree to twine herself about; he does not quote Dobbin’s disillusion with Amelia by book’s end and the sense that she’s a parasite on him. (That disillusion may be part of what fuels the ending of Gone with the Wind when Rhett finally gets Scarlett and looks at her and is not keen: “Frankly, my dear … “) But the world around them he cannot deny.

Dobbin (Philip Glenister) home from Waterloo, having left George Osborne dead on the field (1998 Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

Trollope made me remember Andrew Davies very great 6 hour VF and want to re-see it. I feel that Trollope’s way of seeing Thackeray’s book is closely like that of Davies only Davies is not bothered by Becky’s amorality the way Trollope is. Davies’s idea of Pitt is just such another as Trollope’s Pitt and the actor who played it — David Bradley — perfect. Here Davies’ comic vein succeeds masterfully.

Illustration for Pendennis by Thackeray
Thackeray: a sketch in Pendennis (colorized)

Chapter 4: Pendennis and The Newcombes. I really liked Chapter 4 better than Chapter 3 because I felt Trollope went into the heart of Thackeray more. There are a number of striking insights into the “condition” of Thackeray’s mind that arise from each of his accounts of the books he examines. Trollope does not go in chronological order in order to show us how The Newcomes comes out of Penndennis: like Trollope Thackeray has recurring characters in recurring partly imagined partly real landscapes across books, e.g., Pen is editor of Newcomes; Costigan a mean man (in every sense of the word) recurs. Trollope’s comment is Thackeray’s novels are all like “a slice from the biographical memoirs of a family” (p. 115)

A particularly good general insight: “A sardonic melancholy was the characteristic most common to him, — which, however, was relieved by an always present capacity for instant frolic” (p. 119) The passages Trollope chose to quote were to me like Arnold’s choice of touchstones. For example, on p 118 of the Trollope Society edition, beginning, “What’s the use of it all …” Where Trollope goes off: he’s displeased that Thackeray doesn’t follow conventions (!) and provide happy endings for admirable heroes and heroines. He, Trollope, often does not do this; I wish Trollope did it even less than he does. We have to remember it’s Trollope who thinks a character like Miss Quigley is an ass; Thackeray may not. (p. 117)

For my part I didn’t like Pendennis because I felt despite the satire Thackeray thought altogether too well of Pendennis as s an important type of male. Trollope is right that he’s selfish, worldly, false, padded, caring altogether for things mean and poor in himself. Nor did I like Dickens’s Pip nor Austen’s Emma. To me these characters are dream selves of authors who forgive them because of their social status.

Thackeray’s first illustration for Esmond: the boy: ‘Le pauvre enfant, il n’a que nous’
Chapter 5: Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Henry Esmond appears to be Trollope’s favorite novel, and he thinks it Thackeray’s finest masterpiece. Why? The psychological complexity, the genuine historical content (serious) and the distinctive true (not falsely sentimental) depiction of Esmond’s mother and Beatrice appeal. Trollope admires how Thackeray managed to invent a language that seemed later 17th century and was not pastiche, not false — though on the other hand, Trollope adds that Thackeray never “dropped” this tone and kind of style altogether later. He does use it in the sequel, The Virginians. (In another place Trollope said it was the problem of inventing a language redolent of 1790s French that defeated him in part in La Vendee.)

Trollope prefers HE to VF because of what he takes to be the lack of cynicism in Esmond: its gravity of tone. Trollope keeps emphasizing also that this is a planned book and that is most unlike most of Thackeray’s. (He, Trollope, planned his books and it’s rare — Framley Parsonage is one place — he began to publish a book before he finished it even if after FP he wrote his books as if they were all going to be published in instalment chunks – that was a way of shaping his narrative. Trollope does — as he does most of the time everywhere – avoid discussing the deep sexuality of Thackeray’s Esmond which has the central male loving his mother and marrying her.

I should mention how much I liked Henry Esmond. We’ve read and discussed it twice (!) on Trollope19thCStudies and if anyone cares to you can find weekly postings on it there. Judy Geater put many of the original illustrations into an album. While it’s heavily indebted to Scott (17th century Scotland is part of it), it’s not about politics but private experience, inward. Andrew Sanders has a good chapter on this novel in his Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880.

Thackeray’s image of Beatrice come to womanhood

For the concluding three chapters (6 & 7, 8, and the conclusion), see comments.


Read Full Post »

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington, serialized in Cornhill (1862-64, illustrator John Everett Millais)

Anthony Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset, weekly 6 penny parts (1866-67, illustrator George Housman Thomas)

Dear Friends and readers,

As I wrote on Reveries under the Sign of Austen — and [now] occasionally of Trollope, I’m engaged in reviewing a recent collection of essays on Anthony Trollope for an academic peer-edited Victorian journal (The Politics of Gender, ed Morse and Markwick et aliae). As part of my project, I’m reading essays and skimming in books cited by the authors in this collection as well as catching up on reading about Trollope I should have been doing for the last couple of years. I’ve delighted my mind and heart by reading a wonderful biography of and book by the woman Trollope loved, the American woman journalist, Kate Field,

Scharnhost’s biography (which I’ve not yet read),

and I found my notes on a paper about a much superior, one-quarter again as long and (even now) not yet published text of the last Palliser novel,The Duke’s Children

A typically cut page from the as yet published full Duke’s Children

Well, the last two days I have been reading a intelligent well-written and at least in the last fifth, to me surprising study of Anthony Trollope’s 1860s fiction in the context of the periodicals it appeared in during that decade: Mark Turner’s Trollope and the Magazines: Gendered Issues in Mid-Victorian Britain.

Let me first turn to the surprising part of the book, and then contextualize Turner’s argument.

Mark Turner argues that Trollope’s “An Editors Tales” is hiddenly (but clear to those in the “know” especially the men who bought periodicals aimed at men like St Paul’s and the Fortnightly Review) soft core porn. We have been reading Trollope’s short stories on Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo this year (the second time round), and at least two of us who posted were aware of how much bawdy as well as accompanying misogyny there is in Trollope’s stories. For example, the send-up of tourism in “General Chasse’s Relics” (relics refers to the numinous man’s balls which a harpy-like old maid wants to take a scissors to); “Mrs General Talboys” (an ill-natured depiction of adultery among the demi-monde in the English colony at in Florence); and “A Ride Across Palestine” (a downright story of cross-dressing dramatizing homoerotic intimate gestures between two supposed male tourists).

I had not noticed any increase in the amount or frequency of this kind of thing in An Editor’s Tales (7 stories altogether), but certainly “The Turkish Bath” seemed to suggest a desire for a homosexual encounter on the part of the narrator which was thwarted when the target turned out to be a man trying to get the narrator to publish a manuscript. I remember that Trollope’s wife Rose is said to have declared “Mrs General Talboys” “spiteful,” but quite why (or who the spite was aimed at) she did not say.

Davies’s He Knew He Was Right, a story exploring male sexual anxiety (Louis Trevelyan’s) over an aggressive corrupt male (Colonel Osborne), a Turkish Bath scene

Bill Nighy inimitable as the (in the film) despicable and perhaps impotent fake sexual predator, Colonel Osborne — he is justifying his pursuit of Emily Trevelyan and then turns with a glimmer of sly laughter

My good and perceptive friend, Nick kept being puzzled by how Trollope’s narrator-editor referred to himself as “we.” I took this pronoun be a joke referring to Trollope in his capacity as editor and head of team of contributors; it turns out (according to Turner) Nick was right. Turner says the “we” is meant to nudge other male readers. Anthony Trollope is our comical ever thwarted sexual predator.

I felt then and still do now that Trollope was hinting that he got involved sexually with his contributors — if not actively sexually exploiting them, at least vicariously through an emotional sensual kind of preying on them. There is something peculiar about “Mary Gresley” and “Josephine de Montmorenci:” I took Trollope to be more than hinting to us that he indulges in sex with pretty young women in return for publishing or pretending to publish or pretending to consider publishing or helping with manuscripts. We are told he went round to see Josephine de Montmorenci to see if she was a good candidate; alas, crippled (this is suppose somehow comic at first) and chaperoned by a sister-in-law — who our editor is attracted to (we are told) but alas a husband is not far. “Mary Gresley” has a salivating older editor who meets long nights with her and her manuscripts.

There are other non-predatory sexual explanations for these stories. Now that I’m reading a superb biography by Eileen Fauset about the 19th century woman of letters, Julia Kavanagh

while I realize that while there may be some unkind teasing of George Eliot and G. H. Lewes in the portrait of Josephine de Montmorenci, it’s more likely Trollope had in mind the genuinely crippled Kavanagh who did write aggressive letters and had her mother as her companion-messenger (instead of a sister-in-law as in the story). And “Mary Gresley” may be a kind of rewrite of Jane Eyre, where Trollope uses his grandmother’s name and invents a male wet-dream for himself in an adoring pupil at the same time as showing us the tragedy of what happens when a young woman does marry someone like St John Rivers, does repress herself savagely.

Turner doesn’t deny the second explanation and, like most people (because Kavanagh is not a household name), he hasn’t thought of the first. His interest is to show that first in the Fortnightly Review and then in St Paul’s Magazine Trollope cultivated a male readership where he could be free to respond to and voice male desires (like not marrying if you are not rich, because it cramps a man’s style), anxieties, and political interests. The “Editor’s Tales” just takes this further into soft-core porn. The joke is the “we” of the narrator is man as sexual predator and the reader is supposed to enjoy a host of analogies, allusions, puns and hidden subtexts which add up to a rather foul sexual play. I had thought that “The Spotted Dog” was another profound tragedy (like “Mary Gresley”), of a noble spirit who, excluded from his milieu for marrying beneath him and living a debauched life, becomes a depressive alcoholic. Rather Julius Mackenzie is having an affair with the landlady of the inn and between him and our narrator develops a homoerotic relationship (perhaps physical). “Mrs Brumby” is not just a vicious bully whom the editor outwits (he does not publish her stuff, and the only person who makes moneyis the lawyer to whom the editor pays 10 pounds), but the portrait of a vagina dentata who emasculates her husband and all men. Diligent looking for puns turns up sexy jokes in The Panjandrum. Manuscripts are “phallic daggers sodomitically piercing” the editor/narrator;” the misogynistic tone I felt (and Nick concurred) is endemic in porn.

But Turner goes much further than this. He reads all the Editor’s tales as soft core porn. “The Spotted Dog” is homosocial-erotic, Mrs Brumby is a story of an vagina dentata who our editor beats out. Diligent looking for puns turns up sexy jokes in The Panjandrum. Manuscripts are “phallic daggers sodomitically piercing” the editor/narrator;” the misogynistic tone I felt (and Nick concurred) is endemic in porn.

Part of Turner’s argument is that in the Victorian period editor’s tales as a title and trope were often a cover for soft-core porn. So “The Adventures of Fred Pickering,” not part of the series, and lacking the narrator-editor with his “we” is not to be read for a subtext of sex and pornography. Nor “General Chasse,” “Mrs General Talboys,” or “A Ride Across Palestine.”

I found two reviews of Turner’s book. Judith Knelman likes the first four-fifths (on which see below) but finds this section preposterous. Barbara Schmidt writes the kind of review that stays on such a level of generality that you never know this content is in Turner’s book. The book I’m reviewing quotes Turner’s thesis, and alludes to it with reverence and delight; for its writers Turner shores up their findings of incest and gender subversion (especially somehow for women). Nick thought the stories were often misogynistic, and projected a kind of cruel conservatism: of “Fred Pickering” he wrote: “in my view its political and ideological heart lie in the fact that Fred and Mary are subject to brutal social control. They therefore have all my sympathies and I find the story extremely poignant.” I asked but it’s hopeless to get an answer from the people on the Trollope listserv as to what do they think. I know the time we read the stories a couple of conservative males disliked any talk of bawdy and seemed to see none.

I have to admit the stories often have an odd atmosphere. A number of them (beyond those already mentioned) hint at affairs Trollope had while traveling and unsavury realities in Trollope’s professional life though why he’d want to give this away in stories was not at all clear. It made me wonder what is Rose Trollope’s function here; it’s said she made fair copies of his manuscripts for him sometimes. Well, was he needling her? getting back for something.

I’m not one who sentimentalizes a marriage where the man stays away for years, and the woman show no intellectual capacities or interests at all, and he writes a supposedly robust comical letter to a woman imagining Rose dead so he can remarry this woman. And he had an open love affair with Kate Field which turns up in novellas as stories with him as old man with a nagging ugly housekeeper (with ugly names too as in The Fixed Period and An Old Man’s Love).

Turner say that the pornographic imagination is a continuum and on the edges of many male respected books today one finds misogynistic passages and pornography. I’ll agree. He says this kind of thing has been in respected literature since the enlightenment in France with its libertine novels. Agreed again. I know this kind of ugly stuff is found in Nabokov, Naipaul (scenes of violent hatred in sex against women), and not infrequently prize- winning male books (Coetzee) and some female ones too. He instances as a good argument which takes pornography into “the fold” of what we can acceptably study, Susan Sontag’s essay, “The Pornographic Imagination.” I’ve read Sontag’s piece not convinced. She does say that it is absurd the way we define and treat as clinical or unacceptable pornography. (She doesn’t say why: she avoids getting into (so to speak) what women in particular find objectionable: cruel violence to women as vicarious thrill.)

I think Turner stretches his interpretation though and like Jill H-S in her Unbecoming Conjunctions (a similar book in some ways looking for sex and wanting to “undermine” assumptions about gender behavior) does not do enough close reading, is often far from the text. More to the point: for me, if he’s right, he makes these stories of exploitation — Trollope is laughing at and taking advantage of pathetic desperate people and inviting us to laugh likewise. Could this be?

Here is Anthony Trollope as painted by Samuel Lawrence in 1864

I prefer Nick Hay’s view that Trollope is self-flagellating when he writes this way about desperate young man, lost geniuses thrown away and unconsciously releasing his own libido in his stories of young women. But maybe not. I have written a book claiming high ethical vision without taking this side of Trollope into account. To me if just some of these stories are autobiographical they present someone prepared to take advantage of his contributors. Is the autobiography a desperate cover-up not only of the years of continual loss and failure from the later 1870s but of Trollope’s sexual life? Maybe. In the final paragraphs of his Autobiography he says his conscience is clear about his sexual encounters. Maybe it should not have been.

I’ve just posted on the real lives of disabled women on Reveries, and had been reading Josephine de Montmorenci” as a story about a disabled, a badly crippled, undergrown (because of the disease she had, writing woman who actually made a life for herself worth living. The tone of the story is not kind, indeed mocking but he does show her hardship and tries to help her. It’s cruel. I do hate how he presents the alcoholic wife as a monster in “The Spotted Dog,” and now it’s degraded from pity and terror to prurient jokes. I prefer to think what Turner finds is an undercurrent in the stories.Turner calls all this playful. Do we have a gender fault-line here? He’s a male. In Politics of Gender the writers often reference Turner on “The Turkish Bath” as if it were undoubtedly correct.

A connected book of essays, The Erotics of Instruction (which contains an essay on He Knew He Was Right by Morse and has similar contributors) comes out boldly to tell of love affairs these women instructors fantasized or had affairs with students (if so, I reprobate this highly); in the case I mentioned boasts she went for Trollope because she had an affair with a Trollopian professor. There is a review of this book which excoriates this attitude as destroying the ethical basis of literary teaching (it partly appears as a remark on the back cover of the book, was it Kincaid?).

All this made me look again at Robert Polhemus’s essay about Lot’s daughters, and incestuous patterns in Trollope (according to him that’s what “Mary Gresley” is about). If that’s what’s going on here, it may be truthful about an important area of life (emotional incest in family life) but can rescue it by suggesting Trollope sees the men taking advantage so it’s about how the powerful can destroy the powerless — poor Mary destroys her writing. In these books, the language of abstraction functions to hide actual content. Tortuous style shows unease: A more powerful or older person with connections or money or who has something the young person doesn’t have (the professor) can persuade the younger one to allow his or her body to be used. I did know women students in graduate school who had affairs with the professors; one girl paid for her own abortions three times. And women allow themselves to be raped (the Polanski case) for jobs as actresses, so to get into print you get into bed?

Is this the way modern fashionable Trollopian academics will bring Trollope into the modern world, make him post-modern. It’s true he is more sexy than people who read him often say but to turn him into punning porn reminds me of Pope’s “Epistle to Arburthnot” (a Horatian satire — Trollope liked Horace) where he says people compensate for his disability by telling him how another writer was short, another ugly, a third a cripple:

“All that disgrac’d my betters, met in me …”

A coda: I noticed something odd in Markwick’s chapter on bawdy in her book, New Men in Trollope. She keeps repeating the same few puns and only refers to one story, “The Turkish Bath;” in Politics of Gender she adds “Ride to Palestine.” I’m thinking here is an area she doesn’t read Trollope: these short stories. Everywhere else she knows the novels by heart, line by line, but here no. Despite the patina of modernity in her new book I discern an old fashioned Victorian, Browning-type: how many times she refers to male sexuality as “healthy” with a kind of heartiness and approval, sex is just great and God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world fundamentally and Trollope knows this. I wonder if she finds the stories not stomachable. (The editor of her Trollope and Women managed to edit out this aspect of her tone of mind.) If so, maybe they are more porn-like than I’ve ever thought.

Far from making Trollope a proto- or any kind of feminist in my eyes, this approach ignites my sense of his deep lacks when it comes to class and gender; he may feel ontologically superior, apart and these powerless people “other” so he and his readership can make jokes of abuse and where people hurt, are miserable and twisted. I remember how in Castle Richmond he argued the Irish should not be fed during the famine (a position one of the contributors to Politics of Gender in her book on Ireland did not seem troubled by).

One has to remember that because others are X and misread according to X, that does not mean the author is the way they admire. This is a problem I’ve had with Austen and others I’ve read with people on line.

I wrote this week on Austen-l, Janeites and WWTTA about Mrs Smith in Persuasion as the portrait of an impoverished disabled woman (from 1995 BBC film)

I’d say there is a strong strain of overt sexual awareness in Trollope (as there is in George Eliot); it’s not censored out and it’s mature and adult. This is one reason he was never given to children as Dickens and Twain were. There’s a deep and until very near the end humane understanding of sexual anxiety in men, jealousy, the vulnerabilty of women, with Emily standing in for a beaten wife in real life in He Knew He Was Right. That sort of thing is not found elsewhere that I know of in Victorian middle class novels.

Now until Until Turner gets to the concluding section (the last fifth of the book), Turner’s book is excellent. It’s even elegantly written, makes plain a point of view not brought out clearly in Politics of Gender. We are studying sociology, history, culture, through close readings of literary, non-fictional and non-literary texts.

He opens by showing new fashionable approaches of old Trollopians as legitimizing his. Then “this study is not only (or even primarily) about Trollope; it is not a traditional single author study … figure that unifies discussion … [older] narrow ones … Trollope as a case study which grounds a theoretical consideration … magazines as cultural form. So Trollope is a link, a way for Turner to bring his perspective and interpretation of the magazines’ readership to the fore. For he is not writing a history of magazines nor even all the magazines with which Trollope associated, he focuses on a select range; he asks what does it mean to read fiction in this context (1860s, periodicals with niche audiences), what do we learn about the novels, the magazines, the cultural life in books of the era.

For those interested, read on [in the comments].


Read Full Post »

The slow motion duel from Barry Lyndon

Dear Friends,

I’ve been meaning to make a blog on Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable film adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975). I was so charmed by it when I watched it last year that I made a huge album of stills from the movie and put it in an album on Eighteenth Century Worlds. This week on Trollope19CStudies @ Yahoo we somehow began to discuss it, and I put a little of my original thoughts on the list and people liked it, so I put them here too.

The curious power of this film lies in its insistence on the importance of the slow-moving pictures:

The men gambling

It’s a highly original landmark film for its aesthetics. It’s beautiful. There are continual frames of scenes that are picturesque and evocation of the 18tn century as it’s often imagined in high art. The allure of this includes the salacious and lurid and in context the ironic narrative undercuts and works well with them.

The crowd gambling

Kubrick has the insight and daring to make a central part of his film his instinct that to see this earlier world set up as a neoclassic symmetrical dream vision and the visual pleasure of this is a very real part of the art of such films.


Marisa Berenson looks like a Gainsborough portrait and her hats
make my mouth water: this is a throw back to the Gainsborough studio costume drama films of the 40s, so Kubrick took what he could of the older modes of costume drama too.


The way to view is is to savour it in slow motion — as it is filmed. slow motion and that’s saying something since it moves so slowly.

Of course a film must have thematic meaning and this one has a hard one appropriate to Thackeray’s book. The ending said it all: a devastating bitter close whose final ethical point is close to Thackeray’s (indictment of a corrupt society, the product of human nature generally or its worst aspects for power, its coldness and egoistic appetite for where else can it come from?), though the means and methods are utterly disparate.

Thackeray’s novel (which I looked and dipped into after watching the film) has a narrator like that of Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wilde: like Fielding’s hard satire, Thackeray’s Lyndon is a crude amoral presence and would be a dangerous sociopath if we read the book realistically. We don’t. We know it’s satire. By contrast, Kubrick’s Barry is a noble young man, with a good heart and many illusions about honor and love, just about all of which are utterly out of kilter which the society which professes them (so he’s more like Fielding’s Tom Jones). The movie is not a satire on upward mobility in the Victorian era) but rather an elegy for the destruction of the low-born hero and a poignant evocation of a beautiful world, the ancien regime which paradoxically arose on the miseries and backs of the many. A comment on the 19th century here too. The continual bad things everyone is doing to everyone else amid the domesticity of the later part of the film, how so many end up crippled.

So the underlying meaning is alive; but not brought out by the acting which we could scarcely appreciate as long shots were preferred and iconic and archetypal moments. The best and most memorable moments have little to do with the original story or plot-design or even moral. It moves so slowly, and Kubrick recreates idyllic art of the 18th century — not the real one, and not even the typical, but of a subgenre of picture that after this film many of these costume dramas picked up.

This picnic was recently repeated in the BBC (later 1990s) mini-series, Aristocrats (based on Stella Tillyard’s book, film by David Caffrey and Harriet O’Carroll; it’s a domestic variant, appropriate for the age of sensibility we might say:


Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon are set in the earlier part of the century.

Sumptuous romance had been the key in the 1930s and 40s but no attempt at surface realisms (like old fashioned light), no attention to surface historical accuracies. Kubrick was apparently the first to do this consistently, even manically. Conversation pieces and genre scenes abound:

The musical Lyndon family

Kubrick’s scenes sometimes are shot for more than 90 seconds. It’s as if he asked himself how much strangeness will the audience tolerate? and dared them to complain 🙂 We love to watch the gambling — that holds us. The second duel between the step-son and Lydnon is a masterpiece of nerve, especially when Barry’s nobility boomerangs back on him and he loses his lower leg and all his money.

The excess of the costume and scenes exceeds all else. Really this show that Brideshead Revisited is simply a repeat, a televisual bringing to mini-series what Kubrick did several years before in the moviehouse.

I read about Kubrick’s career too. While he is famous for a couple I couldn’t stand (the pornographic Lolita, and another frighteningly lurid one whose title I mercifully have blocked out), he also made Dr Strangelove. He is one of these directors who knows how to present himself as sole auteur — as in this film. But you have to look for in some cases another person has written the script or produced and it’s someone who does does the cinematography even if directed by Kubrick.

The next night I watched Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones to compare. While the earlier film is still charming, amusing, and yes offers a variety of filmic techniques which succeed in conveying the tone and attitudes of the book towards the characters, somehow it is also more dated than Barry Lyndon.

I think for me it was partly the movie’s content or thematizing of Fielding’s novel: Richardson told the same joke over and over: see how sweet, good, innocent, chivalrous, generous is Tom even though he is in bed with this and that and the other women. It’s that all these women want him so; they are the aggressor again and again. Then he is extricated by highjinks and we are to laugh again as he escapes — until near the end he is almost hung. I tired of it, over and over. Endless exposure of women’s breasts was part of the treat. Not much for Susannah York to do but look loving and accepting, and the sexy women to slither and slide and look CHFM.

Tom and Molly

Sophia and her Aunt Western

That’s what is the film’s repeating incident. I don’t find this all that amusing (at least on the third time and yet more of this to come) nor am I inclined to revel in this sort of “innocence” in the first place.

A pastoral

Like Kubrick, Richardson used a narrator throughout (defying what I gather still is the wisdom of film people and their scorn against non-cinematic techniques like spoken words). This provided the soft comforting ironies. Instead of a slow pace, we had speed, and the stylization kept us at a distance too.

Like Kubrick too, a genuine attempt is made to recreate something of the 18th century world: here it’s rough and ready, rural. The actor doing Mr Weston was superb, as also Partridge.

Finney as Tom setting out in the world, just before he’s diverted into the hunt

The famous long hunt is well done and its coda in a sweet chivalric scene punctuates and turns it into something conventional. Indeed as the man who gave a paper on the music of the film at the ASECS argued, it quickly repeatedly became a conventional complacent film.

Paradoxically because of its aesthetics Barry Lyndon is the graver film and Tom Jones froth in comparison. I don’t say I didn’t enjoy it in a way, but it was very mild enjoyment. A landmark film because it refuses to invite us to be snobs and uses costume drama differently for farcical comedy. It gives us something of Fielding’s quality but (as is not uncommon) leaves us the bite and what is hard about the book.

It’s my view that only is fidelity not a useful criteria, it’s impossible. What is important is to look into and at the movie as a work of art in its own right (as we do an opera many of which are adaptations from stories and novels), with many precursor texts and allusions, only one of which (if major) is its literary
source text. A movie (or opera) is not a window through which we see another text though it may interpret it. One looks at the major source to compare and understand and then appreciate the art and meaning of the new text or film (or opera)


Read Full Post »