The Way They Lived Then Serious Interviews, Strong Women, and Lessons for Life in the Novels of Anthony Trollope
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Title: The Way They Lived Then
Serious Interviews, Strong Women, and Lessons for Life in the Novels of Anthony Trollope
Author: Taylor Prewitt
Release Date: August 28, 2018 [eBook #57792]
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Copyright (C) 2013 by Taylor Prewitt
THE WAY THEY LIVED THEN
Serious Interviews, Strong Women, and
Lessons for Life
in the Novels of Anthony Trollope
Copyright 2013 by Taylor Prewitt
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Fort Smith, Arkansas
For Mary and
Kendrick, Ellen, and Sally
Several pleasant hosts wearing the blue and orange scarves or bowties of the Trollope Society were circulating through the crowd on aMay evening at the Knickerbocker Club in New York, makingconversation and bringing the outliers among us into small groupingsto join in. These board members were faithfully performing their taskof "pushing the ball along," as Trollope sometimes put it, at thesociety's annual dinner. Comparing notes as to what Trollope novel wehad last read was the default gambit. One of the books mentioned wasKept in the Dark; another was He Knew He was Right—a bit beyondthe entry-level Barsetshire and Palliser series.
These reviews of all forty-seven of Trollope's novels were writtensomewhat in the spirit of such dinner-table chatter as one might hearat a meeting of the Trollope Society—appreciative, mostly, but notwithout a word of criticism here and there. The guests I met werestockbrokers, booksellers, doctors, retirees; and these reviews werewritten by and for such a reader as one might encounter at a cocktailparty—whose interests are a bit more informal than those of gradstudents searching for original information and insights for theirdissertations.
It so happens that my wife and I were introduced to Anthony Trollopethrough Simon Raven's BBC production of The Pallisers in 1974; afew subsequent television series have brought in other novels. Thismay qualify as a response to the public media. But if there is anycommon thread among the faithful readers of Trollope, it is awillingness to pick up something to read that is not on the currentbest seller list, hardly on a book club list, not something thateveryone is talking about.
The better-known and more frequently read of his novels are prettylong. A few have told me that they have read all six of theBarsetshire series, or all six of the Palliser series. A few havestepped out beyond these familiar confines to the relativelyuncharted void of his other thirty-five novels. A couple of these,the acclaimed The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, areavailable as video copies of television productions. Several othersare sitting there on the shelf, waiting for some genius to bring themforward in similar fashion. I have entertained myself at times withgenerating my own candidates: among these are Orley Farm, TheClaverings, and The American Senator.
Trollope sabotaged his own reputation with his disclosure of hiswriting habits, and it may never recover. The very idea that anyonecould approach writing without appealing to the muse, just getting upevery morning and doing it—two hours every morning, with aself-imposed quota of words to write! The muse was not amused, andher devotees have been unforgiving. If this confession had been wellknown during his years in service, I suspect that his advancementwould have been significantly curtailed. The public requires itsgeniuses to be seized by the spirit. It's not as if just anybodycould do it. An inspired author must rise from a dinner table full ofguests when gripped by his muse, as did Charles Dickens, and, as ifin a trance, transcribe the words dictated by the spirit.
Any respectable agent, if Trollope had had one, would surely havewarned him about the risks of overexposure. Even the great andprolific Dickens wrote only about a dozen novels. Jane Austen wrotesix. George Eliot and the Brontes only wrote a few.
A prodigious writer must necessarily have a little tool box,deploying and mixing different plot devices, assumptions aboutsociety, views on current issues, and references to the way theylived then—which was different in many ways from our own world, andsimilar in others.
One of his favorite tools was the Serious Interview, and few writershave used it to such advantage as did Trollope. He introduces thisdevice in a chapter entitled "The Serious Interview" in BarchesterTowers, one of his early novels, in which Archdeacon Grantly makesthe strategic error of engaging his sister-in-law Eleanor Bold abouthis suspicion that she is about to accept a marriage proposal fromthe sly and scheming Rev. Slope. The components of the SeriousInterview are present in this prototype:
The prologue, in which Trollope explains to the reader that thereare some who delight in offering advice or administering rebuke, andthat the archdeacon is among these.
The entry of the combatants. In this instance Eleanor's usuallymild demeanor was absent, and the archdeacon "almost wished he hadtaken his wife's advice," i.e., not to speak to her.
The opening statements. Here he assures her that she has nosincerer friend than he.
The initial sparring. He accuses her of having received a letterfrom Mr. Slope, and she admits it.
The counterattack. She tells him he may read the letter, and shehands it over to him. She over-reacts, however, in claiming that Mr.Slope is an "industrious, well-meaning clergyman."
The author's commentary. In a paragraph beginning, "Hereundoubtedly Eleanor put herself in the wrong," Trollope indulges in areview of the defender's tactics—her assumption of the "prejudiceand conceit of the archdeacon" leading to her error of going too far."She would neither give nor take quarter."
The attacker's final thrust, in which the archdeacon says that Mr.Arabin (who is destined to marry Eleanor in one of the last chapters)agrees with him and his wife "that it is quite impossible you shouldbe received at Plumstead as Mrs. Slope."
The defender's final reaction. Her look was one Dr. Grantly "didnot soon forget," and saying, "How dare you be so impertinent?" shehurriedly leaves the room—with the standard reaction in private:"and then, locking the door, she threw herself on her bed and sobbedas though her heart would break."
The postmortem. "By some maneuver of her brain, she attributed theorigin of the accusation to Mr. Arabin," and she lay awake all nightthinking of what had been said. "Nor was the archdeacon a bit bettersatisfied with the result of the serious interview than was Eleanor."He understood that she was angry, but it never occurred to him thatEleanor viewed the supposed union with Mr. Slope with as much disgustas did he. "He returned to his wife vexed and somewhat disconsolate."
The morning after. Eleanor sent word that she was not well enoughto attend prayers. "Everyone walked about with subdued feet." Thesisters (Eleanor and the Archdeacon's wife) were peeved with eachother, but after a bit of diplomacy by their father Mr. Harding, they"sat down each to her crochet work as though nothing was amiss in allthe world."
As noted, the author often serves as a guide to the reader, offeringhis own critical observations on how each of the participants playedtheir hand. Indeed, most of his novels include at least one of theseconfrontations that serve primarily to entertain the reader, but alsoto unveil hitherto unappreciated character traits and to advance thestory.
Trollope enjoyed using his stories as little Clinics in the Lessonsof Life, injecting himself as an observer, critic and instructor inother everyday matters. In Ralph the Heir he explains how thebeauty of Mary Bonner afforded her the Priority of Service that isthe due primarily of beauty, but also of money, political position,and noble birth. A diligent worker himself, he extolled the virtuesof hard work in Castle Richmond: "It is my opinion that nothingseasons the mind for endurance like hard work. Port wine shouldperhaps be added."
Victorians wrote letters, and they mailed them by post, and Trollopeas a veteran of the postal service used letters and the service ofmail delivery to advantage, again often with editorial asides as tohow something may have been better phrased. In another little lessonof life in The Bertrams, he offered anothertoo-frequently-neglected lesson: "Sit down and write your letter;write it with all the venom in your power … and, as a matter ofcourse, burn it before breakfast the next morning." He goes on toextol pleasant letters, concluding his advice for letter writing:"But, above all things, see that it be good-humored."
The development of character is generally one of Trollope'sstrengths. His observations were probing and acute; these aretransformed into portrayals of certain characters who are solife-like that the reader comes to know them and their foibles aswell as he knows his own friends and neighbors. Certain charactertraits must have particularly fascinated Trollope because they recurin several of his novels. Among these is the trait that might bereferred to as terminal stubbornness, most obviously shown in LouisTrevelyan and Emily Rowley, who becomes Trevelyan's wife in He KnewHe