While reading one of Anthony Trollope's forty-seven novels, I've always lost myself completely and had a great time, but then, when I closed the book, my opinion of Trollope as a novelist took a nosedive. Something essential to the novel - something abundantly on offer in the work of other novelists whom I admire - seemed to be missing. What could this be?
Happening to read George Eliot's Adam Bede in between two of the Barsetshire novels, it occurred to me that what's missing in Trollope is any sense of 'the big picture,' of the dreams of personal fulfillment, imaginatively entered into, that occupy so many of Eliot's strongest passages. For all his barristers, doctors, and clergymen, Trollope shows no interest in professional ambitions like Tertius Lydgate's. If there is an opposite of the Bildungsroman, it's Trollope's account of the coming-of-age of Charlie Tudor (in The Three Clerks) or that of John Eames (The Last Chronicle of Barset). These young men, both Trollopean 'hobbledehoys,' have landed their jobs without much in the way of either foresight or forethought, and they hold them without much enthusiasm. Lack of enthusiasm is hardly a drawback in Trollope's world; it's probably a virtue. The relation between a man and his work, far from illuminating the innermost reach of his character, simply furnishes the man with a more or less sufficient income, and Trollope with the occasion for many comical observations.
Eventually I concluded that Trollope does not write about individuals as such. He writes, rather, about members of society. There are many unhappy people in Trollope, but no alienated ones (excepting, of course, the unfortunate hero of He Knew He Was Right). More precisely we might say that alienation leads immediately to suicide. Trollope has no intent of setting himself up as a critic of society. The imperfections of society are simply the aggregate imperfections of imperfect, fallen man. Trollope may not positively approve of social arrangements, but his novels do reflect an indifference, perhaps even an aversion, to the possibilities of deliberate social change. If we must all live in society, Trollope says, then we ought to make the best of our own opportunities, and leave society to take care of itself. Confining his attention pretty much to the world that he knew, Trollope rang seemingly innumerable changes on the difficulty of making the best of an upper-middle class, gentlemanly life. No wonder I had trouble evaluating him as a novelist! His imaginative project is so unlike that of every other major writer in English that his own status as one has been perennially contested. Doubtless he would be dismissed by all but his cult's fans if he were not so astoundingly agreeable to read. For there can be no question of his status as a great writer. The question rather is whether he dedicated his gifts to the writing of great novels.
The one problem that every character with any problem at all faces in Trollope's novels is that of finding, or holding on to, his place in society. This usually involves a marriage, one's own or that of a family member. Since all of Trollope's characters in whose social success we're to take an interest belong to the middling gentry, marriage requires considerable material resources, and the marshalling of these resources takes up ten or twenty pages for every one that Trollope devotes to following the course of love. The modern reader who is new to Victorian literature may be excused for some perplexity as couple after engaged couple in Trollope laments that 'we can't afford to get married.' Can't two live more cheaply than one? In Trollope's day, two gentleman might, and two ladies might. But it appears to have been undesirable for a lady and a gentleman to live together (whether or not as husband and wife) in economical retirement. They must reside in a home of their own - not lodgings (our boarding house) - at a good address, situated far from shabby purlieus. These are at any rate Trollope's rules.
The amount of money required to live at a certain pitch is one of the cardinal points in Trollope's social geography. The other is the horror of living in domestic intimacy with an enemy - as someone whom one doesn't love is bound to become over time.
Ayala's Angel, one of Trollope's late novels (written in 1878, published in 1881), makes a good beginning for my project of following Trollope's interest in the problem of settling down. With its three principal and two ancillary love stories (Ayala's discovery that Jonathan Stubbs is indeed her 'angel,' Tom Tringle's unrequited love for Ayala, the impecunious engagement of Isadore Hamel and Lucy Dormer, Frank Houston's return to Imogene Docimer from the bounty-hunting pursuit of Gertrude Tringle, and Gertrude's entrapment of Captain Batsby), 'Ayala's Angel' exposes Trollope to the charge of padding, especially if one takes the title too seriously. Because Trollope can always tell a story, the multiplicity of 'love interests' enhances the novel's charm, but as an artistic construction this novel is even more shapeless than most of Trollope's.
And yet all five stories involve at least one member of the same extended family. Ayala and Lucy Dormer, and Gertrude and Tom Tringle, are all grandchildren of one Reginald Dossett. Their mothers are sisters. When the Dormer girls' parents die, leaving nothing but debts, Lady Tringle, married to a wealthy banker, takes in Ayala, while Lucy goes to the home of her childless uncle, also named Reginald Dossett, who shares his straitened circumstances in Notting Hill with a somewhat pinched wife. I recount these opening developments because they establish the advantages and the drawbacks of a variety of domestic arrangements. Well-upholstered dissatisfaction distinguishes the Tringle household, while pious economizing sets the tone at Notting Hill. The Dormer girls have grown up in a 'bijou,' their painter father's studio-villa, decorated with elegant if unpaid-for furnishings. All three establishments are founded on sand. Sir Thomas Tringle turned to Emmeline Dossett only after her sister turned him down, Reginald Dossett the younger married in expectation of his wife's inheritance, and Egbert Dormer, the artist, so lacked a sense of parental responsibility that his response to his wife's death was to die himself. And before this exposition has been fully laid out, Trollope adds a fourth dysfunctional household. Augusta Tringle, Gertrude's elder sister, has married the son of a new peer who, seeing no reason to spend a penny of his wife's settlement on housing, simply moves in with her family. His father-in-law's attempts to evict this thick-skinned gentleman strike a recurring comical motif throughout the novel. All of this constitutes a richly relevant backdrop to the novel that follows.
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