Other People's Children and Marrying the Mistress (Viking Press)
Each of the titles of Joanna Trollope’s two most recent novels, Other People’s Children (1998) and Marrying the Mistress (2000), clearly states the social problem to be treated between the covers. Neither problem would arise without divorce, and it’s unlikely that Ms. Trollope’s treatment would be the same if divorce weren’t common. Voices crying out from her pages against divorce are shrill but solitary, and not a little pathological. By and large, her characters have accepted the fact that there’s nothing necessarily lasting about marriage, and they don’t appear to attribute its breakdown to personal failure. Few would dispute that growth is healthy, even if growing means growing apart from one’s spouse, and most would argue that the only thing you can do when a marriage collapses is to move on. Since moving on generally means finding another lover, however, whether in or out of marriage, divorce is not a purely personal affair except in rare cases where neither party has any family. Children, moreover, render divorce practicably unavailable to parents who choose not to desert them. No matter how calmly deliberated, divorce kicks up a messy wake.
In these two books, Ms. Trollope makes a specialty of observing the aftermath of domestic sunderings with a crisp eye. The tale told in Marrying the Mistress, a relatively unitary one, begins with Guy Stockdale’s decision to leave Laura, his wife of forty years, for Merrion, his mistress of seven. That Merrion isn’t quite half Guy’s age doesn’t surprise his family nearly as much as her professional success; she’s doing rather better than Guy’s elder son, Simon – and all three are lawyers. The upheaval of conflicted loyalties shows up serious fault lines in Simon’s marriage, and the spectacle of his grandfather’s transformation into a single swain teaches grandson Jack, toiling through his own first passion, that you’re never too old to fall in love. Other People’s Children, in contrast, sprawls through two marriages and litters the ground with exes and stepsiblings. Josie, mother of Rufus, and Matthew, father of Becky, Rory, and Claire, have met at a teachers’ convention and thrown over their respective spouses, Tom and Nadine; the book begins with their wedding, at which they’re the only unequivocally happy people present. Tom, we learn, has been married before, and his grown children have hardly gotten used to the satisfaction of seeing the last of Josie (and Rufus) before Tom takes up with Elizabeth, an upper civil servant who bears more than a passing resemblance to one of Barbara Pym’s more appealing spinsters. Nadine, meanwhile, proves herself to be so domestically incompetent that for their own sakes’ she gives up custody of her very unruly brood. Poor quiet, well-mannered Rufus doesn’t take long to start ‘acting out.’ Elizabeth’s father, Duncan, gives voice to the reader’s misgivings:
“The thing is,” Duncan said. He took a swallow of coffee. “The thing is, and I’ve no idea whether it’s bad or good, that, most of my life, I’ve played a nice, manageable little three-hander – me, my late wife, and my daughter. And now, with Elizabeth proposing to get married, I seem suddenly to be part of some mad musical with a very poor director and a cast of thousands. This child coming this morning has a mother somewhere who’s married someone else with three children, and they all have a mother and an aunt and grandparents. It’s bewildering, really it is. And I keep thinking – where will it stop?” 158
Joanna Trollope has one thing in common with her ancestor, Anthony, that’s as almost as peculiar to them as their surname. Both Trollopes write a very pure strain of social comedy, undisturbed by reflections on the meaning of life. Which is to say that the fact the life means different things to different people is ignored. All are harnessed to the common task of getting through life as agreeably as possible. What’s agreeable – now, that does differ, very much, from person to person. To some minds, I gather, the difference between ‘the meaning of life’ and ‘what’s agreeable’ is purely semantic, but I don’t think that either Trollope takes this view. On the contrary, both appear to believe that men and women with very different personalities and outlooks can nevertheless be expected to cooperate in the project of making the world a better place, or at least to keep it from getting worse. If neither writer is so naïve as to believe in ‘normal life,’ both stick to the normal in life, because doing so shows up what most interests them about people. So, while their characters are for the most part fully-drawn individuals, we are never asked to sympathise with eccentricities. Oddness is there to be laughed at, however gently. There is no room for dreamers like Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer, whose appeal lies in the breadth of their untested imaginations. There is no room for the existential tragedy of Graham Greene’s novels. There is simply no way out of the Trollopes’ world. The difference between the two of them is that I observed this characteristic in the Victorian’s novels only after reading dozens of them over dozens of years, but perceived it in my contemporary’s after reading just one. It might be that I’ve simply become astonishingly acute. But I attribute the difference to the skill with which Anthony Trollope manages his limitations.
Every coherent writer has limitations, and intelligent ones usually know what they are and are capable of refining, if not choosing, them. Jane Austen does not investigate the lives of servants. Henry James doesn’t try for laughs. Sustained dialogue is very rare in Proust. As a rule, we measure an artist’s success by accepting his limitations and then determining how well he works within them. How we feel about the limitations themselves is another, more personal and less arguable matter: Readers interested in servants’ lives had better not look to Jane Austen for pleasure, and that’s that. The question of how well an artist works within his limitations is largely answered less consciously: we often don’t realize that there are limitations until they’re pointed out to us by critics or connoisseurs. We’re happy, without knowing or caring why.
The novels under discussion were marred for me by a few bumps into the wall that surrounds Joanna Trollope’s chosen milieu. Anthony Trollope may be notorious for his rigged happy endings, but they’re very unlike the averted unhappy ones in his descendant’s work. In Other People’s Children, for example, three relationships suffocate unto extinction because neither Dale Carver nor her father Tom can escape the bond forged by the sudden accidental death of Pauline, Dale’s mother and Tom’s first wife, decades ago when Dale was only five. This bond might not be interesting enough to carry a three-hundred page novel, but given its impact on other characters, one of them a very sympathetic principal, I think it deserved a more probing inquiry. The disadvantage of Ms. Trollope’s limitation in this case is that it prevents her living up to her material. Dale seems to have wandered in from the much darker stories of Ian McEwan or Ruth Rendell; she’s the sort of character whose possessiveness turns lethal. She’s too dangerous for wry social comedy, and perhaps it’s all Ms. Trollope can do to keep her from poisoning the atmosphere. As it is, the author acts as the ‘enabler’ of her character’s very real problem, instead of resolving it. Similarly dark, Laura Stockdale, in Marrying the Mistress, comes across as aggressively passive, almost dementedly needy. Having no patience with the likes of her, I rather hoped she’d kill herself. She would commit suicide not from grief over her husband’s desertion but because that desertion exposed her own resourcelessness. Laura doesn’t need Guy any more than he needs her, but she does need her manicured house and garden, and when the effort to save this asset conflicts with her insistence upon being treated just so, she has no idea what to do, and isn’t particularly interested in finding out. Awakening to the horror of her personality ought to have shocked her into destroying it. But Laura doesn’t awaken; she doesn’t have to. A new accommodation haply presents itself. Her rescue was about as credible as, but much less satisfying than, Tinkerbelle’s.
That Joanna Trollope commands her craft utterly cannot be doubted. The question is rather what that craft is, and I reluctantly conclude that it’s the writing of escapist fiction. Not only are the darker implications avoided, as I’ve already above mentioned. Trollope spares her readers’ imagination no less than their good spirits. With an assurance that would be praiseworthy in complicated nonfiction, Trollope identifies the point of each scene with an explicit thought that makes it unnecessary for the reader to think about what the character is feeling.
Gwen Palmer had brought her own sandwiches with her, to eat on the train. Merrion would have laughed at her, she knew, would have told her she was turning into an old thing on a senior citizen’s excursion fare ten years before she needed to. But for Gwen, the journey to London was quite enough by itself without worrying about train buffet cars and being ignored by the bartender in favor of big men buying spirits. After all, she was having to come up during an evening, in order to have any hope of catching Merrion on her own, and evenings spelled automatic alarm for Gwen anyway, never mind long-distance train journeys and the prospect of almost unknown London. She would take taxis. She had resolved upon that. She wouldn’t make things harder for herself than she simply had to, so she had brought sandwiches, and would take taxis.
It had dawned upon Gwen, during the last telephone call with Merrion, that their lives were now so far apart in thought, word, and deed, that it was sometimes difficult to believe that Merrion’s childhood and adolescence had actually happened the way they had. Of course Gwen was proud of Merion. Who wouldn’t be proud of a daughter with such professional accomplishment as Merrion’s? And yet there lurked in Gwen’s mind an apprehension that Merrion had, for all the glory and shine of her life in London, taken some kind of wrong turning, set off down some path that seemed, almost inevitably, to lead away from all the things that Gwen believed – had believed all her life – contributed to womanly fulfillment. If she tried to intimate this to Merrion, Merrion told her she didn’t understand, even angrily once, that she didn’t know anything.104-5
This passage, which portrays an uncertain mother grappling with the achievement and affairs of an independent-minded daughter, leaves nothing to the imagination except the one detail that we might, imaginatively, want to follow. Let me propose a distinction between ‘imagination’ and ‘visualization.’ Visualization is a kind of imagination, concerned with ‘seeing’ concrete things, or material circumstances, that aren’t actually present. Ms. Trollope’s powers of enabling the reader to visualize is very great, and like all masters of this craft, she keeps the details to the effective minimum. But there’s more to imagination than this kind of seeing. In the present instance, we’re told that Merrion may have taken a ‘wrong turning’ down a ‘path’ leading away from ‘womanly fulfillment.’ What lies behind these somewhat shopworn metaphors and abstractions? What idea of ‘womanly fulfillment’ would a woman like Gwen, widowed, then divorced or abandoned (even this point is not entirely clear), be likely to have? That’s not the kind of question that a reader ought to have to ask. No, here is where an author really ought to guide the imagination, away from speculation and toward the detail - in this case, the detail of Gwen’s actual idea. If Gwen isn’t the sort of woman likely to be capable of articulating such an idea, then it might be suggested by a bit more of her story than we’re given. It could be done in a paragraph or two, but Trollope, apparently, can’t be bothered with such background – and it would appear that her readers don’t miss it, either. Why should they, when everything is so easy to ‘see,’ when each easily visualized scene is followed by another? I’m suggesting, paradoxically, that if Trollope were to tell us a little more than she does, she could make her characters a little more mysterious. She could make us want to work a little at understanding them – the kind of working known as ‘imagining.’
Instead of taking us further into Gwen’s mind, the passage simply highlights an already clear picture, so that it’s easy to visualize Gwen on the train, clutching her sandwiches, fretfulJoanna Trollope about reopening a discussion that her daughter has closed. The whole thing amounts to careful stage directions, a lucid statement of Gwen’s motivation that an actress could use. (That bit about turning into a senior citizen ten years too soon is a plum.) Is there something wrong with that? And in fact Joanna Trollope’s work has done very well in adaptation. Her first two novels, ‘The Choir,’ and The Rector’s Wife – the latter with a strong interpretation of the title role by Lindsay Duncan – both seemed to me to be eagerly followed, or at any rate to be advertised with an amplitude not lavished on marginal projects. Nothing is lost in the adaptation because there’s nothing to lose. Ms. Trollope doesn’t present us with a character’s thought so much as a picture of a thinking character. Is it idle carping to fault a novel for reading so much like a scenario? Here is my surmise: it will take filmed adaptation to make these novels memorable.
Joanna Trollope also omits scenes that Anthony Trollope would certainly include. In Other People’s Children, a scene that ends with the news that Matthew’s unruly children will be coming to live with him and his new wife, Josie, whom they do everything to provoke, is immediately followed by one in which Josie’s son, Rufus, looks back with regret on the loss of a private bedroom entailed by this development. This reader was relieved not to have to go through the painful details of the stepchildren’s arrival and settling in, of which it might be argued that we’d already had enough. It’s a sign of Ms. Trollope’s sophistication as a stylist that she omits scenes that are easy to imagine. But leaving this scene to my imagination allowed me to dispense with imagining it at all. The last thing I want to suggest here is incompetence. If this is escapist fiction, it’s of the highest quality. Just don’t be surprised if you can’t remember a thing about the story a year later. (June 2000)
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