Not here at Novel Readings, unfortunately–indeed, I’ve been a pretty poor source of Victorian material lately. But two of my favourite bloggers have recent Trollope posts well worth reading–and every much in their own distinctive styles, which makes it particularly fun to juxtapose them. At stevereads, it’s The Duke’s Children:
when the first chapters of The Duke’s Children began appearing in 1879, readers were thunderstruck:
No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died … It was not only that his heart was torn to pieces, but that he did not know how to look out into the world. It was as though a man should be suddenly called upon to live without hands or even arms. He was helpless, and knew himself to be helpless.
The Duchess … dead? It seemed inconceivable, and Trollope is entirely right to shock us so (in the realm of television much later, after “All in the Family” had ended, an oddly similar shock was delivered to viewing audiences when the show’s sequel, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” featured the funeral of Archie’s ‘dingbat’ wife Edith – as one stunned critic aptly put it, “Oh Edith, how could you up and die on us?”). The main action of the first half of The Duke’s Children, at least for those in the Duke’s personal orbit, is one of shocked spasm at the sudden vacuum where once so much life had been. The Duke is all but destroyed by the loss, as Trollope writes with exceptional sensitivity:
In spite of all her faults her name was so holy to him that it had never once passed his lips since her death, except in low whispers to himself, – low whispers made in the perfect, double-guarded seclusion of his own chamber. ‘Cora, Cora’ he had murmured, so that the sense of the sound and not the sound itself had come to him from his own lips.
And his troubles are only beginning. His eldest son and heir, Lord Silverbridge (at one point Trollope drolly remarks that everybody had been calling the young oaf ‘Silverbridge’ so long they’d almost forgotten his actual name), in addition to racking up astronomical racing debts, has also fallen under the amorous sway of Isabel Boncasson, a high-spirted and wealthy young American heiress. His younger son Gerald is in trouble with his school. And his daughter Mary is in love with a nearly penniless young man named Frank Tregear – and had been encouraged in the match by her mother before her death, much to the Duke’s confused mortification (readers of the earlier Palliser novels noted that the family appeared to have mislaid a daughter, since a second girl is mentioned in The Prime Minister; I have my theories as to what became of her). The workings of the novel center on these inroads being blasted into the Duke’s privileged world – he fights both encroachments with a desperate, incremental determination.Trollope’s audience can’t for an instant entertain any serious doubt as to how either plot will eventually resolve – times are changing, after all, and it would be merely perverse for a novelist like Trollope to stand in their way.
There’s also a romantic plot – will Frank be able to wed Mary? The latter is the novel’s heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone” (Ch. 2). Frank would be the hero:
had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may so regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.
Trollope was forty-three, so judge “too old” accordingly. I remind the reader that we are still in Chapter 1, on page 7 of 569 in my orange Penguin, where we have been told how the “story” “ends.” Tony, of Tony’s Reading List reminds me that “Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur.” Why does Trollope do that?
Perhaps Trollope is incompetent. Such is his own claim at the beginning of Chapter 2:
It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise. I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy… This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling–that, indeed, is very doubtful.
He is as bad as Thackeray or Fielding, isn’t he, a terrible liar. I, as a reader, should be insulted. As a quite different reader – instead, I am openly laughing at Trollope’s mockery of simple story-telling.
I’ve had a few things to say about Trollope over the years myself, and of course these posts make me feel it has been too long since I read him (especially the Palliser series, which I last read fully a decade ago).
Update: There’s more at Wuthering Expectations, here and here…and the promise (or is it a threat)? of a “ten part series on Orley Farm” in which “at least three of the posts will be on the fictional treatment and metaphorical meaning of 19th century manuring techniques.” I think he’s kidding. Actually, I’m not sure–and I don’t think I want him to be!