Our book today is Anthony Trollope’s 1880 autumnal masterpiece, The Duke’s Children, and unless I’m mistaken, it marks Trollope’s first appearance here on Stevereads. This is decidedly strange, since a) reading Trollope has brought me so much enjoyment over the years, and b) virtually all of my friends and acquaintances reflexively assume that Trollope is the only fiction I ever read. A) isn’t really all that strange, however, since there are ever so many books I love that haven’t yet made their appearance here (one by a certain Dutchman comes to mind…), but B) is flat-out aliens-from-hyperspace strange in every way, and it’s always been so. It mystifies me: to the best of my knowledge, I read more contemporary fiction than anybody else I know, and more to the point, I’ve been reading contemporary fiction longer than anybody I know – dutifully keeping up with the ‘masters’ of the day, industriously searching out the new tyros and sifting through their effulgences for gems that sparkle, remembering their worth long after they and their heirs have lapsed out of print and out of life. How many of those same friends and acquaintances have received arm-loads of such forgotten gems, or else enthusiastic recommendations from the in-print shelves of bookstores? I’ve lost count, and yet every one of them, after reading and enjoying their Vance Bourjaily or their Jeremy Leven or their William Gaddis or their Pete Dexter, would then confidently assert, over port on a blustery evening, “Oh, Steve never reads anything new unless it’s some new history of Prussia or something like that; when it comes to fiction, he stopped in his tracks with Kipling and Trollope. Harrumph.” Strange.
Maybe it’s that I seem like a quintessential Trollope reader. I’d certainly hope I do. After he enumerated the machine-like quality of the process in his autobiography (which all fans of horror fiction should rush right out and buy), Trollope became to a certain degree synonymous with his novel-writing work ethic. Even in a generally harder-working age, his prolixity was astounding, and the level of his work stayed remarkably even and remarkably high. If asked to take on Trollope’s writing schedule for even one year, virtually every novelist working today would faint dead flat on the floor – and even if one or two of them could manage to run the faucet at that rate for a single year, they could only manage it by not regulating the quality of what poured out (a couple of romance authors come to mind here, and perhaps one young novelist recently dead by his own hand). But to gush at full flood and exercise craft – that seems impossible. And to do it, as Trollope did, for twenty years and more? Veritably superhuman.
He did it by eliminating agony from the process, and that’s where I’d hope I seem like a natural Trollope reader, since my hatred of all writerly affect is well-documented down at the courthouse. I scorn agony in composition – it’s a dodge, a stupid bit of mummery. Lazy writers (and oh, so many writers are lazy) affect it because immemorial use has imbued it with the semblance of legitimacy. But it isn’t legitimate. Thoughts bubble constantly, opinions and aesthetic decisions form constantly, words give shape to opinions and aesthetic decisions, words can be written at typing speed – and lo, prose. Anybody who imports agony into that process is stalling for time, probably under the delusion that posterity will be hanging on their every word. I can and often do disabuse that delusion: I am posterity, and if you waste your time hemming and hawing, I’ll move on to the next likely candidate. There is no art without product. There is no worth without work.
And Trollope demonstrates the fallacy! He wrote at top speed all morning, worked at his job all day, ate, entertained, and socialized all evening (we’re not even talking about all the travels), and then quite often wrote some more at top speed before bed – he did all that without hemming and hawing, and despite his own facile protestations to the contrary, what he produced wasn’t just an assembly-line of cobbled shoes – his novels are shot through with gold, pure immortal gold. They beguile. And the best of them are among the best the 19th century has to show for itself.
Probably most Trollope readers wouldn’t rank The Duke’s Children among the best of them. Indeed, the Victorian reading public was so cool on the book’s predecessor, The Prime Minister (which has the minor distinction of being my favorite of all Trollope’s novels), that when Trollope finished writing The Duke’s Children, he put it away for a couple of years and turned his hand to other work. The book concludes the so-called “Palliser novels,” which come to focus on a small group of figures at the apex of London social and political circles. There’s Phineas Finn, the very form of a professional politician, and there’s Mrs. Finn, the politician’s wife. And eventually there comes into his own the monolithic central figure, Plantagenet Palliser, the fabulously wealthy Duke of Omnium (the ‘Duke’ of this book’s title, obviously) – and his Duchess, Glencora Palliser. Through book after vaguely-related book (the entire 700-page contents of one volume often puckishly summarized in one sentence in the next), we follow the vicissitudes of these characters, and in The Prime Minister the Duke finally rises to the leadership of the nation, and the Duchess briefly tries to outdo all of history as a glittering society madam. By the end of that book (if, indeed, it hadn’t happened long before), we stand a little in awe of the Duke, who in his unbending, slightly dim-witted way seems to embody all the tradition of the English aristocracy going back to Edward the Confessor. And we are madly, hopelessly in love with Lady Glen, who towers over every other female character Trollope ever created (even Mrs. Proudie must retreat before her into the sheltering shallows of caricature).
So 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.
Re-reading The Duke’s Children always draws a certain sharp attention away from the trials of the Pallisers themselves and turns it toward one of the most interesting and tragic of all Trollope’s secondary characters, Lady Mabel Grex, daughter of a fading line of Yorkshire nobility and once upon a time the object of Frank Tregear’s affections. After she loses him to Mary Palliser, she becomes a similar object to Silverbridge – and she hesitates just long enough to lose him to Isabel. But the summary doesn’t do her justice: she’s a strong, intelligent, uncompromising character who’s portrayed by Trollope, with remorseless clarity, as the one left standing when the novel’s game of musical chairs is over. Her fiery exchanges with Frank Tregear are mercilessly readable:
‘It is all unmanly,’ she said, rising from her stone [at Grex, her run-down estate]; ‘you know that it is so. Friends! Do you mean to say that it would make no difference whether you were here with me or with [her elderly companion] Miss Cass?’
‘The greatest difference in the world.’
‘Because she is an old woman and I am a young one, and because in intercourse between young men and young women there is something dangerous to the women and therefore pleasant to the men.’
‘I never heard anything more unjust. You cannot think I desire anything injurious to you.’
‘I do think so.’ She was still standing and spoke now with great vehemence. ‘I do think so. You force me to throw aside the reticence I ought to keep. Would it help me in my prospects if your friend Lord Silverbridge knew that I was here?’
‘How should he know?’
‘But if he did? Do you suppose that I want to have visits paid to me of which I am afraid to speak? Would you dare to tell Lady Mary that you had been sitting alone with me on the rocks at Grex?’
‘Certainly I would.’
‘Then it would be because you have not dared to tell her certain other things which have gone before. You have sworn to her no doubt that you love her better than all the world.’
‘And you have taken the trouble to come here and tell me that, – to wound me to the core by saying so; to show me that, though I may still be sick, you have recovered, – that is if you ever suffered! Go your way and let me go mine. I do not want you.’
‘I do not want you. I know you will not help me, but you need not destroy me.’
A reader less familiar with Trollope’s methods might read the sub-plot of Mabel Grex in The Duke’s Children with the constant expectation that the author is at some point going to step in and save this noble, deserving woman from the crush of loneliness and isolation that seems to await her. But it doesn’t happen – her fate (surely one of the saddest in all of Trollope this side of Lady Mason’s in Orley Farm) is the one shadow in the blazing, happy sunlight of the novel’s double happy ending.
By the end of The Duke’s Children, the modern world with all its trappings is firmly in the ascendant, and the Duke has made what peace he can with it (indeed, it wants him – he’s recalled to power at the close of the book). The dramas of the novel derive their strength from their immediacy, and even in Trollope’s lifetime, that immediacy was thinning into sentiment and farce. The problematic vitality of the Victorian era would spawn a great deal of canned nostalgia in brief Edwardian twilight – and that nostalgia would receive its most beautiful elaboration decades later in Brideshead Revisited. A young friend of mine has brilliantly remarked that Waugh’s novel is really the last and greatest Edwardian novel – it’s the story of The Duke’s Children, only narrated by a Frank Tregear grown bitter and world-weary.
But Waugh is for another day. Today, I can’t urge you strongly enough to borrow that dusty copy of The Duke’s Children from your local library and read it. Don’t worry about it being the last in an alleged series – when its original readers first saw it, they no more remembered the specific details of The Prime Minister than you do, and they didn’t need to: say what you want about him, but Trollope knew to the last detail how to serve his readers, and sending them fetching for five previous novels would have been poor service indeed.