Trollope at the RSL

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Novelist and biographer Jonathan Keates began proceedings by quoting the beginning and end paragraphs of Mr Scarborough’s Family. The opening is a tortuous sentence in which Trollope explains that a lot of the novel will be told in flash back and that these bits will be the only exciting parts rather than the rest of the novel set in the present day. Keates suggests that it is this style which gives modern readers of Trollope so much difficulty.  But if they persist they are rewarded with delightfully human characters behaving in very naturalistic ways such as the teasing, affectionate conversation between Florence Mountjoy and Harry Annesley that concludes the novel.

Keates reminded the audience that George Eliot had said that without Trollope’s example to guide her, she could never have written Middlemarch. He recounted how since that time Trollope’s fortunes had waxed and waned somewhat.  He had provided comfort reading during the struggles of the 1940s and a certain fogeyish renaissance in the 1980s but had recently become something of a new discovery by academics and serious critics in recent years.

Michael Symmons Roberts explained that he first came into contact with Trollope when asked to dramatise The Warden for Radio 4 and it had remained his favourite Trollope novel. He said that he had previously viewed Trollope as too slight and too comfortable – a sort of “Dickens-lite”. What he had found was a novel which was packed with dramatic scenes enabling him to cut in and cut out with ease as he made his adaption.

He said that with Trollope the scene setting is so important. Money is always so important and no relationship is straight-forward. There are always undercurrents in every conversation which gives both him and the actors playing the parts lots of scope to develop them through the drama.

In The Warden, Michael felt there was a constant tension between the good and the right.  Mr Harding is undoubtedly a good man but his position in the novel is not a right position. It is wrong that he should receive so much money for the role he has. He suggested that Trollope is biased in this division, siding with the good Mr Harding rather than the right Mr Bold. Indeed, Mr Bold is shown as conflicted himself because he is torn between what is publicly right and what is privately right as a would be son-in-law of the man he is criticising.

Michael noted that his fellow poet Auden had said that Trollope is the pre-eminent writer on money and said that understanding money and its effects, or indeed the effects of the lack of it, impact on all areas of life – love and marriage in Victorian times, but in simple matters of morality – it may or may not corrupt.

The power of the press is also explored in this novel, showing how public opinion may be whipped up by journalists and in this Trollope is marvellously prescient when considered in the light of recent scandals.

It is axiomatic among Trollopians that Trollope writes well about women. His female characters are rich and complex, both morally and psychologically.  Frequently it is they, rather than the apparently more active male protagonists who are the true key characters of his novels.

What impressed him most about Trollope though was his morality. He wants to redeem his characters. Even the worst, most venal Trollope character has redeeming features.  Unlike Dickens, there is no clear division, no black and white. Which makes him a true realist.

Kwasi Kwarteng, MP, came hotfoot from the Tory party conference to make the case for his favorite novel, The Eustace Diamonds, the least political novel of the political series.  Kwarteng explained that he thought this book succeeded in tying together themes from the other novels in the series while sitting a little outside their main narrative flow and he liked the fact that the politics while present, was very much in the background rather than the foreground of the story. He also thought that the novel worked as a pure crime story.

For these reasons, Kwasi explained the book has, he believes, broader appeal than others in the series. Ultimately, he said, this appeal rests on the strength of the book’s central character, Lizzie Eustace, “a pathological liar” as Trollope calls her. She is conscious of her marginal status.  She comes from a good family but they have no money – a classic Trollopian dilemma. As a result she has a morbid fear of poverty – an almost autobiographical touch given Trollope’s own history. She therefore uses her position to advance herself and, once she has the diamonds – however dubious her claim to hold onto them – she clings on to them and nothing is too great an obstacle to that goal. She will lie, she will cheat, she will even apparently steal them from herself in order to do so.

Kwasi also makes the point that through Lizzie, Trollope exposes the hypocrisy of the age. She is attractive to suitors as a rich, beautiful, young widow.  The extent to which those potential suitors are put off, or not, by the dubious claim she has to the diamonds provides a rich commentary on the society in which she moves. In many respects she can be seen as written in homage to Thackeray’s amoral anti-heroine Becky Sharp. Trollope, he observed, was famously a great admirer of his slightly older contemporary who died only a few years before the book was written.

He concluded by noting that although this is a rich, multi-layered, and therefore complex novel, it is one that is not favoured by politicians. This is, he suggests, because it, like the other books in the political series, does not take the politics sufficiently seriously.  Trollope makes it clear that there is little practical difference between the two parties – the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories (Conservatives). Indeed, the business of politics is almost seen as being more a social exchange, broking for power rather than a matter of principle. This, he suggested, may be too close for comfort.

Joanna Trollope selected Miss Mackenzie. She noted immediately that Trollope chose to use the title “Miss” rather than her name “Margaret” and, given he had called other books Rachel RayNina Balatka and Linda Tressel, this was evidently not due to her gender alone. She inferred this decision was because Trollope himself had said of the book in planning that “Love shall have nothing to do with the outcome”. To have used her name would be to imply it was a love story. But, of course, she points out, that Trollope did indeed fall in love with his heroine and so it does turn out to be a love story in the end.

There are three potential lovers for Margaret: John Ball – described by Joanna as “a man of staggering unattractiveness”; a priest, Mr Maguire – whose wall eye Joanna compared to ” a rogue spotlight” who she said was Egregious and repellent”; and lastly Mr Samuel Rubb who is obviously in love with her but, alas, is not a gentleman, as was proved by his wearing brand new yellow gloves to a meeting with her!

Joanna said that the book demonstrates two elements at which Trollope is brilliant. He is the most profoundly psychological of the Victorian writers. Long before Freud he shows his understanding of women characters in particular with long internal monologues which are psychologically accurate portrayals. And he is masterly at writing about sex – most notably bad sex. He does revulsion so well. In these respects Miss Mackenzie becomes more interesting as the novel progresses. Joanna read aloud a passage which illustrates the point perfectly, in which Margaret looks at her reflection in the mirror, notes her flaws and imperfections but in an erotically charged moment pulls her scarf tight over her bust (this was the 19th century and Trollope could use no other word and get away with it) and kisses her reflection in the mirror.

Joanna also said that Trollope is very good at jokes, making you laugh at wonderful set pieces such as the terrible dinner party where Mrs Tom Mackenzie is so anxious to make the right impression but to do so economically until, horror of horrors, the wine runs out; or the dreadful charity bazaar for the orphans of soldiers, which reminds the modern reader of the modern charity fetes in every syllable.

Jonathan Keates then concluded the round-robin presentations with the case for The Claverings, largely for the wonderful cast of characters.

He suggested that the hero, Harry Clavering, is a typical Trollopian young man, unheroic and unglamourous.  This suggestion brought protests from both Joanna Trollope and Kwasi Kwarteng who cited Burgo Fitzgerald, Frank Tregear and Adolphus Crosbie as counter-examples of men with “bags of sex-appeal”. Jonathan said that the female character Julia Ongar, who makes a bad choice when she rejects Harry for Lord Ongar, is in contrast a “sexpot” whose “full bust” (that word again!) literally “overhangs” the entire novel. She is contrasted with Florence Burton who is virtuous and steadfast in her determination to hang on to her man, Harry, in spite of the attentions he receives from Julia Ongar. She vacillates but never quite gives up on him and so is rewarded in the end.

Fanny Clavering, Jonathan suggested, was a very interesting character. She falls in love with her father’s curate, Mr Saul, and sticks by him to achieve her destiny in spite of opposition.

In contrast, Sir Hugh Clavering is a nauseating figure – a true villain. He is the best example of Trollope’s mastery of the psychology of families. He is seen to bully his long-suffering wife Hermione, yet she just keeps on taking the punishment and total selfishness. This demonstrates Trollope’s modernity.  There is no requirement that everyone should get what they deserve. Sir Hugh goes to his grave and there is then the banality of small things in the searching around for someone to preach the sermon because, “It i s perhaps well that such a sermon be said.”

The panel then turned to the question of how Victorian was Trollope.

Jonathan Keates thought that he was quintessentially so. He was the classic charity boy at Harrow and Windsor, attending the best schools but doing so in poverty and bullied as a result. He suggested that writing was Trollope’s means to climb back to that status of middle class respectability of being a gentleman. But in so many ways, Trollope did not fit and was akin to Hardy’s eponymous character The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Michael thought that Ireland was the making of Trollope. Here he went from an unsuccessful junior clerk in the post office burdened with debt to an established author, married and financially secure.

Kwasi reminded the audience that Trollope was an inveterate club man. He was a member of so many clubs that perhaps he was trying almost too hard to belong to the society he aspired to be part of but perhaps felt himself still to be an outsider.

Joanna observed that he was very much a man of his time. His views on women’s emancipation were not progressive yet he still portrayed women characters so well.  He made them powerful, within the contemporary Victorian context. But he did more than that.  He was innovative.  He did not indulge in the grand gestures but more her chronicled the “little lacerations of the spirit” which make up our everyday lives.  In this he was very modern.

Jonathan cited the example of Hermione Clavering who, on the death of her husband, is too emotionally damaged to even take the comfort that is offered to her by the visit of Mrs Henry Clavering.

Kwasi wondered whether the strong women characters Trollope wrote are in any way a reflection of the strong women in his life such as his mother. Joanna agreed, referring to her being a product of the earlier Georgian era and therefore unsentimental. She wrote best-sellers pretty much to order – closely following the latest trends so as to remain “current”.

Michael observed that just as there was little politics in the political novels, so there was little theology in the Barchester series.  The ecclesiastical setting and cast was more a convenient, topical backdrop or social milieu in which to set his character driven stories.

Joanna identified that Trollope was particularly clear in showing through his stories that marriage was, in effect, the only real career option for middle class women. And that Trollope was always showing the reasons why they, and things generally, are as they are. Money, or the need for security of money and income, being frequently the principal cause and motivation.

The floor was then thrown open to questions.

Q: Did the panel agree that there are similarities between Trollope and his character Dr Thorne?  Was this a thinly veiled self-prtrait?

Trollope failed to get into university and this effectively closed many of the professions to him.  He could not become a doctor or a member of the clergy for example. He therefore became obsessed in his writing by the need to have a profession if a character did not have independent means. It may also account, ultimately for his tremendous industry as a novelist.

Q: How can Trollope’s affinity for women characters be explained?

He had a very conventional marriage.  He met and married Rose in Ireland and they had two sons.  She has always remained a background figure.  He says nothing of their marriage in his Autobiography on the grounds that “It is of interest only to the two people concerned”. This may be slightly disingenuous as Trollope met and to a greater or lesser extent became infatuated with an American actress Kate Field. The panel was generally of the view that this passion was unconsummated but almost certainly fed through into the emancipated American females in his later works.

Q: And sex?

The Victorian era was nowhere near as prim as we view it now.  There was definitely a seamier side in the 1860s. The clubs in London might well provide opportunities for both hetero- and homosexual experiences. Trollope would no doubt have been aware of this.  There is the scene in Can You Forgive Her? in which the rejected Burgo makes his drunken way home. He is accosted by a female prostitute who comments on how attractive he is and approached by a male prostitute. Victorian family reading matter required such encounters to be coded but they are there. There is also an erotic charge in a scene from Miss Mackenzie where John Ball goes into Margaret’s room and sees her in her “nightie”. Nothing can be written explicitly but much may be infeered from such scenes by the reader. Thus in The Small House at Allington, Lady Alexandrina talks of her hope that there will be a “good fire in the bedroom” for her honeymoon with Crosbie – his recoil from this thought is also telling.

A Trollope Society member from the audience got a laugh to end proceedings when she pointed out that an unfailing sign that a woman had sex-appeal in Trollope was if Trollope described her as having a dimple, particularly when she smiled at the object of her affection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “Trollope at the RSL

  1. Glenn Shipway

    A delightful post, Mark.

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