Monthly Archives: October 2016

Trollope: The Belgian Connection

Frederik van Dam gave the annual lecture to The Trollope Society yesterday evening in the David Lloyd George room at the National Liberal Club just off Whitehall in London. Frederik, who is carrying out post-doctoral research on Trollope at the Katholik University of Leuven in Belgium, spoke on Trollope’s connections with Belgium.
In a closely argued exposition, Frederik outlined his thesis that Trollope’s youthful experiences in Belgium, whence his family fled to escape creditors following the bankruptcy of his father, informed his late period novels. While in Belgium the young Trollope witnessed the deaths of both his father and sister due to tuberculosis. These deaths were vividly recreated for his reading public by Trollope in the fate of the eponymous heroine of his late period novel Marion Fay. 

Earlier works, such as Phineas Finn had seen Belgium feature only as an exotic location where its more liberal laws had made possible, for example, the duel between Finn and his good friend Lord Chiltern.

Frederick went on to cite the influence of two Belgian scholars on the study of Trollope. George Poulet had suggested that Trollope had through his authorial interventions and the interactions of his characters “expressed the collective consciousness of the community”. Effectively the readers, and the characters within the novels, all understood and accepted certain conventions which governed their lives. For example, a nice girl would always reject initial advances from even the most eligible suitor, one whom they might have secretly adored, because to say ‘yes’ at the first time of asking was unladylike. All knew that he should persist and she would then ‘give in’.

Frederick, following the lead given by  J Hillis Miller, demonstrated that this analysis breaks down in Trollope’s late period novels. Marion Fay  does not have the conventional happy romantic ending. Marion and Lord Hampstead play the same romantic game but Trollope allows a more knowing, sexual connotation to arise between them as they flirt – the scene where he has her grasp a poker and stoke a fire in his home is loaded with comic double entendre which Marion only fully grasps on subsequent reflection on the event. Unlike earlier novel’s heroines she has not fully understood the rules of the game as it was being played.

Frederick went on to cite the thinking of another Belgian, Paul de Man, who argued that literary theory and the critical thinking it demands made it possible to expose the basis that ideology is a lie. He proposed that literature of Trollope’s late period works such as The Way We Live, undermine the ideological basis of “late capitalism” (the Victorianequivalent of what we might now characterise as “global capitalism” where big business overrides the authority of elected government.

Frederick concluded that Trollope, particularly as he grew older and more aware of his own mortality drew on his traumatic  experiences as a young man in Belgium to bring greater depth to his writing and that it was wholly appropriate that this should have been recognised primarily through the researches of Belgian literary scholars which he labelled Trollope’s Belgian Connection.

This brief summary of Frederik’s academic paper necessarily cuts corners in a carefully argued presentation. I take full responsibility for any shortcomings and inaccuracies in this rendering of Frederik’s ideas. A more complete article prepared by Frederik will feature in the next edition of the Trollope Society’s magazine Trollopiana.

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Books Do Furnish A Room

In this, the tenth volume in Powell’s sequence of novels, we now reach the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. He is naturally drawn to parallels with the equivalent period after the end of the First World War. In the opening chapter, Jenkins returns to his old university to carry out research for a book he is writing and has tea with Sillery, the professor whose afternoon teas featured in chapter four of the very first novel in the sequence, A Question of  Upbringing, when Jenkins was an undergraduate at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties.  In the closing chapter, Jenkins goes back to his old school to make arrangements for his own son to attend and encounters his former house master, the subject of a schoolboy prank related in the first book, who is still working there, now an octogenarian librarian at the school.

The book also features in chapter five one of those slippery, unannounced shifts in time that were such a feature of the earlier books in the sequence but which had been abandoned as a technique in the last novels set during the war and in the first four chapters of this volume, which had remained strictly chronological in their narrative. This instance is prefaced by a brief interjection from the narrator, attributing it to one of this volume’s new characters, himself an author, on the problems of framing a narrative – in short, where to begin. This meta-narrative is a welcome return to the earlier, distinctive, form which most accurately reflects the way the human mind works, retrospectively creating patterns and through selection of events to piece together, repaints the picture of life as art. In modern parlance, the events, treated as images, are Photoshopped to create a new, more sharply focused reality which is more real than the mundane reality it replaces.

The title for this volume is taken from the nickname given to one of the principal characters. Typically there is some uncertainty about how this nickname was acquired and Powell recites two conflicting accounts of how Bagshaw, to whom the name is given and who is usually referred to by its shortened form as plain “Books”, was led to use the phrase originally, without any indication of which might be the true version. Indeed, there is an essential truth in this phrase. Two of the most impressive rooms I can recall visiting are the library of Trinity College, Dublin and the former British Library reading room which stood in the central court of The British Museum, the walls of its circular form filled with galleries of books rising precipitously from floor to ceiling.

I would go further and say that the libraries of houses are a unique and unerring window on the characters of the occupants. A perusal of the contents of their library shelves will reveal the tastes of the owners. It will also reveal any snobbish instincts or desire to impress others through the ostentatious display of works that are highly praised but little read. Whenever I visit a stately home, I invariably check the bookshelves and see whether in amongst the worthy tomes of “improving” character there are salacious volumes such as Richardson’s Clarissa. Such finds are akin to the discovery of a dog-eared paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on a modern bookshelf alongside editions of Austen, Dickens and Trollope. 

Powell himself observes this trait in this volume with the posthumous revalation that Erridge’s personal library contains not only the obligatory left wing political tracts that are to be expected given his support for such causes but also bound editions of Boy’s Own type comics betraying his tenacious, lifelong clinging to the heroic, otherworldly chivalry of his boyhood. Such acute observations are the flashes of brilliance which set the great novelists apart.

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Trollope: The Belgian Connection

The 29th Annual General Meeting of the Trollope Society will take place at the National Liberal Club in London on Thursday 27th October at 6pm. It will be followed by the annual lecture, given this year by Frederik van Dam, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Research Foundation Flanders and the KU Leuven (venue for last year’s conference on Trollope). His subject is Trollope: The Belgian Connection. The lecture will be followed by a buffet supper during which you will have opportunity to discuss the topic further with Frederik.

Entry to the lecture is free.

To get your tickets for the supper go to:

29th AGM Buffet Supper

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The Military Philosophers

In this ninth volume in the sequence of novels, Powell reaches the later parts of the Second World War and, almost disconcerting, stays there. Previous volumes have been marked by a slippery tendency to pay little heed to chronology and to follow up asides by reference to related events which either preceded or followed on from those being narrated. In this way,Powell has accurately reflected the mind’s tendency to place emphasis on patterns and relationships with casual disregard for temporal constraints. There is only one significant forward leap to a post-war conversation which provides the reasoning behind  particular appointment which appeared obscure at the time. Other than at this, there are a few wrapping up commentaries on the fates of minor characters who will not feature further in the series, but otherwise Powell remains strictly within the three year period covered by the events. The effect of this is to give the novel a denser feel than previous volumes. As readers we are kept in the oppressive atmosphere of the time, focussing solely on those immediate concerns of getting through the war, without the respite and contrast of dropping out into less fraught periods. It makes for a heavier, more claustrophobic read. 

Powell now overtly seeks comparison with Proust’s Rembrance of Things Past. He has narrator Nick Jenkins reading the novel(s) as events unfold and actively cite references to equivalent events in Proust. Intriguingly, he treats the fictional characters of Proust’s cycle as real characters in his own series.  Thus, Proust’s character Prince Odoacer is explicitly stated to be “a relation – possibly great-uncle” of his own character Prince Theoderic. Indeed, Powell quotes at length a passage of perhaps a page and a half from Proust’s work to illustrate a point. Furthermore, in chapter four, the events take place at Cabourg, the vaguely unfashionable coastal town on which Proust based his fictional setting for his novels, calling it Balbec.

Powell also for the first time makes a female character central to the narrative. Pamela Flitton permeates the whole novel, appearing repeatedly in the various episodes related. However, she is often described through the eyes of others rather than appearing in her own right. Thus she is the object of discussions between Jenkins and various people he meets in the course of the novel. Several of them reveal that they have slept with her and others express a wish to do so or have done so when the opportunity presented itself. Her promiscuity is notorious and much discussed by the exclusively male commentators. This, while it is no doubt an accurate reflection of how such views would have been discussed at the time when the story is set and also at the time of its writing (1968, when the pill was only just emancipating females from the risk of pregnancy if they were sexually active but attitudes had yet to catch up with this seismic shift), makes for uncomfortable reading now. It is difficult to accept the definition of a female character in those terms now. 

Indeed, Pamela Clifton is described often in terms of her effect on the men she encounters. She is held to be bent on being a heartbreaker and preys on older would be sexual partners rather than younger because the latter are more elastic and bounce back from any small trauma they feel at being loved, led a dance and then unceremoniously dumped rather better than older men who feel the loss of this tantalising younger woman more deeply and suffer more, possibly also in terms of the repercussions for their marriages, affecting wives and children too, therefore, when so treated. Such a misogynist perspective makes for an uncomfortable read, however accurately it portrays contemporary attitudes.

When she does actually appear in person, Flitton is a prickly character. She clearly has insights into events that are not available to narrator Nick Jenkins, presumably from “pillow talk” from indiscreet lovers, and revels in her ability to use this information to great effect on those she comes into contact with. However, unlike Widmerpool, with whom she enters into a relationship almost by chance, though nothing about her can definitely be attributed to chance, her power exercised over those around her is not explicitly stated to be an expression of her “will to power” in line with Powell’s over-arching theme. 

Powell, in fact, uses an episode in the book to give an unnamed but very obvious walk on part to Field Marshall Montgomery and cites him as the personification of this “will to power”.  This ninth volume thereby fits within the overall scheme of the series but does mark, in a number of ways, a quite distinct departure from the approach Powell has taken in earlier volumes. 

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