In Signs of the Times, as in many of his other writings, Carlyle condemns contemporary society. "These things," he says, "which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind" (p.67). Carlyle seems disgusted with the age in which he lives. He regards Victorian society with pessimism and criticizes everything from politics and art to religion and morality. In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who writes that "every age appears to souls who live in it (ask Carlyle) most unheroic" (p.142), defends her century against Carlyle's attacks:
Nay, if there's room for poets in this world . . .
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncevalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal, — foolish, too. King Arthur's self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenevere. [p.143, ll.199-212]
Unlike Carlyle, Browning feels that the present is just as good, if not better, than the past. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the passage above, she believes it is a poet's duty to write about and represent his or her own time rather than exploit the misty glory of past ages.
This idea of representation comes up in Trollope's The Warden as well. Although a significant portion of Mr. Harding's worries clearly stem from a moral dilemma over whether or not he is entitled to his income, he seems equally concerned by the fact that the Jupiter (probably intended to be the London Times) is slandering his name and representing him in a negative light. This is not to say that Mr. Harding is superficial. Indeed, he is probably the most genuine character in the novel. Nevertheless, there is a certain aspect of vanity in the concern Mr. Harding demonstrates with regard to how the Jupiter is portraying him. His biggest fear is that the public will view him as a bad person:
I must for the present leave my readers to imagine the state of Mr. Harding's mind after reading the above article. They say that eighty thousand copies of the Jupiter are daily sold, and that each copy is read by five persons at the least. Four hundred thousand readers then would hear this accusation against him; four hundred thousand hearts would swell with indignation at the griping injustice, and the barefaced robbery of the warden of Barchester Hospital! And how was he to answer this? How was he to open his inmost heart to this multitude, to these thousands, the educated, the polished, the picked men of his own country; how show them that he was no robber, no avaricious, lazy priest scrambling for gold, but a retiring, humble-spirited man, who had innocently taken what had innocently been offered to him? [pp.91-92]
Like Aurora Leigh, Mr. Harding stresses the importance of proper representation. In this sense, both Browning and Trollope may be viewed as defenders of realism. Browning wanted writers to record "true life" in order that the great accomplishments of the nineteenth century (such as developments in women's rights) might be remembered in the future. Likewise, the Warden wanted nothing more than for the true nature of his character to be revealed to the public. Catering to British society's hunger for scandal, the Jupiter focused only on the negative aspects of the Barchester Hospital situation and molded Mr. Harding into a fantastic villain. The Warden simply wanted the public to understand the reality of the situation.
One of the techniques that both Browning and Trollope employ in the passages above is ethos, or the appeal to credibility. In trying to convince her reader of the importance of contemporary representation, Browning demonstrates her knowledge of history and makes allusions to past eras. For example, she states that while modern society may look upon King Arthur with profound reverence, he was simply a common man in the eyes of his queen. By giving these examples, Browning has made herself appear creditable to the reader because she is defending the present with her understanding of the past.
Trollope employs this same technique, but in a very different fashion. At the beginning of the passage above, Trollope writes: "I must for the present leave my readers to imagine the state of Mr. Harding's mind." By using the pronoun "I, the author has, in essence, placed himself inside the novel. Trollope then states that the reader must imagine the state of Mr. Harding's mind, which is significant because it means that he does not purport to be inside the brain of his character. Thus, Trollope has infused a certain degree of credibility and realism into his writing because he does not claim to know Mr. Harding's innermost thoughts and feelings.
Although Aurora Leigh is a poem and The Warden is a novel, the two works exhibit a remarkable number of parallels, especially in their criticisms of Carlyle (see "Trollope Parodies Carlyle: Dr. Pessimist Anticant"). Browning and Trollope clearly demonstrate that themes and techniques can transcend the bounds of different writing styles.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and other Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
>Carlyle, Thomas. "Signs of the Times." London, New York: Penguin Books, 1971.
The Victorian Web. www.victorianweb.org
Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Last modified 12 May 2003