Castle Richmond, which Trollope set in the Ireland of the great famine, provides a good example of the way he combines the usual techniques of characterization with what we may term his “wisdom writing.” Aunt Letty, his narrator tells us,
delighted in being a Fitzgerald, and in knowing that her branch of the Fitzgeralds had been considerable people ever since her Norman ancestor had come over to Ireland with Strongbow. But then she had a useful idea that considerable people should do a considerable deal of good. Her family pride operated more inwardly than outwardly,—inwardly as regarded her own family, and not outwardly as regarded the world. Her brother, and her nephew, and her sister-in-law, and nieces, were, she thought, among the highest commoners in Ireland; they were gentlefolks of the first water, and walked openly before the world accordingly, proving their claim to gentle blood by gentle deeds and honest conduct. Perhaps she did think too much of the Fitzgeralds of Castle Richmond; but the sin was one of which no recording angel could have made much in his entry. [Ch. 38, “For A' That and A' That”]
Having described her family pride and “useful idea that considerable people should do a considerable deal of good,” the narrator characteristically admits his character's weaknesses and failures (this is, after all, a novel that he has told us cannot possibly have a hero). He admits that she was “a stupid old woman, prejudiced in the highest degree, and horribly ignorant of all the world beyond her own very narrow circle,” but rather than condemning her, he judges her in the context of human beings who often do much worse, so that he concludes, “I do not think that the recording angel could, under the circumstances, have made a great deal.”
This characterization of Aunt Letty late in the novel achieves at least two things, the first being that it provides the novelist's judgement of an important member of the Fitzgerald family. Second, in characterizing Aunt Letty, Trollope's narrator characterizes himself. (I assume that voice telling his tale belongs to a man, a man of considerable worldly experience.) The narrator, in other words, offers a judgment and a description that creates authorial ethos or credibility. Like Dante in The Divine Comedy, he judges moral and characterological failure calmly, precisely, and without exaggeration. Aunt Letty is an ignorant bigot full of family pride, but, Trollope emphasizes, for all that she is not really evil.
Trollope establishes the broad, forgiving morality of his narrator earlier in the novel when in the opening sentences of Chapter 23, he urges that we have to sympathize — feel along with — even the evil characters in the story. “I have endeavoured,” he says, “to excite the sympathy of those who are going with me through this story for the sufferings of that family of the Fitzgeralds” who seemingly have most unjustly lost their wealth and position in society. But how, he asks us, “shall I succeed in exciting their sympathy for this other family of the Molletts?” — the blackmailing swindlers who have destroyed the Fitzgerald's happiness. “If we are to sympathise only with the good, or worse still, only with the graceful, how little will there be in our character that is better than terrestrial? Those Molletts also were human, and had strings to their hearts.”
Critics enthralled by Henry James and his modernist successors attacked Trollope for violating that first law of every fiction-writing class: he supposedly tells us about people and events instead of showing them to us. Here at least Trollope certainly isn't guilty of that fault, for he has shown us Aunt Letty in action long before he offers this judgment, which turns out to be in part a defense of his unlikeable character.
Trollope, Anthony. Castle Richmond. London & New York: 1906. Project Gutenberg. E-text prepared by Charles Aldarondo, Charles Franks, and revised by Rita Bailey and Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.. 5 August 2013.
Last modified 12 August 2013