The Trollope problem has always been defined most forcefully by passages like this one:
Now we have come to our last chapter, and it may be doubted whether any reader,—unless he be some one specially gifted with a genius for statistics,—will have perceived how very many people have been made happy by matrimony. If marriage be the proper ending for a novel,—the only ending, as this writer takes it to be, which is not discordant,—surely no tale was ever so properly ended, or with so full a concord, as this one. Infinite trouble has been taken not only in arranging these marriages but in joining like to like,—so that, if not happiness, at any rate sympathetic unhappiness, might be produced. (Ayala's Angel 64)
or this one:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. (Barchester Towers 15)
This narrative voice, interrupting, defining, applying, complicating, anticipating, parodying the action, playing with the conventions the novel is at the same time exploiting ruthlessly, has been to readers and critics both a joy and an embarrassment. Why does that voice so continually disrupt the illusion, reminding us that the novel is not history at all, but just art, mere make-believe? Why does it so deliberately attack not only the plot of that particular novel but all plots, as if Trollope were conducting a running battle with Aristotle ?
The narrator is not, of course, the only source of worry in Trollope. There is the nondescript style, the absence of symbolism, the refusal to abandon certain low-mimetic and ironic views, and the consequent failure to reach the sublimity of tragedy, and, perhaps worst of all, the attachment to romantic comedy formulas, an attachment apparently so fixed that those formulas are shamelessly duplicated in novel after novel. 'The heroine,' says the narrator of Orley Farm, 'must by a certain fixed law be young and [3/4] marriageable' (2). But who so set the law? And if indeed one determines to obey this law, why call our attention to it and thus increase its unnaturalness and diminish its force? Why, finally, all this artificiality coupled with such apparently lifelike realism? If one accepts as accurate Hawthorne's famous argument that Trollope's art was 'just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth, and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of,'1 why is it we are so very much aware of the giant, the difficulties he has with the hewing, and the shape and form of the glass case?
Is Trollope the last of the old-fashioned novelists, working snugly within safe conventions and allowing to his readers a full indulgence in the nostalgic pleasure of recognition, or is he the first of the practitioners of 'open form,' anticipating the freest experiments in fiction and holding a moral outlook so advanced it is best understood as 'situation ethics'? The first conclusion is the one given most commonly in Trollope's own century and ours—until the last decade, when the second suspicion has grown upon us. My own sense is that both answers are, in their way, correct. Trollope clearly does not abandon the assumptions of the comedy of manners tradition nor the aesthetics of closed form, but neither does he fully accept them. The result is an exposition of the traditional values of, say, Jane Austen, with a running counter-exposition which casts doubt on the validity or existence of these values; the secure formal pattern, correspondingly, is made fluid, pried open in various places and with various tools. Values are countered but not subverted; the shape of the whole is made elastic, but it is not destroyed. Though this mixed form is, in fact, characteristic of the Victorian novel in general, Trollope's use of it is perhaps both the subtlest and the most radical.
Also, one should add, the most slippery. Though the final effect is generally harmonious, the means to this complex harmony are often found through disruption. The rhetoric, like the apparent pattern, shifts direction quietly but with startling effects, and we come to recognize as typical passages like the following, where [4/5] comfort is being given to travellers ashamed of their ignorance and provinciality: 'Why be discomforted because you cannot learn the mysteries of Italian life, seeing that in all probability you know nothing of the inner life of the man who lives next door to you at home? There is a whole world close to you which you have not inspected. What do you know of the thoughts and feelings of those who inhabit your own kitchen?' (Travelling Sketches 108). Is this passage satiric, a disguised call to action, introspection, and increased sympathy ? Is it cynical, a rhetorical attack on the reader ? Or is it genuinely chummy and sophisticated, taking the edge off the point by repeating it several times and thus really meaning to tell us, 'Be happy in your prejudice'? Or is it neutral, moving us away from the promised comfort ('Why be discomforted . . .') to a desolate reminder of our aloneness, and then removing the emotional force, asking simply that we recognize that though we do not now and never will join with other human life, we should not be too disappointed in this condition? While on the whole I prefer the last alternative, it is clearly neither fine nor comprehensive enough to catch the actual effect of the passage. And such a passage represents the difficulty and challenge of Trollope. His obvious modernity is combined with a resolute and equally obvious old-fashionedness, and we are as unlikely now to find secure and simple 'comfort' in the total effect of a Trollope novel as we are in the passage of presumed consolation just quoted.
But 'comfort' was precisely the one trivial sensation generally allowed to readers of Trollope by proponents of the new novel. According to Henry James, 'with Trollope we were always safe' ('Anthony Trollope' 100), so safe that 'to become involved in one of his love stories is very like sinking into a gentle slumber' (Rev. of The Belton Estate 21). Virginia Woolf said that Trollope's world is so 'complete' that 'in whatever direction we reach out for assurance we receive it' ('Phases of Fiction' 58). Well, he gives comfort, clearly, not only to readers, but to critics who can place him this securely. He is, for nearly all of them,5 the symbol of an end of a tradition. Arnold Bennett said, [5/6] 'Trollope merely carried to its logical conclusion the principle of his mightier rivals' (135). Because the tradition is presumably so distant and so moribund, writers can sometimes even be generous: Virginia Woolf was willing to allow perfection to Trollope and Jane Austen but argued that it was necessary 'to escape from the dominion of that perfection': 'if fiction had remained what it was to Jane Austen and Trollope, fiction would by this time be dead' ('The Novels of George Meredith' 254). We can recognize such an argument as an invention necessary to the proud fable of the transformation of the novel and its aesthetics. But the fable became very popular, and writers less open-hearted than Virginia Woolf were able to dismiss Trollope more contemptuously. To Gissing he was 'an admirable writer of the pedestrian school' (213), and to Edith Wharton 'Trollope might conceivably have been a lesser Jane Austen,' had it not been for the 'reaction against truth' (63) undergone by the entire age.
The hero of the counter-reaction in favour of 'truth' was usually either James or, more commonly, Meredith, who, according to Virginia Woolf, 'has destroyed all the usual staircases by which we have learnt to climb' ('The Novels of George Meredith' 247). The construction of these new staircases out of the ruins of the old is very heady and satisfying work. The satisfactions were not unavailable even to Trollope's contemporaries, particularly after the publication of The Prime Minister (1876); by then, such periodicals as the Saturday Review were able to suggest confidently that with Trollope 'prose fiction has almost reached its limits'—lower limits, they clearly meant (Anon. review 481). The legend has become so powerful that it troubles and sometimes controls even the best of modern critics. William Myers claims that, unlike Dickens, Trollope 'smoothly conforms' to convention; Raymond Williams makes the same point exactly, this time using George [6/7] Eliot instead of Dickens as the contrast to Trollope's smooth conventionality, his failure to respond to the climactic cultural disturbances of the time (Myers 105; Williams 84-86). Trollope becomes not just a representative of a dead tradition but that tradition itself: 'His value as a factor in the historical and aesthetic development of the English novel is that he walks solidly (one can hear his footfall) down the middle of the road of tradition' (Church 171).
This puts very bluntly what James had said so subtly; for it was primarily James who created this symbol of Trollope and then identified it with a tradition that he wished to reject. This image of Trollope and of the tradition has the sort of truth that art has; it convinces without making necessary or even proper a reference to mundane fact. Hunting for the original of James's version of Trollope is about as rewarding as hunting for the original of Mr. Pickwick. James's terribly effective propaganda is thus his worst criticism, if one makes the mistake of regarding it as criticism. It is myth-making. In arguing for and explaining his own methodology and his own aesthetics, it suits James to sharpen his distinctions by inventing some opposition, some fixed symbol for alternate methods and assumptions. He called this symbol Trollope. One can observe the slow creation of that symbol, beginning with the unrestrained and angry attacks by the young partisan, where he sneers at Trollope for creating 'stupid' books 'written for children' (Rev. of The Belton Estate 22), with stories about characters little better than 'a company of imbeciles' (Rev. of Miss Mackenzie 51). Nothing in these early reviews is more surprising than their rage, marked especially by a repetitiousness very unusual for James and a cheap sarcasm worthy of Quintus Slide. These sorts of attacks, clearly, would convince no one, but James soon hit upon the secret of his propagandistic symbol, a cool and apparently judicious freezing of Trollope into the absolutely uniform, safe, photographic realist we know so well from the myth, though not at all from the novels. With his more characteristic ponderousness, James announces, 'It became long ago apparent that Mr. Trollope had only one manner' (Rev. of Can Your Forgive Her? 409). Once [7/8] that point is established, once the image is fixed so firmly, James can proceed to equate it with the outmoded tradition.
He does so most brilliantly in the deceptively warm essay on Trollope published in Partial Portraits. Here Trollope is praised as 'one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself' (133). The great beauty of the last phrase draws our attention away from the qualification about eloquence and the oddly diminished term 'trustworthy.' 'His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual' (100-01). Again, the repetitions at the beginning, almost eulogistic in piling 'inestimable' on top of 'great' counterbalance and perhaps obscure the fact that Trollope is really being identified with craft, seen in a subtly belittling way. He is 'trustworthy'; he appreciates 'the usual'; he satisfies 'the taste for emotions of recognition' (133). Trollope is thus the unaware artist, in fact the great unconscious beast of tradition itself. James's serious criticism of Trollope's use of the narrator is very artfully inserted as a minor qualification, even jocularly stated, but we can recognize the artist at work. Most of the work of defining and defending James's own rules is done by implied contrast. Only rarely do the counter-assumptions show through. But when they do, they reveal to us what really is happening, as when James protests that the only possible analogy for a novel is history. As argument, the exclusiveness of this is sheer nonsense, but it is disguised argument, of course, and, as such, was enormously persuasive, lending its hand to the formation of discipleships and the subsequent canonization of dramatic methods, 'showing and telling' textbooks, and the range of very rigid general assumptions so effectively demolished by The Rhetoric of Fiction. The image James creates of Trollope played a very crucial part in this amazingly effective propaganda. Whether James indeed regarded his aesthetic as the one thing needful or even the one thing possible and whether he actually believed in the literal truth of his symbol are not, to me, interesting questions, but the power of that symbol is undeniable, controlling as it has virtually all commentary of Trollope, both from friend and foe, until the last decade.
Early defenders had a difficult time finding firm ground on which to stand. Leslie Stephen said that to enjoy Trollope 'we must cease to bother ourselves about art' (78). Most were content to sink him into [8/9] the tradition, exactly as James had done. Saintsbury felt that a Trollope novel was the best possible representative 'of the average novel of the third quarter of the century' (339), a point sadly repeated almost to parody by avowed Trollopians: 'His novels . . . give the normal man's reactions to his age. . . . They arise from a feeling of tolerant contentment with the things that be' (Wildman 8). Michael Sadleir's critical biography must be respected in many ways, but for the most part it adds cement to the statue, labeling Trollope as 'The Voice of an Epoch,'20 as if he were now not just any old novelist, but any old Victorian middle-class fellow. Bradford Booth, caught in the centre of the sterner critical practices of the New Criticism, is even more apologetic, offering Trollope as 'one of ours,' 'a writer who seems to represent the apotheosis of normality' (5). The image of Trollope as a uniform figure, symbolizing an entire tradition, often appears in suggestions that Trollope's novels are somehow indistinguishable, even in quality—'so many novels on an equally fine level!' (Walpole 67)—and in the appalling reason usually given for the popular revival of Trollope during World War II: 'We reread the novels of Trollope, and relive the warmth and comfort of the mid-Victorians,' says Harry Levin (318). Maybe so. It is possible that the myth became so strong that even reading the novels could not break its spell.
The objections to Trollope pronounced over the years have taken surprisingly few turns. He is non-dramatic, non-symbolic, non-tragic. His method and subject-matter are one, and they are both bad. Especially bad is his satisfaction with low-mimetic materials and comic or ironic tones. Carlyle said he was 'irredeemably imbedded in commonplace, and grown fat upon it' (381), and critics less censorious have just as seriously underestimated the displacement from reality in his novels: according to Virginia Woolf, he gives us 'the same sort of refreshment and delight that we get from seeing [9/10] something actually happen in the street below' ('Phases of Fiction' 57). Because of the subject-matter, he seems to exercise no particular art; most of all, he is unable to reach to the high level of tragedy. The contemporary critics complained about this,26 as have a good many since that time. Trollope himself had a wonderful answer to such complaints: 'Who would not sooner be Prometheus than a yesterday's tipsy man with this morning's sick-headache?' ('The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne' 213). Just as in Aldous Huxley's 'Tragedy and the Whole Truth,' a strong low-mimetic bias is expressed, a singular suspicion that tragedy is all bombast and rhetorical flattery. It's all a matter of which genre one chooses to cheer for, clearly, and we can recognize in these arguments the fallacy that James so skilfully propagated, a fallacy of arbitrary generic rankings. Robert Scholes protests against James's dogmatisms as 'failures in generic logic' (104), and The Rhetoric of Fiction is a studious exposure of this fallacy. Even before Wayne Booth, Paul Elmer More, in one of the finest essays on Trollope, pointed out that while it is true that Trollope did not do what Balzac and Dostoevsky did, neither did they write the chronicles of Barsetshire (90). He implies, I think rightly, that this is all a sane and fully responsive person would say. Genres or, in Northrop Frye's terms, mythoi are of neutral quality. Each makes different demands, has different conventions, addresses different responses, but to blame Trollope for not writing tragedy is to commit the most absurd of critical blunders. This failure in 'generic logic' has, however, controlled the aesthetics of the novel and certainly the criticism of Trollope until recently.
With the work of recent critics, most notably A. O. J. Cockshut, Robert Polhemus, J. Hillis Miller, and Ruth apRoberts, a new [10/11] image of Trollope's novels has begun to emerge, one that is certainly more strikingly modern, tougher, more ironic and complex. Cockshut sees Trollope on a 'Progress to Pessimism,'30 a course that clearly appears to him, and possibly to us, a very satisfying one. Polhemus similarly argues for Trollope's modernity in thematic terms, investigating his treatment of change and arguing that his pessimistic general conclusion is 'that mutability somehow always wins' (21). Certainly this image of an embittered novelist viewing man as a helpless object in the clutches of history is strikingly different from the notion of the trustworthy dummy who looked down into the street below and copied what he saw. Most of us will see it also as an improved, if equally lop-sided, version. The view of Trollope as the creator of 'a world without God,' 'a purely human world of intersubjective relations,' may give us pause, but it has surely led to some recent criticism that has been both revitalizing and illuminating (Miller, The Disappearance of God 13).
The best of this recent work is represented by Ruth apRoberts's bold attempts to define the heart of Trollope's method and concern. She argues that while Trollope is essentially moral, he consistently regards a set moral system as a sign of intellectual naïveté. In place of such consistencies, he insists on a flexible morality, based on a relativity that can find its only test and certainty in empiricism. 'His stance is that of what we now call Situation Ethics' (52);34 judgements must refer to people and particular circumstances and not to fixed principles. Trollope projects this new situational relativism through his use of 'the multiple ironic perspective' (125), more particularly by 'casuistry,' by acting as 'advocate for each one of his [11/12] characters' and refusing to mediate among these conflicting advocacies.
apRoberts is clearly aware of the formal implications of these arguments on method and states that Trollope 'has a corresponding Situation Aesthetics' (52), but she has enough on her hands without developing this point. In The Form of Victorian Fiction however, J. Hillis Miller has modernized not only Trollope but all other Victorian novelists by arguing that they are moving in the world of 'open form.' This argument provides a tic between Victorian and modern novels and could release us from all those claims for a miraculous transformation, some 'mutation in the form of the novel'35 that came about on the happy day when the modern novel was born. Still, one wonders in this case if we have really been freed from the mutation legend or if the date of the miracle has not simply been moved back. Surely we do not want to celebrate now the emancipation of the nineteenth-century novel from the smug conventionality and securely closed form of the century before. The modernization of Trollope and of the Victorian novel generally seems to be a necessary development, but it is unlikely that all the 'old- fashioned' elements can be explained away completely by this means.
Is Trollope really a 'tolerant casuist,' an exponent of 'situation ethics'? Are conventional patterns of morality, even conventional absolutes, really disrupted (rather than merely diversified)? Is there finally no standard in a Trollope novel but 'empiricism'? The answers, naturally, are not easy, but I think one can more accurately say 'no' than 'yes.' It is true that the novels consistently attack all forms of purism and absolutism, but not generally to establish simple relativism in their place. The standards are all there; they are made more difficult to apply and far more difficult to define; most of all, there is less communal agreement on what they are. But they are dependent on codes which are not to be defined by situations. The test is whether one has the proper instincts and sensitivity to behave, say, with honesty in an extremely difficult situation, but the definition of honesty is referred to the instincts and sensitivity and to the action, not to the situation. The situation tests; it is not determinant.
The most common standard for moral behaviour in Trollope is the code centred on the word 'gentleman.' Though the maddening vagueness of the term and Trollope's equally maddening coy [12/13] assertions of his inability to define it, may tempt us to reject the whole notion, it is his central absolutism. It is also a code that exists outside situations. Situations of great complexity may require a gentleman to behave in ways that appear odd, but we, as readers, are made to see the consistency of the moral logic. The climax of The Last Chronicle of Barset and of the entire Barsetshire series is the joining of the worldly sociable archdeacon and the introspective, tragic Mr. Crawley on the basis of that code. They may recognize nothing else in common, but this term 'gentleman' speaks directly to Crawley and in an important way brings him to life by revealing his connection with humanity and, indeed, the connection of all humanity with the absolute. Crawley's case seems to be one demanding a special judgement, the application of situation ethics. But when characters in the novel try to use these criteria they are always shown to be open-hearted but morally limited. When John Eames, for instance, claims that 'You must not judge him as you do other men' (40), the judicious Walker argues that such special pleading carries grave dangers with it—dangers especially for Mr. Crawley: 'What do we mean when we say that one man isn't to be trusted as another? We simply imply that he is not what we call responsible' (40). Similarly, Mark Robarts tells Dr. Tempest, 'You must look to the circumstances' (54), and is met with another judicious rebuke, allowing poor Robarts no defence but the grumbling 'I don't know the meaning of the word "delicate."' In the end, situation ethics are just not delicate or complex enough.
Very much the same point is made in Dr. Wortle's apparently bizarre behaviour in defending the bigamous Peacockes. Again, this is not an example of situation ethics but an unconventional assertion of a solid code. '"To me,"—said the Doctor,—"to me she is as pure as the most unsullied matron in the country." Upon this Mr. Peacocke, jumping from his chair, seized the Doctor's hand, but could not speak for his tears' (Dr. Wortle's School, iv. 10). These men meet, just as did Crawley and the archdeacon, over a declaration of a rigorous gentleman who speaks in defiance of a situation. In this late novel, the Doctor actually is the most conventionally moral person around. He violates morality that is 'common' not conventional, appealing to the traditional romantic code of gentlemanly behaviour. Trollope's refusal to define that code is a recognition, as apRoberts would justly point out, of its necessary flexibility, but while the code must recognize situations, it cannot be controlled by them. In the end, the [13/14] code rests on a belief in truth and the reflection of truth in behaviour, honesty. Let us 'make ourselves an honest people' (1), wails the starkly didactic narrator of The New Zealander, a work which asserts as its central principle that 'harm cannot come of truth' (4). While it cannot be denied that the novels act to make such assertions more complex, the absolute standard never disappears, and Trollope is forced over and over to define his villains as those who might appear to be gentlemen but who lack the first and most basic requirement: an instinctive aversion to a lie.
This is not to deny that empirical standards are present in Trollope, but they seldom if ever stand in a normative position. Ordinarily, empiricism is one extreme pole of the novel's value system, a position seductive but dangerous. It is usually played off against an opposite moral purism. While many novels follow a course wherein the hero is educated away from his initial naive absolutism, these heroes almost never move to the opposite extreme but instead find some intermediate position in which the two opposites are perilously balanced. They must learn to account for situations without being controlled by them. The most prominent example of this education to balance is provided by the life of Phineas Finn. He must attempt to find in political life some mean between the principled abstractions of Turnbull and the unprincipled cynicism of Erle or Fitzgibbon. The abstractions are highly suspect because they provide the self-indulgent, unproductive, and finally antisocial pleasures of 'opposition,' but the pure empiricism that never tests measures, that has contempt for convictions, and that gives its soul to that purely relativistic agency, the party, is equally suspect. While the Barsetshire chronicle had clearly moved toward a successful union of these two poles, the public and private selves, the political novels really argue for their final irreconcilability, carrying on this argument, particularly in The Prime Minister, by a subtle examination of the deficiencies in and the small satisfactions available to, the empirical life as defined by Erle, St. Bungay, and the office of Prime Minister.
On method, apRoberts's arguments seem to me quite persuasive but not fully comprehensive. Trollope's advocacy, I think, is never an end but a means to complicate the traditional norms without abolishing them. He defends the indefensible and satirizes heroes, of course, but in order to support a difficult but not relativistic morality. The neutrality of pure advocacy is itself an issue in many [14/15] novels and is, without exception, subject to withering contempt. The sneering portrait in The Eustace Diamonds of the lawyer/politician is to the point here: 'As a large-minded man of the world, peculiarly conversant with the fact that every question has two sides, and that as much may often be said on one side as on the other, he has probably not become violent in his feelings as a political partisan. Thus he sees that there is an opening here or an opening there, and the offence in either case is not great to him' (4). The problem is that this is apRoberts's portrait of Trollope—without the sneer. But the sneer makes all the difference. Neutral advocacy always made Trollope uneasy at least, even when, as with Cicero, he is engaged in his most ingenious special pleading: 'To me it is marvellous and interesting rather than beautiful, to see how completely Cicero can put off his own identity and assume another's, in any cause, whatever it be, of which he has taken, the charge' (The Life of Cicero, i. 1). apRoberts argues that Cicero is a model for Trollope's own artistic methods, and that his portrait of Cicero's devices is thus a form of self-portrait. Compelling as this argument is, it does seem to me that however much Cicero may himself have been an empiricist, neither Trollope's judgement nor his portrait of Cicero is empirical. The essential defence Trollope makes is that Cicero was 'almost a Christian, even before the coming of Christ' (ii. 14), and the standards are made as clear and consistent as Trollope can make them. He admits imperfections in Cicero, largely those connected with his advocacy and such shifting positions that apRoherts might attribute to 'situation ethics,' but he is anxious to show Cicero's basic consistency, his never-changing 'political idea' (i. 3) and his generally constant ethics. Where he can, he asserts Cicero's elevation over situations—while others, 'I may almost say all,' were stealing, 'he kept his hands clean' (i. 4)—arguing that Cicero lived and died for a principle. The work clearly is, as apRoberts says, a most ingenious apology, but the terms of the apology are, I think, much more conventional than she allows. In the end, he tries his best to turn Cicero into 'a modern gentleman' (ii. 10), the most solid traditional ethical standard in Trollope. He is embarrassed by Cicero's genuine relativism and searches hard in his life for something more like flexible consistency.
Trollope's method and his morality, then, appear to me very much tied to situations, but only because situations test and make solid an ethical code that would otherwise remain abstract and superficial. [15/16] The situations can diversify, even break, codes, but the codes derive always from a civilized base independent of the situations. Even the passages of circumstantial pleading always move away from the special case to the general principle, not in the other direction. Trollope is one of the most rigorous testers of accepted moral codes; he can even be cynical about them. But honour and truth, chivalric attitudes toward women, responsibilities to class, and a host of other principles, though never easy and certainly never safely divorced from the rough requirements of human life, are there in the end, just as they were, say, for Don Quixote, one of Trollope's favourite models. Trollope's method and morality are no less but no more modern than are Cervantes.'
There are other things about a Trollope novel just as obstinately old-fashioned: the use of the interpretive narrator, of course, but also his display of fondness for the forms of romantic comedy. 'In the centre of almost every tale [by Trollope], we are taken to the heart of a spotless, loving, refined, brave English girl,' said an early reviewer (Harrison 332), and Mrs. Oliphant similarly located Trollope's principal claim to attention in his 'uncanny' and detailed knowledge of 'the thoughts that go through a girl's mind when she is in the full tide of her individual romance' (277). While it is quite true that Trollope did not adopt the values of romantic comedy uncritically,38 neither did he altogether reject them. His oft-repeated assertion that 'there must be love in a novel' (Autobiography 142) is playful, but it is not cynical. More important even than the accurate exploration of the heart of an English girl in love is Trollope's repeated use of the forms of comedy. We do sense in Trollope, for all his self-conscious and reflexive manoeuvring of comic convention, a general confirmation of that convention. His comic novels move as surely toward union as do Shakespeare's comic plays; they are as suspicious of outsiders and as relentlessly communal in their emphases.39 Even [16/17] those psychological forces in Trollope's novels that have attracted much recent attention finally yield in most cases to a more general, social view. Mr. Crawley himself is initiated not into selfhood but into Barsetshirehood; his search is not so much for an integrated being as for a proper relation to other men. Admittedly, in some other instances the isolation remains, but even there the rhetorical power of that isolation comes from its resistance to the urgent unifying force of the comic form. Lily Dale, Louis Trevelyan, even the widowed Duke of Omnium, all exist in worlds (and novels) which are potentially comic.
There is, then, a firm sense of comic form in Trollope to contribute to his old-fashionedness along with the very talkative and not at all 'unreliable' narrator. But they do not work together, and that, in a sense, is the Trollope problem. Far from controlling the comic pattern, strengthening and defining our response to it, the narrator functions almost always to disrupt the smooth operation of the pattern, often by calling our attention to its artificiality. We sense, therefore, a form that both is and is not confirmed, a basic duality between the conventional comedy and the conventional narrator who is employed in highly unconventional ways.
The same tension marks our fullest reaction to Trollope, from whatever angle. No one has ever been able to decide whether, even in the broadest sense, his views are liberal or conservative; Trollope's statement to the effect that he was both at the same time typically confuses the matter: 'I consider myself to be an advanced, but still a conservative Liberal' (Autobiography 291). A similar and more important dualism lies in the conflict between the 'self-effacing' and 'transparent'40 narrative style and the self-conscious sophistication of the commenting narrator. Finally, on the highest level of generalization, we find J. Hillis Miller claiming for Trollope a form that is dynamic, open, and temporal;41 Jerome Thale asserts just as confidently that the form is 'static,' closed, and spatial (149, 156). John Hagan becomes so impatient with all these apparent contradictions that he drops the work of choosing one set or the other or of balancing them [17/18] and lashes out at Trollope for failing to reconcile 'these two opposing forces' and thus leaving 'in vital areas of his fiction uncertainty and ambiguity to a very high degree' (2). To Hagan, at least, Trollope is clearly neither the eighteenth-century and Aristotelian, nor the modern, artist. Perhaps Trollope is being attacked here for being what he most certainly was, a Victorian novelist, one who naturally shared with his contemporaries a mixed form, neither fully opened nor closed. What appear to be contradictions in Trollope are very similar to contradictions in the works of his colleagues, and they are not so much the damnable results of 'uncertainty' as they are the natural results of the typical form of the Victorian novel.
Mr. Micawber, determined to see for himself what his country intends to do for him, steps round the corner in Canterbury and sees his former London lodger. He confuses David by treating him as an old and dear friend, an equal in age and experience: 'Still in the wine trade?' (17). He insists on addressing him always with terms like 'the friend of my youth, the companion of earlier days!' (27). These words carry a great deal of warmth and delight, at least to the reader, but David is made oddly uncomfortable both by this address and this man. He is not only embarrassed; he is disoriented: the steady, logical world in which he is living has been disrupted. And we too sense a fundamental disjunction of some sort. In a parallel scene Micawber himself is embarrassed when he later admits to David that he is working for Uriah Heep. Micawber speaks in such a stammering and shambling way that even his eye- glass droops, and we are again aware of some queer dislocation, some discomfort that far exceeds the apparent cause.
Micawber's embarrassment is perhaps more easily explained than is David's. G. K. Chesterton, for instance, pointed out that Micawber was upset not so much at being caught up in villainy as being caught up in the plot.45 The man who has spent his life outside the [18/19] confines of time and space is, it seems, now trapped by them. He has no real place in the plot, that is, in the regularized pattern wherein David disciplines his heart and learns to live comfortably, successfully, and, most of all, regularly. Naturally Micawber is embarrassed at being seen in such company. By the same token, perhaps one can explain the earlier scene by saying that David, playing his part in the plot, is both annoyed and threatened by meeting a man who, so he thinks, is far beyond such things. David inhabits, or is trying to inhabit, the world of steady and linear progress. It is a distinctly Aristotelian world, with clearly defined and morally intelligible connections and a pleasing, regular shape. It is principally a world of space, and we, as readers, react to it as we would to art that exists in space, not in time, as we would to architecture, not to music. We are aware at any point in our reading of the vital relationship of that particular point to the whole and of the anticipated satisfaction at seeing that whole completed. Taken by itself, David's life traces a pattern whose meaning is completely and fully contained. Taken by itself, this form is just that of most eighteenth-century novels.
But David's closed world is not, of course, the total world of the novel in which he exists. The spatial form is combated by an alien structure that is clearly temporal. Against the closed pattern which David tries to maintain, a radically open pattern is pressed. Micawber's wild rearrangement of their ages is an assertion of his ability to live outside linear controls, outside reason itself. And it is reason that provides support for such things as plots. The predictably recurrent rhythms that David finds are repeatedly thrown against the defiantly irregular rhythms of Micawber's world. Even such recurrence as there is with the Micawbers—Mrs. Micawber's eloquent vows never to desert her husband, for instance—is so totally without cause that it makes us think not of rational rhythms but of the rhythms of a marionette or a jack-in-the-box. And these figures are, we know, in part parodies of human beings. Just so, Mr. Micawber parodies the basic assumptions of David's world. We notice this conflict between two rhythms not only when Micawber is on the scene but in such things as Murdstone's bizarre arithmetical puzzles. Aunt Betsey's war with donkeys, Barkis's elephantine wooing, more prominently in Dora and her implicit comment on a life of regularity, account books, and the disciplining of the heart, [19/20] but most clearly in David's memory, which refuses to be either rational or linear and which continually calls up scenes of irrational nightmare—fears of a vengeful and risen father, for instance—or irrational comfort and love through memories of his mother.
The conjunction of two basic forms, then, is fundamental to this novel; it is the basis on which it is built. The gap created when the Aristotelian, linear, rational David meets the existential, jagged, irrational Micawber is paradigmatic of this novel and stands, I think, as an adequate symbol for the form of most Victorian fiction. Perhaps the subtlest example of this mixed form is worked out in Middlemarch, where all the characters imagine they are occupying a magical, existential world but are in fact caught in one that is all too inexorably plot-ridden. One thinks also of the disjunction between temporal demands and a linear plot that occurs in those scenes between Becky Sharp and Amelia, Madeline Neroni and Eleanor Bold, Quilp and Little Nell, Mr. Pecksniff and old Martin Chuzzlewit. How many Victorian novels carry on a major action that is simultaneously parodied on another level!
The principle of parody is only the most obvious development of the conflict I have mentioned between the closed form the nineteenth-century novel inherited from the century before and the open form that has become common in our century.46 The perception of some conflict is, of course, not new. Earlier critics often spoke of a split between plot and character when talking about Becky Sharp or Micawber or Melmotte, arguing that the authors became so fond of their created people that the primary demands of plot were more or less forgotten. We all remember the argument and the conclusion consequent on it to the effect that the Victorian novel was nearly altogether formless, one great 'loose, baggy monster.' All this doubtless came from regarding the nineteenth-century novel as if it were written in the eighteenth century. Those modern critics who work from Aristotelian bases, notably members of the Chicago school, seem to me nearly as helpless when faced with the junction of [20/21] forms in the nineteenth-century novel. Sheldon Sacks's Fiction and the Shape of Belief is forced to offer the term 'serious action' to provide a category that will somehow contain novels that are neither clearly comic nor tragic. But something more radical in the way of assumptions is needed.
And most of us do make more radical assumptions, in one way or another, most commonly by assuming that Victorian novels were written not in the eighteenth century but in our own. We very likely talk to students and to each other about these novels as if the major action, what I have called the closed form, were not there. Who spends class time or space in scholarly journals on Agnes Wickfield, or the second Cathy, or Hetta Carbury, or even Will Ladislaw? With novels less well known we can go further. In discussing Barnaby Rudge, for instance, critics have sometimes said, more than a little boastfully, that they have forgotten the lines of the major action and that they were going on undisturbed to talk about the riot scenes, or the treatment of madness, or the anti-pastoral, or virtually anything other than the narrative lines.
While perhaps avoiding this excess, we all tend to reverse the Aristotelian tendency and to simplify these novels in another direction, regarding them wishfully as if they were all prefigurations of The Trial or Absalom, Absalom! The result is not so much a distortion as an illumination that is only partial; the most serious practical result of this mistaken assumption is that it is untrue to the richness and complexity of the nineteenth-century novel, substituting a relatively certain and unified pattern for one that is tentative and mixed. From this point of view, The Trial and other modern examples of open form are much simpler than The Trial's model, Bleak House, and the other nineteenth-century examples of mixed form. Barbara Hardy says that Victorian novelists 'seem to be caught between the assured conventionality of an earlier age of fiction and the assured brave dislocations of the next' (8), but if there is a trap, it is one that offers rich compensations to those caught in it.
The best analogy outside literature for this mixed form is provided by J. Hillis Miller's comments on The Disappearance of God. Miller's central image is a God who is not dead but beyond reach; He still lingers in memory and perhaps in fact. This tantalizing symbol provided for the Victorians a structure and at least a hint of [21/22] coherence, but that coherence could not be confidently maintained against the new sense of emptiness and causelessness. So, by extension, a closed form was no longer satisfactory. Still, neither was an open form, for such a form rests on assumptions of incoherence and irrationality which are too certain and too final. The only possible form, then, is one which mirrors that suspended, hesitant state the Victorians talked about as 'doubt.' The form, like the state of mind, refuses to rest in either of the alternate comforts of security or denial.
But the comforts of denial and the relative certainty we ourselves feel about open form are not easy to give up. Miller himself has later, in The Form of Victorian Fiction, for some reason denied to the novel the complexity resulting from the disappearance of God he had so brilliantly described. The novelists, he says, were somehow sure that God was dead and were thus exempt from the particular tensions felt by the poets; consequently, 'the form taken by Victorian fiction implies a new notion of structure, and this new structure derives from the new metaphysical situation. Because there no longer seems to be any supernatural foundation for society or for the self, Victorian novels are likely to take the form of an incomplete self-generating structure, a structure in which the temporal dimension is constitutive in a new way' (33-4). The Victorian novel, he says, is a version of the dramatic monologue (3), another new nineteenth-century form.
What Miller draws our attention to is certainly there, but he has perhaps done his work too well and made us see the temporal structure, the open form, too exclusively. In some terms, for instance, the Victorian novel certainly is much like the dramatic monologue, but these similarities in any case are purely those of technique. What the novel has that the dramatic monologue does not, in fact what the novel clings to that the dramatic monologue deliberately rejects, is a sense of context, more broadly a traditional narrative pattern. It is easy to see formal resemblances between Wuthering Heights and Antony and Cleopatra, but to what does 'Porphyria's Lover' connect? One cannot be sure, precisely because the narrative patterns in the dramatic monologue are artificially curtailed, made ambiguous in context, or in some other way totally suspended and thus made incomplete. In the novel the formal pattern is given context and a total shape; the opposition is more subtle. The resultant form is itself tentative, recognizing the incoherence fully but refusing to [22/23] acknowledge that the incoherence is necessarily final and unchanging.
This mixed form, I believe, dominates the Victorian novel in its full range, from those which seem most open, say the late novels of Dickens, to those of Trollope, apparently the most closed. Our Mutual Friend, for instance, among the most apocalyptic and modern of Victorian novels, takes as its main action a plot that is drawn straight from tradition, in this case the tradition of romantic comedy, with all its customary paraphernalia of mysterious wills, class barriers and reluctant parents overcome, a rush of marriages at the close, and clear didactic themes of moral education. Set against this —well, we all know from recent criticism what is set against this: the nervous disjointed language of the novel, the violent and expansive symbolism of the river and the dust, the removal of the social world altogether out of the sphere of humanity. Both patterns are present. When we see Bradley Headstone beating his head in desperation we are aware simultaneously of two broad purposes: one serving the closed form, whereby he is the wrong and merely troublesome suitor clearly on the road to eventual punishment, and the other serving the open form, whereby his anguish and sexual frustration reach outward as expressions of both social and cosmological injustice not to be explained by or contained within a comic plot. Even the most distinctly existential, temporal characters in the novel—the cripple Jenny Wren, say, or Mr. Venus, the man who has reached a kind of commercial stardom by the ingenious articulation of human bones—are still brought into the closed pattern: they both perform in romantic plots and are finally married. It is true that when the humorous villain Silas Wegg is thrown out of the window into the cart of night soil, the image penetrates the closed pattern and suggests a horrible connection between commerce, filth, civilization, and humanity; but this same scene also confirms the closed pattern by suggesting just as clearly a thousand traditional comic episodes in which the villain is exposed.
Last modified 15 August 2014