h Barsetshire chronicle consists of a series of variations on the comic myth of renewal and preservation. Viewed as a sequence, the novels exhibit quite a wide variety, testing the comic proposition by probing it in different directions and with different means in each novel. Viewed against the background of the novels surrounding it, those whose publication was interspersed with the series, the chronicle's unity and basic stability become clear. Whereas the Barsetshire series moves carefully in different areas of comedy, the other early novels career wildly about and sometimes knock down the fences. The early novels outside the chronicle explore the limits of comedy with more abandon and often with the singleness of direction we associate with experiments. Though they are clearly more than just sketches preliminary to the chronicle novels, they define a wide range of themes and techniques which could be tested and refined for use within that chronicle. These early comic novels are less assured and less accomplished than the Barsetshire novels, but not for that reason always less interesting.
The pattern of experimentation seems clear enough once the Barsetshire series is extracted from Trollope's early career. After the apprenticeship novels—The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1848), and La Vendée (1850)—and the eccentric The Three Clerks (1858), the next three novels—The Bertrams (1859), Castle Richmond (1860), and Orley Farm (1862)—explore in ever-increasing complexity the dark, ironic corners of comedy, and the following three1—Rachel Ray (1863), Miss Mackenzie (1865), and The Belton Estate (1866)—suddenly switch position and develop the possibilities of romantic comedy.
Trollope's first three novels—The Macdermots, The Kellys, and La Vendée—have had their defenders, at least the first two novels [69/70] have,2 but they do seem to be the sorts or novels which are better in contemplation than in actual reading. Trollope himself appears to have sensed this, claiming a host of virtues for The Macdermots, but adding that 'the execution was very bad' [his italics] (Letters 317). It is true that, as with most neglected Trollope novels, one is quite surprised to see how good they actually are, but the fact that each of these three novels seeks to exploit such radically different modes—first tragedy, then comedy, then historical romance—suggests that Trollope was searching very hard for his genre. He found it only with the publication of The Warden, five years after La Vendée failed so badly.
The Macdermots illustrates one problem Trollope always had with the novels set in Ireland. It establishes a norm for judging human activities that is so elemental and stark as to render utterly superfluous the delicate values the novel is otherwise trying to establish. It could be argued that, in fact, the Irish setting comes closer to working in this novel than in any other, since this is a tragedy which traces the decay of the old gentlemanly code in the new and chaotic world. Thady Macdermot is finally executed for trying to defend his sister's honour, a motive very few are impressed by or even understand. With him goes the whole great system of values Trollope spent nearly the rest of his career examining and, most often, trying to revivify and thus preserve. This first novel, then, uncharacteristically casts aside the values that will later be central. It examines the desperation wrought by the break-up of the chivalric code and allows physical violence to occupy the centre of the novel. One Hyacinth Keegan's foot is hacked off in five dull chops: 'the second cut the flesh, and grated against the bone' (25). It is, as the North British Review said, a novel of'unmixed pain' (40 [10 June 1864]: 394), not without power, but clearly a false start for Trollope. [70/71]
The Kellys and the O'Kellys is closer to Trollope's usual manner, but here the multiple plot he was later to master flies totally out of control,5 and one plot of madness and violence exists alongside the romantic comedy without any real integration. La Vendée is one of those historical novels that are 'not worth a damn.'6 The demands of exalted language, the idealistic bias, the absolutist ethics, are all so clearly alien to Trollope's nature that the novel seems simply a mistake, an educational one, though, since he never again tried anything like it.
The Three Clerks, published after the first two novels in the Barsetshire series, is as anomalous as La Vendée, but it is not a failure. It is as if Trollope had tried his hand at becoming a disciple of Dickens and then withdrew, not because the results were uninspiring but because he was attracted to other, far less inhabited territory. Trollope himself viewed The Three Clerks as 'certainly the best novel I had as yet written' (Autobiography 111); and though we may find it difficult to see how the novel could be rated higher than The Warden or Barchester Towers, it has its own virtues. Unlike any other Trollope novel, it is 'a really brilliant tale' (Dallas 12). This comment catches exactly the right note here and explains to us also how the novel differs from others in the Trollope canon. No other Trollope novel, with the possible exception of Brown, Jones, and Robinson, gives the impression of having the slightest desire to be thought 'brilliant.' But The Three Clerks does and is, and it is thus an anomaly.
It is very witty indeed, remarkably autobiographical, ethically and morally puristic; it is centred in London, reaches toward very drastic action and extreme solutions; it employs parody as a basic principle; it is didactic. In all these ways it is uncharacteristic. Perhaps it represents an experiment whose success was too easy, too 'brilliant' to be of further use. Or perhaps it is a novel written principally to test the methods and values of Barchester Towers, the major novel written just before this one. The Three Clerks extends some of the methods of Barchester Towers almost to the point of [71/72] burlesque and seems thereby to establish the limits of the utility of broad satiric comedy, a method in which Trollope fast loses interest after this novel. The Three Clerks also inverts the values and many of the basic assumptions of Barchester Towers, thus testing their validity and power.
As in Barchester Towers the opposition between a serenely moral country and a rapacious city is maintained. But here the focus is on the city, which is only indirectly present in Barchester Towers. As in Dickens, the country is something 'out there,' existing without defences and almost asking to be violated: 'It was quite clear that the wolf in sheep's clothing must be admitted into the pastoral family' (14). Trollope's terms are explicit, as is the sarcastic use of 'pastoral.' The world of Barchester Towers is only superficially sophisticated; its values are basically those of open and gentle undefended kindness. But here such openness is distrusted. The Three Clerks of the title roam out from London to invade a happy and unsuspecting country home. Although the mother of the three daughters who are swept down upon is the narrator's 'own chief favourite in the tale' (3), she is repeatedly criticized for not guarding her daughters closely enough. Barchester Towers makes sly fun of extreme idealizations of the natural state, but by comparison this novel is a bitter attack on Rousseau. Although London itself is a bleak and terrible place, the country is treated almost with contempt for its naïveté. As a result of these dark premisses, the approved values are much more extreme and uncomplicated than is usual in Trollope. There is also a need felt by the narrator to make these values quite emphatic. Moralisms are very common, particularly moralisms that strive to clarify absolute standards: 'There are two kinds of honesty . . . that which the world sees and that which it does not see . . . nothing that is wrong can become right because other people do it' (26). The urgency here is quite apparent, as is the simplicity of the ethical standard. Trollope's usual strategy is to complicate quietly and gradually; here he tries the opposite device of simplifying startlingly and dramatically. In Barchester Towers the morality is so subtle and so calm that it can be centred in the withdrawn, inactive Mr. Harding. But here, though there is a character, Harry Norman, whose firm morality also seems central and who is similarly disqualified by that morality from action, the simplifying rhetoric and the drive to uncomplicate the moral position put the Harding character in a no-man's-land. Without a complex morality to support [72/73] him, Norman appears merely an oddity. He spends most of the novel sulking, until everyone, including the narrator, loses patience with him, despite his firm honour, truth, and so forth. The impatience is hardly fair, though, since he could now hardly sit and play the cello. Playing the cello is not in The Three Clerks a moral act—as it clearly is in Barchester Towers.
The attempt to import Mr. Harding into this world was a clear mistake, and the centre of the novel is really taken over by Charley Tudor, whose closest relative in Barchester Towers is Bertie Stanhope. Tudor is an extreme but much more successful translation of the values of Mr. Harding into an ironic and dark world. He is the first in a long line of Trollope heroes who are, like Mr. Harding, quiet and imaginative, but who are, unlike him, weak, lacking in self-knowledge, and morally culpable. Charley Tudor is also, of course, a touchingly sentimentalized version of Trollope himself, which suggests one of the many reasons why, from Charley through Johnny Eames, Phineas Finn, and Lord Silverbridge, this figure seems to be invested with the most promise, with the best chance of dealing with a world that offers very little and demands much. Charley Tudor is more exactly like Trollope than the others are, of course, echoing many of his experiences and practising the same trades. But with Charley's authorship, biographical explanations probably should give way to generic ones: Charley's stories and his descriptions of the demands of his editor and readers are used not only to parody one sort of literature but to define by contrast another, specifically the novel Trollope is writing. Charley parodies plot-ridden works—we need 'an incident for every other paragraph'—episodic sensationalism—'The editor says that the unities are altogether thrown over now, and that they are regular bosh'—moral and topical didacticism—'The editor says that we must always have a slap at some of the iniquities of the times'—and tragedy—'there must be a Nemesis. The editor specially insists on a Nemesis' (19). These comments serve the cause of artifice, providing a running critical commentary on the narrative, its form and rhetorical requirements. The burlesque, in other words, is asked to take on the task usually handled by Trollope's narrators and the subplots. The method seems to work, but in its suddenness, its dramatic intensity, and most of all its necessary sacrifice of complexity to urgency it fails to serve the ends Trollope wanted most deeply for his art. The Three Clerks, good as it is, is only another false start. [73/74]
With The Bertrams, Trollope's novels begin more serious and doubtless more useful tests of the implications of the Barsetshire series. The variations on comedy developed in the chronicle are kept within a range defined by the broader excursions of these other novels. The chronicle, for all its variety, stays pretty much to the centre of the comic spectrum. The edges are explored, first in one direction and then in the other, by the six surrounding novels. The Bertrams, Castle Richmond, and Orley Farm all deal with dark, ironic comedy. All seem interested in testing the seriousness of opposition that can be erected and still overcome in comedy; they search for the deepest wounds that may still be healed, the grimmest effects that can he counterbalanced or smoothed over. Only the last of these, Orley Farm, really succeeds.
The Bertrams is perhaps the least controlled of Trollope's dark comedies. What appears at the beginning to be the main plot is submerged so deeply and for so long that it has to be hauled to the surface with much unpleasant straining at the end; the startling religious theme seems to be connected only loosely to the love stories; the sort of padding critics complain about, usually mysteriously, is for once really there, in the long descriptions of exotic cities of the east, whirling dervishes, and suchlike strangeness. Most serious, the comic form is never made sufficiently flexible to contain the great suffering and the pervasive sense of the arbitrary that abounds in the novel. The comedy thus seems superficial or even superadded. People are rescued from extremity but for no apparent reason. The rewards come to those who suffer, but why? Comedy is not usually logical, of course, but here Trollope moves us so far out of the comic environment that we certainly are not expecting comic miracles. We had thought we were in a different world.
It is a world marked by the decay of private sensitivity and public coherence. A representative citizen remarks, 'Poetry is all very well; but you can't create a taste for it if it doesn't exist. Nobody that I know cares a d— for Iphigenia' (1). And if no one cares a damn for such fully dramatized sufferings as Iphigenia's, what sort of response can we hope for to the small, muffled sufferings of ordinary people? We soon see. When Arthur Wilkinson fails to take a first at Oxford, the intensity of his pain is stressed very sharply. In Trollope's world, this complex and impure suffering is an exact equivalent to Iphigenia's. Now, however, Arthur finds almost no response at all. His friends are made a bit uncomfortable by his bad temper, [74/75] and his family feels some chagrin—for themselves. His father is angry, 'but he felt no sympathy with his son' (3). 'His mother was all affection, and kindly suggested that perhaps what had happened was for the best: she kindly suggested this more than once, but her imagination carried her no farther' (3). Even Arthur is so preoccupied licking his own wounds that he completely misreads the tone of his sweetheart's words and thus misses her declaration of love, 'understanding perhaps accurately the wants of his own heart, but . . . quite in the dark as to the wants of that other heart' (4). Suffering is as important in this novel as it is in George Eliot, but it has even less tragic resonance and seems, therefore, both more ineffectual and less redemptive. Everyone is 'quite in the dark as to the wants of that other heart.' The public at large is treated as a huge monster of insensitivity, with neither stability nor reason. The attack on 'vox populi, vox Dei' is as bitter and as explicit as it is in D. H. Lawrence. When a conscientious public ass asserts 'with intense reliance on the civilization of his own era,' 'Public opinion is the best safeguard for a great man's great name,' he is met with the following appropriate sarcasm: 'Quite true, sir, quite true . . . for the space of twenty-four hours' (33). With such a view of community, it is no wonder that the novel has to struggle desperately at the end to try and tuck in the loose corners which are wildly astray. It tries finally to look like a standard novel of vocation, but we have more likely responded to it as a novel of missed opportunities, whose standard is not comic fulfilment but the agonizing shortness of life and its pointlessness.
At the centre is the story of how two of the last sensitive people alive miss connections and torture one another for no good reason. Searching for some life finer than what he sees about him, George Bertram travels to Jerusalem full of pumped-up transcendental enthusiasm. This zeal hardly stands the test of the physical discomfort and revolting filth he encounters everywhere. He instinctively disbelieves in the authenticity of everything except for the site of the Mount of Olives, which he believes in entirely on instinct, an instinct so strong that even his father's indifference—'Mount of Olives, eh? ... What is there to see there?' (8)—cannot shake it. But it is, we see, the instinct of an Englishman for tidiness—the Mount of Olives is unique in being unsmelly—not the response of an exalted Christian to miraculous truth. A good deal of fun is made of this naive enthusiasm, and the religious attack seems to be the same one [75/76] conducted within the Barsetshire series on pious nonsense. But here the securities of Dorsetshire are gone entirely, and the attack on religion, once begun, has no place to end, certainly not in the evidence of enlightened gentlemanly civility on which The Warden or Barchester Towers rested. George's loss of faith comes, in fact, when he realizes that religion is not a stay against chaos but merely a part of it. The religious life is neither more coherent nor more sensitive than any other, and his belief fails precisely when that point is made: Caroline Waddington tells him to look around him at the clergy and ask himself, 'Are they generally men of wide views and enlightened principles?' (10). His faith is gone in a flash, and there is nothing left for him but the Higher Criticism and this same Caroline Waddington.
Her love could, indeed, act as some replacement for religion; together they might make some stand against the ignorant armies clashing by night. But they are separated by a series of absurdly trivial misunderstandings. With Caroline, Trollope begins to develop the figure of the rebellious woman; she resists growing 'into a piece of domestic furniture, contented to adapt itself to such use as a marital tyrant might think fit to require of it' (9). The tone is slightly humorous and satiric, actually uncertain, marking an uneasiness Trollope feels at launching into the feminist issue. But such uneasiness is only the conscious and superficial reaction to a very deep and troubling sensitivity. Caroline refuses to marry George immediately because she wants to avoid, she says, the disagreeableness of semi-poverty. But the overt theme of prudence against 'love in a cottage'8 is soon lost in an intricate exploration of the struggle between the two, a struggle which finally has no source other than the mere desire for power. George appeals to Caroline to relent, painting a picture of himself expiring in hopelessness and unrelieved hard work. She is subtly flattered as well as moved by an appeal that seems to recognize her power and is ready to agree, asking for a week to answer merely because of her fear of seeming too easy a conquest. George senses victory, though, and his breezy answer—take all the time you want—so obviously reasserts his own power that 'the fancied tone of triumph hardened her heart once more' (17). This terrible interplay continues without relief and without fault on either side, even without much cause. They both [76/77] come soon to a desire for revenge; they both consequently feel guilt and are finally led to something even worse, a desire for punishment. George tries pouting, and she badly wants to feel herself unworthy: 'I confess his superiority; but these very merits, this great superiority, make it impossible that I should suit him as a wife' (23). This masochistic trap catches many Trollope women, Lily Dale most notably. But it has many configurations. Here, Caroline marries another man in order to punish herself, and she is rewarded by getting a much greater villain than she had bargained for.
It is true that the narrator sometimes becomes visibly uncomfortable with what is going on and tries to distance us from Caroline through weak jokes, calling her 'Juno,' for instance, as if she were Mrs. Proudie. But she is not, and the incongruity we notice in such jokes marks the great difference between this novel and the Barsetshire series and also between the heart of the novel and the comic form it tries to maintain. At the end, the villain happily kills himself, and Caroline is able to marry George, not, however, with much gaiety: his proposal is 'a cold, sad, dreary matter'; her 'acquiescence' is 'melancholy'; and 'they now live together very quietly. . . . Their house is childless, and very, very quiet; but they are not unhappy' (47). The narrator, who has tried throughout in characteristically subversive fashion to force the reader to identify with the villain and with the agonies of George, ends the novel by forcing us to acknowledge the very weak consolation provided: 'Reader, can you call to mind what was the plan of life which Caroline Waddington had formed in the boldness of her young heart? Can you remember the aspirations of George Bertram as he sat upon the Mount of Olives, watching the stones of the temple over against him?' (47). The final sense, if not quite one of loss, is one of diminishment and damage so extensive that it counteracts any comic satisfaction we might otherwise receive.
Castle Richmond, the next novel in the group, is another of Trollope's recurrent geographical mistakes. The movement away from southern England again introduces materials that cannot be contained within the frame. Here it is the background of the Irish famine that works very oddly with the conventional love stories. The Saturday Review noted at once the incompatibility of the action and the setting of the novel: 'the milk and the water really should be in separate pails. Pastry and roast-beef should not be served on the [77/78] same plate.'9 The details of the relief plans, the road work that accomplishes nothing, and the starvation are so starkly impressive that Trollope is forced to heighten the major plot to the point of ludicrous sensationalism in order to avoid making it appear trivial. But it still does. At one point in the action a character wanders out of the rain and out of the love story into a hovel which has been hit by the famine. When he sees the cringing mother there and the corpse of her small daughter, his own troubles strike him as remarkably small. When some Countess or other, then, worried about the financial and social prospects of her child, wails, 'O my daughter,' he thinks only of the woman in the cottage. Marriage, class, money become almost as nothing to him; he never forgets this measurement, nor do we. Trollope has tried to incorporate a memento mori symbol far too dramatic and insistent for the context. As in The Bertrams, the comedy here is uncomfortably subverted.
Orley Farm goes beyond the ironic edge of comedy altogether,10 entering unmistakably the territory of 'the mythos of winter.' All appearances are wrong, and the best instincts are mistaken; the scoundrels have all the truth on their side. Orley Farm is concerned with mistakes and deceptions, heroic plans that go nowhere, the exercise of chivalric virtues that are now pointless. Lady Mason risks everything, committing forgery to save the land for a son who does not want it and who is humiliated by his mother's act of love; the land is restored to its rightful owner finally, but he does not want it either—he wants revenge, which he does not get. The chivalrous Sir Peregrine Orme decides to protect the harassed and innocent Lady Mason, offers to marry her, and then is forced to withdraw ignominiously when it turns out that she is not so very innocent; the trial 'clears' her only to expose her deeply to those she cares about; the same trial climaxes the image of purposeless torture, turning on the innocent and twisting truth into lies, and all to no end.
One of the subplots, the one involving the Staveley family, does follow a comic course, but this plot is so minor that Trollope almost forgot to complete it, and it is so overwhelmed by the ironic force of the other three plots that the good luck experienced there is made to [78/79] seem just that: mere good luck. There is no essential comic rhythm, and the slight comic counterplot actually highlights this fact by forcing us to recognize the central patterns of denial. In this way the novel marks a great advance in Trollope's use of the commenting and defining subplot. Four plots are here interwoven with full success. Trollope's novels from this point on use this technique repeatedly and with great assurance. The next two chronicle novels after Orley Farm, The Small House at Allington and Can You Forgive Her?, owe a great deal to this experimental novel.
Trollope unites the plots of Orley Farm through their shared concerns with commerce and with law. Commerce is used to define the condition of the world, law the means for dealing with that condition. Commerce suggests an invasion of barbarous chaos; the legal mind is our own mind desperately and unsuccessfully trying to deal with this new state of affairs. The novel is really about Mr. Kantwise's modern furniture and what we do when the common materials of modern life are 'got up for cheatery' (42), as Mrs. Dockwrath says. But her husband, Samuel Dockwrath, is unable to see any defect in the furniture. He is without aesthetic or moral taste; he really fails to see that there is such a thing as 'cheatery.' And it is this man who ties together the plots, who initiates the action. In a crucial scene, Dockwrath forces himself into the commercial room of an inn at Leeds, hoping thereby to find more comfort for less money. When challenged about his credentials as a commercial man, he insists, 'In this enterprising country all men are more or less commercial' (6).11 No one (including the reader) can challenge this, and we are moved as a result into the company of the essential commercial man, Mr. Moulder. Moulder's view of life is consistent with his occupation. Like Dockwrath, who cannot understand that he owes anything to Lady Mason except the rent, Moulder sees life as a series of bargains, even, or especially, his marriage: 'It ain't much,' he tells his wife, 'I ask of you in return for your keep' (24). He is, by his terms, neither thoughtless nor unjust: 'When I took to the old girl there, I insured my life, so that she shouldn't want her wittles and drink' (24). Any belief in closer ties than this in the novel is seen as more or less sentimental. Mr. Moulder's Christmas, like Mr. [79/80] Dockwrath at the cosy inn, seems to be a grim parody of The Pickwick Papers, as are the recurrent scenes of domestic disharmony and disruption: Mrs. Furnival's decision to live apart from her husband, Mrs. Joseph Mason's vicious inhospitality, Mrs. Dockwrath's secret communications to Lady Mason, Lady Mason's own futile love for her son, descending finally to the scene at the commercial room in Leeds.
But commerce is just, of course, as is the law. Mr. Moulder mounts an eloquent defence of the law: lawyers have a duty to their clients, just as he has one to the manufacturer, and 'It's not for me to say the sugar's bad, or the samples not equal to the last. My duty is to sell, and I sell;—and it's their duty to get a verdict' (61). The legal system, Moulder goes on, is 'the bulwark of the British Constitution' (61). It is, thus, the symbol for the national conscience and therefore for the national derailment. The defences of the law are seen as the defences of the mind against chaos. And such defences are not only paltry and ineffectual but dangerous. The novel's treatment of the law is very important but not very widely understood. At least two counterattacks have been issued by eminent legal professionals, but both choose an unfortunate blustering tone and an attitude of superiority, and both, unhappily, miss the point (Newbolt 1-73 and Drinker 25-47). According to Orley Farm the law has two equally ineffective stances against the decay of a civilized community: a reliance on abstract principle—'the law' in theory—or a simple relativistic empiricism where all faith is placed in 'the practice of law.' As the communal values disintegrate, these tendencies in law both become stronger and draw further apart: principles become quixotic abstractions, practice mere vicious opportunism, the attempt to deny truth.
The abstractions of law violate the very basis of life by treating what is complex, dynamic, and intuitive as if it were simple, fixed, and rational. Comedy has always attacked law on these grounds, but the attack here is not from comedy. The living coherence of communal life has dissolved, and rigid principles, therefore, are not, as they are in comedy, held to be in violation of a greater reality but are now seen to be absurd, floating rules. Reason is not measured against comic instinct but against grim absurdity. The central man of [80/81] principle, Lucius, Lady Mason's son, seems almost to be a new Mr. Slope, now serious and very dangerous. He is a man of the times, educated, advanced, and quite just in the abstract: when his mother counsels waiting for next year's crops, he says, 'Wait! Yes, and what has come of waiting? We don't wait at all in doubling our population every thirty-three years; but when we come to the feeding of them we are always for waiting. . . . No more waiting for me, mother, if I can help it' (2). In another context, this hurry-up idealism could be seen comically, as a step on the road to the College of Spiritual Pathology, but here it is destructive. Lucius is a good man; he wants to serve his mother and the cause of right, but 'he knew but little as yet of the ordinary life of gentlemen in England' (20). And he never gets a chance to learn. The expected comic education, like all patterns, is thwarted, and harmless idealism is not so harmless.
In Orley Farm, it is obvious to men of experience that principles are dead and Utopias absurd, so they turn to empiricism. And the more complete the empiricism, the greater the degree of legal success. But it is just these highly successful men, Aram and Chaffanbrass, that 'make so many in these days feel the need of some Utopia' (65). No circle could be more vicious. The principles of law are disconnected from life, but the practice of law which is connected to life is compared to the profession of a dutiful hired killer or bravo (75).
But the law is obviously not responsible for this condition of things, nor can it be expected to deal with it. In a fine scene Sir Peregrine Orme and the lawyer, old Mr. Round, meet to discuss Lady Mason's case, but they find that, though they are decent and honourable men, they can do nothing. In fact because they are decent and honourable, they cannot even talk about the case; they can only testify to a melancholy respect for one another's character and withdraw in silence. Sir Peregrine's way, argues the great lawyer Mr. Furnival, shows generosity and 'poetic chivalry,' but it is not 'the way of the world' (26). Old Orme's ways are now seen as naive, simple-minded: '"What is the purport of these courts of law," he asks, "if it be not to discover the truth, and make it plain to the light of day?" Poor Sir Peregrine! His innocence in this respect was perhaps beautiful, but it was very simple' (56). He is one of the last—'the number is becoming very few' (56)—of those who believe in decency. He dramatizes the passing away of the old and coherent world and its dependence on the final justice of communal instinct. [81/82] In such a world the law could work well, but it can no more deal with its absence than it can create such a world anew.
Sir Peregrine's grandson, young Perry, inherits his grandfather's virtues and his beliefs, but he is simply cast away by the new world. When he tries to act for Lady Mason by accusing Dockwrath of 'villainy,' he seems to be the man from Mars or, more common in Trollope, the American visitor commenting on primogeniture or fox-hunting. Dockwrath says, 'Highty-tighty! What are you talking about, young man? The fact is, you do not know what you are talking about' (20). At the end, Perry's career is denied any satisfactory outcome. When he is unsuccessful in love, he reacts with great bitterness. But the bitterness is allowed no climax in any sort of tragic action, nor is it allowed to be drained off, as in comedy. He is not broken by his bitterness, and he realizes that he will have to deal with it: 'Oh, I dare say I shall marry some day. I feel now as though I should like to break my neck, but I don't suppose I shall' (80). Such a statement is tantamount to a recognition of how empty and unclimactic life is. It is the same emptiness we sense at the ending of this novel, the same deliberate refusal to provide resolutions. It is an 'unsatisfactory' ending, certainly, but, then, dissatisfaction is the basis of the rhetoric of irony.13
With the next three non-chronicle novels, Rachel Ray (1863), Miss Mackenzie (1865), and The Belton Estate (1866), Trollope explores the possibilities of the art of full and simple satisfaction. These novels represent the alternate pole of comedy; just as the three novels already discussed are much darker than any of the Barsetshire novels, so are these three much lighter, less disturbed. They are all comedies of nature, positing a serene confidence in natural impulses and the natural working of things. The problems that arise, therefore, are principally confined to removing the obstacles that stand in the way of natural forces, love most especially or, to say the same thing, sex. These are all comedies of generation and renewal, only slightly disguised celebrations of the instincts for survival or procreation. The blocking figures, such as they are, are Malvolio-types, enemies of youth, mirth, and pleasure; generally they are cast either as religious fanatics or class snobs. People are treated very gently; there are few outcasts and there is very little need for punishment. The world is harmonious and, for the most part, benign, and [82/83] Trollope's traditional instruments of disruption—the narrator and the subplots—are here used not to upset, but to support, a basic unity of design and effect. Though the three comedies become progressively more complex and admit difficulties more ominous, the change is slight, not enough to disguise the fact that these novels represent the base from which Trollope worked, a world realized in art which offers opportunities for fulfilment and unified being which the other novels deny, seeing them as remote and dreamlike.
Rachel Ray takes a strong stand in favour of youth, sex, and good beer. It is an extremely simple story of how the young man, Luke Rowan, got the girl, Rachel Ray, and the brewery. Virtually everything is on his side, even the hostile brewer's own family and the rector—certainly the girl. Such opposition as there is comes from Rachel's evangelical, widowed sister, Mrs. Dorothea Prime, Mrs. Prime's low-church lover, the Revd. Samuel Prong, Luke's snobbish mother, and a few petty misunderstandings. It is a novel about how to find 'the good times,' an American phrase Trollope picked up and loved. In the process, society itself is cured of its slight neurosis, an uneasiness about sex, and is thus revitalized. Like the other two romantic comedies in this series, Rachel Ray is specifically a nationalistic novel, a pastoral that exalts not only nature but English nature, a celebration of that particular 'air of homeliness which made the sweetness of her womanhood almost more attractive than the loveliness of her personal charms' (7). Unlike the beauty of Italy or America, which is 'of the flesh' or 'of the mind,' English beauty is 'of the heart,' specially 'intended for domestic use' and thus 'the happiest of the three' (7).
England's natural beauty and natural sources of joy are clouded only slightly in this novel, and that cloud blows away by the end. It appears in the first place only because some people have grown distrustful of this world, have begun worrying about controls and future punishments, and have set up a false distinction between the wicked and the righteous. This morality is so stupidly self-destructive that it creates a division between marriage, which it wholly approves, and courtship, which it would ban entirely. The worthy vicar, appropriately named Mr. Comfort, asks the key question: 'And how are young people to get married if they are not allowed to see each other?' (5). But it is Mr. Comfort who is unconsciously responsible for part of the problem. He speaks a world-hating [83/84] formula from the pulpit that is very dangerous. He doesn't really believe these slogans himself, of course: 'When he told the little children that this world should be as nothing to them, he did not remember that he himself enjoyed keenly the good things of this world' (5). He is not a hypocrite at all; it is just that he unconsciously assumes a sophistication in his audience which will apply with great moderation such lessons as he teaches. But the children of the congregation and those adult children like Rachel's mother may take the grim doctrine he preaches to heart. Mrs. Ray, in fact, 'believed too much' (1) of what he said and thus could not exercise her capacity to enjoy the world. The novel is as much the story of her liberation as it is of her daughter's love and marriage. And she is liberated from religion. On the surface, of course, the novel approves of no such radical position on religion, taking care to separate an approved, worldly religion from the low-church fears of those like Mr. Prong, who believed 'no sheep could nibble his grass in wholesome content, unless some shepherd were at work at him constantly with his crook' (6). The confidence in the basic rightness of the natural tendencies of life is felt so intensely that there is surely a sense that as one can get along without Mr. Prong and his crook, so one can get along without future rewards. Heaven is as irrelevant as hell. Mrs. Ray, then, is initiated into the religion of Comfort; she acquires the sophistication whereby she can experience the full delight of life.
In this serene world the usual dilemmas in Trollope's novels are diminished, drained of their potential to cause suffering. The recurrent figure of a woman trapped in horrible masochism is here reduced to the comic Mrs. Prime, who has found sackcloth 'grateful to the skin' (5). But she escapes from Mr. Prong and is clearly on her way to a rejuvenation in worldliness at the novel's close. More remarkable is Trollope's treatment of the hero, who is a gentle version of the usual wild absolutist. Luke's cause, the making of better beer, is comic in itself and is rendered doubly so by the fact that the few people in the area not addicted to cider don't mind the bad beer anyhow, rather respecting it as an institution. Luke loves to talk of brewing as providing 'opportunity for chemical experiments, and room for philosophical inquiry' (10), but this is all talk, we see. Underneath he is impulsive, romanti—quite unexperimental and unphilosophical. His rebellion amounts finally to asking Mrs. Ray formally for permission to court her daughter. His 'genuine radical-[84/85]ism' is only a version of Trollope's own belief in gradual progress'; he disdains 'equality' (26). Even those who disrupt the sleepy world in order to bring new life to it are the mildest and least threatening of invaders.
This quiet and sheltered world is protected by a very skilful narrator, who begins, much as Dickens does in Martin Chuzzlewit, by encouraging our cynicism and giving it full rein. The novel opens by making fun of the very things it will finally hold dear—love, marriage, and Mrs. Ray. Love is seen as some sort of biological joke, marriage as a form of mutual support for neurotics, Mrs. Ray as a weak fool. The rhetoric deliberately defuses the sentimentality only to encourage it, tires our sarcasm by exercising it so vigorously. The sentimentality in this novel is not only effective but is so disguised that it does not seem like sentimentality at all. The narrator also helps protect us in the opposite direction, carefully distinguishing the absolute freedom he countenances from licentiousness or lust. Luke 'dabbled in romance, and probably wrote poetry in his bedroom' (4), which is, in this world, just about all that Byronism amounts to. There are no real dangers. More centrally, the narrator suggests that Byronism is inverted Puritanism; Luke's harmless 'Byronic' courtship brings forth from poor Rachel's conscience the whole battery of low-church condemnation: 'sin,' 'iniquity,' 'wickedness.' Byronism and Puritanism, it is suggested, are both fearful, ingrown, and distrustful. The narrator in this way moves us to the safe heart of the warm romantic comedy.
It is a comedy so undisturbed that Luke, after he has won everything, cannot help thinking that the obstacles have been rather petty: 'he could not but wish that there had been some castles for him to storm in his career. Tapitt had made but poor pretence of fighting before he surrendered; and as to Rachel, it had not been in Rachel's nature to make any pretence' (28). The world has been waiting for them all along. It is this easy confidence in the world and the corresponding full control of his art that made so many of Trollope's contemporaries become sunny over the warmth that was in the novel. George Eliot loved the 'subtleties' of its art (110), and John Addington Symonds wrote with an even fuller response to the comedy: 'I would give everything I possess . . . for that hour at the Churchyard style, for the difficulties surmounted, the strong nerves, [85/86] the true love, the simple life, the real work of those visions in Mr. Trollope's brain' (451).
Miss Mackenzie is also a celebration of natural forces, and it admits also the opposition of social snobbery and low-church Puritanism. But there are new and darker problems here, too, namely, loneliness, age, and death. Miss Mackenzie enacts a fable of rejuvenation and rebirth, not of natural growth. Its models are works like The Pickwick Papers or Persuasion, and it narrates a similar magical story of the regaining of youth. Miss Mackenzie is nearly forty, 'neither beautiful nor clever,' without particular softness or grace. She has spent all of her life around death and now struggles to find life before it is too late. This is a comedy which moves to a level of complexity and disturbance one step beyond Rachel Ray, where finally appearances were in full accord with reality and surfaces were depths. Miss Mackenzie's youth, however, is like her secret poetry, essential but hidden, and the novel is really a test of society and of this life to see if they can find that hidden self.
The basic position of the novel is announced with absolute directness by a former servant, Mrs. Buggins, who is now liberated from service and about to begin on life:
'To be sure, I'm an old woman . . . Who has said that I ain't ? Not I; nor yet Buggins. We is both of us old. But I don't know why we is to be desolate and lonely all our days, because we ain't young. It seems to me that the young folks is to have it all to themselves, and I'm sure I don't know why.' Then she went, clearly resolved, that as far as she was concerned, the young people shouldn't have it all to themselves; and as Buggins was of the same way of thinking, they were married at St. Mary-le-Strand that very morning. (23)
Miss Mackenzie reaches the same resolution and finds the same happy end, but without such ease. She begins at once with a resolution 'that she would not content herself with a lifeless life, such as those few who knew anything of her evidently expected from her' (2), and strives to fight against loneliness, the opinion of the world, and, most important, her opinion of herself: 'She despised herself. Why, she knew not; and probably did not know that she did so. But, in truth, she despised herself, thinking herself to be too mean for a man's love' (11). Because of her self-hatred, she nearly settles for [86/87] several miserable substitutes for genuine life: the pathetic vulture existence of the single ladies of Littlebath who surround Mr. Stumfold and feed on his weak jokes cast out to satisfy the 'appetite for feminine rakishness' (4), or the proposals of some terribly undesirable suitors. Still, there is an inner-spirit; she can assure herself of her own sexuality by kissing herself in the mirror, thus keeping alive the growth of 'romance' which 'had only just been born' (9). She resists the many attempts to dominate her, as well as the bleak advice of her friend, Miss Todd: 'We single women have to be solitary sometimes—and sometimes sad.' After all, Miss Todd asserts, 'one can't go about as one did when one was young' (13). But when Miss Mackenzie answers, 'I had none of that when I was young,' Miss Todd relents: 'Hadn't you? Then I won't say but what you may be right to try and begin now' (13).
And so she does. It appears for a time as if she will lose in the attempt. She sees herself as torn between two lovers she does not love, 'like the ass who starved between two bundles of hay' (15). But this irony yields to romance; as she loses her money, she is rewarded with a suitor, John Ball, who is equally old (older really), equally worn, but also equally tough, rebellious, and finally equally prepared for rebirth. Miss Mackenzie, by refusing to give in, brings life to another, invoking that 'romance left within his bosom' despite the tedium of his life (7).
The pattern of resurrection is thus strengthened, echoed too in a few minor characters and made applicable to us by a busy narrator. This is perhaps Trollope's most focused novel; it never takes its eyes off the central figure for a moment. The narrator, therefore, spends most of his time nudging us into identification with Miss Mackenzie, by mock apologies—'Where she has been weak, who among us is not, in that, weak also?' (5)—and by consistent generalization of her actions and motives: 'She was doing what we all do' (6). He also artfully prepares the way for a comic resolution by parodying various idealized models of loneliness and patience, particularly Griselda and Mariana: 'I will not say that she was always waiting for some one that came not, or that she declared herself to be a-weary, or that she wished that she were dead' (1). The Mariana image also suggests a simplicity that is now gone. Miss Mackenzie's initial desolation at Littlebath is compared with Mariana's (13), but it is, in a way, worse. After all, Mariana could not have expected much society in a moated grange, but Miss Mackenzie had gone to Littlebath for company. [87/88] Miss Mackenzie's solitude is broken, of course, and the Mariana reference directs us both to the solution and to the comic argument that genuine problems and their answers are social, not metaphysical.
On the way to its solution, The Belton Estate raises problems that are no more metaphysical, but they are more serious. Despite its complexity, the novel has always seemed to be among Trollope's most forgettable. Among reviewers it inspired perhaps the least enthusiasm of any of his novels. It was the source of James's joke about 'sinking into a gentle slumber'; even Trollope seems to have regarded the book as a blank: 'I have not looked at it since it was published; and now turning back to it in my memory, I seem to remember almost less of it than of any book I have written.'16 The comedy is very warm and very controlled, certainly, but it seems on the whole to exclude far less and to work with more difficult issues than either Rachel Ray or Miss Mackenzie.
The main line of the narrative is quite simple. Clara Amedroz, after finding her way out of a mistaken engagement with Captain Aylmer, marries Will Belton, who becomes Belton of Belton, restores the estate, and rejuvenates the family and the land. Clara exclaims at Will's first visit that 'he is going to build sheds, and buy cattle; and I don't know what he doesn't mean to do; so that we shall be alive again' (5). Clara's father had himself been so idle, had done such 'terrible evil' through neglect that his son, the natural heir, has committed suicide, leaving the estate to dissolve. Will restores the substance that is lost and restores meaning to the notion of gentleman. His slightly progressive views are blended with a strong and corrective family feeling so that his triumph merges all antitheses. It is a highly romantic comedy—'After all, what did the feeling of the world signify to them, who were going to be all the world to each other?' (32)—and one of great charity. Even Captain Aylmer and his bride are welcomed at the end.
But within these simple lines there are very strong obstacles to such easy comic fulfilment, presented not so much by the narrative complication of the Aylmer engagement as by Clara's urgent need to preserve her own freedom. The very energy and power with which Will can rejuvenate the land are a threat to Clara and her [88/89] desire to preserve that 'strong will of her own' (1). The novel deals within its comic framework with the same feminism that was so disruptive in Can You Forgive Her? The treatment here is no less subtle. Will's energy and also his kindness are to Clara an assumption of power that must be resisted. She tries to hold herself distant from his authoritarian assumptions by insisting on his cousinly or brotherly relationship to herself. She resists also the dominance of romance, which seems to her an admission of emptiness: 'It makes me feel ashamed of my sex,' she says, 'when I find that I cannot talk of myself to another woman without being supposed to be either in love or thinking of love,—either looking for it or avoiding it' (5). But she is unable to carry on with Aylmer, sensing his great weakness and inferiority and instinctively forecasting the shipwreck ahead were she to marry him. The narrator sarcastically remarks, 'The theory of man and wife—that special theory in accordance with which the wife is to bend herself in loving submission before her husband—is very beautiful; and would be good altogether if it could only be arranged that the husband should be the stronger and the greater of the two' (11). Her rebellion against Aylmer, however, seems to throw her into the hands of another tyrant. But Will treats her release and her acceptance of him as a movement into freedom. She finds herself for a time in the usual masochism common to Trollope's strong women—'It was necessary [she thought] to her self-respect that she should be punished because of that mistake' (30). But she is freed by the jokes other friends, Will's gentleness, and the example of Will's sister, who calls him a 'despot,' but who shows how very complete her own selfhood and her own powers are. Clara yields, then, with lots of comments about submission and victimization. Partly these are jokes, but the resolution is not at all easy; it is won with delicacy and tact.
But the novel is not, despite this art, very memorable, primarily because the method it employs is so un-Trollopian. Trollope experiments here with a stylized and scenic novel, seeking to define issues and to create moods largely through symbolic images and through fixed pictorial attitudes. For once Trollope wants us to see, and the picture is simply not very sharp. It is an interesting experiment, but it is not a technique Trollope had refined, and the result is diffuse and unemphatic. The scenic pattern involves the joining of the lovely but unproductive Belton Castle in Somersetshire with the ugly but profitable Plaistow Hall in Norfolk. Belton [89/90] lands are purely picturesque; the hills 'are broken into ravines and deep watercourses and rugged dells hither and thither; where old oaks are standing, in which life seems to have dwindled down to the last spark; but the last spark is still there, and the old oaks give forth their scanty leaves from year to year' (1). This country ministers directly to the eye. Plaistow is set in a county Trollope traditionally associates with a wasteland, but here, though ugly and almost uninhabitable, the flat lands are also productive. Plaistow Hall itself is a fine old Tudor building unfortunately ruined by a clumsy conversion into a farm. Belton has lost all utility and energy, Plaistow all beauty. They seem to exemplify the gloomy division Trollope announced elsewhere: 'In seeking for the useful, we are compelled to abandon the picturesque' (Clergymen of the Church of England 28). But Will is able at the end to effect the unification of the two in a new junction of use and beauty; he employs these very terms and promises an end to the division between aristocratic lassitude and lower-class energy, between civilized life and the land that supports it.
The scenic method works in details as well. Such images as the rocks, 'the prettiest spot in England' (5), are used as psychological referents throughout. Clara thinks of this place where Will first proposed to her as 'that scene among the rocks.' This sort of association is quite unusual in Trollope, and it puts immense importance on the fixed scene rather than on the shifting momentum of dialogue and action. And that is one problem. Another is that there is a fairly conventional and heavily stressed use of seasonal imagery: Will comes in the summer, he is rejected in the winter, he persuades Clara to relent as the snows melt, and he is accepted just as the summer begins. The seasonal references are not in themselves objectionable, but they are highly sentimentalized and indistinct: for example, 'It was a lovely summer evening, at that period of the year in which our summer evenings just begin, when the air is sweeter and the flowers more fragrant, and the forms of the foliage more lovely than at any other time' (31).
The scenic method works well as long as Trollope is dealing with houses or with satiric references to the Aylmers—with the Aylmers because it suggests a particular fixed quality. But it does not work well with the dynamic implications of romantic comedy. Time and again we are offered attitudes in place of action, and psychological states are defined in reference to externals: [90/91]
Immediately before the house door, between that and the old tower, there stood one of Farmer Stovey's haycarts, now empty, with an old horse between the shafts looking as though he were asleep in the sun. Immediately beyond the tower the men were loading another cart, and the women and children were chattering as they raked the scattered remnants up to the rows. Under the shadow of the old tower, but in sight of Clara as she sat in the porch, there lay the small beer-barrels of the hay-makers, and three or four rakes were standing erect against the old grey wall. (2)
This passage might be called 'directions for composing a mental genre study.' It recalls the Pre-Raphaelites and Tennyson's 'idyls of the hearth.' It is surprising that Trollope should attempt this mode, but it is characteristic that he should decide to have a try at almost anything and equally characteristic that he should recognize very clearly what was successful and what was not. [91/92]
Last modified 9 January 2019