Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Trollope's Appeal

Traveling, I find myself indulging again in Trollope. Such a habit can last a lifetime. The man was prodigiously prolific, and most of his work occupies a reasonable plateau of quality. (Truth be told, his very best is little better than his worst.) As a popular novelist, his political views, conservative enough to be properly termed reactionary, were yet purged of unpleasantness apart from the wickedness of certain people who are unlike you or me. Decorated then with the mostly amiable eccentricities of us all, and even more with ladies both lovely and virtuous, his work confirmed the assumptions of a mainstream audience of middle and upper class readers. And I venture to say that he remains so reassuring today because of the same utter conviction of the basic rightness of things.

He is not so much a real partisan of the traditional, land-based England of old as he is given to nostalgia for it. A descendent of the eighteenth-century man of sensibility, he relishes a sweet, sad, “noble” feeling, though he is himself bourgeois and his heroes must be “manly,” however tender their relations to women, children, and the degraded poor. In Doctor Thorne, the narrator interjects a passionate claim that the nation is not fundamentally commercial, that trade cannot be a matter for pride or even real excellence (12-13) Rather, he celebrates an explicitly “feudal” system in which the landed aristocracy can be trusted to be sufficiently high-minded to rule in the interests of all. At the same time, he satirizes the de Courcys, recognizing every absurdity of a hereditary gentry.

In Trollope one encounters complete a small, self-contained world, all the more perfect for its provincialism. Things come right in the end, though a weak character or two may be sacrificed to sentiment; the good are blessed and the vicious ruined. All received ideas are accepted and reinforced. A fellow like Doctor Thorne, though he may display excessive pride or obduracy, has a heart of gold, so he must prosper in the end. Part of the Doctor’s worth is that he possesses not only ethical integrity but also a belief in family and descent. Indeed, without this loyalty to a class to which he has only a tenuous claim, he would not seem quite moral in the world of the novel.

Similarly, though Mary is a bastard, a status which has only recently lost its obloquy, she is also related to the house of Ullathorne and thus enabled to be refined and womanly. It is curious, and likely a reason Trollope, who defended psychological rather than plot-driven novels, himself did not care for this book, is that the narrative device of Mary’s inheritance, suggested by his brother, though it is held suspended for six hundred pages, easily guessed by the reader from the start. Mary is so nice; she must win out and marry joyfully in the end.

As few of us, his readers, find ourselves at the top of the social pyramid, Trollope makes good fun of aristocrats. He may support a sort of feudal paternalism, but he satirizes its representatives regularly. The Duke of Omnium is such a very lofty nabob that he is treated at a distance, but the de Courcys are consistent figures of fun. Still, everyone’s worth is realized by their proper playing of a social role.

Trollope’s treatment of his transgressive characters, those whose actions the reader can not applaud, those that go beyond idiosyncrasy, silliness, or a bit too much of a good thing, indicate the dangers of violating social norms.
Scatcherd is the prime example of someone who has wandered from his place in the social structure. This upstart capitalist, having left his proper station, finds himself suffering. The uncouth tradesman, who represents the upward mobility possible in capitalism, is an errant alcoholic; in fact, his ascent to wealth and international stature is rather incredible, given his youth as a mason and a convict and his all-but-uninterrupted drunkenness. His unlikely success is marred not only by his own pathological drinking but also by a no-good son who shares none of his virtues while magnifying his every vice. Scatcherd himself reflects that he would have been more blessed had he remained a stonemason. As it is, he gains immense wealth only to have it revert to the local embarrassed squire who can, of course, make much better use of it. His wife gracefully retires from Boxall Hill, knowing that she never really belonged there.

If the reprehensible tycoon is the book’s primary illustration of the frightful monstrosity of people’s rising above their stations, he has his junior partner in Moffatt. This low-born capitalist acts as a blackguard in jilting Augusta. His advocacy of extending the franchise and admitting Jews to Parliament is portrayed as disreputable vote-pandering as well as making him a “muff.” (207)

In a turn typical of Trollope’s middle-class partisanship for the wealthy, Amelia finds Mortimer Gazebee altogether too low-born for Augusta to consider as a husband, and Augusta herself admits that such an alliance would be “derogatory.” (496). They consider nothing but class in their calculations and pose the frightening question: “If we were to act that way, what would the world come to?” she asks. When Amelia herself violates the class barrier by marrying the affluent attorney, this turn exposes the hypocrisy of the aristocracy without vitiating Amelia’s point. It is, after all, her failure to accept such a marriage. While well-born, she must be less than altogether noble.

At times Trollope’s social ideal seems to veer backward even further than feudalism. Scatcherd’s murder of Henry Thorpe (who had seduced his sister) is all but approved by the narrator and by the authorities. As a more civilized citizen of higher rank (semi-civilized at any rate) Frank takes similar action against Moffat who has jilted his sister (but without having had sex with her) by horse-whipping him outside his club. Moffat, of course, being a bounder, folds without resistance, and the police, though they take Frank into custody, soon realize that he was doing what they consider the right thing. The proper social order, it seems, must be maintained by individuals taking “manly” action, ignoring the police, courts, and laws.

Trollope opposes the modern wholesale, including science and technology. He often directly addresses the presumably bourgeois reader but, at a critical moment, he enlists an ostler as spokesman. This character, a sort of Victorian British Stepin Fetchit, whose quaint deficiencies are evident in his comic dialect and his lameness, remembers most fondly the old “duik” and doochess” and laments the loss of importance of the feudal seat, commenting, “the money did fly in them days!” (200) as though his sort would be much better off were it not for social progress.

In the end it may be Trollope’s conservatism more than his great love for humanity that makes the work warm and comforting even to the more misanthropic. All literature both affirms and questions, reinforces and challenges our received ideas. While some works tend toward the critical side of the continuum, others, in particular popular works like Trollope, tend toward the affirmative, pleasing the reader with the sense that his beliefs are correct and the world is a basically benign place where things run on as best they may. People in Trollope are rarely troubled about their values or decisions. They may be discomfited by circumstance or by narrow-minded antagonists, but they muddle on in a fundamentally lovable manner that makes a narrative world like that of Doctor Thorne a singularly comfortable place to linger.

Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics paperback edition.

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