August 22, 2007

Blogging Trollope I

I'm rereading He Knew He Was Right with an eye to assigning it in a winter term class. I have remarked a couple of times on this blog that there's something about Trollope that makes his novels not entirely amenable to the kinds of critical analysis we are most accustomed to. For one thing, he's (almost) all about plot and character--there's a tremendously literal quality about his approach that makes much reading between the lines seem beside the point. I have always loved his accounts of walking in the woods imagining what his characters would do and say in the scenes to come, and his insistence that his people were entirely real to him; once I am immersed in one of these big blockbuster books, its very expansiveness, almost excessiveness, gives me the same sense of having spent my time among actual people whose lives have all the dimensions of ours. Here's a little example from fairly early on in HKHWR that contributes to this sense that Trollope is putting his immediate plot together by selecting among dozens, even hundreds or thousands, of untold stories; this is a bit of background on the wonderful Miss Jemima Stanbury ("All change was to her hateful and unncessary"!):
It need not be told here how various misfortunes arose, how Mr. Burgess quarrelled with the Stanbury family, how Jemima quarrelled with her own family, how, when her father died, she went out from Nuncombe Putney parsonage, and lived on the smallest pittance in a city lodging, how her lover was untrue to her and did not marry her, and how at last he died and left her every shilling that he possessed. (Ch. VII)
Of course the story is "told here" after all, but he passess off in one paragraph what could easily be enough plot for another whole novel--it's just that he is telling us a different one and sets this one aside. Though it is in a much more comic register, this passage reminds me of the bit in Carlyle's French Revolution about the five act tragedy inside every man, or of the roar on the other side of silence evoked (again, with quite a different tone) in Middlemarch. If there can seem to be a certain formlessness about the way his novels just keep going on and on and on and on (I have been known to refer to him as the "Energizer Bunny" of Victorian fiction), at the same time they capture in their own way that notion of the multitudinousness of human experience and stories.

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