I've read several dozen works of fiction this year, some for the second or third time. I revisited Malacandra and Perelandra. I progressed with Bunyan's Christian before regressing with Lewis's John. Once again I drank and groaned with the last (or next to last) priest in Graham Greene's Mexican communist state, and once again I found the third man in the sewers of Vienna. I had the delightful, illuminating experience of enjoying a book I had disliked several years earlier, Evelyn Waugh's Helena. I endured Cormac McCarthy's awful new screenplay, by far his worst published book, which I will never reread. I read all six of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, five of which were new to me. The epics of Homer (trans. Lattimore and Fagles) and Virgil (trans. Dryden) were also new. With our children I became acquainted with Roxaboxen and reacquainted with Frog and Toad, treasures we made sure to bring to our new home in southeast Asia.

The most interesting character I've met in 2014 has the unpropitious name "Gro." I expect never to meet anyone like him. Neither the hero nor the villain of E.R. Eddison's fantasy The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Gro is a "Goblin"--a name which, as far as I can tell, indicates nothing of traditional goblinry, but a distinct race or nation. The story is set on the planet Mercury. Other humanoid races populate the planet, such as the Witches, the Demons, the Imps, and the Pixies. Monsters, satyrs, fairies, and talking animals appear on occasion, too.

Gro is a traitor to his people; when we first meet him, he is advising King Gorice XI of "waterish Witchland," intent on war with the lords of "many-mountained Demonland." Gro plays several crucial dramatic and dialogic roles in the story. C.S. Lewis remarked that dialogue is the chief means by which Eddison shapes his characters. Gro, a master of language and political strategy, moves back and forth from one faction to another, sometimes facing personal peril, nearly always working his will. Both Gro's skill and his creator's fertile idiom are on display in the following scene, when Gro advises a Witch general to try treachery before laying siege to a temporary Demon stronghold in "far-fronted Impland":

"Yet consider," said Gro, taking him by the arm. "So shapeth the matter in my mind: they be few and shut up in a little place, in this far land, out of reach and out of mind of all succour. Were they devils and not men, the multitude of our armies and thine own tried qualities must daunt them. Be the place never so cocksure, doubt not some doubts thereof must poison their security. Therefore before thou risk a repulse which must dispel those doubts use thine advantage. Bid Juss to a parley. Offer him conditions: it skills not what. Bribe them out into the open."

"A pretty plan," said Corund. "Thou'lt merit wisdom's crown if thou canst tell me what conditions we can offer that they would take. And whilst thou riddlest that, remember that though thou and I be masters hereabout, another reigns in Carcë."

Lord Gro laughed gently. "Leave jesting," he said, "O Corund, and never hope to gull me to believe thee such a babe in policy. Shall the King blame us though we sign away Demonland, ay and the wide world besides, to Juss to lure him forth? Unless indeed we were so neglectful of our interest as suffer him, once forth, to elude our clutches."

"Gro," said Corund, "I love thee. But hardly canst thou receive things as I receive them that have dealt all my days in great stripes, given and taken in the open field. I sticked not to take part in thy notable treason against these poor snakes of Impland that we trapped in Orpish. All's fair against such dirt. Besides, great need was upon us then, and hard it is for an empty sack to stand straight. But here is far other matter. All's won here but the plucking of the apple: it is the very main of my ambition to humble these Demons openly by the terror of my sword: wherefore I will not use upon them cogs and stops and all thy devilish tricks, such as should bring me more of scorn than of glory in the eyes of aftercomers." (Chapter 11)

Gro's "gentle" laughter is a wonder, especially in contrast with the (relatively) honest Corund. A short time later, one of Corund's hotblooded Impish lieutenants disrupts a parley with the Demons by stabbing one of them -- unsuccessfully as it turns out -- and Corund is enraged. He lops off the offender's head. The Imp may or may not have been acting under Gro's advice. The Goblin plays dumb, remarking to Corund afterwards that "Such strokes come home or miss merely" and, with delicious irony, "This was well thought on: to flaunt the flag of seeming honesty, and with the motion rid us of this fellow that promised ever to grow thorns to make uneasy our seat in Impland."

Gro's allegiances shift as he pleases, and the changes receive little or no comment from the narrator. Close attention is necessary if we intend to follow Gro's plots. Sometimes his motives remain mysterious. Gro's expertise in policy gives special significance to an apparent departure from his custom. It is in fact so significant and revelatory of character that Eddison has Gro himself, the master of speech in the novel, introduce it in a soliloquy:

Gro said in himself, "How shall not common opinion account me mad, so rash and presumptuous dangerously to put my life in hazard? Nay, against all sound judgement; and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hitherto she had denied me: when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King, who very honourably placed me in his court, and tendereth me, I well think, so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes." (Chapter 25)

Gro's skill in language makes him a fascinating character. But this is to say that his value cannot be abstracted from its context. Gro's placement among and against other characters in Eddison's novel is essential to his development as a character. Sometimes this development is implicit, requiring reflexive consideration, and sometimes it is explicit in the text, though Eddison prefers to leave all comments to his characters rather than the narrative voice. Corund establishes the moral parameters of his world by refusing to adopt Gro's "devilish tricks." Similarly, only after another character, Lady Prezmyra, evaluates Gro's habits and speech do we learn how to judge him aright (Chapter 15).

The Worm Ouroboros has much more to offer than Gro, including strengths distinct from character. The chief of these is Eddison's own language. At first I was skeptical of the heavy archaism, but after two or three chapters I gave in completely. I was engrossed, transported. The narrative voice entices, requiring the absorption of unfamiliar syntactical patterns: "The eastern stars were paling to the dawn as Lessingham followed his conductor along the grass walk between the shadowy ranks of Irish yews, that stood like soldiers mysterious and expectant in the darkness" (Chapter 2). Many parts of the story will be difficult for readers who have not read older English poetry. Here's an extract from a letter transcribed in Chapter 18:

"So havinge ridde me wel of Vol, and by my hoep and secreat intilligence these were thayr entire flete that was nowe al sonken and putt to distruccioun by me, and trewely hit was a paltry werk and light, so few they were agaynst my foarce agaynst them, I dyd comme alande att the place hyghte Grunda by the northe perte of the frith wher the watere owt of Breakingdal falleth into the se" (Chapter 18).

Only one word here is entirely foreign to Modern English ("hyghte," which means "called"), but the irregular spelling and convoluted syntax will frustrate some readers.

Those who stick with the book will meet diverse delights. The pace of the narrative is alternately exciting and soothing. Several passages have intensely propulsive narrative power (the wrestling match in Chapter 2, the fight with the manticore in Chapter 12, the darkly erotic "embassage" in Chapter 16). I have a low tolerance for landscaping, but the terrain of this alien world is (mostly) imaginable. The names Eddison invents are rich: Tivarandardale, the Foliot Isles, and Impland the More are the names of a village, a province, and a nation. Major characters include the lords Juss and Brandoch Daha (emphasis on Bran and ha, says the preface), the dissolute and aging Duke Corsus, Corinius ("rhymes with Flaminius"), Queen Sophonisba, Mivarsh Faz, the Lady Sriva, the Lord Spitfire, King Gorice XII ("Gohr-ice"), and (best of all) Lord Goldry Bluzco. Each of these characters has a distinct and in some cases developing personality. The story is unexpectedly full of humor, in both domestic scenes and the thick of battle. The narrative is interspersed with poetry and song precisely in the manner of The Lord of the Rings (though to put it this way gets the cart before the horse, in terms of influence). Just as Tolkien imagined an ancient and extended version of "The cow jumped over the moon," Eddison's characters recite poems from actual history. Here's one by John Donne, sung by Lady Prezmyra:

He that cannot chuse but love,
And strives against it still,
Never shall my fancy move,
For he loves 'gaynst his will;

Nor he which is all his own,
And can att pleasure chuse;
When I am caught he can be gone,
And when he list refuse.

Nor he that loves none but faire,
For such by all are sought;
Nor he that can for foul ones care,
For his Judgment then is naught.

I don't know all of the poems Eddison uses; some may be of his own invention. But I recognized Shakespeare and The Duchess of Malfi, at least. As the Donne poem indicates, the story includes romantic love, both pure and corrupt. It also contains battles, some described by the narrator (the Burg of Eshgrar Ogo), some recapitulated in dialogue or letter (the battle of Krothering Side), some not described at all, but summarized (the Straits of Melikaphkhaz). Other elements of the story are white and black magic, courage and cowardice in war, spycraft, portents in dreams and stars, courtly love, courtly decadence, hunting parties, semi-divine virgins, and the invocation of classical deities. The novel's nearest moral relative is Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, but it sometimes seems like a much older story, with feats of strength of biblical or Beowulfian proportions, visits to the underworld, and the Chaucerian combination of saucy humor with virtue, piety, and friendship. Sometimes modernity peeks through, in our competing, contradictory attitudes toward outer space as a promise and a horror: "he now felt within him the like whereof he never before had known: a death-like horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart" (Chapter 28).

The piety is not specifically Christian, though it is in some respects compatible with Christianity. Natural virtue rather than supernatural virtue inspires the heroes, and Fortune rather than Providence superintends their affairs. But Christians have a license to enjoy nature, which was created by God and is fundamentally good, though corrupted. Furthermore, the novel questions the sufficiency of natural life, sometimes striking notes of nihilism worthy of Ecclesiastes. The very image of the self-consuming worm suggests inevitable defeat, and the theme is made explicit by the thoughtful Gro. Watching a brave military procession in Demonland, he remarks, "to the ear of one that useth, as I use, to consider the vanity of all high earthly pomps, the music of these powers and glories hath a deep under-drone of sadness. Kings and governors that do exult in strength and beauty and lustihood and rich apparel, showing themselves for awhile upon the stage of the world and open dominion of high heaven, what are they but the gilded summer fly that decayeth with the dying day? …Fate will not be cheated, cog we never so wisely." Noble sorrow competes with the novel's celebratory element: the sheer goodness of life and peace, great deeds in war, beauty, heroism, fidelity. I am not sure which theme dominates.

N.B. Do not read the original Preface by James Stephens in advance, if at all. It spoils and misleads, and is poorly written.

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler

I read this novel several years ago (Nov 2010) and was very disappointed. But I was in error. I just reread it. Helena is delightful.

The trick to enjoying Helena is to prepare for a very different kind of Waugh novel. In fact, a unique one. Most of Waugh's book fall into natural groups. Decline and Fall and Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags -- these all hang together. The travel books (at least the three that I've read) hang together. So do Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honor, and again The Loved One and Love Among the Ruins. But Helena stands alone in his oeuvre.

The first two-thirds, ending with the grisly murder of Fausta, are uniformly excellent. In the final third, the story scatters. We depart from Helena's perspective and ambit. Perhaps this is appropriate in that we have finally reached her mythic achievement, but after the beautifully rendered first eight chapters, it's a shock. I'm don't think it an excellent conclusion -- though these chapters contain a wonderful discourse on the Magi, and several moving religious passages.

Simon Prebble's narration (Audible) is very good, but I recommend reading along with him to catch certain nuances that he elides.

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler
sha.jpg

The Small House at Allington (1862-4) is the fifth Chronicle of Barsetshire. (Here is the Simon Vance narration). I'd like to comment on the hero and heroine.

Hero duty, as Trollope's narrator tells us early in the book, is divided among several figures. Who are our leading men? To proceed according to rank, first there is Squire Dale, lord of the estate at Allington. Second is his nephew and heir, Bernard Dale, a military man. Then there are the heroine's two suitors, who work in London and visit Allington as they can: Adolphus Crosbie the villain, whom Trollope nevertheless makes you pity, and Johnny Eames, whose love goes wholly unrequited. As any introduction to the novel will tell you, Johnny is something of a stand-in for the young Trollope. Here's Trollope on his hero(s):

I do not say that Mr. Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments. Whatever of the magnificent may be produced will be diluted and apportioned out in very moderate quantities among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen—to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action. (Chapter 2)

In the allusive title of Chapter 36, and explicitly in the final paragraphs of the penultimate chapter (59), Trollope reverses his judgment and names Eames the hero of the novel. Eames is certainly an interesting creation; I like him best wandering through the woods. Bernard disappears too soon to be of much consequence. Crosbie's unexpected moral depth can't redeem him. For my money the real protagonist is not Eames, and is in fact not even a young man. The squire (aged about 70) is the most interesting male character. He approaches tragedy in that his deep feelings for and good intentions toward his neighbors are constantly thwarted by his limited powers of expression (like the gawky Eames). Trollope eventually relieves the pressure as if by accident, when his sister-in-law Mrs Dale suddenly penetrates through his obscurities; somehow, in context, this does not seem unlikely.

Heroine duty is not split, though again there are four primary figures: a wealthy villainess the Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the widowed Mrs Dale, and her daughters "the two pearls of Allington." The three Dale ladies live together in the "Small House" of the title. The younger girl Lily is the object of Crosbie and Eames's affections; the elder Bell is pursued first by Bernard (who fails) and second by a minor character Dr Crofts (who succeeds). The central event in the plot is that, after Lily and Crosbie become engaged, he abandons her for Alexandrina. Villain and villainess marry, and are miserable.

Lily is the heroine. Alas, she is unpleasant. I didn't like her from the beginning; her wit sparkles but lacks the good cheer that animates the heroines of Doctor Thorne (good) and Framley Parsonage (excellent). Most of the blame must fall on Crosbie who behaves awfully. The betrayal practically ruins Lily for (we are told) she trusted him wholly, too much, more than was prudent. After the breakup, genuine good cheer would have been quite an achievement.

But even after the breakup, Lily takes a hand in her own ruin. I'm hardly the first reader to say this. Scan the first few goodreads reviews. According to the editor's Introduction in the Penguin* edition, the novel has been considered morbid since its initial publication. (In this way the book is significantly unlike the previous four volumes of the series.) The frustrated marriages probably have something to do with this response, but in Chapter 44 there is an additional, more disturbing reason. It is the morning of the villains' wedding, and Lily (with the banter typical of Trollope's heroines) refuses to let her mother and sister feel angry.

"Mamma," she said, "how cold they'll be!" Her mother had announced to her the fact of the black frost, and these were the first words she spoke.

"I fear their hearts will be cold also," said Mrs. Dale. She ought not to have said so. She was transgressing the acknowledged rule of the house in saying any word that could be construed as being inimical to Crosbie or his bride. But her feeling on the matter was too strong, and she could not restrain herself.

"Why should their hearts be cold? Oh, mamma, that is a terrible thing to say. Why should their hearts be cold?"

"I hope it may not be so."

"Of course you do; of course we all hope it. He was not cold-hearted, at any rate. A man is not cold-hearted, because he does not know himself. Mamma, I want you to wish for their happiness."

Mrs. Dale was silent for a minute or two before she answered this, but then she did answer it. "I think I do," said she. "I think I do wish for it."

"I am very sure that I do," said Lily.

A few lines later, with her sister,

Bell for a moment turned her face away, and beat with her foot against the ground. Her anger was more difficult of restraint than was even her mother's,—and now, not restraining it, but wishing to hide it, she gave it vent in this way.

"I understand, Bell. I know what your foot means when it goes in that way; and you shan't do it. Come here, Bell, and let me teach you Christianity. I'm a fine sort of teacher, am I not? And I did not quite mean that."

"I wish I could learn it from some one," said Bell. "There are circumstances in which what we call Christianity seems to me to be hardly possible."

"When your foot goes in that way it is a very unchristian foot, and you ought to keep it still."

This is charming in its way, but I am afraid it is not sanctity. The response to Bell is at first too clever, and then suddenly too silly ("a very unchristian foot"). There is some truth and goodness in Lily's response, but mingled with serious self-deception. If we are to find Lily credible as a character, she must be either saintly or slightly mad, and whatever her virtues the former seems unlikely. (See the narrator's comments in Chapter 38.) This judgment is confirmed when we read the account of Lily's insistent, self-mutilating, imaginative play: wondering whether the bride has now arrived at the church, whether the ceremony is now completed, etc. If she could only allow herself to express (or feel) some entirely justified anger, she would not be so unpleasantly strange. Decked out with persiflage, her behavior cannot be called charity, but no one is permitted the relief of pity.

Toward the end, Lily refuses Eames's renewed proposal of marriage. This is entirely consonant with her character, and an admirable artistic decision in Trollope. She will remain (like her mother) a "perpetual widow" because she still loves Crosbie (Chapter 54). This seems most unlikely; no one in the novel seems to find her love credible. None of us understand her. And then, worst of all, she takes refuge in an old lie: "I am not blaming him, remember. These things are different with a man." It is outrageous to hear a cad rationalize his behavior with such an argument, but to hear it from the victim -- and such an intelligent victim -- is very painful. Still she fails to excite sympathy.

It is with relief that one reads Trollope's mature judgment:

Prig as she was, she made her way into the hearts of many readers, both young and old; so that, from that time to this, I have been continually honoured with letters, the purport of which has always been to beg me to marry Lily Dale to Johnny Eames. Had I done so, however, Lily would never have so endeared herself to these people as to induce them to write letters to the author concerning her fate. It was because she could not get over her troubles that they loved her. (Autobiography, Chapter 10)

In the end, as with the men, it is to the old one we should look for the most remarkable creation. Mrs Dale is a wonderful female character, from her introduction in Chapters 2 (offstage) and 3 (onstage). The drama of her shifting relations with her brother-in-law is subtle, poignant, and credible.

* The current Penguin edition is terrible on the Kindle. If you read e-books, get a free copy made by amateurs instead.

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler
fp.jpg

Framley Parsonage (1860-61) is Trollope's fourth Barsetshire novel, and it is excellent. Here's the Simon Vance-narrated version.

Henry James made much of Trollope's nubile young ladies. This time the heroine is the winsome Lucy Robarts, the sister of the parson. Don't trust the current (11 Mar 2014) Wikipedia summary of Lucy and Lord Lufton's relationship: "The couple are deeply in love and the young man proposes " Phah. It's more complicated than that. Listen to this passage, in which Lucy mocks herself for being attracted to a lord:

"I'll go into a home, I think," continued Lucy. "You know what those homes are?" Mrs. Robarts assured her that she knew very well, and then Lucy went on: "A year ago I should have said that I was the last girl in England to think of such a life, but I do believe now that it would be the best thing for me. And then I'll starve myself, and flog myself, and in that way I'll get back my own mind and my own soul."

"Your own soul, Lucy!" said Mrs. Robarts, in a tone of horror.

"Well, my own heart, if you like it better; but I hate to hear myself talking about hearts. I don't care for my heart. I'd let it go—with this young popinjay lord or anyone else, so that I could read, and talk, and walk, and sleep, and eat, without always feeling that I was wrong here—here—here," and she pressed her hand vehemently against her side. "What is it that I feel, Fanny? Why am I so weak in body that I cannot take exercise? Why cannot I keep my mind on a book for one moment? Why can I not write two sentences together? Why should every mouthful that I eat stick in my throat? Oh, Fanny, is it his legs, think you, or is it his title? (Chapter 26)

As fine a creation as Lucy is, even better is the no-longer-young but still eminently eligible Miss Dunstable. (She's an heiress.) We first met her in Doctor Thorne, where she was a marriage prospect for the young Frank Gresham, whom she utterly outshone in character and wit. In Framley Parsonage, Miss Dunstable is once again the object of proposals, but interestingly, the most significant of these is conducted by proxy, through the suitor's sister. And it is one of two, or more precisely two and a half, by-proxy proposals in the book. But just listen to Miss Dunstable as she welcomes guests to an evening party at her London home:

Dr. Thorne merely gave her his hand, and then prepared to pass on.

"Don't go, doctor," she said; "for heaven's sake, don't go yet. I don't know when I may catch you if you get in there. I shan't be able to follow you for the next two hours. Lady Meredith, I am so much obliged to you for coming—your mother will be here, I hope. Oh, I am so glad! From her you know that is quite a favour. You, Sir George, are half a sinner yourself, so I don't think so much about it."

"Oh, quite so," said Sir George; "perhaps rather the largest half."

"The men divide the world into gods and giants," said Miss Dunstable. "We women have our divisions also. We are saints or sinners according to our party. The worst of it is, that we rat almost as often as you do." Whereupon Sir George laughed and passed on.

(The "gods" are Liberal politicians and the "giants" are Tories. Political power shifts several times in the novel, so the allusion is apt. Here's the next passage.)

"I know, doctor, you don't like this kind of thing," she continued, "but there is no reason why you should indulge yourself altogether in your own way, more than another—is there, Frank?"

"I am not so sure but he does like it," said Mr. Gresham. "There are some of your reputed friends whom he owns that he is anxious to see."

"Are there? Then there is some hope of his ratting too. But he'll never make a good staunch sinner; will he, Mary? You're too old to learn new tricks; eh, doctor?"

"I am afraid I am," said the doctor, with a faint laugh.

"Does Dr. Thorne rank himself among the army of saints?" asked Mrs. Harold Smith.

"Decidedly," said Miss Dunstable. "But you must always remember that there are saints of different orders; are there not, Mary? and nobody supposes that the Franciscans and the Dominicans agree very well together. Dr. Thorne does not belong to the school of St. Proudie, of Barchester; he would prefer the priestess whom I see coming round the corner of the staircase, with a very famous young novice at her elbow." (Chapter 29) **

Trollope shines in his parties: in Framley Parsonage, see also Chapter 17; in The Warden, Chapter 6; in Barchester Towers, Chapters 35 through 42; in Doctor Thorne, Chapters 5 and 6. He moves from one character to another to create a real sense of multiple, lively conversations (and eating, singing, dancing, sport, etc.).

Archdeacon Grantly and his wife are minor characters in this novel, as are the Proudies. (See an immortal clash between the two mothers in Chapter 45.) Mr Harding and his daughter show up for paragraph or so.

I have spoken before of Trollope's complacency. The same judgment applies to this novel, and the first passage quoted above contains a line of dialogue that sums it up well: "Things always do come right when no one has acted wrongly." In fairness we should add Lucy's reply: "Yes, when nobody has done wrongly. That's what papa used to call begging the question." But this is only to qualify and not to overturn a rather rosy view of the world.

 

** Two of my quotations refer to Catholic or Anglo-Catholic ecclesial institutions. This is pure accident, and is not representative of the novel as a whole.

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler

The glossary now has ten entries. I've decided to organize them logically rather than alphabetically, and to assign them to categories: Fundamentals, Mind virtue & aesthetics, and The Novel and criticism. Feedback is welcome!

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler

One opinion makes not Catholique doctrine, one man makes not a Church; for this knowledge of God, the Church is our Academy, there we must be bred; and there we may be bred all our lives, and yet learne nothing. Therefore, as we must be there, so there we must use the meanes; And the meanes in the Church, are the Ordinances, and Institutions of the Church.

The most powerful meanes is the Scripture; But the Scripture in the Church. Not that we are discouraged from reading the Scripture at home: God forbid we should think any Christian family to be out of the Church. At home, the holy Ghost is with thee in the reading of the Scriptures. But there he is with thee as a Remembrancer, (The Holy Ghost shall bring to your remembrance whatsoever I have said unto you, saies our Saviour) Here, in the Church, he is with thee, as a Doctor to teach thee; First learne at church and then meditate at home, Receive the seed by hearing the Scriptures interpreted here, and water it by returning to those places at home. When Christ bids you Search the scriptures, he meanes you should go to them, who have a warrant to search; A warrant in their Calling. To know which are Scriptures, To know what the holy Ghost saies in the Scriptures, apply thy selfe to the Church. Not that the Church is a Judge above the Scriptures, (for the power, and the Commission which the Church hath, it hath from the Scriptures) but the Church is a Judge above thee, which are the Scriptures, and what is the sense of the Holy Ghost in them.

John Donne's sermon for Easter Sunday, 1628

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler

Choice quotations on Dostoevsky and Gide, from Maritain's Art and Poetry:

Dostoievsky* never sent his younger brother to seek freedom in sin more daringly than he had done himself. He loved this brother too much, he had made his own voyage with too much sagacity, he knew too well what sin is.

Later,

“Dostoievsky is not properly speaking a thinker, he is a novelist.” Andre Gide explains to us very well that clumsy as he is in expressing his thoughts on his own account and on the abstract plane, Dostoievsky mingles them with the flesh and blood of his characters and makes them live in them; they are not the ideas of a philosopher , contemplative ideas, they are the ideas of an artist, factive ideas. Nothing could be more exact—provided it is added that this novelist is a theologian-novelist, a prophet-novelist. But then, let us beware, in trying to disentangle his thoughts, of misjudging the admirable complexity of the creative synthesis, of attributing to the artist in too brutal a manner, as issuing directly from him, what is not his except through and in the matter that he animates, what does not manifest his thought save by the rays a thousand times refracted, and by the total distribution of the light, and by the portions of shadow as much as by the light.

And finally,

Every novel is a mirror borne along before the futuribilia** and before the laws of divine government, and the novelist who does not believe in moral values destroys in himself the very matter of his art. In behalf of that one of his characters who most resembles his own confession, Stravoguin of The Demons, Dostoievsky contrives no alibi, he leads him to his miserable suicide with a severity, a clairvoyance, a logic without pity. He loves him however, for it is himself, or at least the dark face of himself. But it is exactly here that best appears, in my sense, the transcendence of his genius as a novelist. His work is similar to the living universe, there is in it a sort of metaphysical pathos because the beings who move about in it are, to a certain degree, in the same relation to the thought that creates them, as men are to God. He loves his characters, more tenderly perhaps than does any other artist, he puts himself into them more than does any other; at the same time, he scrutinizes them and judges them inflexibly.

* In context Maritain clearly means In contrast to Gide...

** Maritain explains: "The theologians call futuribilia the events which would have come to pass according to divine foreknowledge, if something which did not take place had taken place at a given moment."

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler
Audible's   Doctor Thorne   (narr. Vance)

Audible's Doctor Thorne (narr. Vance)

Doctor Thorne (1858) is a good novel, but it is not a great novel, and after the excellencies (dramatic, pathetic, comic) of the compact The Warden, and the wonderful (sometimes slapstick!) humor of the much longer sequel, it disappoints.

Why? What is the problem with Doctor Thorne? Almost all of the characters are new, and the one cleric is in the background, but otherwise the subject is the same. The narrator still shoulders the burden of chronicling the lives of a handful of middle-to-upper class residents of Barsetshire, his imaginary English county. As before, the scope widens and contracts as the narrator moves from the stories of individuals (romance, jealousy, ambition, charity) to social commentary and the criticism of institutions (political machinations in Parliament, the temporal ambitions of the clergy, the difficulty of listening to a dull sermon, the influence of the London press).

The narrator's tone is no different than before: he remains gentle. He need not be otherwise. His heroes and heroines marry one another and inherit fortunes. His poor are contented. His good old people die in peace, and his bad old people die offstage. His villains can be cruel, but they are never violent, and even the cruelty is likely to be tempered by narratorial intervention:

Before we go on we must say one word further as to Lady Arabella's character. It will probably be said that she was a consummate hypocrite; but at the present moment she was not hypocritical...

God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, but this complacency (gratitude?) is to be expected in Trollope. The characters and plot are, on the whole, engaging. The parallels between the villains (Lady Arabella and Sir Louis Scatcherd) are revealed gradually and with some subtlety. The ventriloquism, from kitchen maid to nouveau riche heiress to blue blood countess, is accomplished and varied. There are some great jokes. What is the problem, then?

I suspect it lies in narrative economy. "Large, loose, baggy monster" seems a good description of Doctor Thorne, even though it is several hundred pages shorter than Barchester Towers. Much of the plot is advanced through conversations (in drawing rooms, over tea), and some, too many, of these conversations are redundant. It is quite plausible that a husband and wife who are customarily at variance with one another would repeat the same arguments, or sting one another with the same words -- but it is not very interesting.

There are also some striking parallels between Doctor Thorne and George Eliot's wonderfully brief Silas Marner (1861). Trollope can't be blamed for the high quality of his competition, but anyone who has read these two novels will prefer the economical Eliot.

Finally there is the heroine. Trollope tells us to expect great things from Mary Thorne's wit, but he is welcome to her. I'll take Patience Oriel, who drops out after the first few chapters, or Miss Dunstable, whose appearance in the middle is far too brief. Mary's lover, Frank Gresham, is a wonderful creation, and I entirely believed in his development over the two year period. The title character acquits himself with aplomb in a characteristically Victorian moral quandary involving a fortune, a will, and a bastard heir.

High points: Frank's birthday speech (Chapter 5), every line from Miss Dunstable, the genially corrupt election (Chapter 17), and the chastely tragic epistolary sequence (Chapter 38).

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler