Trollope’s Theory of Fiction

Trollope’s Theory of Fiction October 11, 2013

Your average genre novel is like a high speed car chase ending in a massive crash, with death, destruction, and balls of flame, from which the main characters (usually) emerge mostly unscathed. Everything builds up to the crash, and it’s the anticipation that keeps us turning pages. Anthony Trollope, by contrast, is like a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive through the countryside in an open carriage behind a pair of matched horses. There’s conflict, sure; a herd of sheep blocks the road, two countrymen come to blows outside the pub, the cows in this field are looking daggers at the cows in that field. But the point of the drive is the drive itself, not the destination, because of course you’re just going to end up at home anyway.

This was brought home to me by the following passage in Barchester Towers. Eleanor Bold, daughter of Mr. Harding of The Warden, is a pretty young widow with a generous income of 1,200 pounds a year. She is about to be pursued by two young men, an odious clergyman named Obadiah Slope (played by Alan Rickman in one of his first roles) and a heartless if charming drone named Bertie Stanhope. (I don’t know that Bertie Wooster was named after Bertie Stanhope; but I expect young Stanhope is what many of Wooster’s impecunious acquaintances would be like in real life, and it’s not a pretty sight.) Neither of them are worthy of her, neither of them do we like, and I was just starting to be overcome with dismay that she might accept one of them when Trollope said this:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.

Oh. That’s a comfort. But Trollope goes on to explain his theory of how fiction should work. It isn’t his job to confuse us, or surprise us; no, the landscape is there before us, clearly visible from our open carriage, and we should be able to see it clearly. He goes on at some length; do read the whole thing:

And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.” Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

And this is true of the other works of Trollope’s that I’ve read. Consider Phineas Finn, in which young Phineas resolves to go into politics, and is warned, “Don’t do it. You don’t have the money you need to succeed in politics.” And young Phineas gives it a manful try, and sure enough—he didn’t have the money he needed to succeed in politics. It’s no surprise; it’s just what would happen; the point is to enjoy the trip.

And then, Trollope gets back to the story, and I love the way he does it:

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.

I have to be in the right mood for Trollope, but the man’s a master.

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