Thursday, June 28, 2007

Trollope, the Victorians, and us, part one

Though I love Victorian novels, sometimes while reading one I find that I'm unconsciously discounting it a bit for being Victorian, and thus hemmed in by the web of restrictions and proprieties that mark the period. In a sense, I'm just setting the novel in its context--but making allowances for the period, which should enrich my reading, instead detracts from it. I suddenly realize that that I've fallen into an odd condescension, feeling an unearned superiority to the book and its writer.

I don't think I'm the only person who does this. We, after all, are modern; the Victorians were decidedly not. We are free to read and write--and think?--in a way that they were not. Openness is all, few subjects are taboo, and we therefore assume ourselves to have a more clear and direct access to the depths of human emotions, motivations, and hidden desires than Victorians could have. So we can imagine ourselves on high ground when we read them, easily understanding their meaning when they hint at events of which they aren't allowed to speak clearly--but also, we think, seeing through them, as if our x-ray goggles of modernity let us see what the authors are denying even to themselves, the deeper (often sexual) roots of their characters' behavior. In a sense, we subconsciously lower the bar of perspicacity, assuming that, trapped in their society, the Victorians couldn't possibly have understood their characters as well as we do--and thus when they try, when they do allow their characters to express deep emotion, we expect it to be sentimentally drawn, or overblown, or melodramatic.

It's a ridiculous thought, of course, one that doesn't stand up to any real scrutiny or close reading--for example, it's hard to think of anyone who understands human character better than (aside, that is, from Tolstoy, who was also of their time). But all the same, every once in a while I find my thoughts slipping in that direction--until a passage like the one below, from Anthony Trollope's Phineas Finn (1869), stops me short. In this scene, Lady Laura is talking with Phineas Finn, whom she once loved but who, because of his relative poverty and lack of position, she bypassed for a sensible marriage to a prominent and wealthy man.
"The truth is," she said, "that I have made a mistake.

"A mistake?"

"Yes, Phineas, a mistake. I have blundered as fools blunder, thinking that I was clever enough to pick my footsteps aright without asking counsel from any one. I have blundered and stumbled and fallen, and now I am so bruised that I am not able to stand upon my feet." The word that struck him most in all of this was his own Christian name. She had never called him Phineas before. He was aware that the circle of his acquaintance had fallen into a way of miscalling him by his Christian name, as one observes to be done now and again in reference to some special young man. Most of the men whom he called his friends called him Phineas. . . . But still he was quite sure that Lady Laura had never so called him before. Nor would she have done so now in her husband's presence. He was sure of that also.

"You mean that you are unhappy?" he said, still looking away from her towards the lake.

"Yes, I do mean that. Though I do not know why I should come and tell you so,--except that I am still blundering and stumbling, and have fallen into a way of hurting myself at every step."
Lady Laura's anguish is real, and her words, fettered as they remain by custom and bred-in-the-bone reticence, are fully, deeply expressive. It is the language of a person truly pushed to the edge, and it is hard to imagine how a more self-consciously sophisticated, modern approach could render it more powerful. And this is Trollope, generally considered to be one of the least of the Victorian giants--and one of the most conventional. It's all I need to remind myself not to condescend, however slightly, to the Victorians.

Not everything in Phineas Finn is that impressive--Lady Laura's wild and troubled cousin, for example, rarely becomes much more than a mix of Steerforth, Heathcliff, and Lord Byron, and Trollope has a habit of improbably resolving plot complications when they're no longer of use to him--but overall it's a remarkably engaging and powerful book.

Phineas Finn follows Can You Forgive Her? (1864) as the second of Trollope's series of Palliser novels, and, like its predecesor, it features a complex and distinctly drawn portrayal of marriage, with a wife who, while understanding the severe limits placed on her, is determined to fully employ every available lever of power to achieve some level of independence. In Can You Forgive Her? Lady Glencora Palliser, after eschewing illusions of romantic abandon, discovers that what she took to be the hardness of her husband Plantagenet Palliser was instead an inability to express his deep, moving love for her. But in Phineas Finn, Trollope presents Lady Laura's husband, Lord Kennedy, as so stringent, determined, and self-centered that he leaves no space for the real, independent existence of anyone else. Here, for example, is his response to the realization that he had been in the wrong in one of his many arguments with Lady Laura:
He was a just man, and he would apologize for his fault; but he was an austere man, and would take back the value of his apology in additional austerity.
There is no hope, Lady Laura quickly realizes, from a marriage that pits her liveliness and open heart against his desire for complete control. Unlike the Palliser marriage, which Trollope would go on to describe as it deepened and grew over the years, this one from the start seems more likely to wither than to grow, and when Lady Laura considers leaving her husband, her thought process is as heart-wrenching as her initial appeal to Phineas:
Nor, if I am driven to leave him, can I make the world understand why I do so. To be simply miserable, as I am, is nothing to the world.
More tomorrow, including some words about Phineas Finn himself, whom Trollope refers to throughout as "our hero."

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