Sunday, September 23, 2007

"They were long, large eyes--but very dangerous."

After a few months of actively staying away, I've succumbed once again to the seductions of Anthony Trollope, continuing with the next novel in the Palliser sequence, The Eustace Diamonds (1873). I'm not that far into it--in fact, after thirty-six pages, I'm only just now getting past Trollope's introduction of the dramatis personae. At the end of the fourth chapter, which was the end of the first serial installment of the book (in the July 1871 issue of the Fortnightly Review), Trollope himself laments the dilated nature of his introductions:
Dramatists, when they write their plays, have a delightful privilege of prefixing a list of their personages;--and the dramatists of old used to tell us who was in love with whom, and what were the blood relationships of all the persons. In such a narrative as this, any proceeding of that kind would be unusual--and therefore the poor narrator has been driven to expend his four first chapters in the mere task of introducing his characters. He regrets the length of these introductions, and will now begin at once the action of his story.

I could imagine coming to the end of that first installment in the Fortnightly Review and being frustrated that you got so little action and drama for your shilling. We, however, have the advantage of holding the whole book in front of us, so we can instead revel in Trollope's extended descriptions, which are enjoyable for their careful, balanced prose and their unapologetic declarativeness. Trollope is not one for vagueness or beating around the bush--he leaves little to inference. Instead, he tells you, straight-out, what his characters are like; that established, the interest comes in figuring out how these fully imagined--and fully laid out--characters will affect each other, how they will deal with new or unexpected situations.

It's the antithesis of the show-don't-tell ethos of contemporary writing instruction, and it's easy to imagine it being a turgid mess in the hands of a lesser writer. But Trollope's prose is unfailingly engaging, even charming, and when used to convey his nuanced understanding of how society constrains, alters, and forms character, it makes for compelling reading. Here, for example, is how he opens the novel:
It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies--who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two--that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.
Lizzie is certainly not lovable, being frequently compared, even by Trollope himself, to the ruthless gold-digger Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Trollope's early description of her delivers some wonderfully Victorian physiognomical analysis of her deeply flawed character:
Her chin was perfect in its round, not over long--as is the case with so many such faces in which such length utterly spoils the symmetry of the countenance. But it lacked a dimple, and therefore lacked feminine tenderness.
Who knew a dimple was the minimum requirement for feminine tenderness? Writers of personal ads may have to come up with a new acronym. But the absence of a dimple isn't the only clue to Lizzie's character:
How few there are among women, few perhaps also among men, who know that the sweetest, softest, tenderest, truest eyes which a woman can carry in her head are green in colour! Lizzie's eyes were not tender--neither were they true.

Though this photo doesn't give any clue, I do hope that Mrs. Trollope had green eyes--or, failing that, that she was better at sussing out the differences between Trollope's narrative voice and his actual self than I am.

{Digression: now that I've dug up that photo of Rose Trollope, I can't resist sharing a photo of Anthony as well, in case you've never seen him in his full, bearded glory.

End digression.}

Lizzie of course isn't the only character on whom Trollope lavishes his descriptive powers. His presentation of her aunt, Lady Linlithgow, serves as a nice reminder of one of the pleasant differences between history and literature. If history at its best often brings us up short by reminding us of just how different the world and its people were in the past, one of literature's most striking powers is to do the opposite, revealing unexpected continuities and personality types and traits that have remained surprisingly resilient, even common, over time. The category of person to which Trollope assigns Lady Linlithgow will, I think, be familiar to everyone:
Lady Linlithgow, too, though very strong, was old. She was slow, or perhaps it might more properly be said, she was stately in her movements. She was one of those old women who are undoubtedly old women--who in the remembrance of younger people seem always to have been old women--but on whom old age appears to have no debilitating effects. If the hand of Lady Linlithgow ever trembled, it trembled from anger; if her foot ever faltered, it faltered for effect.
Trollope, however, always has more words at his disposal, and he likes to use those words to complicate the character he is presenting:
In her way Lady Linlithgow was a very powerful human being. She knew nothing of fear, nothing of charity, nothing of mercy, and nothing of the softness of love. She had no imagination. She was worldly, covetous, and not unfrequently cruel. But she meant to be true and honest, though she often failed in her meaning;--and she had an idea of her duty in life. She was not self-indulgent. She was as hard as an oak post--but then she was also as trustworthy. No human being liked her;--but she had the good word of a great many human beings.
That's a fairly typical description for Trollope. He is forever turning his characters around and around to point out facets that we might not otherwise have seen. For me, that alone goes a long way toward justifying his tell-don't-show approach, however much he may pretend to regret it.

But enough writing--there's nearly 700 more pages to read and a lovely Sunday stretching before me!

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