Thursday, July 16, 2009

Trollope's characters

One of the great pleasures of reading Anthony Trollope, whose Palliser novels I've returned to this past week, is his abiding trust in the techniques of realist fiction. If Trollope ever felt or worried about the limitations of his medium--or thought of possibilities beyond it--you'd never detect it from his novels, which are rich in the sort of straightforward descriptions of people and places that we think of as the backbone of Victorian fiction.

From The Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of the six Palliser novels, two early characters sketches stood out as worthy examples of Trollope's skill with authorial description. First, from his introduction of Ferdinand Lopez, an untrustworthy adventurer who, through determination and skillful manipulation makes his way into the upper reaches of English political society, there's this paragraph:
For he was essentially one of those men who are always, in the inner workings of their minds, defending themselves and attacking others. He could not give a penny to a woman at a crossing without a look which argued at full length her injustice in making her demand, and his freedom from all liability let him walk the crossing as often as he might. He could not seat himself in a railway carriage without a lesson to his opposite neighbour that in all the mutual affairs of travelling, arrangement of feet, disposition of bags, and opening of windows, it would be that neighbour's duty to submit and his to exact. It was, however, for the spirit rather than for the thing itself that he combated. The woman with the broom got her penny. The opposite gentleman when once by a glance he had expressed submission was allowed his own way with his legs and with the window. I would not say that Ferdinand Lopez was prone to do ill-natured things, but he was imperious, and he had learned to carry his empire in his eye.
With those two examples, Trollope conjures up the character of a self-righteous, domineering man; from there on, all the actions and descriptions of Lopez are essentially embellishments.

Then there's Trollope's description of Lady Glencora Palliser, the Duchess of Omnium, whom we've come to know through the earlier novels in the sequence:
She already possessed all that rank and wealth could give her, and together with those good things a peculiar position of her own, of which she was proud, and which she had made her own not by her wealth or rank, but by a certain fearless energy and power of raillery which never deserted her. Many feared her, and she was afraid of none, and many also loved her,--whom she also loved, for her nature was affectionate. She was happy with her children, happy with her friends, in the enjoyment of perfect health, and capable of taking an exaggerated interest in anything that might come uppermost for the moment. . . . She had a celebrity of her own, quite independent of his position, and which could not be enhanced by any glory or any power added to him. Nevertheless, when he left her to go down to the Queen with the prospect of being called upon to act as chief of the incoming ministry, her heart throbbed with excitement.
The Duchess--formidably strong-willed, enthusiastic, personable, and intelligent--is one of the strongest, most memorable female characters I know in Victorian fiction, a reminder that, while Trollope unquestionably lacks the formal invention or linguistic verve of his contemporary Dickens, he does offer some pleasures that Dickens, whose female characters almost all remain ciphers, cannot.

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