I’ve been reading Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset recently, and enjoying the experience. [Spoiler warning: don’t read this if you don’t want to have plot details revealed…] I’d always tended to avoid it, remembering it from adaptations as the one with that tedious perpetual curate who bangs on about how everyone’s persecuting him. And certainly Mr Crawley has his share of laboured scenes, though he’s a much more interesting character than I had gleaned. Trollope sketches the interplay between his brilliant youth as a scholar, his resentment at feeling he never received his due, his increasing struggles with his mental health, and his obsessive pride in his humility, and shows how they all reinforce each other. Just as Mr. Harding may not be entirely innocent of what he is charged with in The Warden – he can be both a guileless and worthy old man, and have been receiving a vastly inflated salary for very little work for decades – Mr. Crawley’s actual guilt in stealing the cheque is increasingly not the point of his plot.
That parallel made me wonder how far Trollope’s echoes and connections across the novels are deliberate. I tend to roll my eyes a little when reading A Dance to the Music of Time, and Anthony Powell’s narrator recounts an event which is clearly modelled on an earlier episode – Barbara accidentally pouring the sugar over Widmerpool’s head recalling when the head of the XI accidentally threw a banana in his face – and then says that this reminded him of the earlier scene because they’re quite similar. I tend to instinctively feel that Powell should leave it up to the reader to make that connection – though I think I’m wrong to feel that, as it misunderstands Powell’s technique and the system on which the Dance to the Music of Time operates.
But in the case of Trollope I’ve recently started to wish he was a little more clear in signalling parallels. Mr. Harding and Mr. Crawley, for example, appear in the first and the last novels of the series. Then one of the early chapters of The Warden shows Archdeacon Grantly in spiritual angst because he finds himself praying for his father’s death, whilst one of the late chapters of The Last Chronicle shows the bishop in similar turmoil because he finds himself thanking God for his wife’s death. In The Last Chronicle Mark Robarts signs a guarantee jeopardising a large sum of money when he stands bail for Mr. Crawley, when much of his plotline in Dr. Thorne involved Robarts bitterly regretting signing a guarantee for a bill for a friend, which also risked him losing his money.
These could be deliberate echoes that Trollope set up within his sequence. He shaped the narratives and the plotlines of all these novels, and so it would make sense that he might choose to parallel certain events and arcs, especially when he was dealing with long periods of time. Especially for a novelist who explores the intentions and ethics of characters who all claim to be acting for the highest of motives, it would be understandable to echo situations, to probe and question the readers’ sympathies. If this is wrong when X does it, is it still wrong when Y does it? Surely it is understandable to do A here, but not to be able to do A in this other situation? After all, a novelist who wrote Clergymen of the Church of England, arguing for reform, whilst inventing a Barchester in which the most sympathetic characters are those who are threatened by reform, is a novelist interested in these kinds of tensions.
On the other hand, it might be that when Trollope was writing great big novels at remarkable speed, dramatizing small events in engrossing vignettes, handling several plotlines at once and bringing them together so they twisted at almost the same moment, then he naturally reused events and situations. He was a remarkably prolific writer who often wrote for serial publication, and it might be that he didn’t so much echo and parallel as write very similar bits in different novels. They appealed to his imagination, or got to the crux of what he thought was important about life. They put powerful imperatives in tension, or showed the essential virtues in strong relief. It could well be that Trollope’s parallels were largely unintentional. Though that, of course, doesn’t mean that we cannot – or should not – find a rich source of meaning in them as readers.
Another thing struck me whilst reading The Last Chronicle: a fascinating short sequence in which the fashionable Madalina Desmolines meets Johnny Eames at a dinner party at the Dobbs-Broughton house. The host is a financier in a small way, and the guests appear to be people whom the Dobbs-Broughtons hope will benefit them, whether in business, society or the arts. During their conversation at dinner, Madalina says to Johnny:
‘I knew her — not well indeed; but I am intimate with her sister, Lady Amelia Gazebee, and I have met her there. None of that family have married what you may call well. And now, Mr Eames, pray look at the menu and tell me what I am to eat. Arrange for me a little dinner of my own, out of the great bill of fare provided. I always expect some gentleman to do that for me. Mr Crosbie, you know, only lived with his wife for one month.’
Like the echoes and parallels, I was prompted to read this casual instruction for all it was worth – though at the close range of individual speech rather than the long range of arcs across several novels. If I’m understanding it correctly, these are some of the implications. Firstly, she’s making the point that this is a dinner “a la Russe”, in the Russian style, with dishes brought to the table in sequence rather than “a la Francaise” when they’re all placed on it together. A la Russe is more fashionable – a character elsewhere in the novel says that anyone coming to a family dinner at his house won’t find an a la Russe dinner – but it means a little more forward planning in deciding which dishes to make the most of during the time they’re on the table.
Madalina is signalling that she is very used to the level of society where a la Russe is the normal way of eating, (“I always expect some gentleman to do that for me”), but I think she’s also being slightly snarky about their extravagant host and hostess. “The great bill of fare provided” compares the menu at a private dinner party, provided for the guests’ convenience, to the menu at an eating house from which people choose what they will buy. I may be wrong, but I think “great bill of fare” sounds as if Madalina is suggesting there is something vulgar about this dinner, and that even chic dining a la Russe can be a bit too similar to ordering a chop and fried potatoes at a city “ordinary” when it’s done by people without style.
There is certainly a dollop of flirting going on here as well. In feigning horror at the great bill of fare, Madalina is marking her gender as well as her class, and calling attention to the delicacy of her appetites. “I always expect some gentleman to do that for me” calls attention to the favour she is asking of Johnny as specifically gendered, whilst coolly informing him that other gentlemen have done this service before. She invites him to show off his masculine judgement and authority whilst emphasizing her own feminine qualities. The “little dinner of my own” comes close to suggesting they have a romantic meal together (which he will in some sense “provide” for her) in he midst of the company.
In one sense that’s a rather depressing – though no doubt accurate – aspect of their conversation. It reminds me of Agatha Christie’s comment in her autobiography about how her grandmother and her friends (in their youth) used to order trays of food to arrive at their bedrooms when they returned from a party. The gendered games and expectation which are placed around women with regard to food and its consumption are still very much with us. We can enjoy the neat social strategy Madalina develops without either approving of her or the social world surrounding her. That strategy takes another turn when Eames makes the selection of dishes for her:
Johnny Eames, finding it impossible to talk to Miss Demolines about Lily Dale, took up the card of the dinner and went to work in earnest, recommending his neighbour what to eat and what to pass by. ‘But you have skipped the paté?’ said she, with energy.
‘Allow me to ask you to choose mine for me instead. You are much more fit to do it.’ And she did choose his dinner for him.
Trollope’s humour doubles itself here, as Miss Demolines draws a firm line. Flirting is a fine thing, and emphasizing one’s delicacy of breeding and appetite is all very well, but Madalina is not giving up the paté because some fool of a man doesn’t know how to eat a good dinner. It’s these kinds of scenes, and the richness of implication which calls for careful exploration, which makes reading Trollope such a pleasure.