The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reflections on Trollope Country

Ellen Moody has published a thought-provoking essay online regarding Phineas at Bay. As the author of the book under consideration--not review, because what Ellen Moody has done is as much a meditation on the possibilities of post-texts yet unwritten as it is an assessment of of Phineas at Bay--I have some thoughts, as is natural. But I offer them with a caveat: I am not attempting to dispute her reactions to my novel. The reader is, to my mind, absolutely privileged in her reaction to the book. As the author, the legitimate scope of my reaction is limited to (1) sharing thoughts sparked by that reaction--insights I have gained; or (2) explaining what I have attempted to convey, sources, influences, etc.

In fact, to the extent I will discuss Ellen Moody's reaction to the book qua novel, I'll say this: It's nothing short of delightful to see something I have worked on and lived with so long treated with the high seriousness that I have seen Ellen bring to works by established authors and to undisputed literature. Praise is always welcome, but sugary bon-bons are not. Ellen's essay does Phineas at Bay the high courtesy of treating it seriously.

Still, it is an undiluted pleasure for this first-time novelist to see his work described thus:
The providential pattern of the book could be put down to its being (in effect) a historical novel whose main (but only main) franchise is Trollope except that another skein of allusion shows the deep structure is a creation of its contemporary author. Wirenius said that when he began the book he had the uplifting (if ironically so) final lines of the book in mind. He wanted to get there. Religious music (sung exquisitely by Marie), allusions to church fathers, liturgy, the use of Christmas make it not a book more Victorian than our sceptical and secular (and darker) Trollope, but one intended to speak today in the way praised by John Gardner (once a best-selling novelist who wrote a post-text himself, to Beowulf, Grendel) in his On Moral Fiction. Its politics are benevolent, left-liberal, and some of the best long-running stories of the book are effective dramatic analyses of politicking within parties, between rivals and enemies and friends, scenes in courts (at least two trials) and parliament, at elections, pressure dealing, very Trollopian some of these (including a politicized sermon). Hunting scenes, dinners, parties, weddings figure too. Good people finally mostly win out and we are invited to celebrate the figures within a pleasing faery aesthetic pattern (or carpet as Henry James would put it).


Phineas at Bay is a strongly realized, highly intelligent book with many believable characters, some bite and beauty in its use of allusions and reality-feel in its depictions of places (including mines).
This is heady stuff for one just out the gate.

Of course, in stringing together these bits of the essay, I am eliding the themes of the essay which Ellen drew out, and these are--to anyone but my authorial vanity--far more interesting than the purely evaluative parts. I'd like to look at one or two, and share what I learned from the essay and from the group reading Ellen Moody led, and which informs her essay.

1. Influences and Masculinist Texts

In her essay, Moody writes of my section of Trollope Country:
It’s more than a specific region of Trollope country (upper class, lots of lawyers). It represents a readership or perspective on that specific region. Phineas at Bay is a highly intertextual literary book, allusive, bookish (I see nothing wrong with that) whose references are just about wholly to books favored by males, mid-20th century to late Edwardian. A central text is R. F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, as embodied and shaped by Andrew Davies’s 1980-81 16 part mini-series which rehearses an archetypal nostalgic schoolboy to teacher story. One of the most (for me) appealing characters in Phineas at Bay is named Ifor Powlett-Jones, clearly after David Powlett-Jones as memorably portrayed by John Duttine[.]


Ifor is a miner in Wales who risks his life to save the lives of fellow miners who have been abusively mistreated by the mine-owner, a ruthless obtuse, sadistic and spiteful industrialist, McScuttle (the book’s one full villain) who accuses the young man of destroying private property and by influence manages to have him thrown in jail for a number of years. We have powerful scenes of a life in prison in this period before Powlett-Jones is rescued (naturally) by Phineas Finn who, with Marie, adopts, has educated by Mr Low (now retired) and makes a sort of nephew-son of the boy, providing him with a career he could not have dreamed of.

Other similar authors, texts alluded to and used significantly are Beerbohm, Mortimer (Rumpole of Bailey), Walter Scott, Tennyson, Wodehouse (a lot), Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Thackeray, Dumas’s Three Musketeers, M. R. James (the ghost story writer). Individual lines are plucked from Hugo’s Les Miserables. The inter-related imaginary carved out here is the one Mark Turner (Trollope and the Magazines) first described as central to understanding how Trollope assumed his readership would react. We follow the trajectory — coming of age — of several newly invented young adult male characters, the next generation of the Palliser and Chiltern sons, e.g., Savrola Vavasour, son of George (remember the escapee from Can You Forgive Her?) who met and married Mrs Winifred Hurtle while in the US. Savrola courts Clarissa Finn, despite her Richardsonian name, a fugitive from an innocent girl’s 19th century novel, protected by a series of benevolent parent figures — rather like Lady Rose McClaren in Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is in evidence too with a butler who acts paternal roles towards Clarissa and anticipates Marie, his mistress’s every need, including sleuthing.
She later cites "Galsworthy (another masculinist book of upper class life alluded to)."

She's got me dead to rights here. The book is allusive, as Ellen writes, as indeed my mind is allusive. I can't adequately describe the fun I had in writing Phineas at Bay, salting the text with little hommages I described to the reading group as "easter eggs" for my own amusement. Ellen catches many o them--she also notes echoes of specific performancesSimon Raven's adaptation of the Palliser novels for the BBC, broadcast as The Pallisers. I'll admit to one that nobody in the book group rumbled me on: certain actors in The Pallisers later appeared in my beloved Doctor Who, and I couldn't resist giving Rev. Emilius, played by Anthony Ainley in The Pallisers a famous bit of business from his more familiar role. But here's the thing--they came to me in the writing; I didn't plan them in advance, it just flowed exuberantly.

A brief word on the texts referenced. I think it's absolutely fair to describe Delderfield as "masculinist," fond though I am of him. I devoured all of his novels as a teen, have read most of them more than once, and I think that it is a very fair critique. He's one of the generation that thought of D.H Lawrence as opening up the world of sexuality to literature, and his adoption of tropes in which domineering women are "cured" by a spanking in several of his novels by their husbands/lovers/fianc├ęs is a genuine blot on those novels. I think RFD grew to realize this himself, because in To Serve Them All My Days, his most mature and well-done book, he explicitly brings the trope up to have David Powlett-Jones reject it as unbefitting a real man. My affection for Delderfield survives these scenes, but they are blots on a writer who was that rare and wonderful kind of author: a first-rate second rater.

Galsworthy's a bit more complicated. I think The Man of Property does not really fit that description, although one can see Irene as oddly passive and acted upon; as I have suggested elsewhere, I suspect that this is more a function of Galsworthy's effort to shield his wife from the real-life scandal that gave rise to the novel.

2. Virtue and Vice Alike Rewarded

Ellen Moody notes a certain tension in the book between the fates of the good and evil characters. After writing that "There’s a lot of kindness in the book, to Lady Laura Kennedy and the Duke of Omnium (Plantagenet Palliser that was), happy at last, fittingly. Phineas works hard in this book, is as acute and successfully manipulative as Hercule Poirot, and for the public good..." she observes that "[t]here is at the same time a real tolerance for amoral worldly-vicious types of people, the disruptive, the mean, and those complicit with, obedient to those who do evil." She acknowledges that the villains are not punished; that "are not post-modern nor at all nihilistic because the book and its main characters recognize them as reprehensible. They are framed more like Fielding’s Blifil in Tom Jones, their punishment is to go on being what they are."

Yes. Just yes. To me, the experience of reading Trollope was startling because his good characters were sometimes bad (Archdeacon Grantly can be awful, and yet is basically one of the white hats by the tend of the Barsetshire novels; even Rev. Harding lives for years on income that properly isn't his), and his bad characters are sometimes kind--look at Burgo Fitzgerald and the prostitute, or la Signorina in steering Eleanor Bold and Dr. Arabin together. After the absolutes of Dickens, this moral complexity of Trollope was rejuvenating, and part of why I fell in love with his fiction.

So I took it a step further--looking at two of Trollope's most amoral (indeed, immoral) characters, Lizzie Eustace and Rev. Emilius, I asked myself: "What, if anything, is genuine within them?" My answer may not please everyone,but as I see it, they have taken a step forward in one sense, while remaining deplorable in most every other way. Progress not perfection.

3. Lighting Out for the Territory

In writing that Phineas at Bay "is easily arguably the first full completely realized true sequel to Trollope’s books", Ellen Moody implicitly acknowledges the existence of Knox's Barchester Pilgrimage (1934). I admit, I think it doesn't make the cut as a sequel--it evokes Trollope's own characters only fleetingly, and does not continue their stories or explore their characters in any meaningful way. It is, rather, a series of vignettes spanning the time from Trollope's day to Knox's, connected tenuously to his novels, but paying loving tribute. It is a love letter to Trollope's creation, but far too cautious to advance the storyline. Moody suggests that Phineas at Bay raises a question I did not in fact consider, but one well worth asking:
The most interesting question for me that this book raises is, What does and will this book tell us about Trollope’s mainstream readership? what they value in Trollope? One reason there has not been a true sequel before is there is so much Trollope and really so varied. He wrote 47 novels, 42 short stories, 5 travel books, his autobiography, essays, criticism. Among these he has written his own sequels in his Barsetshire and Palliser books, Ayala’s Angel is a kind of sequel to The American Senator, he planned to (he said) to write an Australian set of books out of Lady Anna; his Anglo-Irish books carve out a Trollope terrain or another country in western and across Ireland. When I taught a course wholly devoted to Trollope for the first time this past fall, I found I had surprised those in the class who thought they knew Trollope and had read numerous of his books before. This book would’ve fulfilled their expectations much better than my syllabus.


Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay is an analogous first step to Raven’s mini-series in the textual arena. We have a reconstituted world of Trollopian fiction. How will it affect Trollope’s novels as understood by a wider readership? Reinforcement? Raven was a pessimistic atheist, strong cynic, sceptical; Wirenius turns back to Trollope and softens what is there. Modern film adaptations often make what is back-story of a 19th century book and make it front present story. Wirenius chose instead to make a new group of young mostly male upwardly mobile winning-out protagonists.


If a woman should write a post-text, which story and characters in Trollope would she appropriate? What books would be alluded to, what 19th to mid-20th century intertextualities? Will anyone develop out the Anglo-Irish fiction so different from the Palliser world? and reverse front stories to become back-stories, and of course bring out the implied sexualities. What will future Trollope fan fiction be like? Will it help to extend Trollope’s readership beyond the usual 15 books read? Or not.
Her suggestion that Phineas at Bay is "a world just begun, meant to be continued and invites others to do likewise" would represent a wonderful result of my work. I hope we get post-tests by women, with different allusions and foregrounding stories that I have not thought to. And I hope the darker, the Irish, European, and Australian Trollope texts find their own way into the newly rekindled Trollope Country. Yes, I'll keep exploring for as long as my imagination lives in Trollope Country, but there is room for us all. And if--I say if--I have opened a door to such exploration, then I have done more than I thought.

[Edited to correct some typos and solecisms.]

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