The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, February 13, 2015

Trollope in the Times: A Jumping Off Point

Asked the question what is the best portrayal of a marriage in literature, Charles McGrath writes:
But there are exceptions to the unhappy marriage rule, the union of Kitty and Levin in “Anna Karenina,” for one, and to me even more satisfying, the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora in Trollope’s Palliser novels. Not the least of the appeal of this fictional marriage is that it takes place over some 20 years or so in six different novels (seven if you count “The Small House at Allington,” though it’s strictly speaking one of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, not a Palliser book), in which Plantagenet and Glencora are sometimes major characters, sometimes minor ones. The books are like a mini-series (and, indeed, became a famous BBC 26-parter in the early ’70s): We get to watch the characters evolve, grow old and surprise themselves.

Blond, clever, charming, witty, Glencora is easily the most beguiling of Trollope’s heroines. Trollope as much as admitted that he was in love with her himself. But except for his tremendous fortune, there’s nothing lovable about Plantagenet, who actually prides himself on being dull. All he cares for is politics and a mind-numbing scheme for switching British currency to the decimal system. Glencora is bullied into marrying him by her guardians, who fear that she is about to run away with a handsome scapegrace named Burgo Fitzgerald.

Trollope, a much sexier writer than he is given credit for, leaves no doubt that the attraction between Burgo and Glencora is powerful and erotic, or that Glencora’s feelings for her husband never heat up to the same degree. Marriage, both here and in his other books, is not necessarily ecstatic but, rather — when it works — a shifting arrangement of trade-offs. The relationship of Plantagenet and Glencora begins in antagonism and misunderstanding and gradually, over the course of thousands of pages, warms to understanding and to a fond attachment that is erotic in its own, understated way. She thaws him out and he loves her for it.They also quarrel and reconcile a lot. The marriage’s most volatile period comes in the penultimate book of the series, in which Plantagenet, though he is really too thin-skinned and self-righteous for the job, becomes prime minister. Newly energized, Glencora throws herself into advancing his career and becomes a kind of 19th-century Pamela Harriman, meddling in elections, spending her own considerable fortune on parties, dinners, receptions. Plantagenet hates the vulgarity of it all but gets swept up all the same. You feel on both sides (and hers especially) a growing ardor, a new understanding of what they can do for each other.

And then, shockingly, it’s over. Too stiff-backed to compromise, Plantagenet loses an election and the premiership. He and Glencora leave for Europe to lick their wounds, and on the very first page of the next, and last, volume, Glencora is dead. Plantagenet, though in his way just as repressed and socially hidebound as Walter Bridge, finds himself even more in love. “He had at times been inclined to think that in the exuberance of her spirits she had been a trouble rather than a support to him,” Trollope writes. “But now it was as though all outside appliances were taken away from him. There was no one of whom he could ask a question.”
This is a lovely analysis by McGrath, and I am reluctant to cut it, because it so ably sketches the characters' arc. It's quite on point.

We don't see enough of Marie and Phineas Finn to be sure, but the glimpses we have of them in Trollope (in The Prime Minister and in The Duke's Children, we see a very close-knit couple--a love match, yes, but one in which each has a sphere of autonomy--Marie has her business, Phineas his career in the Commons. But they are fiercely mutually protective, and seem attuned to each other in a way that childless couples often can be.

In projecting them out in Phineas at Bay, that is the direction I followed. However, the question remained:

What about the Duke? Where would Planty Pall be, some ten years after Glencora's death?

And, most of all, should I leave him there?

True confession time: I thought of it--just leave him where Trollope did, alone again, building bridges to the next generation without Glencora. Keep him a minor character, a walk on, really. After all, he's not that integral to the two Phineas novels.

But then I remembered a pair of scenes in Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset. When Mrs. Proudie, the domineering virago who has split the diocese and ruled over her husband through five novels, suddenly dies, he is transfixed by profoundly mixsed emotions:
He was free now. Even in his misery,—for he was very miserable,—he could not refrain from telling himself that. No one could now press uncalled-for into his study, contradict him in the presence of those before whom he was bound to be authoritative, and rob him of all his dignity. There was no one else of whom he was afraid. She had at least kept him out of the hands of other tyrants. He was now his own master, and there was a feeling,—I may not call it of relief, for as yet there was more of pain in it than of satisfaction,—a feeling as though he had escaped from an old trouble at a terrible cost of which he could not as yet calculate the amount. He knew that he might now give up all idea of writing to the archbishop.

She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. She had kept his money for him and made things go straight, when they had been poor. His interests had always been her interests. Without her he would never have been a bishop. So, at least, he told himself now, and so told himself probably with truth. She had been very careful of his children. She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
That last brilliant sentence (echoing a description of Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers, at a time when he will, if his father, then the bishop, dies before the Government falls, be appointed to the See) is where a lesser novelist would have left the Bishop forever. But Trollope knows that life goes on. We adapt, we begin to rebuild. So Bishop Proudie, still I'm mourning, appears again, and reaches out to his former foe, the Archdeacon, at the funeral of Mr Harding, the Warden of the first novel:
And in the transept they were joined by another clergyman whom no one had expected to see that day. The bishop was there, looking old and worn,—almost as though he were unconscious of what he was doing. Since his wife's death no one had seen him out of the palace or of the palace grounds till that day. But there he was,—and they made way for him into the procession behind the two ladies,—and the archdeacon, when he saw it, resolved that there should be peace in his heart, if peace might be possible.
What I took from this was that I would be breaking faith with Trollope if I left Planty Pall where I found him. The story must move forward, or not be attempted at all.

What McGrath calls--quite rightly, in my opinion--the best depiction of marriage in literature deserves no less.

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