The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Post-text, Pastiche, Even Call it Fanfiction; It's All Rock and Roll to Me: A Note on Trollope Country

When I told one friend, early in the drafting, about Phineas at Bay, he was decidedly unimpressed at the idea.

"So," he said, gently enough, "you're spending your time writing Nineteenth Century fan fiction."

At the time I was a bit defensive, but let's think about that for a moment.

Yeah, I guess that's true--I am a fan of Trollope's writing, I am continuing his storyline and using his characters, in an effort to create a reading experience that feels like a natural extension of his work, while remaining true to my own authorial instincts and drive.

In literary criticism, of course, a less judgmental term, post-text, is used. And that works too--it's broader than the kind of direct sequel that I have undertaken, but would certainly encompass it.

But I'm not ashamed to be writing a post-text, or, for that matter, Trollope fan fiction, if you wish to call it that. Because frankly the genre has a long and honorable history. There have been many versions of the Oedipus story, and its offshoots--Jean Anouilh's Antigone, in which the great dramatist cast the eponymous heroine as the Frendh Resistance, Creon as the Nazi Occupation, and the guards as the collaborators (I played the main guard in a production in college), and did so in such a compelling manner that both sides embraced it. Or think of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, openly a reworking of The Oresteia. More modern works abound--George MacDonald Fraser's twelve volumes of the Flashman Papers are a post-text to Tom Brown's School Days, with stops along the way at The Prisoner of Zenda.

So, no shame here.

The phrase "Trollope Country," used as part of the title of my forthcoming talk at the annual dinner this year of the Trollope Society USA originated in discussion of on the online reading group, Trollope and His Contemporaries, and was coined by Trollope scholar Ellen Moody. She used it to denote both the familiar territory comprised by the Barsetshire and Palliser novels but also the less familiar, more atypical locations and milieus in which Trollope's less comfortable, less widely read novels are set--Prague, in the case of Nina Balatka, or revolutionary France as explored in La Vendee.

Often post-texts are discussed in terms of working in the "world" or "land" of the original authors. But something about Ellen's coinage of "Trollope Country" struck me. It took me a while to think of it, but it led me to a thought by that earlier continuator, George MacDonald Fraser in his underrated novel Mr. American (1980). The novel, told in the third person (and thus outside of the Flashman Papers, which are ostensibly Flashman's memoirs, although Flashy puts in an appearance), involves an American westerner who comes to his family's ancestral home in England. The passage that Ellen's coinage put me in mind of was this discussion between the protagonist, Mark Franklin, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, Sir Charles Clayton:
"You like land, Mr. Franklin?"

Mr. Franklin gave the question his usual careful concentration, and replied: "Yes, I guess so. I don't exactly think of it as land, though. We call it country."

Sir Charles laughed pleasantly, and nodded. "There speaks the new world. When it has been enclosed, and worked and farmed for centuries,it's land; when it's open, unbroken, waiting to be possessed, it's country.
And that's the thing about Trollope Country--it's country the way Fraser has his characters use the word. Oh, Angela Thirkell appropriated the geography of Barsetshire, and, toward the end of her writing career, she employed as characters descendants of Trollope's characters, but--well, honestly, her characters are not his,her concerns only incidentally overlap his, and she's only taken a tiny slice of Trollope Country and tried too make it land. As I have previously noted, Ronald Knox's Barchester Pilgrimage gives us only fleeting glimpses of Trollope's characters, and moves swiftly to later generations. (Fair dos: He does a nice job, through, in evoking an older version of la Signorina Madeline Vesey Stanhope Neroni, whose charms briefly bewitch John Bold the Younger--the story that comes closest to being a sequel to Trollope's own work in the collection.)

No, Trollope Country is wide open. In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Trollope Country is "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.”

It's wide open. Adaptations give the extant texts a new spin, new viewpoints, subtle changes, but there is room enough for a myriad of different perspectives and takes. In her essay on Phineas at Bay, Ellen wrote that the novel presents "a world just begun, meant to be continued and invites others to do likewise."

Just so. Just so.

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