The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"I Run After Units": Returning to Trollope Country

An Address to the Trollope Society USA
At The Knickerbocker Club,
New York City
May 18, 2015

Well, If I had known that I would be following not only Melanie Kirkpatrick, but Jack Hall, the world's leading Trollope scholar, I might have hesitated when Randy Williams asked me to speak tonight. We also have with us in the room Robert Wiseman, one of the two men who have given us the restored text of The Duke's Children, as well as several scholars who have enriched my own understanding of Trollope’s works.

Among this starry crowd, I admit that I feel something of a fraud. While you have been restoring Trollope’s words, or illuminating his life, I have been brewing not real coffee, but ersatz. Finest quality ersatz, I hope, but still—I have added to the Trollope corpus only by using his writings as a jumping off point for my own tale.

My first job out of law school was doing criminal appeals for the Legal Aid Society here in New York City. Here’s the funny thing about criminal cases. Even when it’s not necessary to prove a case, police and prosecutors always want to know why.

Why do people violate the social contract? Why do they cross the lines we have drawn between right and wrong? Between good and bad? Why do people steal?

Or, in my case, why do we write sequels to classic works of fiction? Why do we appropriate the characters and stories of great writers? Like I asked a second ago, why do we steal?

Look, it’s not as if I’m the only one to do it. In fact, I’m in pretty good company. Shakespeare pillaged his plots from history, from myths—he even ripped off Homer. Dumas based the d’Artagnan CycleThe Three Musketeers and its sequels—on an earlier novel, the fake Memoirs of d’Artagnan published in 1700 by Courtilz de Sandras (we think; nobody’s proven it, really).

John Gardner retold Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. P.D. James’s last novel was yet another sequel to Pride and Prejudice. No zombies, but plenty of bodies in Death Comes to Pemberly. George MacDonald Fraser made an entire career off Harry Flashman, the school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

But why do we do it?

I think it’s because writers are readers.

What gave me the audacity to continue the story of Phineas and Marie Finn, of Plantagenet Palliser and his children, of all their friends and enemies?

A sense that the story wasn’t finished. To steal a phrase form T.H. White, I was haunted for years by the feeling that Trollope had not left the tale “round and bright and done.”

We don’t know if Trollope had finished with the Duke, or with Phineas, for that matter. From my first reading of the Palliser novels, while I was in college, to the day I began my continuation of the story, two plot threads were left dangling into my cerebral cortex, itching away at me.

First, the strange complacency of Phineas Finn in The Prime Minister, where he and the Duke get into a debate about equality—with Phineas attacking it, and the Duke defending the idea, at least in the abstract. What had happened to the radical Member of Parliament to strip him of his fire and passion? How strange that he is on the sidelines in The Duke’s Children, despite Marie’s much more prominent role.

That was the really irritating itch, but there was second one.

Trollope leaves the Duke at Lady Mary’s wedding. We are told that “One who did not know him well might have said that he was a man with few cares, and who now took special joy in the happiness of his children” but that in fact he was reminding himself of all that he had suffered. A classic Trollope moment—the Duke is transfixed in a moment of time, like Bishop Proudie praying that he might not be glad that his wife was dead, or the Archdeacon, at his beloved father’s bedside suddenly horrified that he’s watching the clock in hope that he can get the telegram off announcing his father’s death so that Government can appoint him bishop before it falls.

But here’s the thing—Trollope never leaves his characters in those revelatory tableaux moments. Life goes on. Bishop Proudie shambles out to join Reverend Harding’s funeral. Archdeacon Grantly mourns, and then sends the telegram, anyway—only to miss becoming the bishop.

That great last glimpse of Plantagenet, doing the done thing, while he is secretly adrift in self-pity? I do not believe for an instant that Trollope meant to leave him their forever.

And neither can I believe that Phineas Finn would end up as a mere political drone, a more intelligent version of Lawrence Fitzgibbon, being shuffled from office to office.

Think about that for a moment. Phineas endures the slamming of Society’s doors on him by the poison of Quintus Slide’s journalism and Mr. Bonteen’s malice. Worse, he goes through the searing ordeal of being tried for Bonteen’s murder. He discovers how few of his friends know him well enough to squarely reject his guilt of murdering a man in the street.

Phineas discovers that Lady Laura can offer him nothing but a dramatic scene in his cell, but that his fellow outsider, Madame Max throws herself into saving his life.

Saving it for what?

For Phineas to diminish into just another politico, living on his wife’s money?

Or to age into a forgettable role as a good, dull, graying functionary?

I just could not believe that the brief glimpses we get of Phineas in The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children represent Trollope’s full development of the character who had made his way to the center of high society only to see its hollowness.

Only two years after publishing The Duke’s Children, Trollope died, and so we cannot know what, if anything he would have done. So the itch at the back of my brain became barely noticeable, only flaring up when I periodically dipped into the novels again.

Then, nearly ten years ago, my wife and I binge-watched the the 1974 television adaptation by Simon Raven. At the end of it, Catherine had to listen to a Festivus-style airing of these grievances. When I’d finished, she said simply. “You write it.”

Well, in general, when Catherine tells me to do something, it’s usually a good idea. So I started it.

I began thinking of how to approach Phineas and Marie. I immediately knew I could not continue the story right where Trollope breaks off—to do that, I would have to imitate his style to perfection, which simply couldn’t be sustained for a long book.

And a long book, at least by modern standards, it would have to be. A short novel just wouldn’t provide the feeling of capaciousness, of leisurely development of character over time, that typifies Trollope’s work. And in fact, by today’s standards, where an average debut novel is between 70,000 and 90,000 words, Phineas at Bay, weighing in at a little over 180,000 words is long. 100,000 words shorter than either of Trollope’s Phineas novels—but, by today’s standards, long.

To carry off a lengthy, Trollope-style book, I made three initial decisions.

First, I would set the story some twenty years after the ending of Phineas Redux—somewhere in the unspecified 1890s. That would give me some cover for the inevitable differences in style, and would allow for some difference in characterization.

Second, Phineas’s slight staleness in The Prime Minister would be my starting point, and his rekindling of his radicalism would be the primary story line.

But how to get him there?

Well, Phineas was a barrister, we know. He devilled under Mr. Low, remember? And a practicing barrister can easily find himself face-to-face with injustice. In fact, he could be dragged into doing something about it against his will. As a barrister, Phineas could, simply by being present in Court at the wrong moment, be handed a “dock brief.”

What, I hear you ask, is a “dock brief”?

Before England had a Legal Aid scheme, judges had the right to let a prisoner in the dock who could not afford a barrister to pick one out in court. And that barrister would be required to defend the case. That served my purpose—Phineas could be picked out by a defendant in a politically sensitive case.

Of course, there’s one problem with that; why would Phineas return to the law, with his seat in Parliament, and Marie’s money?

Thinking of Trollope killing off Mrs. Proudie because of an overheard complaint, I remembered dear, loyal Mr. Low, and handed him a debilitating heart condition.

Phineas returned to the law to keep his old pupil-master’s practice afloat.

And while in Court to defend Larry Fitzgibbon’s son, as a favor to his old friend, Phineas is assigned a dock brief representing a young Welsh miner accused of riot. What he sees re-awakens his social conscience, and brings him into collision with his own party.

Meanwhile, I needed a romantic plot. Phineas’s sister Barbara was another casualty, so that her daughter could become Phineas’s ward, and bask in the attentions of a young Tory MP, and in the new Lord Chiltern, the son of the current Earl of Brentford, Phineas’s old friend Oswald.

Season with Lizzie Eustace and Reverend Emilius to reflect the darker side of the fin de si├Ęcle, and with the surprising romantic reawakening of the Duke of Omnium, and I had a plot.

I wrote three whole chapters—and then I went dry. I lost the manuscript with Catherine’s edits, the computer it was stored on crashed.

Phineas at Bay appeared to have been stillborn.

Until just about two years ago, right around my birthday, I found that manuscript, and, typing it into a new computer just to save it, found myself knowing what happened next. And so to the end of the book.

The very last line, and its context , I had known from the moment I started re-typing. How I got there was not really down to me; The characters took me there on their own.

I used to suspect that Trollope was exaggerating when he described himself as weeping with his characters in their sorrows, and laughing with them in their joy. Then I started writing for them—and no. No, Trollope was not exaggerating a bit.

I found myself seeing through eyes not my own. Oswald, now the Earl of Brentford, as a worried father, evoked a level of sympathy in me that I never expected him to. The despair of Lady Laura, inconsolable after two decades, required exorcism. Marie’s courage and active nature led her to once more seize the initiative to protect those whom she loves.

And the Duke—well, the Duke’s re-awakening to life and the imperative to go on living takes him away from our last glimpse of him in Trollope. But it takes him in a direction that honors his past, while asserting that a man now nearly sixty could still have a future.

The writing of Phineas at Bay was amazingly freeing. I found myself playing—there are all kinds of literary allusions and jokes throughout the book. Characters from Trollope’s other novels make cameo appearances, characters from other Victorian writers make appearances, and if you look closely enough, I managed to hint at just how naughty Lady Eustace is without writing more than two sentences that would have been disapproved of by Mudie’s Select Library.

I’m still rather proud of that.

Frank Greystock, the honorable Tory MP who marries for love in The Eustace Diamonds, remains honorable here. His rivalry with Phineas is collegial, his partisanship leavened by an abiding respect for personal ties.

Mr. Roby and Mr. Rattler, alas, are beyond reform. But we knew that.

And, reaching all the way back to the beginning of the Palliser novels, George Vavasor’s legacy makes itself felt.

Although I had to do quite a lot of research, the writing itself was more natural than the legal writing I have done over the past quarter century. My editor, Karen Clark had to push me to take us with Phineas down into the coal mine, but once I set my hand to it, the characters made sure I arrived in one piece.

I had come back to Trollope Country.

I didn’t coin that phrase; Ellen Moody, who’s here with us tonight, did. She used it to describe both the familiar territory comprised by the Barset 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 sequels to classic novels are discussed in terms of working in the "world" or "land" of the original authors. But I adopted Ellen's coinage of "Trollope Country," because it brought to mind a thought from George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Flashman novels I mentioned earlier. In a non-Flashman novel, titled Mr American, Fraser draws a distinction between “land” and “country.” He writes that:

“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 uses the word. Oh, Angela Thirkell appropriated the geography of Barsetshire, and Ronald Knox in his Barchester Pilgrimage gives us a couple of fleeting glimpses of Trollope's characters, but neither of them actually spend much time with Trollope’s characters or concerns.

So I had open country to explore and to work in. And I had one other strong conviction: The story has to matter for it to be worth telling. For all of the charm of Barchester Pilgrimage, it’s just that—a reverential, nostalgic daytrip. For a story to matter, the writer has to take risks.

So in Phineas at Bay we see the Duke move on from that moment in which Trollope left him suspended. We see his years of grieving Glencora end, and in this book, the Duke, at long last, dances.

Phineas Finn defies Prime Minister Barrington Erle, and his standing with the Liberal Party is in jeopardy.

Reverend Emilius finds himself drawn back to London, compelled once more to try to win Lizzie Eustace. He does so at great risk, and some cost. And Lizzie herself, no longer a young beauty, has to decide who she is at heart—if she can only find some truth in her heart.

Great liberties to take with Trollope’s characters. But in the writing, I felt in my own heart that I was keeping faith with Trollope. Now that the book is out, and I have experienced it recently as a reader, I still feel that way. Let me tell you why.

Lady Glencora—sorry, the Duchess of Omnium, if we’re being formal—once chided her husband “We must go after our nature, Plantagenet. Your nature is decimals. I run after units.” She’s right, of course. The Duke is most comfortable with policies and ideas—decimal coinage, Blue Books, and the means of implementing good public policy.

But Lady Glen—sorry, I just can’t keep up the formality—like her creator, Lady Glen is fascinated by people. Their individuality, their hopes and fears. By turns, she’s drawn inexorably into the lives of Alice Vavasor, Madame Max, Lady Eustace, Phineas Finn, Adelaide Palliser, Ferdinand Lopez, Frank Tregear.

Her interest isn’t based on the worth of those she cares about, either; she’s as solicitous of Lopez as she is of Phineas Finn. Good or bad, once Lady Glen takes you under her wing, she’ll do her best to see you get your due.

And that’s where Lady Glen and her creator are as one.

Just two days ago, I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church-the American Anglican Church, in Communion with Trollope’s beloved Church of England. So, like Trollope’s clergymen, from Septimus Harding to Joseph Emilius, I find a sermon text helpful to me when I speak.

Here’s one, to go with Lady Glen’s observation that she, like Trollope, runs after units. This is from from He Knew He Was Right:

“The good and the bad mix themselves so thoroughly in our thoughts, even in our aspirations, that we must look for excellence rather in overcoming evil than in freeing ourselves from its influence.”

And it’s these two qualities—Trollope’s deep love of the individual as she or he is, and his recognition that we are all of us, every one, a mixture of our good and bad traits, that constantly bring me back to Trollope Country.

I was a voracious, if uncritical, reader when I was a boy--I read Agatha Christie by the yard, as eagerly as I read Mark Twain. Rex Stout alongside Dumas with the occasional sci fi relic from my father’s collection, and a deep soak in Bernard Shaw's plays and prefaces.

But it was reading Trollope--The Warden and Barchester Towers, specifically--that crystallized my own literary taste forever. Oh, I'd read some Dickens, some Poe (a lot of Poe. Did you know he wrote comedy too? It's terrible, but he tried.)

Hawthorne shed a light into who I would become as a reader--I read The Scarlet Letter, and thirsted with curiosity to understand the workings of Roger Chillingworth’s mind. (Still do; I may be driven one day to re-tell that tale from the Doctor's perspective if only to get him the hell out of my head.)

Because he was real to me in a way very few characters in fiction were. Conflicted, a mix of impulses, cruel and kind. The ruins of a man once great, at least in potential. Hurt, and hurting others.

Then I met Septimus Harding, the Warden. A devout, good man of God who has, without even noticing it, become enmeshed in a genteel, kindly administered, corruption. A loving soul, generously running a charitable institution, most of the funds of which support--er, him. His critic, John Bold, is right. On paper, at least. And yet, without Mr Harding, Hiram's Hospital declines into desuetude, and when Rev. Harding dies, his creator writes of him: "And so they buried Mr. Septimus Harding, formerly Warden of Hiram's Hospital in the city of Barchester, of whom the chronicler may say that that city never knew a sweeter gentleman or a better Christian." He has become the moral touchstone of the Barsetshire novels, this compromised, well-meaning, vacillating man.

People are complicated.

In the decades since I first read Trollope, my admiration for him has only grown. I have often enough pointed out that Phineas Redux, in which members of two despised minorities--an Irish Catholic and a Viennese Jewish widow--are the hero and heroine, and Trollope makes the readers cheer their happy union--readers who would despise Phineas Finn and Madame Max Goesler were they to meet on the street, mind you. And that's a sign of something.

Trollope is not safe. As life is unsafe, so too Trollope isn't safe.

Lady Glencora, the charismatic, charming coquette who matures into a great lady without losing her wit and her vivacity (and incidentally provided Susan Hampshire with the best role of her career), dies in the opening sentence of The Duke's Children, leaving us with the stolid, good, dutiful Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium.

You know, the much less interesting one. Except--without her, he becomes more interesting.

Less fair than he used to be (he's downright cruel to Marie Finn, who has on multiple occasions been his and Glencora's benefactor), he is brusque with the children he inarticulately but deeply loves.

Without the raffish, mercurial Glencora, sober Plantagenet cannot be who he is. He's lost for much of the novel.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

And I'm just dealing with the two novel sequences that are Trollope's best known, nostalgically remembered books, let alone his less well known works. Take his descent into madness in He Knew He Was Right, the sympathetic bigamists in Dr. Wortle's School, or the acidulous satire in The Way We Live Now.

On the surface blander than Dickens or even Thackeray, bluff, old, "safe" Anthony Trollope outdated them all, pushing boundaries they didn't dream of, and getting away with it, too, because he was "a safe pair of hands."

It was a brilliant shell game. He didn't get caught in his lifetime, or even by the critics for the most part. But we know. We know.

Trollope influenced my own view of human nature more than his more pyrotechnical peers, more than the writers of my own era, who all too often seemed to me to oversimplify, to not quite get it.

From him I learned that we are none of us just our worst moments, and that we cannot live on the summit of our best moments, either.

Phineas at Bay is a thank you to the great psychologist who taught me about human nature, who gave me the understanding to endure the myriad small betrayals and wounds we experience from those who love us both before and after they hurt us--and to forgive them, and accept forgiveness for the hurts we have inflicted in our own turn.

And people surprise for good as well as for bad.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

We cannot be reduced to our worst moments. Or even our best.

In Phineas at Bay, I tried to evoke Trollope's characters, but also his realistic generosity and tolerance. His insistence that nothing God has created is without worth. In sum, to pass on what I learned from him.

That’s one of the wonders of literature—why we write, why we read. I learned these truths from a man I have never met in the flesh, and yet was among my greatest teachers.

I hope my novel gives you pleasure. But it’s all right if it doesn’t. There is plenty of room in Trollope Country; I’m just one of the first homesteaders. You can go over to Father Knox’s corner, or Angela Thirkell’s patch. Or you can cultivate your own.

There’s plenty of room, and you can go anywhere. Maybe we’ll meet in the Cathedral, as Septimus Harding chants the Great Litany.

Didn’t I see you at the Beargarden, the night Dolly Longestaffe solved the crisis of the mouse in the orchestrelle? Or maybe you were at one of the old Duke’s dinners, alongside Doctor Thorne.

We’ll all run into each other along the way; everybody does, you know, in Trollope Country.

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