Essay-Postings on Epistolarity in Barchester Towers

To Trollope-l

September 8, 2001

Re: Barchester Towers, II:8-10 (43-45): Our First Long Letter: From "The Epistolary Trollope"

Since I am embarked on a study of letters in Trollope, this posting has -- as it were naturally or as I wrote it -- become a description of characteristically Trollopian uses of letters in Slope's first letter to Eleanor. Thus this posting backtracks to an earlier part of the book.

Although Trollope does present letters which are mirrors of his character's innermost feelings and thoughts, ways for him to get beyond the narrator's conscious control, and which are to be read as documents which show little distance between the written word and the felt pressure of passion or thought; it is far more typical of him to use letters to expose people, as satirical devices. Trollope distrusts letters and sees them as most often occasions for rhetoric, as conscious performances for the eyes of the particular reader; they are incriminating evidence; they are weapons in many sorts of games. We enjoy letters like Slope's because we see the distance between what is professed and what we have learned about Slope through what the narrator tells us, and what we have seen Slope thinking (thanks to our kind novelist) and doing and saying elsewhere. They make us laugh -- though not always merrily.

Trollope also even here has a way of rearranging or telescoping time and making suspense by telling us about a letter well before he presents it to us. In this novel, we wait on tenterhooks to see what happened when the letter came. In later novels, he will rearrange the placement of letters (just like an epistolary novelist) and so rearrange time to suit himself and various effects he wants to achieve (suspense, irony, emotional buildups, character display over a period of time in which we retreat back to what happened earlier and then suddenly' jump ahead). Then he -- and Austen does this too -- shows us the character reading the letter. The characters' different ways of reading and responding to letters becomes as important as the letters themselves. This provides a good deal of psychological and moral and social commentary for him. In this novel we get first Eleanor's response, and then her father's, and then they discuss the letter (a third response in effect). To top that off we have the interview between Grantly and Eleanor, another semi-bullying session on Grantly's part where Grantly is off-base not so much because we disagree with the values he asserts but because he has inferred the letter is something which it isn't. There is also the interesting comment on Mr Harding's part that no one has the right to stop Eleanor from reading whatever letter she wants, nor does he see himself as having the right to forbid or punish her for marrying Mr Slope. Other characters in this novel also guess at this letter they have not seen from what others say (Arabin), and so reveal themselves to us not just by how far they are right or wrong and why they are right or wrong, but by their response to their judgement. Trollope is not for personal tyranny; he objects to a use of authority which is not based on genuine humanity and understanding of the individuals involved.

You can (if you are so disposed) also almost pick up whole subplots by moving from letter to letter if there are enough of them by one character or one group of characters in a novel. I don't think this is quite true of _Barchester Towers_, but what is true is some of the notes provide impetus for crises (Slope's invitation to Mr Harding to come see him that morning, this one to Eleanor), and climaxes (I won't tell ahead but we'll get there).

There is also the icing on the cake. Some letters are just there for virtuouso performances. Come admire me says Mr Trollope. Could you do it? I have discovered Trollope is not the only 19th century novelist to have these extraordinarily convincing idiolects in texts that really are very like letters (e.g., Thackeray, Gaskell), but he is unusual in the many uses he makes of the letters and how convincing they are. There is always a strong element of rough caricature in Thackeray, and Gaskell can't seem to enter into as many kinds of people so intimately. This is not the Slope letter before us: I am talking here of letters as mirrors of our souls (there are some wonderful ones of this type in The Bertrams and The Claverings).

Trollope does talk about the art of letter writing in novels and epistolary novels as such in a couple of places. He wrote a couple of commentaries on Clarissa and I think the most interesting statement he makes in these which throws light on why there were so few epistolary novels in the 19th century and Trollope never wrote one is his statement that readers have to be very clever and patient to understand and enjoy an epistolary novel. In a letter to a friend, he writes in a way which shows he was aware of the distance between his own understanding of a text and his readers. On Clarissa he talks of how readers want action, and get restless at the slow pace of such novels, and won't take the time to see what the novelist is getting at in subtle ways. You need a narrator at the ear of the reader to help the reader interpret the document.

In Redgauntlet (a rare half-epistolary novel of the period), Scott adds to this his comment that novelists want to show us the Big Picture, the large world, society in its vastness and epistolary novels necessarily narrow down the perspective. My view is such novels are more passionate, but seem less sane because of the narrow subjective perspectives given by letters: thus it is interesting that first-person narratives which have some of the qualities of epistolary novels are often written by highly romantic or gothic novelists (e.g., the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, M.E. Braddon).

Now Trollope is not giving us this option in Slope's letter: Slope's letter is a satiric device: we are to see through it as an object inside a big picture, an attempt at manipulation. There is a tiny parallel in Slope and Madeline's love scene: is she not writing a letter to him? And there is much play over the writing-desk. Letters are traditionally associated with erotic novels (from Clarissa and La Nouvelle Heloise on); they were ways young adults could try to thwart or rebel against their families as well as objects ambitious families could use to sue other families (for breach of contract). It's not passion but a multifaceted satire on passion that we have here. There's passion to come -- but not between Slope and Eleanor nor really between Madeline and Slope, at least not on her part.

Finally I will remark that this is not the first time Trollope makes a complicated use of letters. We find them in The Kellys and O'Kellys, another multiplot novel which pictures a milieu and uses the love story as a central motif.

I promise I have not anticipated my lecture here, just thrown out a few thoughts which are relevant to see the Slope letter in the context of Trollope's art, that of his contemporaries and predecessors, and in the context of this novel.

Ellen Reply-to:
Subject: [trollope-l] BT, Volume III, Chapter IX (OUP XLIII) Three More Letters

September 9, 1999


Ellen's preparations for her talk on The Epistolary Trollope, and tantalizing hints about said lecture, has increased my awareness of the pivotal part letters play in Trollope's novels. An example is found in today's chapter, which began with the information that Dr. and Mrs. Proudie had each sent a letter to the Reverend and Mrs. Quiverful, which would insure that the fertile couple would have a happier day than Mrs. Bold had. Of course, the wardenship was not offered in so many words; the two were simply requested to call upon their respective patrons (or patroness) the next day.

Mrs. Proudie had determined to allow no grass to grow under her feet. There would be no further opportunity for Mr. Slope to incite her husband to rebellion, and both husband and wife could enjoy the fete in the comfort of perfect understanding. Dr. Proudie submissively signed the appointment, and basked for the remainder of the day " ... in the great comfort [there is] to be derived from a wife well obeyed!" (OUP Barchester Towers, ed. Sadleir and Page, p. 174)

Another very compatible couple, Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful had the interesting, and unspoken, policy of each opening the others' letters. When the important letters arrived, the hopeful couple read and exchanged them. Mr. Quiverful promised not to allow himself to be "talked over" again, and the two indulged in an affectionate embrace. Their importunate creditors would at last be paid, and peace and plenty would rule at the new parsonage, which had already had its windows measured at the imperative command of the bishopess.

Soon after the Quiverfuls had joyfully departed, another visitor was announced. Dr. Gwynne was given a cordial welcome. It was well that he had come alone; it was only with great difficulty that he persuaded the bellicose Dr. Grantly to allow him to come on this mission solo. In spite of the warning he had received about the intrusiveness of Mrs. Proudie, even Dr. Gwynne was startled at the matter-of-fact way that she took control of the meeting. When Mrs. Proudie graciously offered to inspect the Sunday (er, Sabbath-day) school Mrs. Grantly ran, Dr. Gwynne diplomatically told her he was sure the archdeacon's wife would be happy to see her at any time, that is, " ... if Mrs. Grantly should happen to be at home." (p. 180) Mrs. Proudie rightly took this to be a snub, and her warmth quickly dissipated, even to the point of directing her menacing forefinger at the good doctor. Dr. Gwynne realized that he must quickly get to the point of his visit, and tried to hint that he would appreciate seeing the bishop alone. Mrs. Proudie of course refused to take the hint, and guessing what the real purpose of the visit was, told Dr. Gwynne of the appointment of the Reverend Mr. Quiverful to the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital that very morning. Seeing no purpose to prolonging the call, Dr. Gwynne took his leave, figuratively shaking the dust from his feet as he left.

The letter which Mr. Slope had received just before his journey to the Stanhopes' and thence to Ullathorne, was as gratifying as it was short. Tom Towers of the Jupiter told his friend that he would do what he could, to promote the chaplain's appointment to the deanship. The presence of the letter in his pocket was Mr. Slope's only consolation to the indignity of the stinging slap from the enraged widow. Even better was to follow; the following morning the metropolis of London read breathlessly the word from on high (the editorial office, of course). Mr. Slope was to be the man. Who could presume to stand against such an august verdict? What did it matter that Mrs. Proudie's candidate for the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital had been appointed? He was glad that " ... the father of that virago who had so audaciously outraged all decency in his person ..." (p. 186) had been overlooked.

The happiness of the Jupiter's laudatory article was somewhat allayed when he recalled the exasperating Madeline Stanhope. An unreciprocated passion was most frustrating.

Jill Spriggs

To Trollope-l

September 9, 1999

Re: Barchester Towers, III:9 (43): 3 Letters & An Article in the Jupiter

I here look at the Rev. and Mrs Quiverful's inattention to the style of the the offer of the Wardenship to Mr Quiverful by means of two letters, one from the Bishop to the husband, and one from Mrs Proudie to the wife, to whose actual words our narrator exhibits such profound indifference as not to bother give us the letters but rather the Quiverfuls' shared response:

'She had taken the letters from the man's hands between the folds of her capacious apron, so as to save them from the contamination of the stew, and in this guise she brought them to her husband's desk.

They at once divided the spoil, each taking that addressed ot the other. "Quiverful", said she with impressive voice, "you are to be at the palace at eleven tomorrow".

"And so are you, my dear", said he, almost gaspoing with the importance of the tiding: and then they exchanged letters ...'

The couple then reassure one another they have the place not on the basis of what they have read; rather the man remarks that this is the second offer and the woman that Mrs Proudie has invited Mrs Quiverful to come to the palace a second time, upon which they throw themselves warmly into each other's arms 'unmindful fo the kitch apron, the greasy fingers, and the adherent Irish stew' (43).]

I also add a few comments to Jill's on this chapter by remarking on the different uses and approaches to the three letters we find in this chapter and elsewhere in the novel.

As people who write about such things say again and again, one of the significant differences between memoir-, diary- and other first person narratives and epistolary narratives is the weight of the reader. A letter is always written to someone, even when it's not sent. In an intelligent or interesting use of letters, we the letter's other or external reader are made as much aware of the letter's internal reader as its internal writer (as opposed to Trollope, its external writer). So earlier in the book when Slope wrote his letter to Elinor, as much mileage was gotten out of all the readers, their commentaries, disagreements and responses to the letter as to the letter itself (Penguin BT, ed RGilmour, pp. 239-40, 253-75).

In this chapter we have three letters whose style doesn't matter in the least: what matters is the real content, the firm offer of a position or real offer to help insofar as this is within the letter-writer's power. In the case of the first two Trollope doesn't even bother give us the letters because he wants us to concentrate on Quiverfuls' shared response to them, one we are to sympathise with very much:

'She had taken the letters from the man's hands between the folds of her capacious apron, so as to save them from the contamination of the stew, and in this guise she brought them to her husband's desk.

They at once divided the spoil, each taking that addressed ot the other. "Quiverful", said she with impressive voice, "you are to be at the palace at eleven tomorrow".

"And so are you, my dear", said he, almost gaspoing with the importance of the tiding: and then they exchanged letters ...'

Soon they are reassuring one another the offers in the letters are real. They wouldn't have been 'sent for' (shades of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here), if the offers were not firm. At least not again. As they contemplate this inference, they cannot resist an embrace:

"Oh Letty!" said Mr Quiverful, rising from his well- worn seat.

"Oh Q.!" said Mrs Quiverful: and then the two, unmindful of the kitchen apron, the greasy fingers, and the adherent Irish stew, threw themselves warmly into each other's arms.

"For heaven's sake don't let anyone cajole you out of it again", said the wife.

"Let me alone for that", said the husband, with a look of almost fierce determination ... (pp. 411-12).

There's warm good feeling here. Here is an utterly unglamorous couple to whom neither time nor chance have been overly kind who judge each other by their inner life together. We see here it has been one to foster and deepen affection. We can identify: I suppose most of us have waited for a letter of acceptance? and gotten it. And I hope been congratulated by someone or other? and maybe even vowed not to let go this time.

We are given Tom Towers's letter to Mr Slope:


wish you every success. I don't know that I can
help you, but if I can, I will.

Yours ever,


Lest we dismiss this because it's short, our narrator tells us:

"There was more in this than in all Sir Nicholas Fitzwhiggin's flummery; more than in all the bishop's promises, even had they been ever so sincere; more than in any archbishop's good word, even had it been possible to obtain it. Tom Towers would do what he could" (pp. 418-19).

We are meant here to refer back to Slope's original two letters to Fitzwhiggin and Towers (pp. 303-6), and to Fitzwhiggin's which our narrator obligingly described and paraphrased for us (pp. 329). Slope's happy response to the latter showed us Slope's naivete: it was a flowery pretense of doing something at the same time as it asserted Fitzwhiggin could do nothing, using etiquette as the excuse. What can I say about people who tell you they can do nothing for you because etiquette gets in the way? If you can believe that, I have a bridge I can let you have, dead cheap, just step right this way ....

The problem for Towers though is after all journalists are not as powerful as our narrator himself appears to think. Towers does indeed write a long piece trumpeting to all who read it the Towers interpretation of what has happened and the Towers hope that Slope -- no better man for the job -- will get the position of warden. Problem is it's not in Towers's gift (pp. 419-21). It's of course true that the article is written in a way that if Slope doesn't get the job it won't hurt the Jupiter: there's only one paragraph on Slope and it's written as if this is not as important as the great reforms which the Jupiter helped carry out. Still Towers has stuck out the 'neck' of the paper a bit by putting Slope forward as its idea of the best man. So Towers's one line meant far more than Fitzwhiggin's.

Nonetheless, at the same time, as anyone who has gone for a position in university will tell you, what matters is who the individuals on the committee who actually have the power to give you the position actually are, what they think of you and what they are prepared to do. All else is words -- as far as the candidate is concerned. Towers has written an article which positions The Jupiter as important, and that's his reward. Slope again doesn't seem to see this. Slope's 'considerable satisfaction' again shows a certain naivete in the man -- like the one which led him to speak such a bellicose sermon when he first come to Barset in the first place. Slope will not get anywhere in this world because he is in fact a poor politician.

Trollope's most frequent approach to a letter is that it is a performance, not a mirror of the heart, and a performance which is not to be read at face value. One of the reasons he, Trollope, wouldn't write an epistolary novel, is he thinks it's necessary for the narrator to help the external reader (us) as well as his internal readers (his characters) along in understanding these complex imagined letters.

Ellen Moody

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