Boardinghouse Letters

From the conversation on Chapters 7-12:

To Trollope-l

April 9, 2000

Re: The Small House: Chs 10-18: Boardinghouse Letters

Jill Singer directed my attention to the letters interwoven into these two instalments. Though I didn't mention them, Trollope has already dropped three full letters into the narrative: Chapter 10 opens with the letters of Cradell and Amelia to Johnny Eames. They both contrast and parallel one another: Cradell is excusing himself to his friend for his passivity, cowardice, and describing scenes in ways which he wants them to be seen; it is not an aggressive letter. Amelia's is: she demands he write to her; threatens to come visit him; hectors him while pretending love. She also retells the scenes Cradell has described from another perspective. Letters are wonderful to use this way: one can retell the same scene many times, each time using the same matter to project a different mind and to show the scene may be read in another way. The letters are also alike: both writers are conscious hypocrites: they are aware their behavior is a tissue of lies (Everyman The Small House, ed DSkilton, Ch 10, pp. 89-93).

Chapter 12 has Rosina de Courcy's even more insincere letter. (She signs herself 'Yours very sincerely'). There is a sense in which both Cradell and Amelia are sincere: he sincerely wants Johnny to see the events in a light most favorable to him and be on his side; Amelia sincerely wants to rope (yes, it's a good name) Johnny into marriage. Read Lady de Courcy's letter and you find yourself staring into a wall of opaque ice: this is the silvery slippery surface of courtesy as posturing. She is all posture. She mocks the pastoral world she conjures up as Allington; yet we have no idea how she does regard it. There isn't a word which reflects her real attitude towards the people she mentions in the second paragraph. It seems to be in her interest to get Crosbie to her castle; her appeal is based on the 'greatness' of the figures there. Do her daughters think Crosbi 'so clever at making a houseful of people go off well'? If so, is that why they want him to come? (Everyman The Small House, Ch 12, p. 103). Of course, it's written in a style which precludes one taking it seriously, so if he doesn't come, she's 'covered'.

The letters put before our eyes two desperate presences reaching out graspingly and a hollow woman tenatively putting out what might be a claw, only it resembles a pretty hook. More pastoral imagery? When I have come across the kind of person who can write such a letter or have received a version of this sort of thing I turn away as from something withering were you to engage with it. The great world is of course said to run on the deftness of such a woman. The third letter is deft.

This week's chapters have two dropped in letters and two woven ones. The woven ones are the kind I described in my 'Partly Told in Letters' as highly innovative and unusual in 19th century narratives, at least as used by Trollope in the midst of subjective meditations and frequently to carry on the plots of the stories. At the opening of Chapter 14 we get Amelia's letters as filtered through Johnny's consciousness. It burns in his mind. We can note how Trollope as narrative moves into what's called indirect free speech to imitate the feel of Amelia's mind impressing itself on Johnny:

'Had he not better go to Australia or Vancouver's Island, or -- ? I will not name the places which the poor fellow suggested to himself as possible terminations of the long journeys which he might not improbably be called upon to take. That very day, just before the Dales had come in, he had received a second letter from his darling Amelia, written very closely upon the heels of the first. Why had he not answered her? Was he ill? Was he untrue? No; she would not believe that, and therefore fell back upon the probability of his illness. It it was so, she would rush down to see him. Nothing on earth should keep her from the beside of her bethrothed. If she did not get an answer from her beloved John by return of post, she woudl be down with him at Guestwick by the express train ... (Everyman Ch 14, p. 126).

Who wouldn't rush off into the woods to cool down, to think what to do next? His brooding takes a remarkable form: he composes a letter in his mind, one he never gets down on paper. This is a favorite device of Trollope's, and perhaps unique to him. Throughout Trollope's novels from The Bertrams on characters dream letters, compose them, struggle to get them onto paper, sometimes do, and then often do not send them; or they fail to get them onto paper; we are given the thought processes behind the performance that they cannot carry off. Again Trollope avails himself of free indirect speech to move from the narrator's to Johnny's consciousness.

Here is Johnny's:

The letter, as he framed it here, was not a bad letter, if only he could have got it written and posted. Every word of it he chose with precision, and in his mind clearly and justified his purpose.

'He acknowledged himself to have been wrong in misleading his correspondent, and allowing her to imagine that she possessed his heart. he had not a heart at her disposal. He had been weak not to write to her before, having been deterred from doing so by fear of giving her pain; but now he felt that he was bound in honour to tell her the truth Having so told her, he would not return to Burton Crescent, if it would pain her to see him there. He would always have a deep regard for her', -- Oh, Johnny -- 'and would hope anxiously that her welfare in life might be complete'. That was the letter, as he wrote it down in the tablets of his mind under the tree, but the getting it on paper was a task, as he knew, of greater difficulty. Then, as he repeated it to himself, he feel asleep.

'Young man', said a voice in his ears as he slept ... (Ch 14, pp. 129-30).

Johnny thinks the voice comes from his dream; it is Earl de Guest come to tell him he will catch rheumatism. The Earl can wake Johnny up, get him onto his feet, but he cannot write the letter for him.

We are to compare Johnny's dreamed letter to the real one: it is a weasle affair: he asks her to let the matter drop until he comes back, does not say he will go live elsewhere, no words of his heart given elsewhere, just that they would be unhappy if they married because they have nothing to live on, and he begs her pardon for any deceit (Ch 14, p. 132).

Why do we not despise him? I suggest because we compare his form of weasling to Crosbie's. Trollope sees letters as most of the time performances, things to be distrusted, ways of manipulating someone at a distance. The person who can put perform manipulatively and present the conventional face without a break in the wall of cant is to be distrusted. If we look at the sentiments of Johnny's letter to Amelia, they actually echo in brief what Crosbie tells Amelia. But the soul behind them is so different; we may say Johnny could never pull off such prevarications and excuses before Amelia. He himself calls his letter 'cold' -- which is what Crosbie is to Lily's face.

Crosbie's letter is the second full dropped in one we have. To call it a 'love-letter' is high irony. Trollope shows us Crosbie working himself up to it. He has just deserted this girl. He is weasling himself into the de Courcy family whom he despises -- why I cannot tell, since his conduct fits in with theirs. Trollope shows us how struggle, time and effort have to go into the writing of 'an affectionate warm-hearted letter' to Lily. Repeated once more -- as if we had not had it put before us enough times before in the dramatic scenes, Crosbie's words and thoughts and the narrator's assessment -- is the assertion that Crosbie is an 'ungenerous man, 'worldly inconstant'. I am with those who see Lily as having gone to a degree of sexual intimacy well beyond the one of courting and embracing, perhaps to what used to be called 'heavy petting', something sufficient sexually to awaken her (reach orgasm), but not gone all the way. This it was to give oneself utterly to a man for a chaste woman before marriage in Victorian times. Lily has been all generosity in this, all openness, all loyalty, unworldly and she will be constant. Crosbie therefore works up a letter much of which is honest in the sense that he conveys his conflicted feelings. What he is not honest about is his intent or the purpose of his letter: which is to soothe her. This letter is like Johnny's to Amelia: a stopgap. Only Johnny's intent is simply to be a stopgap and he's honest about it. Crosbie is not.

We can also compare the style and length. How simple is Johnny, concise, to the point. Crosbie seems to circle round something he is unwilling to communicate. What is that? Why he left Lily, what he is doing at the castle, and what it is he wants to tell her more freely in London. As our narrator says, in case we missed it, there is a vein in the letter which begins a drumbeat towards escape: "I have struggled honestly, with my best efforts to success; but I am not good enough for such success" (Ch 18, pp. 168-71). Crosbie is the more sophisticated man than Johnny; he is not as direct, and Trollope wants us to see this in the style, and ask what is this sophistication worth when it is not accompanied by integrity.

In my lecture, 'Partly Told in Letters' I argued that once Trollope reaches The Bertrams you can actually read a Trollope novel by moving from letter to letter. I think you can see this undergirding of the narrative by a stream of subjective epistolary narration woven and dropped into omniscient narration here in The Small House of Allington.

I should say I am not sure I have picked up all the letter in last and this week's instalments. I only covered those which had to deal with the two central interlocking triangular love stories

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

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