Numbered Letters in The American Senator and Ayala's Angel

September 3, 1999

From: "Catherine Crean" I am in the midst of chapter 14 in AA and have come upon Frank Houston's three letters. Trollope even labels the letters "Letter No. 1" "Letter No. 2" and "Letter No. 3." What gamesmanship! In letter #1, the poor artist writes a letter accepting an invitation to hunt grouse in Gertude Tringle's Scottish country home. The letter is addressed to Lady Tringle, Gertrude's mother. Letter #2 is written to Gertrude, and letter #3 is written to Frank's cousin Imogen (Cousin Im) with whom he is really in love. Ellen, what do you make of this passage? In commenting about Ayala's Angel I had forgotten about the Cousin Imogen subplot. I now recall that this subplot baffled me. Don't Frank and Imogen do have a scene together next to some rushing water in the Tyrol, or am I getting confused with Can You Forgive Her? Well, Trollopians know what scenes near rushing water mean. Rushing water is as emblemic in Trollope as Tudor windows are.

September 4, 1999

Re: Numbered Letters in The American Senator and Ayala's Angel and

In response to Catherine:

I have discovered that in a number of his novels Trollope names a chapter the So-and-so correspondence, and gets the best of both worlds: omniscient and epistolary narration, interior monologue and satiric exposure, mirroring of the heart and commentary thereon. Through these kinds of chapters Trollope tells his story through letters which offer all kinds of information like a picture does: implicitly, explicitly, and psychologically. They are also often ironic in context. At the same time the narrator talks away and we get dramatic scenes which shape and guide the reader's response. Sometimes Trollope also provides us with a character who is reading the letter, sometimes to another character, so we get to share their responses and active responses (sometimes in the form of more letters, sometimes in the form of acts) too.

There are a few cases where he goes so far as to number these correspondences. One we saw in The American Senator: the Rufford Correspondence. The reason Trollope numbers the letters of Rufford and Arabella before they meet at Mistletoe is these letters are not written as the direct outpourings of the writers' hearts, but rather in response to a previous epistle. After the first unwary one, they are calculated and wary responses to one another. In other words it matters what order these letters were written in.

First we get Rufford, and his is careless and spontaneous, not to say mindless: he writes to complain he is stuck in a house where the Master of the Hunt, Caneback, has died. What a nuisance the funeral is. She ought to feel sorry for him. Arabella Trefoil tries to use his words to further along a half-plan he and she had that they would meet to hunt together in another house. Rufford then answers, now wary. It seems he might not show at said house. Arabella replies if he doesn't show, she shall just about commit suicide because since seeing him at Rufford Hall she has worked so hard to get an invitation; she has altered all her plans. This male fish seems half-caught because Rufford writes back he will certainly be at Mistletoe. He will not disappoint Arabella.

Then in the next chapter we are told there was another correspondence going on at the same time. People who just read the book will remember that Arabella was engaged to John Morton; at just the time of Rufford's first letter (No. 1), John Morton wrote Arabella a serious, long deeply affectionate letter in which he asked her if it was her intention to become his wife or not. Now she doesn't reply to this because she has just received Rufford's first. She is waiting to see how Rufford responds to hers to him (No 2); after he writes so warily (No 3), she is careful not to break with Morton. Then Morton writes again and she must answer, only she now has only had the letter in which Rufford tries to weasle out of meeting her. In other words the two sets of letters are intertwined and the responses of the second set are the result of the responses of the first.

Why not arrange them as they would be in an epistolary novel?

I dunno. I think because they are more fun to read with the narrator intervening. It's more suspenseful this way. We get two different views of each set of letters. Trollope is getting an enormous amount of mileage out of each word. He numbers them so we can follow him.

The letters themselves enable the characters to escape from Trollope's view: Arabella's later letter to Rufford after he flees Mistletoe, which she calls playful is pathetic in ways she and the narrator seem to be unaware of. 'Your going off like that was, after all, very horrid. My aunt thinks that you were running away from me ... I don't for a moment think that ... I know you don't like being bound by any of the conventionalities ... I am so stiff ... everybody cross ... nasty, hard, unpleasant people'. Her second letter demands that Rufford acknowledge an engagement, but the one that counts for the reader is the first. There we see the difference between how people who have lots of money can behave, and who those who are desperate to live minimally respectably have to behave.

The numbered letters in Ayala's Angel are also pieces of posing. Frank Houston to Emmeline, Lady Tringle, is a calculated posing. Right before it the narrator enables us to enter Frank's mind and this shows how Frank cares nothing for Gertrude Tringle. (We never enter Rufford's mind, but then he doesn't sit around considering things.) The second one of Frank to Gertrude seemed to me filled with cliched cant of loverly language.

The third one is best of all. There Frank writes to Imogen Docimer and unwittingly reveals how much he loves Imogen. The irony here is he affects to despise the Tringles for their materialism, for their shallowness, and what is he? He indicts himself. He alludes to Sir Walter Scott's poem Allan-a-dale and boasts of making Gertrude fall in love with him. Gertrude prefers the blue vault of heaven with him to the bright spangles offered her by her parents' money; they wail and cry; Gertrude has fled to the forest to hear his love cry.

The whole thing is in such bad taste: here he's writing to Imogen, a girl who loves him, and whom he has affection for; he preens over the parents whose daughter he has persuaded to prefer him for the great poetical vibes he supposedly emits; and he affects to despise them. One result is that Gertrude emerges as more than something of an ass too. One could infer that were she to marry Frank, they deserve one another. Whether Sir Thomas should be wasting his money this way is another question.

I thought perhaps the reason for numbering them was that the order counted. It's true that this set of letters is not followed by another intertwinted set. However, it is followed (somewhat later) by one from Frank to Imogen describing his time in Scotland with the Tringles. In this letter he again exposes himself unwittingly far more than Arabella Trefoil ever does.

Whatever you may think of Arabella Trefoil, she has a dense presence; she really means what she tells Rufford when she says she has worked so hard to wrest an invitation from dense unsympathetic people. Hunting is an exhausting challenge for her. Everything she does and feel she does with a terrific intensity. Not so Frank. Or at least not apparently so.

Did you notice that a good deal of the Frank Houston-Imogen Docimer plot is told through letters. It proves that letters need not force a novelist to be prolix. In fact you can swiftly offer a tiny novel (the story of Frank and Imogen) within a bigger novel (the stories of Ayala and Lucy) -- if you are Anthony Trollope.


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