Epistolarity used to create Emotional Suspense: Mary Thorne's Letter to Frank Threatened with Extinction, and then Delayed by Lady Arabella, his Mother; The Best Moment in the Book Led Into by Mary's Delayed Letter: Plangency

To Trollope-l

From Re: Dr Thorne, Chs 40-43: Contrivance Beside the Point: Hardy and Trollope Again; Epistolarity used to create Emotional Suspense

It's remarkable how Trollope manages to keep suspense going when a 'telltale compression of pages' and our knowledge of probabilities in such a plot trumpet to us that felicity is drawing near. How does he do this?

One way comes from a contrasting methodology to that Howard finds at work in The Mayor of Casterbridge. All the events of this novel don't feel contrived (even if they are) because they seem to emerge from the psychology of the characters naturally. We are kept up close to them; they are allowed to speak for themselves in a way that has the serendipity of real life. Each real detail that we are given for each fits into the larger puzzle; when a detail would hurt, Trollope's tact saves him from coming too close to it . . .

So we worry for the characters. Again we have a series of strong scenes. Lady Arabella and Dr Thorne, the Squire and Dr Thorne, Lady Arabella and Mary, Lady Scatcherd and Dr Thorne. Even the momentary encounter between Dr Fillgrave and Dr Thorne has its sense of dignity and passion. Frank refusing to look at his letter (as unimportant -- Frank how could you?) to Mr Oriel becomes fraught with tension because it is embedded in our knowledge of Mary's act of writing, the letter itself, and the scene between Mary and Lady Arabella which gave rise to it. . .

Since I just gave my talk on letters I was very alive to Trollope's way of presenting, content, and use of Mary's letter. It is one of those letters which is just dropped into the narrative, but in it we see exploited the reality that a letter allows people to be present to one another while they are absent. On the train to Salisbury Angela and I talked of the letters in Trollope in which one character proposes to another. There are a number of these: the character proposes in this way because he or she is not sure the proposal will be accepted. The letter acts as a mediator, at once a bridge and kind barrier. Mary could never have gotten past the first paragraph of giving up Frank were he in the room. She can only reveal to him her innermost heart so frankly because he's literally not there.

Alas, at the same time, he's not there. Trollope has some hard fun over Mary's failure of imagination. Mary is not alone in thinking letters somehow magically get to their destinations in a few hours. As a post office clerk and then official, Trollope never forgets all the stops a letter must take; as a human being, he knows the obstacle course it might face when it enters someone's house where other people don't want the person they are controlling to have such access to another person. Lady Arabella is not sufficiently amoral to destroy Mary's letter: or she is too cautious and controlled by what she knows her husband would say, and by Beatrice's knowledge that such a letter existed.

This letter too provides suspense and a stringing out of anxiety. Poor Mary is sitting and waiting for her answer for chapters. We see her desolation before her uncle. We worry with her. Whew. The letter got past Lady Arabella. Will it get to Frank? When? Then there's Mary thinking about the letter after it has gone and her uncle hints to her that circumstances could perhaps allow her to marry Frank. The contradictions her divagating mind take are altogether human:

'Oh, why had she sent her letter? and why had she made it so cold? With such a letter as that before him, Frank could not do other than consent to her proposal. And then, why did he not answer it? (Ch 43, p. 501).

Well, we have read it and know it's not cold. It's warm with anxiety, poignancy, grief, hurt and reluctant self-sacrifice. Read carefully Mary's letter is not asking Frank to release her, but asking him not to release her. Not that Frank reads it very carefully. This is common among certain of Trollope's spontaneous characters. Mary is a very Trollopian character too when she misapprehends how her imagined recipient will read and respond to her letter. One should also say here the above kind of mistaken understanding and contradictions make us laugh kindly at Mary. It's a deeply sympathetic laughter. We are in her mind. This too is us. And this comedy deflects the sense of emotional depths Trollope plays upon.

The scenes also form a minuet of parallels; this too controls our emotion because the aesthetic patterning is felt . . .

Ellen Moody

December 5, 1999

From Re: Dr Thorne, Chs 44-47: The Best Moment in the Book Led into by Mary's Delayed Letter: Plangency

If a novel may be likened to a musical composition, I offer up the idea that in the last four chapters of Dr Thorne Trollope hits just the right notes to keep us going and get up from our books gratified by a deeply-felt yet comic experience. He also gives us an apparently fully romantic ending which is at the same time undercut ironically and made acceptable to the prudent by pouring money into Frank and Mary's laps. I call this having it both ways.

For a start, consider his difficulties: we know how it's going to end. He's not fooling us with Dr Thorne's anxiety over whether Mary will be recognised or not -- nor does he really mean to. Instead he exploits the fictional stance of the comic storyteller by confiding in us his determination not to be bullied by those who say he and other novelists ought to hire a barrister (Penguin Dr Thorne, introd. RRendell, Ch 45, pp. 525-26). This distracts us from the predetermined felicity, at the same time as telling us this is a fiction. We are also not worried that Frank will be persuaded away from Mary either by his mother or Harry Baker. Here Trollope carries us along by getting us deeply involved in the debate itself, and what that provides is allowing us to hear idealism affirmed while we suspect that Frank will not give up anything that matters since Mary is going to inherit Sir Roger's fortune. A key line by Frank resounds healthily in our hearts: '"Mother, I will not sell myself for what you call my position" (Ch 44, p. 512). We are delighted to sneer at Lady Arabella's notion that hard work which offers independence is demeaning:

A profession -- hard work, as the doctor, or as an engineer -- would, according to her ideas, degrade him; cause him to sink below his proper position; but to dangle at a foreign court, to make small talk at the evening parties of a lady ambassadress, and occasionally, perhaps, to write demi- official notes containing demi-official tittle-tattle; this would be in proper accordance with the high honour of a Gresham of Greshamsbury (Ch 44, p. 511).

The letter is very useful in this chapter. It puts our heroine into deep emotional suspense. And we have been made to identify with her. We may be having fun laughing at Slow and Bideawhile, but Mary doesn't know all is going to end happily for her -- and Trollope keeps reminding us of this:

And in the meantime, she was waiting with sore heart for his answer to that letter which was lying, and was still to lie for so many hours, in the safe protection of the Silverbridge postmistress (Ch 44, p. 514).

If I were to put in my finger on the most moving moment of the book, the one that places it high in achievement among Trollope's books, it would be the sentence with which the penultimate chapter ends:

'"Oh Frank; my own Frank! we shall never be separated now"' (Ch 46, p. 543).

The plangency of this has been prepared for for some 543 pages. It is not the only moment of remarkable depth: there are the many scenes between Sir Roger and Dr Thorne, the scene between Dr Thorne and Lady Scatcherd when Sir Roger and Sir Louis have died. There are the scattered keenly ironical dramatic utterances of Miss Dunstable. Keen irony comes from caustic anger. However, the plot line culminates on Mary's sudden rush of emotion in response ot the silent Frank at the window ...


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