Contrivance Beside the Point: Hardy and Trollope Again; 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

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; the one problem in the book (at least for this modern reader) is the class-biased approach to Sir Louis. In these chapters it is to be noted that Trollope understands it won't do to bring Louis before us because his art does do Louis some justice, and we would mourn for his death. So the young man does not appear -- only the poignant powerful picture of his mother in a paralysis of desperate loss (Penguin Dr Thorne, introd RRendell, Ch 43, ppp. 502-505). The picture of Dr Thorne sitting next to Lady Scatcherd is one of the most moving passages in this book, and equal in power and compassion to the best in Trollope.

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. In each case we get so het up in a scene, we forget all's well that ends well -- for maybe that's not quite so. Come to think of it perhaps that's one of the insights the structure of Dr Thorne demonstrates. The journey matters too. It matters that Lady Arabella can say to Mary that she has nothing to give Frank. Nothing to give? Depends on how you define what makes life worth living, how and what to live for. It matters that Dr Thorne will not jump to grab the estate for Mary. It matters that he sits and holds Lady Scatcherd's hand.

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.

This week's chapters end on an uplift: Lady Scatcherd is finally told. The first one to know: Mary is money. She almost topples over her seat. The importance of not letting us see Louis die comes in here, though for this modern reader it is a bit hard to take how this grieving mother suddenly finds consolation in the thought the Observed and all Observed in Greshambury, the heir, is going to get her property.

And yet the obstacle is not quite removed it seems. The lawyers may not find the will valid. Oh dear. Another turn in London to come as Lady Scatcherd and Dr Thorne sit plotting into the night -- together with their storyteller.

Comments on this week's chapters, anyone?

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Updated 11 January 2003