Anthony Trollope's "Lotta Schmidt"

?1865-67, Trollope travelled in Vienna; it was written during this time
Published 1866 (Christmas Number), Argosy
Published in a book 1867 (August), Lotta Schmidt and Other Stories, Strahan

To Trollope-l

February 22, 1998

Re: "Lotta Schmidt:" The Sound of the Zither I really liked this story -- and so did a number of my students when I assigned it in a junior-level class. It combines a creation of an atmosphere which seems to me appropriate to a picture of an evening in Vienna where people walk in its squares and sit together companionably in its "beer-halls in the Volksgarden" and listen to the strains of an orchestra led by a violin; appropriate also to a picture of an evening of dancing, and especially appropriate to a poignant yet wry love story in which we find the young girl actually being drawn to choose a bald-headed decidedly shabby older man to what everyone would assume will be her choice, a beautifully made and elegantly dressed (all silks and satins he) younger man. Trollope seems to me to carry it off very well. He also has a trick of suggesting a slight dialect through the English to give us a feel of "foreignness." I think he does it through slight changes in the rhythm of the sentences. In a way the story reminded me of "The Chateau of Prince Polignac." They both are curious "slices of life," mood pieces in which a vulnerable individual gets the lady because her better instincts win out. Now this mood is most clearly embodied in the sound of a zither.

I have only heard a zither once because it is not often played in the United States. But I haven't forgotten it. It "makes" Orson Welles's The Third Man where it provides the background music. It has a haunting melancholy lyricism; what Welles does is speed it up and make it slightly satirical, half-baked, because the Vienna he is intent on depicting is gone more than a little mad. One cannot know what inspires a story, but I wondered if Trollope wrote it because of the zither, and not only because of a key paragraph in it whose poetry is more typical of Trollope than people think. Trollope does write poetry, a poetry of landscape description--as in the depiction of Westmoreland in Can You Forgive Her? or Ireland or Cornwall in "Malachi's Cove" or southern France in "Prince Polignac." He also is good at dramatic narrative. What is unusual is for him to try to make his words capture music, but I think he succeeds, at least he did for me:

Reader, did you ever hear the zither? When played, as it sometimes is played in Vienna, it combines all the softest notes of the human voice. It sings to you of love, and then wails to you of disappointed love, till it fills you with a melancholy from which there is no escaping,--from which you never wish to escape. It speaks to you as no other instrument ever speaks, and reveals to you with wonderful eloquence the sadness in which it delights It produces a luxury of anguish, a fulness of the satisfaction of imaginary woe, a realization of the mysterious delights of romance, which no words can ever thoroughly supply. While the notes are living, while the music is still in the air, the ear comes to cot greedily every atom of tone which the instrument will produce, so that the slightest extraeous sound becomes an offence. Teh notes sink and sink so low and low, with their soft sad wail of delicious woe, that the listener dreads that something will be lost in the struggle of listening. There seems to come some lethargy on his sense of hearing, which he fears will shut out from his brain the last, lowest, sweetest strain, the very pearl of the music for which he has been watching with the all intensity of prolonged desire. And then the zither is silent, and there remains a fond memory together with a deep regret" (Sutherland, pp 27-8).

My memory of the zither suggests it is more playful than Trollope's attempt at finding an analogy through language. It is lighter, frothier, gayer, with more than a little mockery. But I know that when it would stop in the movie or the movie ended I was very sad it was gone. I did wish it would go on forever and forever, and the movie is as famous for its background zither as it is for anything else.

The idea of Trollope's story is that the girl chooses the older man when he plays his heart out on the zither to the point that everyone listening grows very still and Lotta's eyes are "quickly full of tears" at the "ecstasy of delicious sadness" that he is playing to her.

The story is not all languish and melancholy. The characters are wry, pragmatic, and make life somewhat uncomfortable for one another in the way real people do. Lotta is at first anything but willing to be charmed by Herr Crippel. She talks in rather cruel ways of the violin-player who has reached middle age and has asked her to marry him more than once. The depiction of her teasing relationship with her friend, Marie, and then sharp competition over who shall be boss with the young man, Fritz Planken, is necessary to give the story the acid it needs to make us accept its sweets.

Trollope was proud of this story and thought the best of the first grouping of these later years which appeared in 1868 in Lotta Schmidt and other Stories. Hitherto he had called the volumes only Tales of Other Countries. I believe he only named one other of the volumes of short stories he published after a single story--Why Frau Frohman raised her Prizes and Other Stories in 1882. In his Autobiography he declares that his two best short stories are "The Spotted Dog" and "Frau Frohmann." So maybe he wanted to call attention to the best of the lot by naming the volume after it.

Ellen Moody

Date: Sun, 22 Feb 1998 21:28:29 -0600
X-Sender: (Unverified)
From: Anthony Brietz Monta
Subject: Short Stories: "Lotta Schmidt"

Hi again everybody,

Forgive me if you've all talked about "Lotta Schmidt" and I missed it. I'm new to the list and may be like some bewildered tourist, far behind the group, squinting at something everybody else has seen already. Delete now if you think I am.

I finished reading "Lotta Schmidt" this evening and my initial reaction was: AT must be putting me on. I thought the story was pretty corny. The comic situation is stock, and the treatment is thinly-disguised fairy-tale with some travel-literature-like observations thrown in for... saleability? To make financial hay out of a trip to Vienna? Here we have two girls, one mostly sensible and settled in love (Marie), and one sentimental and unsettled in love (Lotta), and the tale is basically the story of Lotta's coming to choose between two rival lovers, one who is mature, plain and kind, and the other who is immature, handsome and proud. And the big final scene, complete with well-mannered repartee, is set in a dance-hall. It must have been a familiar set of fictional materials for AT's readers.

Yet the more I turn "Lotta Schmidt" over in my mind, the more its sentiment kinda gets to me. I still think the zither business, with that wonderfully over-the-top prose describing its sound, is pure corn. And the line, "if you sup with me now, you must sup with me always," is a real howler. You might come across that line in a bit of Jane Austen's perfect juvenilia. But isn't AT asking us -- in the whole story, really -- to reconsider any impulse we might have to suppose ourselves Coolly Superior to sentimental matters? Isn't the whole point with Fritz to make us exclaim, "What a snot!" when we hear his little crisp criticisms of Herr Crippel's playing? "Lotta Schmidt" seems like a defense of its own method of sentimental storytelling.

I see from John Sutherland's note that "Lotta Schmidt" was published in 1866, which, if I remember correctly, was in the heyday of English "sensation fiction" -- itself a clever form of melodrama which some reviewers delighted in panning. "Lotta Schmidt" is not sensation fiction, I think, but a milder, more benevolent cousin. How did other people react?

Anthony Monta

To which I replied:

Anthony Monta says he originally found this story "pretty corny," and the attempt at describing the sounds of the zither "over the top." As he will see I liked the story very much. Maybe my memories of the haunting melodies of the zither helped, and since I am drawn to travel literature strongly (since the probabilities of my ever seeing very much of the world beyond what I journey through in book are very small), and I liked the wry interactions between the girls and young men, I liked the sentimental nature of this story very much. More probably I was curiously touched by the old man. I think late in life Trollope wrote a novella called "An Old Man's Love"--a fantasy about himself. I warm to the vulnerable, the weak, those others laugh at, and find my heart most moved by Trollope when he seeks to depict the inner triumphs and outer defeats--and very occasional rarely and hard-won outer successes of such people. I identify. True in the story the old man wins, but only just. The girl will remain strong, young, and independent too.

I like sentiment when it seems to me true to real emotions and comes from the vulnerable and powerless, the restricted and hurt, those whom luck and strength enables others to despise and make a scapegoat of. I wept, really wept when I read The Macdermots of Ballycloran for the first time. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I got choked up the first time I read "The Parsons' Daughter of Oxney Colne"--so too the death of Mr Harding at the close of The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire; and also when Dr Thorne's lady love rejected him after the trial of Roger Scatcherd for his brother's murder and Dr Thorne burst into tears. The pain in the letter of the desperate alcoholic scholar which opens "The Spotted Dog" is so strong I still feel it like some whiplash when I get to the final line: "I don't expect a reply." I am told that recently on Ms Thompson's list where some people read Marion Fay together, it was bashed and mocked and derided. For myself I am sure had I been reading it with the others I would have cried.

Ellen Moody

Date: Mon, 23 Feb 1998 20:33:49 EST
Subject: Short Stories: "Lotta Schmidt" and The Way We Live Now

Roger Carbury reminds me of Herr Crippel in "Lotta Schmidt". Both considered old, unattractive, but loyal and steadfast. Paul Montague reminds me of Fritz, young, good looking, the more conventional "lover" type, while being rather promiscuous. Unfortunately, I don't think this story is going to come out the same way.

Jill Spriggs

Date: Tue, 24 Feb 1998 10:44:09 -0500
Subject: Short Stories Lotta II

I forgot one more thing. Ellen mentions how Trollope's characters sometimes fall suddenly into love. This reminds me of Lydgate and Rosamond in Middlemarch - remember how he fell under her spell so quickly? Wasn't he bending over to retrieve some item she had let fall and their heads drew close? Bang! He was a goner.


I have lost the first of Bart Hansen's two postings on "Lotta Schmidt" to which this was a reply:

I was trying to figure out that one, too, Bart. My feeling is that it was neither the zither nor the boldness, nor even a combination of the two. I thought her decision was the convergence of a couple things.

First, Marie chastises Lotta for being petty about Herr Crippel's baldness. Lotta takes this to heart because Trollope has her in turn chastise Fritz for making off-the-cuff remarks about Herr Crippel's age and his "tired" hand. Seeing Herr Crippel treated so rudely by Fritz also makes her sympathize with the man who wears his heart on his sleeve and takes a beating for it. There's courage in that. And notice that Lotta invites Herr Crippel to Sperl's just after Herr Crippel bows gallantly to Fritz, whom we know has been driving Herr Crippel mad with self-doubt. The implication here is that Lotta has come to recognize the charity and even courage that lie behind Herr Crippel's politeness.

Lotta comes to appreciate the honesty of Herr Crippel's sentiments in a more decisive way when she realizes that Fritz has been doing just the opposite of what Herr Crippel has been doing: i.e., Fritz has been stringing her along and has kept himself at one remove from his own feelings. There's that key paragraph for instance about Fritz deciding to preserve his "manhood" against the "tyranny" of Lotta's ultimatum. This is Fritz remaining aloof and critical of sentiments that might bind him.

Lotta has been educated, partly by Marie's influence, to value the frankness of these sentiments -- and so she accepts the man who embodies them best. Is that how you read it, Bart? Other folks?

Anthony Monta

Date: Wed, 25 Feb 1998 15:09:16
To: Subject: Short Stories: "Lotta Schmidt" and Cupid

Bart Hansen wrote:

"I forgot one more thing. Ellen mentions how Trollope's characters sometimes fall suddenly into love. This reminds me of Lydgate and Rosamond in Middlemarch - remember how he fell under her spell so quickly? Wasn't he bending over to retrieve some item she had let fall and their heads drew close? Bang! He was a goner.


I have sometimes thought the poetic image of love as a child blindedfolded with a pack of arrows which he playfully, mischievously, and certainly without any reasoned consideration, aims at people as accurately as any of the rationales our Freudians or other schools of thought give us why people fall in love. Love at first sight is mocked because we feel it does happen--and it does, or at least in hindsight often seems to have. Trollope is among those who emphasize love's irrationality, or the difficulty of explaining precisely why this individual now falls in and then out of love with another. He often describes marriage as a leap in the dark. In a number of long novels I can remember the narrator suddenly saying that all the totings up on one side and then another are as useless in deciding who to marry as looking into a crystal ball, and advising the reader to take the plunge (or not) without overmuch prior consideration. It does no good anyhow.

Ellen Moody

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