September 28, 1998
Re: Rachel Ray: Chs 1-5: A Provincial Fractured Pastoral
Upon opening the book I thought to myself, there may be women readers on our list who will be offended by Trollope's attitude towards Mrs Ray and Rachel. On the opening page of the book he announces there are women who need someone to cling to, some support, someone they can confide in and turn to at just about every point of their lives where some decision is to be made. He then shows us in Mrs Ray just such a nervous anxious diffident type. There are men who are this way too, but since it is even more unacceptable nowadays for men to admit to having such a personality, they only emerge in fictions in ways that don't bring out this very real aspect in some character types in the direct way Trollope does.
I also thought that there might be some discomfort with how Trollope presents Rachel from the point of view of sexual responsiveness. Now I loved the chapter called "An Arm in the Cloud." It is pure erotic pastoral. I have been laughed at when I have written that Trollope can be a poet in prose, especially when it comes to landscape (the sequences in Can You Forgive Her? which occur in Cumberland come to mind), but I think I am right. He is extremely able to turn his nervous prose into a sensuous depiction of the world, and in this chapter he combines the direct aggression of a male, in this case the genuinely honest and tactful (no wolf here) Luke Rowan, with the intense vulnerable response of somewhat diffident shy female, Rachel Ray, to create a scene which I find deeply pleasing because it is something one yearns for in dreams or has had moments of in the past or hopes for moments of in the future. For those who own the Oxford paperback I refer to the paragraphs which begin at the top of p 38 and go on to the middle of p 39. It opens:
"'Look,' said he, pointing to the west; 'did you ever see such a setting sun as that? Did you ever see such blood-red colour?' The light was very wonderful, for the sun had just gone down and all the western heavens were crimson with its departing glory. In the few moments that they stood there gazing it might almost have been believed that some portentous miracle had happened, so deep and dark, and yet so bright, were the hues of the horizon...
This is deeply-musing prose, prose which comes from the depths of a spirit who has entered into a feminine consciousness he has imagined and called Rachel:
"He spoke to her as no one, -- no man or woman, -- had ever spoken to her before. she had a feling, as painful as it was delicious, that th ewoman's words were sweet with a sweetness which she had known in her dreams..."
It is the worlds among clouds, the talk shared, the moment of intense physical intimacy which makes the memory of his strong arm there mean so much to her. It is all done with exquisite delicacy and tact.
I can see why the Rev Mr Macleod rejected this book. There seems to be something of a spirit of mischief in Trollope as he determines to teach precisely the audience who would be most hypocritical about such pleasures that they are essential, indeed center to our existences considered from the point of view of moments of joy.
But I liked the chapters. I find Trollope so gentle in them. This satire directed at these provincial types is not harsh at all. Trollope is fond of Mrs Ray; he is amused by Mr Comfort -- who does offer comfort. People sometimes ask why Trollope is popular among some readers at least (I have been reminded this week that there is a world off this list who have never heard of Trollope): one reason is in many books he presents likeable characters whom he likes. This is one of them. Let us note that Mrs Prime is not a very formidable type; there are limits to the harm she can do. If her big weapon is to threaten to leave, this is a frail power she's got.
I also liked the depiction of the Tappitts and Dorcas ladies, and references to Mrs Butler Cornbury (née Patty Comfort) sweet, delicious with comedy. Apparently Macleod thought his readers would get so angry at the eroticism and depiction of Mrs Prime that they wouldn't be able to see straight. I have also on lists been slammed when I have said a particular Trollope novel is Austen-like. I don't think this tone is Austen's, but I do think the closed- in stance is. What we have here is a tiny provincial set of people; he's going to explore them on their own terms; from this small perspective we may infer many large generalities about class, religion, sex, money, human nature, even beauty. But the fiction itself remains rooted in a narrow round of particulars limited by the perspectives of the individuals depicted.
Maybe I am in the mood for just this kind of delicate satire. I included in my heading "fractured" because that's a good word for indicating by no means is this an idyl. Mr Comfort is for allowing Luke to court Rachel because he's got money. Mr Tappitt will have to fork out money or let Rowan into the firm, and Rowan plays hardball -- as Rowan is aggressive with Rachel, we may expect, as Mr Tappitt does, he will be aggressive with Mr Tappitt. The minds of these people have embedded in them the continual paranoia we meet in America today lest they find themselves with someone beneath them and who others see are beneath them by virtue of dress or manners. God forbid one should drop an "h." (Skilton is right to say Trollope apparently shares some of these attitudes -- as did Austen.) Mrs Prime is an unpleasant woman; I expect Mr Prong (the use of the letter p strikes me here; I see something slightly salacious in the guy's name before we have met him), I expect I say Mr Prong will be a less kindly hypocrite than Mr Comfort. On the other hand I trust Trollope not to make him too unctuous the way Dickens might.
From Jill Spriggs
Re: Rachel Ray, Chs 1-5: The women
I am uncomfortable with the portrait of Mrs. Ray, and I am trying to figure out why. Contemporary wisdom has people standing up for themselves, able to be autonomous. A weak reed like Mrs. Ray would today be urged to get some assertiveness training. It could be some of my discomfort comes from recognizing parts of myself I wish were not there; a wish for approval, a detestation of "rocking the boat", a tendency to volunteer for doormat patrol.
I have also met many Mrs. Primes, usually in positions of authority in the various service leagues (not unlike the Dorcas society) I have been coerced into joining. Saying no to them is an extremely difficult task for those of us with jelly for spines. I have to feel a life of poverty would be preferable to one living under the thumb of this one. Poor Rachel.
From Marcella MacCarthy:
Subject: TROL Rachel Ray: As Fairy Tale
"other of Trollope's short novels deal with this triangular arrangement of a mother and two dissimilarly minded daughters."It's an arrangement that partakes a little of the fairy-tale, as well. Quite apart from Mrs. Prime being an ugly sister (with ambitions to be a wicked stepmother figure in taking over Mrs. Ray's authority over Rachel) who wilfully makes herself ugly, she provides us with an object lesson in how narrowing over-calculation in marriage can be, and so endorses the heroine's actions. Free to choose, her main ideas about the prospect of her own re-marriage concern money and power.
Mrs. Prime acts as a very powerful foil to Rachel: the way that Rachel and Mrs. Ray drink cream when they escape from her for a moment, their laughter and responsiveness to beauty when she is not there emphasise how oppressive her presence in the novel is. Both Rachel and her mother directly compare the two women, speaking of her marriage, and of how she had been at Rachel's age. It is as though she was once a proto-Rachel, or might have been if she had let herself. The preface to the Oxford edition points out the way in which the natural world is opposed to the town in the novel, and in this reading Rachel becomes almost the spirit of freshness and life against her dry and withered sister. It's no accident that Mrs. Prime is a widow, and not just an old maid.