More about the famine; Sex and Blackmail; Prendergast, the Strong Sympathetic Lawyer

Date: Sat, 8 Sep 2001
From: "Judy Geater"
Subject: [Trollope-l] Castle Richmond: More about the famine

Hello all

I'd like to thank Frank Biletz for recommending the short book The Irish Famine by Peter Gray. I was lucky enough to find a copy at my local library, and have almost finished reading it. Gray certainly packs a lot into a short space and gives a good overview.

The best part of the book is possibly the long section of documents at the end. This includes eyewitness accounts, a heartless leader article from The Times in London (complacently suggesting the famine is all the Irish people's own fault) and letters from emigrants to America trying to find out if their families are still alive. In some ways I was most moved by these letters, which really bring a few of those affected by the famine forward as individuals.

Ellen mentioned that she has some queasy feelings at times while reading Pendennis, because of Thackeray's attitude towards women. I also found myself feeling queasy at times in Castle Richmond (like Wayne I have read ahead and finished, as I always do!) because, like most modern readers I suspect, I just can't stomach Trollope's sermonising about the famine and his claims that it shows the workings of divine providence.

To a modern reader, it is horrifying to see comments like these in Chapter 7: "The poor cotter suffered sorely under the famine, and under the pestilence which followed the famine; but he, as a class, has risen from his bed of suffering a better man. He is thriving as a labourer either in his own country or in some newer - for him better - land to which he has emigrated."

The telling phrase here is "as a class". Trollope writes so movingly and so acutely about the psychology of individuals, in this novel as in all his others. Yet here he loses sight of the fact that each "poor cotter" is in the end an individual - and suggests that it is worthwhile for some to die if others live better as a result.

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of the passage in Dickens's Hard Times where Sissy is tested by the schoolmaster, who says to her: "This schoolroom is an immense town, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And, my remark was - for I couldn't think of a better one - that I thought it must be just hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too." Dickens keeps sight of the individual's suffering here - Trollope somehow loses this aspect in his attempt to be positive. His mention of the "bed of suffering" fatally undermines his own argument, because the reader immediately thinks of all those who did not rise from that bed.

However, even though Trollope wants to see the working of a divine providence, and urges that interpretation through his unusually didactic religious passages, there is a very different feeling when he writes about the individuals hit by the famine.

As soon as he leaves the pulpit and gets back to his story, it seems to me that he is just as sympathetic and clear-eyed as ever. His own heart-breaking accounts of the suffering deny his uneasy attempts to find a purpose in it all.

Getting just ahead of this week's section, in Chapter 16: The Path Beneath the Elms, Herbert tries to harden his heart. At first he refuses to give money to Bridget Sheehy, a starving mother with five dying children -because he has "learned deep lessons of political economy" and been taught not "to give promiscuous charity by the roadside".

He at first lectures the woman and tells her to go to the poorhouse - but then his resolve quickly collapses, in the face of her desperate need, and he gives her what he has. Trollope writes: "But the system was impracticable, for it required frames of iron and hearts of adamant. It was impossible not to waste money in almsgiving."

I think it is powerful passages like this which stick in the reader's mind, rather than Trollope's sermons on why the famine is really a blessing in disguise.

When I first read the novel, I was really shocked by Trollope's arguments, but, reading Gray helps to put these comments in context. Gray shows that many writers at the time tried to trace the workings of a divine providence, and some even saw the famine as God's venting of his wrath on the Irish population - a view which Trollope indignantly rejects. All the same, I would be interested to know how readers of the time responded to Trollope's comments and his defence of the British Government's inadequate response to the crisis. Can anybody shed more light on this?

As well as picking up the Gray book from the library, I also found another book which looked interesting - Writing the Irish Famine by Christopher Morash. Has anybody read this? I have only just started it, but it seems to be rather like the "biographies of biographies" which Ellen discussed, looking at how different writers have discussed and shaped the famine experience over the years. I see that there is a section about Trollope and Castle Richmond - so I'll report back on this!

Bye for now
Judy Geater

Date: Sun, 9 Sep 2001
Re: [Trollope-l] Castle Richmond: More about the famine

Judy writes well about what seem to be Trollope's conflicting thoughts about the famine, contrasting his sermonizing about divine providence -- which for us today especially is a little hard to take, to say the least -- contrasted with his portraits of suffering individuals. I think this is a conflict that many people face even today, people who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing god and somehow feel they have to find rationale and justification for suffering. I thought of this as I read these passages in Castle Richmond and, while I didn't sympathize with these sermons about divine providence, I can see how people can be led to them. So I am not willing to condemn Trollope because of them. I think the story tells the tale better than the sermons. I admit, however, that anyone trying to excuse Trollope on this count should be made uncomfortable by the passage from Hard Times that Judy cites.

Wayne Gisslen

To Trollope-l

September 9, 2001

Re: Castle Richmond, Chs 11-15: Sex and Blackmail (I)

Actually I'm also delighted to see how many people on our list are reading Castle Richmond or have recently read it. I do worry that when we come to our "Irish partner" book our choices will be too disparate, but then again people who want to try another Anglo-Irish book will be able to please themselves.

Before plunging in I would also like to say that the following posting assumes that from this week's chapters the reader has figured out much of the mystery. By Chapter 15 Trollope lets us know who Mollett is, why he can blackmail Sir Thomas, why Sir Thomas is so shattered, and why Herbert's inheritance is so insecure that Sir Thomas is against his marrying a girl Sir Thomas likes very much. He dramatizes this information indirectly through dialogue so the information is left somewhat veiled, but only a little.

Why do it this way? Here are a few suggestions. Trollope gets a charge into his narrative by not coming out and explicitly telling us what is happening. Also it would break probability for any particular character (say Mollett) as presented suddenly to tell another who already knew what was what (say Mollett's son). That would be clumsy in the extreme, the sort of thing one does come across in a screenplay (I'm sorry to have to report) once in while like "Why are you telling me all this?" or "Why are you looking at me with like that?" Nor would it be in Mollett's interest to tell Fanny or any outsider. We could have been privy to the scene between Mollett senior and Sir Thomas, but Trollope chooses to keep that offstage. It does make us feel those scenes must have been terrible. Suggestive horror can be more resonant than trying to present it.

It may also be that Trollope hesitated to present such a raw scene to his middle class reader for some things would have to be said which would indeed be outside the declared or supposed norms of human behavior. It is ironic that what we must imagine such a man as Mollett to have said to Sir Thomas might shock a Victorian reader so much more strongly than a scene of someone starving.

At any rate I have figured it out -- and remember that I did the first time round when I got to the concluding chapter of Volume I. I suggest this gradual enlightenment we have had over the last few chapters is meant to be the climax of Volume I which originally ended with Chapter 15 too. It is now that Trollope switches from a mystery- structure or design to one which uses dramatic irony. We now know what nobody we have met knows but Sir Thomas, the two Molletts and Mrs Jones (who is not given a first name) who has we are told been with Lady Fitzgerald as a close servant and (in effect) friend since Lady Fitzgerald was a very young girl. The idea is we watch Herbert suffer and we feel for him very much. We also look forward to the coming of the effective "helper" character, the strong lawyer, Prendergast.

Of course this way of talking about the book does lead to ignoring the story of the famine. Probably those who have argued the book is disunified have paid attention to the blackmail and sex plot without looking at the larger design to which it can be fitted into: Providence coming in and making all's well or better that ends well at the end; the learning through suffering that happens; the Debt that Must be Paid pattern running through this story too.

To sex and blackmail:

I find this section of the book very powerful: it combines two sexual stories. Both of them are subversive of Victorian morality with regards to sex and money. First we have the story of how the Countess pressures her daughter into giving up the man she apparently is deeply sexually attracted to (so "loves") for the man she understands would be "good husband material for her" (the kind provider, the stable person, the reasonable, prudential heir with an ample income, also someone who is intelligent and loves her tenderly). As too many books have shown (from Peter Gay to Walter Houghton) Victorian young women were taught to regard sexual feelings of this type as either very vicious or non-existent. They were taught there should not be such an opposition in good people. The way in which novelists like Dickens and to some extent Thackeray (now here Trollope is the more revolutionary writer) present "good" women as not having sexual feelings which are at odds with reason and prudence, as at least repressing these without too much ' difficulty has come to be thought the way all women characters are presented in Victorian novels.

Not so Trollope. His women desire sex, and they often desire it far more with a "wild" than a "worthy" man (to use his antitheses from Can You Forgive Her? where Alice Vavasour desires George over John).

This book goes further and shows us an older woman loving a young man and longing to displace her daughter. This is powerful stuff and Trollope writes it with beautiful lyrical and passionate intensity. The scenes between Owen and Clara and then Owen and the Countess are suffused with sex: Owen's career we are to understand also includes having women in his house for his friends. They are also troubling: we feel for Owen. The way the two women speak to him is appalling; it's cruel. He has had no opportunity to live another way. I remember Trollope talking of how he was not given another opportunity to live another way when he was a young man in London. The scenes are done in naturalistic language we believe in. In fact the emphases of the book from the point of view of the love stories dramatized are on the Countess-Owen-Clara triangle and the Herbert-Clara-Owen triangle, not the Mollett-Lady Fitzgerald (poor Mary Wainright that was)-Sir Thomas Triangle.

The reason is not far to seek. Mollett is successfully tormenting and blackmailing Sir Thomas because Mollett is the man Mary Wainright was married to before she married Sir Thomas. In law she is still Mollett's wife; supposedly in law (though not custom) he could demand that she come and live with him again. Actually were Sir Thomas a bit stronger he could claim that too many years have gone by and probably get some redress at law for his wife; but he can't bear the shame; he is tortured by the thought that all his children by her would be declared illegitimate before the world. He writhes at the thought of the scandal and way others would talk about his wife were the fact that Mollett did not die known. He fears for his son's inheritance.

I'll divide this posting into two here.


Re: Castle Richmond, Chs 11-15: Sex and Blackmail (II)

Alexander Welsh has a book on George Eliot's plots where he argues the way she gets the more lurid sex into her books is through use of blackmail plots. The same is true for Mr Trollope. A blackmail plot also indicts the society which treated sex in such a tabooed way that deviations could be exploited by the unscrupulous to destroy people. I suspect Trollope is worried lest some reader end up with a "low" view of Mary Lady Fitzgerald; else why insist so strongly on her exemplary gentleness, kindness, virtue; the woman has since she has married Sir Thomas been a secular saint.

Judy mentions how she finds troubling the way Trollope treats the famine and can dismiss people who he does not fully identify with as quite people. The treatment of the Molletts reminds me of how Trollope trashed Sir Louis Scatcherd in Dr Thorne. We are to feel Mr Mollett has some decency when he refuses positively to torture Sir Thomas, to take just about everything from him, but especially when he is appalled that his son should want to marry Emmeline. Trollope creates a hideous stereotypical portrait of a man just beneath the gentleman class who aspires to become one in both the young Mollett and Sir Louis. If Owen is the "false" hero of the tale, and Herbert the "true" hero, their absolutely opposite number is Aby Mollett: he is the low-life sleaze villain. It is in Chapter 15 that we see him attack Sir Thomas very vilely -- and of course solve the mystery.

Not that Sir Thomas's antagonist is really to be found in another character. The depth of Trollope's fiction comes as ever from his going deep into individuals he can identify with: Sir Thomas's worst enemy is himself, that he can be bullied. Here we find Trollope's other way of looking at society as made up of the intimidators and intimidated, of human relationships as functions of individual aggression and submission kick in. Owen has all the strength that Sir Thomas lacks -- as did Dr Thorne in the book of that name.

With Sir Thomas kept out of sight until Chapter 15, and Lady Fitzgerald and Mrs Jones hovering near the margins of the page (or stage of the book's imagined space), the Castle Richmond story is given over to Herbert. He is seen in many more roles than that of the lover. His hopes, his disappointments, his scene with his father are all very delicately and touchingly done. He will unite the famine plot because it is he who acts to try to help the Irish poor. He does seem a beautiful combination of his mother and father's characters. I find him very attractive as a character.

Probably to the Victorian reader the scenes between the Molletts were charged with intensity and grim ironies too. Mollett is afraid his son will kill the goose that is going to lay continual golden eggs for them: "You'll ruin it all, Aby; you will indeed; you don't know all the circumstances; indeed you don't" (Oxford Classics Castle Richmond, ed Mary Hamer, I:15, p. 167). And Aby doesn't. In fact there is another mystery ahead so Trollope (as ever) has it both ways. He appears to have told us everything, and certainly has told us enough to make his novel work through dramatic irony, but there is more to come, held back. The ending will be Providentially comic for Herbert -- meaning much suffering to come yet some content and true maturity by the book's end.

Yet is it not so for Owen. His story ends without this pseudo-comic victory, without the (somewhat false) transfiguration. Thus it is in some ways more powerful than Herbert's. It's book with two heroes, and one could argue that Owen's story more truly reflects the signficance of the famine, than Herbert's, for it figures forth community indifference.


Date: Sun, 9 Sep 2001
Re: [Trollope-l] Castle Richmond, Chs 11-15: Sex and Blackmail

In Ellen's two-part long and interesting post, I have selected what is perhaps the least significant point to comment on. Nevertheless, it caught my attention. She wrote, " We also look forward to the coming of the effective "helper" character, the strong lawyer, Prendergast." Where else have we seen a strong, sympathetic lawyer coming to the rescue? Mr. Toogood in The Last Chronicle of Barset. Are there many more of these heroic lawyers in Trollope?

Wayne Gisslen

In response to Wayne:

My personal favorite is Mr. Chaffanbrass, who first appeared to defend Alaric Tudor in The Three Clerks, next defended Lady Mason in Orley Farm, and most memorably (to me, anyway), defended Phineas Finn in Phineas Redux.

Jill Spriggs

Date: Mon, 10 Sep 2001

He also reminds me of the detective in a mystery story---especially in earlier British country house mysteries, where there's a situation in a small, closed community, and a wise, well meaning gentlemanly outsider steps in and takes charge. Different from Mr. Chaffanbrass, but related---I've never read the Moonstone, but isn't that supposed to be the origin of the detective story. Maybe it was really Trollope. Judy W

To Trollope-l

Re: Castle Richmond: Prendergast, the Strong Sympathetic Lawyer

September 10, 2001

Wayne asks where else have we see a "strong sympathetic lawyer coming to the rescue" and alludes to Mr Toogood, and Jill came up with one of my favorite characters in Trollope: Chaffanbrass. There are a number of others: in Lady Anna Sir William Patterson is a downright Prospero; in Mr Scarborough's Castle, Mr Grey is the quiet hero of the book; lawyers who begin as comical, Slow, end up as trustworthy, benign. Although good (Thady's lawyer in The Macdermots is a very decent intelligent man), and bad men (Abraham Haphazard is a pompous ass and hypocrite who does harm; Dockwrath is a horror in Orley Farm) can be found among lawyers from the beginning to the end of Trollope's career, there is a slow tendency to be more sympathetic and draw more favorable portraits of lawyers in the later books. We are not really supposed to admire Chaffanbrass as good or superior man of great integrity, but get a great kick out of how clever, how perceptive and effective he is in manipulating the law and juries. Oftentimes Trollope shows judges to be acting unjustly, too austerely, too harshly altogether.

Prendergast is curious though: he is, as Judy says, a kind of detective also. "Gast" in old English meant ghost, and prender makes me think of prehensile, grasping. He takes the situation by the horns and works it to his will, almost magically. There is a very strong romance element in this book. Maybe some of the (many) lawyers (Camperdown has a wonderful scene with Lizzie with her in the carriage and the diamonds beneath her feet) and the policemen (Major Mackintosh of Scotland Yard) in The Eustace Diamonds have something of Prendergast but they are treated slightly comically, not as firmly upright: Prendergast in his integrity and sense of humaneness reminds me of Judge Staveley in Orley Farm.

For those who have Mullen's Penguin Companion there's a several column discussion on lawyers in Trollope; there is, however, nothing under detectives or policemen. There are some wonderful policemen in Trollope: more are in The Eustace Diamonds. Could this be a class-based Freudian slip?

Cheers to all,

Contact Ellen Moody.
 Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
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