We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Trollope's _Lady Anna_ & Obsession · 19 June 05


Jim told me about a thoughtful commentary on Trollope’s Lady Anna by The Little Professor (Things Victorian and academic). I commented on the blog in the space provided, but would like here to expand a little on what I said there.

Prof. Burstein begins with the idea that Trollope is among the most deliberative of Victorian novelists. The plot-design of his subplots do swing around the process of decision-making: there is some dilemma which a group of characters are confronted with, and we watch their attempts to cope and come to a resolution. Prof. Burstein points out that in Lady Anna we are almost to the end of the novel before something definite happens: Lady Anna begins to chose her childhood lover, a tailor, Daniel Thwaite, over a lover who has recently been chosen for her when it became apparent that she was the heir to a great fortune. Until then she had been considered probably illegitimate and thus penniless and an object of scorn. And so too of course her mother, the Countess of Lovel whose liaison with a rakish, amoral, dissolute Earl opens the book. We never do learn whether the Countess is legtimately his wife or not.

The way the plot presents itself might leave the impression that the important character is the one at the center: Lady Anna. The book’s title reinforces this impression. But in fact verbal space, energy and depth come from the Countess, the wounded woman, scapegoated, mocked (by this husband) and living a life of impoverishment and shame during most of the book. This is Prof. Burstein’s view too. Quoting Stephen Orgel (who wrote he introductory essay to the Oxford paperback edition of Lady Anna), she says that Trollope has a number of monmaniacal obsessives. The most famous is probably Louis Trevelyan of He Knew He Was Right, a man driven by sexual anxiety and (also) wounded pride. He cannot get himself to be the macho male so he wants to keep his wife in purdah. She is bored silly, despises him for his inadequacy (which seems to include sexual performance), and seethes with self-hatred at finding herself under his absurd control and foolish half-articulated demands for ""obedience."

Trollope’s corpus is overloaded with these inexorable hurt characters. They begin with Larry Macdermot (from Trollope’s first novel, The Macdermots) and carry on, Earl Cashell in Kellys and OKellys (Trollope’s second novel, anticipating Mr Scarborough in one of his last), Josiah Crawley (the agonized noble curate of Barchester chronicles), Kennedy (another sexually wounded man, this one from the Phineas books), George Vavasour (a criminal type), Cousin Henry (a Kafkaesque diffident victim type, who attracts bullies), to name just a few. Trollope has women of this type too, mostly wounded by a fall in class status or sexual scapegoating. One in particular, the old woman of An Eye for an Eye actually moves into downright crazed monomania and murders the hero of the piece by throwing him off a cliff.

I think Prof. Burstein though has missed an important aspect of Trollope’s presentation of these obsessives. She goes on to analyze a typical passage of Trollope’s inward narratives. To focus narratives the way he does on decisions and cruxes and dilemmas leads to inward narratives. She shows how the narrator, storyteller is ever at our elbow and how Trollope’s movement from free indirect discourse to inner direct thoughts is opaque (it’s hard to tell from whom a thought is coming).

She says we are left in an opaque mess, not knowing quite who thought what. Right. But to Trollope that doesn’t matter. Repeatedly in Trollope’s novels he denies that people’s thought processese are available to them. He often speaks of how we think we are thinking. What passes for thinking. How we think we know someone and delude ourselves into believing we have altruistic love when for men and women it’s a question of sexual attraction, for men interactive social competition. Not that some characters don’t have profound congenial comfort in relationships, but this is rare and happens by chance, intermittently.

Trollope’s really of the school of thought about the mind Pope once outlined brilliantly:

Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
On human Actions reason though you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ‘tis his Principle no more …
Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
And what comes then is master of the field,
As the last image of that troubled heap,
When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
(Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
Something as dim to our internal view,
Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do …
(from Of the Characters of Mankind)

I can’t find a passage from Trollope right now, but I’ll try tonight.
There are a number of explicit restatements of the above idea.

Unlike most of his fellow mid-century novelists, Trollope does not think people are in control of their minds. He compounds this by presenting what happens in court rooms as a ritual way of resolving a quarrel, hurt, broken taboo which rarely presents a decision by a jury which is truthful or accurate. He shows how courtroom scenes are controlled by manipulative performative lawyers who intimidate and obfuscate. He appears to infer that this doesn’t matter. The real hard scepticism of Trollope comes out in the area of his presentations of human psychology and how these "minds" create our social worlds.

His carelessness about analysis in Lady Anna may also stem from its being a late novel. As he goes on, he tends to grow tired quickly of what he did earlier in detail and nuance, and only refer to a kind of discourse he could give were he so disposed.

However, he never really thinks what is going in on a mind is at all clear. What goes on in letters is: that’s performance but when you’ve finished you may analyze the letter as unconscious performance not inner relevation.

I’ve gone on too long (as usual). I’ll end just on a particular theme of Lady Anna I find insightful. The Countess is inexorable, but she is so because she lives in the delusion that everyone is paying as much attention to her as she is. Trollope knows better than this, and at the close of the book presents her Lacanian perspective as absurd. It seems to me this is a particular angle of Lady Anna. The woman could never get over what remained secret and enigmatic in effect. This destroys her life and is what was driving her to destroy the lives of others.

The "moral" lesson she never learns (yes Trollope teaches as
moral lessons) is her own (real, in effect) insignificance to
everyone else. Most of the characters never learn this. In
Trollope only lawyers of the caliber of Chaffanbrass catch on.

I also love the dialogue between one of the young lovers and the reclusive Keswick poet (perhaps a portrait of Southey in old age) in the middle of the book. The Keswick poet counsels the young llovers that they will never be able to live apart from others’ views of them. These views will ever affect their relationship and their sense of themselves. Nonetheless, the young lovers chose to marry, to go after what they dearly want most of all at whatever the cost.

I guess I’m saying we need to look at the content inside these decisions and Trollope’s fundamental attitude towards decision-making to find what is really the valuable motherload, the true gift to us today in his books.

There is a Victorian reviewer who admired Trollope enormously—and whose reviews of Trollope’s works Trollope loved. Richard Holt Hutton brings home to us the content of the typical decision-making process in a Trollope novel. (Actually all Hutton’s writings are worth study.) I’ve never forgotten what Hutton said was at the heart of An Eye for an Eye: it’s about "the strange perversions of which moral men" are "capable," and particularly that "most strange" one, "the tendency of of certain so-called ‘social obligations’ to over-ride entirely the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, and yet to work there with all the force of a high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny." Substitute caring intensely what others think of you socially, about your social position as a result above all, and you have the typical "moral lesson" of one of Trollope’s novels about obsessives.

They are obsessives because they have become sick from living by staring at the distorted mirror of their imagined public image.
And they would poison everyone else around them, even to the point of murdering someone who gets in the way of their obsession. Some of them crack (Louis Trevelyan), some go for alcohol; others end in this dark isolated brooding. And very like real people they never yield the point; what makes the character in a Trollope novel different is they don’t hide their burning resentment. The novel sweeps by; the other characters ignore them and we get a qualified ending of prosaic adjusted contentment. But they stand there as a kind of beacon.

We need them today more than ever to remind us of the terrible pain behind seeking and the cost of social status.


Posted by: Ellen

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