Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Way We Wrote Then

Having said mean things about Anthony Trollope in two previous posts, I may have given the impression that I don't like his work. But actually, I do. The Way We Live Now, which I only recently finished reading (it's a long damn thing), is a terrific novel, and it benefits, oddly, from the fact that there are almost no "good guys" in the book (the character who was supposed to be the chief Good Guy, the stolidly honest country squire Roger Carbury, wound up getting relegated to the status of a minor character) is a plus, because the portrayal of flawed or corrupt characters shows off Trollope's greatest strength: the ability to understand characters on their own terms, and to convey the way people see themselves. Almost every character in The Way We Live Now gets one of those extended passages where the narrator tells us what they're thinking and how they view the situation they're in. Melmotte is a scoundrel and a crook, and Trollope doesn't hesitate to tell us so repeatedly, but he also gives Melmotte something of an inner life, feelings, regrets; Trollope isn't non-judgmental, but he doesn't deny the humanity of his characters. Dickens wouldn't do this for his own proto-Ken-Lay characters, for Merdle or Veneering. And even today, authors are more accustomed to portray the thoughts of a character, rather than organizing or analyzing them; after Satan invented the Interior Monologue, it became possible to portray the inner life of a character in a more ambiguous way: here's what my character thinks, make of it what you will. Trollope is more of an analyst, writing a mini-essay on the feelings and thoughts of a character.

The other thing worth mentioning about The Way We Live Now is that it wound up almost completely different from the story Trollope set out to write; his main characters were supposed to be Lady Carbury, the middle-aged coquette, and the previously-mentioned Roger, who loves Lady Carbury's daughter Hetta (who loves Roger's friend Paul). By the midpoint of the novel, Lady Carbury has all but disappeared, as has Hetta, and Roger doesn't have much to do but grumble about the behavior of various other characters. The real stars of the book became Melmotte and his daughter Marie, and the ostensible main story -- the Roger/Hetta/Paul triangle, which Trollope admitted was the worst thing in the novel -- doesn't really come into focus until after Melmotte dies. But what this change in focus means is that after Melmotte is gone, there's over a hundred pages left in which very little of interest happens: most of what remains consists of just wrapping up all the stories, including the ones that the author more or less abandoned when he realized that Melmotte's story was more interesting.

This brings up something I've noticed in a lot of big 19th century novels, and particularly English novels: the part that we now tend to consider the most important part of the story, the ending, is probably the least important part of a novel of this era. The last installment of a Dickens or Trollope novel -- the "double number" that was half again as long as a regular installment -- often has no story interest to speak of, boiling down instead to a series of vignettes wrapping up each story with a marriage or a death or some character's decision to go abroad. In a time when there wasn't a broad range of acceptable ways to end a character's story (as the old saying goes, the only real endings to a story are marriage and death), there wasn't much point in trying to surprise the reader, or to inject artificial excitement into this wrapping-up operation. I suppose I find this interesting because we're now so used to thinking of the ending as the part that makes or breaks the story; hence all the fights over the endings of movies, the obsessive testing and changing of endings, the complaints about stories that end too happily or too sadly. For a writer like Trollope, the ending isn't that important; it's something that has to be written up, but it's not necessarily supposed to answer all the questions raised in the story, or to be the last word on what the novel is saying.

The other, related thing about The Way We Live Now and Victorian novels in general (and this is one of the last of the old-style Victorian novels: loosely-structured, published in monthly installments, etc.) is that they prove that you can have an effective novel where the hero and heroine are of little or no interest. I guess this started with the pre-Victorian Sir Walter Scott, but the English novels of the 19th century are notorious for revolving around heroes and heroines who aren't very interesting and don't even necessarily appear that much. In The Way We Live Now the "heroine" is presumably supposed to be Hetta Carbury, a character so dull that even Trollope can't give her any interesting thoughts, and the "hero" is either Roger (a stick) or Paul (another of Trollope's well-meaning ex-playboys who's too weak-willed to disentangle himself from an old relationship). Trollope, as I said, pretty much abandons these Good Guys for long stretches of the novel -- yet the novel doesn't fall apart. The odd thing, though, is that in a modern novel, Roger, with his hints of religious doubt (originally supposed to be a major plot thread, but abandoned by Trollope), and Paul, a guy trying to dump an old flame without hurting her feelings, would work very well as lead characters. A modern novelist would focus more on showing events from a single character's point of view, and a character like Paul might take on more importance accordingly.

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