Monday, August 15, 2011

The Gentleman in Trollope!

Our book today is The Gentleman in Trollope, a delightfully inclusive 1982 volume by the late, much-lamented Shirley Robin Letwin that bears the slightly alarming sub-title "Individuality and Moral Conduct" and yet still manages to be a very enjoyable read. I compulsively read 'literary studies' of authors or genres I like, and it's a mysterious compulsion, since I so very seldom like the studies themselves. Something there is in living literature that does not like a post-doc trying to make his bones; far too often, an academic 'study' of something manages only to be an autopsy - and usually a botched one at that. Readable explicators are thin on the ground. The great 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope, for example, has never received the kind of rollicking, entrancing public critical invitation he deserves - he's always just that one crucial step back from the friendliest names, the Dickens and the Wells. He stubbornly seems the province of professors and slightly dotty enthusiasts, and with the possible exception of certain parts of "Barchester Towers," his works have never achieved that first-name-basis iconic status that insures an author invulnerability from the worst that academics can do to bury him with high praise.

I should point out right away that Letwin's book is not that open invitation. It's more closely worded, more narrowly circumscribed - but it's the closest thing we have, and it's great fun.

Its subject is that elusive ideal in Trollope, the gentleman. Much to his chagrin, Trollope was living through an age in which industrial and mercantile advancements were changing the traditional English ideas of what constituted a gentleman. Johnson's famous dictum that 'gentleman' meant 'established lineage' (and that any other idea was merely 'whimsical') was coming under fire from broader and broader swaths of the growing middle class, and Trollope was too keen a social observer not to respond. Time and again in his books we find characters who've achieved their ability to dine and hunt with dukes not through ancestry but through sudden acquisition of money, and these characters (especially the many heiresses among them) are never a priori bad. Time and again we find characters making the same assertion Elizabeth Bennet makes at the climax of Pride and Prejudice - that upright personal character is the great leveller, and that anybody who possesses such a character need defer to nobody.

Letwin understands the fluidity of this point in Trollope:
Nor can it be denied that Trollope's own characters are far from clear-cut or perfectly steady in either virtue or vice. Right and wrong, prudence and folly regularly get scrambled. Plantagenet Palliser, who, we are told, is a perfect gentleman, torments his daughter, unjustly accuses and old friend of treachery, and is rude to a guest.

Although we must immediately point out that this summary is unfair, rigged as it is to make a rhetorical point. Palliser doesn't 'torment' his daughter so much as not immediately capitulate to her; he unjustly accuses an old friend of treachery - until his error is demonstrated to him, at which point he freely apologizes; and he's rude to a guest who was first unconscionably rude to him. The contrast is necessary, of course, because any discussion of 'the gentleman' in Trollope must center in large part on this character, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium - Trollope himself wrote that if he'd ever created a perfect specimen of the English gentleman, it was this character. And sharpest and best harrowing of the whole question of 'the gentleman' happens in the splendid novel (in my opinion Trollope's finest) The Prime Minister, where chapters swap between the travails of the too-honest and morosely upright real-gentleman the Duke of Omnium and the slick, fraudulent faux-gentleman Ferdinand Lopez. Despite the fact that the former is a timidly entitled grandee and the other a risk-taking adventurer, Letwig is right to see that the main dividing-line between them is personal courage. There's a bracingly moral tone throughout The Gentleman in Trollope that's all too rare in 'studies' of this kind:
Trollope has nothing but contempt for the notion that squeamishness about recognizing and dealing with evil is a gentleman's way. What he really condemns throughout The Way We Live Now is neither 'modern industrial society' nor 'the rise of new men', but the disposition to equate gentility with an unwillingness to recognize and fight evil.

And the writing is snappy throughout. Letwig placed great importance on this quality of her performance, and it shows in every memorable line:
... the true reason for Trollope's return to popularity is more likely to be that the descendants of those late Victorians who disparaged Trollope for shallowness, having had enough of heady pantheist profundities, are now trying to recover that moral understanding which, though it suffered the curious fate of having nearly disappeared without having been recognized to exist, once made a gentleman, like the century that bred him, such an admired oddity.

Although she avoids the scene herself, for me the quintessential discussion of the very topic of the gentleman in Trollope comes in The Duke's Children, where the Duke of Omnium's son, the feckless Lord Silverbridge, is pressing the American millionaire Mr. Boncasson for permission to court his daughter (one of those rich heiresses we mentioned). Mr. Boncasson, who fancies himself "a true-born Republican," is ironically forced by Silverbridge's impetuosity to bring up the subject of social equality. Under ordinary circumstances, he says, back home in America, he would consider his daughter a good enough wife for any man. But in England? As the proposed bride of the heir to the greatest dukedom in the land? He asks Silverbridge if she might not be thought - rightly - as unequal to the position, and Silverbridge's reply is unwittingly telling:
"People don't always know who are their equals."

"That is quite true. If I were speaking to you or to your father theoretically I should perhaps be unwilling to admit superiority on your side because of your rank and wealth. I could make an argument in favour of any equality with the best Briton that ever lived - as would become a true-born Republican."

"That is just what I mean."

"But when the question becomes one of practicing - a question for our lives, for our happiness, for our own conduct, then, knowing what must be the feelings of an aristocracy in such a country as this, I am prepared to admit that your father would be as well justified in objecting to a marriage between a child of his and a child of mine, as I should be in objecting to one between my child and the son of some mechanic in our native city."

"He wouldn't be a gentleman," said Silverbridge.

"That is a word of which I don't quite know the meaning."

"I do," said Silverbridge confiently.

"But you could not define it ..."

Ultimately, Letwin can't define it either, but her book provides the reader with a great deal of learned fun while she tries. No lover of the novels of Trollope (or his non-fiction! Joyously, his biography of Cicero gets some attention from Letwin) should miss this book, and all lovers of Trollope should lament the fact that its broader, longer, and even better general-invitation Trollope volume never got written.

The Gentleman in Trollope was given a very handsome "Common Reader Edition" reprint in 1997 by the Akadine Press, although it would have been nice if that press had taken the trouble to clean up the typos that littered the book's original printing. Perhaps the next publisher will give this wonderful text the edition it deserves.

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