Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Third and Fourth Volumes

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Doctor ThorneAs I have mentioned before, I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s six-volume ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, reviewing volume by volume.  However, I have decided to combine the reviews of these two books, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, the third and fourth Chronicles respectively, because they are essentially the same novel.

Both novels are stories of marriage: tales of love-matches made between young people of different classes.  In both cases, the mismatch disfavors the female: a lovely, honorable woman of spotless character but unfortunate circumstance will find herself loved by, and in love with, a man of higher class.  The young man’s family and peer group will be shocked, outraged, by the proposed marriage, and the young woman will be too virtuous to marry against the wishes of his family.  But he, persevering in love and no less honorable than she, will not be shaken off.  The novels tell how these difficulties are overcome.

Doctor Thorne‘ is the story of Mary Thorne, a lovely but illegitimate young woman raised by her uncle, the eponymous Doctor.  Because her uncle is himself respectable, and because he takes pains to hide the tragic circumstances of her birth from the neighbors (and from Mary herself), Mary grows up among the local gentry, the Greshams of Greshambury, beloved by and welcomed among them.  However, as they all reach adulthood, Mary becomes the beloved object of the heir of Greshamsbury, young Frank, and when he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of  his entire family and all of Barsetshire is brought down upon them.

Framley Parsonage‘ is the story of the Robarts family.  Mark Robarts is the Vicar of Framley (a village in Barsetshire).  He has a young wife and the friendship and patronage of his local gentry, the Luftons.  Troubles visit the Robarts in the form of two main plots: one financial, and one romantic.  Mark Robarts runs in a set a little too fast for a vicar; in a moment of social aspiration, he signs a note guaranteeing a loan for a friend, a completely insolvent Member of Parliament, which note will bring shame and near-ruin upon him.  At the same time, his sister Lucy, virtuous and lovely but, alas, without a cent in the world, catches the eye of the unmarried young Lord of Lufton, Ludovic.  When he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family etcetera, etcetera, you know how this ends.

Dancing Framley
Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 291

The English novel of marriage is a highly stereotyped genre, and people usually love them or hate them.  I love them.  They are a particular sub-genre of the novel of manners, arch and unsuspenseful.  Everyone knows how they’re going to end; the joy of them is in getting to the foregone conclusions, in witnessing the subtleties, absurdities, minor foibles of this particular set of characters.  These two novels are both totally true to type (with the possible exception of an illegitimate heroine – that seems like a brave choice for its time).  Everyone is good; everyone ends up happy.  Love is requited and virtue is rewarded.  Snide and ungenerous relatives suffer, but only within the tight confines of their world.

But just because two novels have the same plot doesn’t mean that they are equally good.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are by the same author, written two years apart (1858 and 1860, respectively), about almost exactly the same thing.  But you know what they say: practice makes perfect, and the latter, ‘Framley Parsonage’, is a much better book.

Proudie Framley
My own beloved Mrs. Proudie, the villain from ‘Barchester Towers’, makes an appearance in both these novels.  Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 396

First of all, despite the similarities in premise, there are differences in execution.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ is clunkier; there are enormous and convoluted machinations of plot involved in solving the marital difficulties of ‘Doctor Thorne’ (secret family, sudden and untimely deaths, unlikely inheritances), while the troubles of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are solved only by the intrinsic kindness and gentle maturation of its protagonists.  It is truer and more likely, and everyone in it is more plausible, less caricaturish.  In order for Frank Gresham to marry the woman he loves, two very rich men in the same line of succession must drink themselves to death within a matter of months; they must also then leave their enormous wealth to a stranger.  These are unlikely events.  In order for Ludovic Lufton to marry his lady, all it needs is for his mother to realize that she wants her son to be happy.

The writing of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is better, too: it’s tighter, and wittier.  When I read, I put sticky notes over passages that I want to remember, either because they are lovely or funny or wise.  ‘Framley Parsonage’ has eight passages so marked; ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has none.

Alcohol Thorne
The wages of sin: not one, but two men will drink themselves to death in ‘Doctor Thorne’, p. 267

And there is a difference in tone between the two books.  Both novels make moral points: good birth is not virtue; debt is vice, as is drink.  However, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ makes its points more by showing: Mary Thorne is a lovely young woman, and the treatment of her due to her birth is meant to anger the reader.  ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is more didactic, and normally, as the adage goes, it is better to show, not tell, but I think Trollope is an exception to this rule.  He is often at his best, most pithy, most elegant, when he is telling you the moral of the story, or summing up a character, and the best passages of ‘Framley Parsonage’ hew to this:

‘When a man gets into his head an idea that the public voice calls for him, it is astonishing how great becomes his trust in the wisdom of the public.’ (p. 87)

‘A few words dropping from Mr. Sowerby did now and again find their way to his [Mr. Smith’s] ears, but the sound of his own voice had brought with it the accustomed charm, and he ran on from platitude to truism, and from truism back to platitude, with an eloquence that was charming to him.’ (p. 69)

‘One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.  For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing.’ (p. 110)

‘Such companions are very dangerous.  There is no cholera, no yellow-fever, no small-pox, more contagious than debt.  If one lives habitually among embarrassed men, one catches it to a certainty.’ (p. 44)

These are lovely descriptions, wise words beautifully said.  And ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has no equal passages, which is a shame.  A reader would feel better if the two volumes were more even, better matched; instead, it feels as though Trollope tried an idea, published it, saw the flaws in his work, and took another run at it.

And mediocrity is not the only way in which ‘Doctor Thorne‘ stands alone among the first four volumes of ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’: it is also the only book so far whose major protagonist is not a clergyman.  This might seem like a silly point (doctor, clergyman, these really are minor phylogenic differences in the family of English Rural Gentlemen), but, once you’ve bought into Barsetshire, this difference doesn’t seem minor.  The ‘Chronicles’ have been about how these men of the cloth make good lives surrounded by the petty problems of the English gentry – that’s the project of these books, and the further Trollope wanders from that mission, the less well the books hang together.

BarsetshireHowever, frankly, Trollope is a joy to read even when he’s mediocre, and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, at least, was wonderful.  It was witty and warm.   But one of my favorite things about Trollope is that, despite being kind to his characters, he doesn’t at all see the world through rose-colored glasses.  For all the basic and mundane humanity of its story, one gets flashes of steel, and darkness, behind all the Barsetshirian goodness.  And a sharp-eyed realist lurks behind those happy endings, formulaic as they seem.  After all, no fairy tale ends like this:

‘But it was October before Lord Lufton was made a happy man – that is, if the fruition of his happiness was a greater joy than the anticipation of it.  I will not say that the happiness of marriage is like the Dead Sea fruit – an apple which, when eaten, turns to bitter ashes in the mouth.  Such pretended sarcasm would be very false.  Nevertheless, is it not the fact that the sweetest morsel of love’s feast has been eaten, that the freshest, fairest blush of the flower has been snatched and has been passed away, when the ceremony at the altar has been performed, and legal possession has been given?…When the husband walks back from the altar, he has already swallowed the choicest dainties of his banquet.’ (p. 468)

The Man in the Iron Mask

By Alexandre Dumas

Translated by Jacqueline Rogers
All posts contain spoilers.

The Man in the Iron MaskThis book is badly named.

For starters, it is not about a man in an iron mask.  A man fitting that description makes a brief appearance, but he is largely peripheral to the plot of this book.

Also, ‘plot’ is perhaps too strong a word for the structure of this novel.  If a plot is a central story which involves and therefore justifies the characters and which resolves in a climax, then this book lacks one.

French-CoverThis is partly because ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is not meant to stand alone as a work of literature; it is actually the novel-length epilogue of ‘The Three Musketeers‘, and rather than tell the story of a man in an iron mask, it is meant instead to wrap up the tales of the four men who formed the heart of that story: Aramis, Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan.

This novel opens in the Bastille with Aramis, who is meeting with Philippe, a young man who had been imprisoned eight years earlier but committed no crime.  Aramis, now the Bishop of Vannes, tells this young man that he is the secret and identical twin brother of King Louis XIV of France, imprisoned and doomed for his resemblance to the King and, crucially, for his equal claim to the throne of France.

Aramis proposes to spring this young man and replace Louis.  Philippe understandably agrees, and, with very little effort, Aramis effects the miraculous escape.  The King is at Vaux for a party thrown by his minister Fouquet.  There, the switch is accomplished with no trouble whatsoever, via a bed which can be levered down through the floor into a cave (sure, of course).  Louis is sent to the Bastille; his brother put on the throne, no one the wiser.

So far, this will all be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the movies.  But, now, things take an odd turn, pacing-wise.  Aramis tells Fouquet his plan; Fouquet is appalled, loyal to the old King, he rushes to the Bastille, frees Louis, and reveals the imposter.  Louis comes face to face with his brother, quails, and orders him banished to an island prison and locked in an iron mask.  D’Artagnan himself bears the prisoner thus.

You are now about 50% of the way through the novel.  If you are like me, you will spend the rest of the book waiting for D’Artagnan to realize that he has chosen wrong, supported a wicked king, and finish what Aramis started.

Man in the Iron Mask
Perhaps you were expecting something like this.  This is a completely different story.

You will wait in vain.  The rest of the novel will be spent following the four musketeers to their deaths, both dismal and heroic.  Nothing more will be heard of the imposter King after his fresh imprisonment; he will presumably spend the rest of his wretched life in the iron mask.  It is weird, and anti-climactic, and, frankly, sort of pointless.

Perhaps the least satisfying part, from a narrative point of view, is the character of Louis himself.  I longed for him to be a villain, but he wasn’t – he was merely a king.  He has moments of juvenile, petty vindictiveness, but he also moments of strength, maturity, and mercy, and is eventually reconciled even with Aramis, who had him imprisoned overnight in the Bastille.

All this ambivalence of plotting would be easier to bear if ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ were beautifully written, but it isn’t.  Of course, it’s never really fair to judge a book’s language by its translation, but ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘ is so ornate and highfalutin that it’s really quite arduous to read.  There are a lot of exchanges like this:

“You intend to look after me, then?”

“Yes, monseigneur; I do, upon my honor.”

“Upon your honor? Ah! that is quite another thing.  So I am to be arrested in my own house!”

“Do not say such a thing.”

“On the contrary, I will proclaim it aloud.”

“If you do so, I shall be compelled to request you to be silent.”

“Very good! Violence toward me, and in my own house, too!”

“We do not seem to understand each other at all.  Stay a moment; there is a chessboard there; let us play, please, monseigneur.”

 

“Monsieur D’Artagnan, I am in disgrace, then?” (p. 161)

And these are meant to be normal conversations – this is everyday discourse.  The whole book is like this!

Things are made even less clear by the fact that all the major characters (except the King) have about eight names.  Aramis, for example, is the Bishop of Vannes, Monsieur d’Herblay, and the General of the Jesuits.  Add to this that they all refer to each other not by their names but as Monsieur and you’ll see that much of the dialogue is incoherent.

idumasa001p1
Alexandre Dumas: Doesn’t he look verbose?

One does begin to suspect that Dumas is being paid by the word – nothing that could be said in ten words is said in fewer than a hundred, and there are entire sub-plots which are no more than cul-de-sacs, and therefore completely unnecessary (and, as with Moliere and the artists’ house, completely unintelligible).

But, of course, amidst all these words, it is almost a statistical inevitability that there would be moments of sublimity, and there are certain high emotions which are, perhaps, best expressed in fruity, Baroque French. Take, for example, the moment when Athos bids farewell to Raoul, his son, forever:

“Athos sat on the mole, stunned, deaf, abandoned.  Every instant took from him one of the features, one of the shades of the pale face of his son.  With his arms hanging down, his eyes fixed, his mouth open, he remained one with Raoul – in one same look, in one same thought, in one same stupor.  The sea, by degrees, carried away boats and faces, until men were nothing but dots; loves, nothing but memories.” (p. 285)

For some authors, these lovely moments are worth bad plot.  And it may be that Dumas in his stronger books is also worth it.  I really enjoyed ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ (even though that also had some odd plot choices) and I would want to read ‘The Three Musketeers‘ before I form a firmer opinion.  But ‘The Man in the Iron Mask‘, at least, is emphatically not worth it.

The Aeneid

By Virgil

Translated by Robert Fagles

All posts contain spoilers.

AeneidI know that I’m not supposed to admit this, but I don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

Obviously, this is my problem; I am aware that this qualifies me a philistine.  The great minds have, through the ages, cherished Virgil.  Propertius, another Roman poet, wrote upon the publication of ‘The Aeneid’, “Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks/Something greater than the Iliad is being born” (2.34).  Dante included Virgil as his guide in ‘The Divine Comedy‘.  Dryden dedicated his own translation of ‘The Aeneid’ to “those Readers who have discernment enough to prefer Virgil before any other Poet in the Latine Tongue”.

Nevertheless, despite these excellent references, I just don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

virgil1I hadn’t read an English translation of ‘The Aeneid’ since high school, and I’d been wondering whether, perhaps, my initial aversion to it was a maturity problem, whether ‘The Aeneid’ is something only adults enjoy, like drinking espresso or discussing property values.  It’s not uncommon for me to find that, upon re-reading, I really like authors or books I loathed when I was younger, and I hoped that ‘The Aeneid’ might be one of these.

It isn’t.  I’ve just re-read Fagles’ translation, and I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around than I did when I was sixteen, and I think I’ve figured out why.

1. Aeneas is lame. 
The Aeneid‘ is often paired with the two great Homeric epics, ‘The Iliad‘ and ‘The Odyssey‘.  It really shouldn’t be: it has a different author, writing from within a different civilization, in a different language.  The comparison is particularly invidious when it comes to main characters: Achilles and Odysseus are much richer and more complex than Aeneas, who is ever-noble, ever-handsome, ever-brave, ever-pious, and ever-victorious.  All his misfortune is the result of the personal animus of the goddess Juno, who doesn’t dislike him per se, but all Trojans (since Paris dissed her way long ago); he is essentially a victim of divine racism.  But he himself is personally flawless and so narratively dull.

2. Virgil is unsexy.  
One of the perks of taking Latin in school is that you get to read more dirty poetry than the kids who take Spanish.  Almost all of the Roman poets wrote about sex; many of them went out of their way to cram raunch into verse where it wasn’t necessary. Horace, for example, wrote about 9,000 odes that all go approximately like this:

Spring is here, the young tree is all green.
New buds are springing out everywhere.
Its flowers bloom; birds sing in its branches.
But soon it will be winter; the leaves will shrivel and brown,
and no one’s going to want to fuck that tree then.

Virgil

Virgil is the exception: there is depressingly little sex in Virgil.  In the entirety of ‘The Aeneid‘, there’s only one sexual encounter, and Virgil can’t even bring himself to describe it – he describes a metaphorically significant thunderstorm instead.  His prudishness is a real joy-killer, especially in light of the fact that…

3. The plot of ‘The Aeneid‘ is boring. 
I’m sure that I’m coming across as something of a blunt instrument, but this third point is incontrovertible.  The plot of ‘The Aeneid’ is not scintillating – it isn’t character-driven, it isn’t sexy, the conclusion is announced at the beginning, and the pacing is atrocious.  The most interesting section, Aeneas in Carthage and the tragic fate of Dido, is elbowed into one book (not coincidentally, the book with the only sex).  Several books, however, are given over to the battles for Italy, which sounds interesting but aren’t.  Instead, the battles read like a very violent roll call: Bob cleaves the head of Sam, and is then stabbed by Frank, who is in turn disemboweled by Andrew, who falls off his horse and is smooshed by John, &c.  It’s difficult to make extreme violence boring, but Virgil manages it.  It’s not all, perhaps, his fault (‘The Aeneid’ is, of course, unfinished; Virgil died before he could complete it), but that doesn’t make it any more fun to read.

There are wonderful parts; there are parts which are transcendent, but they are almost all short sections of incredible linguistic beauty or rhetorical power.  For example, when, before she kills herself, Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants:

Cayot Death of Dido
‘The Death of Dido’, by Claude-Augustin Cayot, from the Louvre

“And then to any Power above, mindful, evenhanded,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal passion,
Dido says her prayers.
…”That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out
with my own lifeblood. And you, my Tyrians,
harry with hatred all his line, his race to come:
…No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising from my bones, you avenger still unknown
…Shore shall clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword – this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Book IV, 651 – 784)

Two thousand years later, every person who has had their heart broken will still understand this passage.

Or Virgil’s description of the gates of Hell:

 “There, in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle
and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys
and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,
and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.” (Book VI, 312-320)

(If you doubt the mighty influence of Virgil, perhaps this second passage reminded you of another:

 “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” (‘A Christmas Carol‘, Charles Dickens))

It is for passages like these Virgil is so beloved, and they are magnificent.  But there’s a lot of dry, poetical bullshit to get through to achieve them, a lot of Aenean virtue, a lot of sailing, lots of lists of dying men you’ve never met and won’t remember.

And I know that the failing is mine, but I wish I’d re-read ‘The Iliad‘ instead.