Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

All Posts Contain Spoilers

There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

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)

Barchester Towers (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Second Volume

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Barchester Towers‘ is the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’.  The first, ‘The Warden‘ (reviewed here), is the short little tale of Septimus Harding, a kind-hearted Anglican clergyman, and how he came to resign his post as warden of Hiram’s Hospital.  The end of ‘The Warden’ found Mr. Harding poorer in his income but clearer in his conscience, and his beloved daughter Eleanor married to John Bold, the man who unfortunately instigated Mr. Harding’s removal.

As I mentioned, ‘The Warden‘ was low-stakes and leisurely, a sweet story about sweet people who all mean well.  There were no villains, and no true fools.  It was difficult to sustain a sense of outrage against anyone when Mr. Harding himself couldn’t, and no character who would not be welcomed to tea by any other.  Everything ended well, and everyone was forgiven.

This second novel is made of stiffer stuff.Barchester Towers

Barchester Towers‘ opens with two deaths.  The Bishop Grantly of Barchester has died; he was the best friend of Septimus Harding, and the father of his son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead.  The Archdeacon was a figure of minor dramatic tension in ‘The Warden’ – he will become a hero in ‘Barchester Towers’.  He is married to Mr. Harding’s elder daughter.

Meanwhile, John Bold, major protagonist of ‘The Warden’ and married to Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, has been summarily snuffed out between books.  I’m not sure that we are even told how he perished; all that matters now is that Eleanor is a young, attractive widow of means, vulnerable to the unscrupulous.

And the unscrupulous are upon us.  ‘The Warden‘ was villainless; ‘Barchester Towers‘ has two villains, both brought by the new Bishop of Barchester: the unctuous and despicable chaplain Mr. Slope, and his patroness, the over-zealous, over-bearing harridan wife of the new Bishop, Mrs. Proudie.

Proudie Slope
A moment of dramatic tension between Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie: “May God forgive you, madam, for the manner in which you have treated me,’ said Mr. Slope, looking at her with a very heavenly look.’ (p. 450)

Barchester Towers‘ ostensibly continues to follow the travails and fortunes of the Hardings: whether Mr. Harding will be re-appointed to the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital and whom Eleanor will remarry.  However, the novel’s heart really lies in the battle between it’s two new Goliath’s: Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie.  They are the standouts here, the best-drawn characters by far, and clearly the favorites of their author.  Take, for instance, this quietly magnificent passage about Archdeacon Grantly:

‘Now there was something peculiarly unorthodox in the archdeacon’s estimation in the idea of a round table…He connected them with what he called the nasty new fangled method of leaving a cloth on the table, as though to warn people that they were not to sit long.  In his eyes there was something democratic and parvenue in a round table.  He imagined that dissenters and calico-printers chiefly used them, and perhaps a few literary lions more conspicuous for their wit than their gentility…”A round dinner-table,’ said he, with some heat, “is the most abominable article of furniture that ever was invented”.’ (p. 180)

Or this aside about Mrs. Proudie:

‘It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.  If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie.  But she was not all devil.  There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps. of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.’ (p. 227)

These are expert characterizations: efficient and droll.  Trollope lives in his characters; in fact, he has imagines them so richly that he has come to love them.  I think that is why (by his own description above) he writes no truly evil villains: he can’t write someone and not forgive them, not offer them redemption.  But this emotional investment means that he is really at his best when he leans into character development, when he gives his characters time and space to display themselves and all their strange idiosyncrasies fully.  This makes him less quotable than other writers of his ilk, though he is just as witty; he only occasionally produces the arch epigrams for which English writers are so well known. When he does produce them, though, they are excellent:

‘There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.’ (p. 53)

‘A man must be an idiot or else an angel, who after the age of forty shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.’
(p. 328)

However, despite the fact that ‘Barchester Towers’ has both heroes and villains, it doesn’t have much in the way of plot.  As mentioned above, there is the minor drama of Eleanor’s second marriage; there is the vague menace that she will be somehow tricked in marrying the odious Mr. Slope, but no one believes that she will and no one (including, I suspect, Trollope) really cares.  Most of the action of the book centers around the goings-on of our two new villains, Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie, their clerical battle with the Archdeacon, and their integration into the quiet community of Barchester.

This plotlessness didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the back.  In fact, I liked ‘Barchester Towers‘ a lot more than I liked ‘The Warden‘.  The first was a very earnest book about goodness and conscience; the second is a book about manners, and wickeder entirely.  ‘Barchester Towers’ is the funnier of the two, by far, and has the superior cast of characters.

Which is not to say that it lacks sweetness.  While ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are satires, they are very gentle, and they are, after all, about a group of English clerics endeavoring to do their best.  And Trollope himself is prone to small moral excursuses which, in my opinion, are humane and charming:

‘How much kinder is God to us than we are willing to be to ourselves!  At the loss of every dear face, at the last going of every well beloved one, we all doom ourselves to an eternity of sorrow, and look to waste ourselves away in an ever-running fountain of tears.  How seldom does such grief endure! how blessed is the goodness which forbids it to do so! ‘Let me ever remember my living friends, but forget them as soon as dead,’ was the prayer of a wise man who understood the mercy of God.  Few perhaps would have the courage to express such a wish, and yet to do so would only be to ask for that release from sorrow, which a kind Creator almost always extends to us.’ (p. 25)

BarsetshireThere are six Chronicles; I am now through one third by volumes (though, like all good series, each volume is longer than the previous, and some of the later volumes are pretty honking big).  I really did likeThe Warden‘, but ‘Barchester Towers‘ has drawn me all the way in, won me over completely.  I’m enjoying my time in Barsetshire; I’m ready to go back.

The Warden (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: First Volume

By Anthony Trollope

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I have been longing for a project lately.  I want a long, slow walk through a complete world.  I want to immerse, to invest, in something.  I want to climb a mountain, literarily speaking.

And so, recently, when I was in my favorite used book store in Boston, Brattle Books, and saw a complete Folio Society printing of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, you may appreciate how I felt: as though my mountain had chosen me.

BarsetshireThere are six Barsetshire novels: ‘The Warden‘, ‘Barchester Towers‘, ‘Doctor Thorne‘, ‘Framley Parsonage‘, ‘The Small House at Allington‘, and ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset‘.  Anthony Trollope is right in my sweet spot: prim, English authors whose novels satirize polite society in impeccable prose (don’t I sound fun?).  Once one of the most famous authors in the English-speaking world, he seems to have been largely forgotten.  When I told even my bookish, nerdy friends what I was planning to read next, the modal response was, ‘Who?’.

Trollope
Anthony Trollope

Part of the problem is that he wrote a lot – something north of 45 novels – and they all tend to blur together.  He is most famous for his two series, ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ and the Palliser novels, and for the single novel, ‘The Way We Live Now‘.  ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ are the thing for which he was first known, and ‘The Warden‘ therefore his first commercial success.

The Warden‘ is our introduction to Mr. Septimus Harding.  He is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, which is an almshouse endowed hundreds of years before by one John Hiram.  The endowment (this is important) is meant to support 12 bedesmen which the community selects.  It also provides for the wardenship, which when the novel begins supports Mr. Harding very comfortably, to the tune of 800£ per annum plus his lovely house, where he lives with the younger of his two daughters, the cherished Eleanor.

The WardenTrouble arrives on the scene in the person of John Bold.  Bold is a handsome young man whose independent means allow him to zealously pursue the interests of the poor, and he has decided that it is a scandal that the warden of Hiram’s Hospital should have 800£ a year – surely, Hiram intended his bequest to be split more equitably between the warden and his bedesmen.  To that end, Bold initiates a legal examination of Hiram’s will.

This is deeply distressing to the clerical residents of Barsetshire.  The archdeacon, who is Septimus Harding’s son-in-law by his elder daughter, feels that the entire Church of England is under assault, and wades into very polite battle.  Mr. Harding, on the other hand, is upset not by the threat to his living, but by the idea that he has been profiting by that to which he was not entitled.  He is sent spinning into a moral crisis which is only exacerbated by the fact that his daughter Eleanor is in love with John Bold.

Pages
What an orderly little world.

The second loveliest thing about ‘The Warden‘ is the way in which the stakes feel simultaneously so low and so high.  Barsetshire is a fictional place, but it is deeply plausible.  It is also completely coherent: the people within it are imperfect but well-meaning.  They may be officious, misguided, or bombastic, but they will never be evil.  It is an impossibility here.  Thus, while our protagonists experience this kerfuffle over Hiram’s bequest as a moral emergency, and while you feel for them in their extremis, you are aware that it is not an emergency, not really, that whatever the outcome, Barsetshire will endure.

The first loveliest thing about the novel is the language.  Trollope is especially good at wielding that peculiar weapon of English satirists: parsimony, the gift of saying a great deal in very few words.  It allows him to describe people or situations perfectly, as here:

“Dr Grantly is by no means a bad man; he is exactly the man which such an education as his was most likely to form; his intellect being sufficient for such a place in the world, but not sufficient to put him in advance of it.” (p. 40)

Or here:

“And with a volley of impassioned love, John Bold poured forth the feelings of his heart, swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods; and Eleanor repeated with every shade of vehemence the ‘No, no, no,’ which had had a short time since so much effect; but now, alas! its strength was gone.  Let her be never so vehement, her vehemence was not respected; all her ‘No, no, no’s’ were met with counter asseverations, and at last were overpowered…and so at last, all her defences [sic] demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.” (p. 137)

I’ll throw down this bet: fifty bucks says that there is no better, pithier encapsulation of the tricky ardor of men than “swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods”.  Or a better description of the moment you know you’re going to say Yes and not No than that you “marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.”

The Warden‘ is the shortest of the six volumes; some of the later volumes could easily be used to club someone to death.  But I’m excited – I think I’ve chosen my project well.  Barsetshire is low stakes, but it suits me: a small, ordered, and lovely world, where the troubles of men are worked out under an unsparing, and yet ultimately forgiving, eye.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

All posts contain spoilers.
Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)

Or:

“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

waugh2
Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.