Sunday, 26 April 2009

29. Anthony Trollope - 'The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne' (1861)

“Whenever I feel bored, I like to go to bed with a Trollope.”
(Harold Macmillan)

And now for a week of stories all taken from online sources, and indeed for a slice of unadulterated Victoriana. I was interested to read some Trollope, favourite of that conflicted traditionalist PM who ushered consumerism into Britain, Harold Macmillan - and also of the deluded 'Pooter'-ist John Major, who was unable to reverse any of the changes wrought by Thatcher which had shattered forever that world.

One can well imagine a long-suited commuter in the 1970s or 80s, amid the new urbanism of London or Newcastle finding their limited refuge in this kind of thing, dreaming of England as it was - - hiding from all futures, whilst unknowing creating our very specific one through voting Thatcher.

And indeed this embodies a well-versed, staid Englishness, right from its opening preamble, which is gazetteer-style hymning of various lesser-known places in Devon - locating the story in one of these hidden gems: 'Men and women talk to me on the matter, who have travelled down the line of railway from Exeterto Plymouth, who have spent a fortnight at Torquay, and perhaps made an excursion from Tavistock to the convict prison on Dartmoor. But who knows the glories of Chagford? Who has walked through the parish of Manaton? Who is conversant with Lustleigh Cleeves and Withycombe in the moor? Who has explored Holne Chase? Gentle reader, believe me that you will be rash in contradicting me, unless you have done these things.'

Published in 1861, this is merely ten years after this - - the height of Britain's thrusting, industrial spirit. This might be identified as within what Wiener defined as the gradual turning away from this enterprising spirit into nostalgia, ruralism and spirituality - or towards humanity, as Dickens or Hardy might. London life is that which barely bears speak its name in 'The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne'; the unchanging rural life forms its lead character's destiny, whereas the chance of marriage to a city gentleman is held up as a charade - she is above his patronising attempt to mould her in etiquette. The very title locates the story, grounds it in rusticity, the ways of thought and action prevalent in a country village that is in every sense an outpost.

It strikes me as Austenesque in many ways other than just addressing the 'Gentle Reader'; the heroine has some of Fanny Price (Mansfield Park, 1814)'s purity of purpose, contemplating but turning down overtures from men who she ultimately deems unsuitable. The difference is that this short story leaves little doubt that she is to live out the rest of her days as an 'old maid' - there is no pure and apposite union, as with Edmund in Mansfield Park.

This is unusual in my survey for the writer's use of an interested first-person voice which is also omniscient; the 'I' is never located within the action at any point - is always at a remove, but able to catalogue the action at some length. Trollope's prose is hardly economical or concise; the detail is meant to matter, to imbue this rural life with colour - but he fails to do that, compared with Hardy, say. There are cumbersome, long sentences, yet, unlike Dickens, there is little spark or humour to grab you by the lapels. Despite the close proximity of the narrator, the feeling is of detachment; of a conscientious Victorian completing a journal aiming to capture verisimilitude - as he sees it - but actually revealing more about its writer and his society in its fastidiousness and assumption of the stiff-upper-lip.

Whilst I couldn't say I particularly liked this, overall, it does not especially put me off reading a novel of Trollope's; admittedly, he has not arisen to the top of my list as some have, but, being interested in the Victorian era, he is a key part of the literary equation. In its stoical acceptance of a seemingly predestined fate, this story seems to enshrine a rather stolid sort of Englishness thoroughly alien today - anti-metropolitan and insular. Limited village values, writ large; whilst a story of 'Victorian Romance', this is not romance as Flaubert, the Brontes or Hardy would know it. To the modern perspective, the ending is almost perversely anti-romantic, which sets it apart from a lot of the writers Wiener identified as attacking the Industrial Spirit. One can exactly see the appeal to Tories seeking to hide from the present and their own role in burying Trollope's world of thrift, stoicism and practicality - when the countryside was not merely a retreat.



  1. A very interesting October 1975 Radio Times article about Macmillan, I think when a series of interviews with him was shown - it alludes to the paradox of him being a leader of the old school, rooted in empire and tradition, who saw out the old colonies and saw in the hard sell, but the fascinating thing from a modern perspective is the way it talks of the Tory party itself not having yet recovered from the wind of change on all sides 15 years earlier, and possibly being doomed to permanent collapse.

    Also recently acquired 'Another Voice', a compilation of Auberon Waugh's Spectator journalism, 1976-86: one column stands out, from 2nd September 1978, where he compares France, where hard-left views were regularly openly spoken on television but capitalism (three years before its great swing to socialism which must surely have been rooted in a desire to go against the Anglo-Saxon tide) was thriving, with Britain, where such views were largely absent from TV but where capitalism, as he saw it, was "in ruins", with little hope even for a limited, Butskellite form. I need not comment on the inherent tragic irony of such a piece having been published precisely when it was. But the fascinating thing is that, unlike many/most other conservative writers of the time, he has little faith in capitalism and certainly no overriding desire to see it triumph and drive out its enemies; he concedes that it represents the triumph of the mass, merely by different means and different criteria than the socialism he loathed, and that it promotes a culture of "rubbish" - which was precisely the stance he took in his columns that I grew up reading, after capitalism's decisive triumph.

    Radio 4 last year broadcast one of those cleverly symbolic afternoon plays, called 'The Playwright and the Grammarian'. Starting point: a recently-retired civil servant (Penelope Wilton in Rosalie Crutchley mode) debates on Feedback with a young trendy-leftie playwright about the poor grammar in her work. As time goes on she begins to loosen up (admitting, as so often with characters of her ilk, that she had been frustrated by not getting into Oxbridge), while the playwright abandons her own dogma, and they end up close friends. At one point the playwright has changed to such an extent that she is doing a radio Classic Serial adaptation of Trollope, and her boyfriend recoils in horror: "Trollope! That was all part of the Tory party, and the Daily Telegraph, and Chichester, and Radio 4, and everything else that was holding back this country" (paraphrased). At those words I had an instant flashback to the mid-1990s, back when Major stumbled on, and the Telegraph hadn't been celebified yet, and Weller specials or Maconie appearances on Radio 4 were still a Big Cultural Event rather than the routine events that they and their subsequent equivalents now are, clearly the era of the playwright and her boyfriend's student days, when all their assumptions and associations had been formed ...

    The whole thing seemed like a perfect analogy for the compromises on both sides on which Cameron's uneasy false consensus are built, and it is hard to believe it was a coincidence that it was broadcast the afternoon after the London and other local elections, widely (and, sadly, probably correctly) predicted to be a major step towards power for him.

  2. 'TP&TG' sounds an interesting radio play, yes.

    I wouldn't claim 'The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne' as an ally of convenience in any real sense (which I would very well for some other artefacts - or portals - of Victoriana), but I would say that it is useful to be aware of its perspective - and that to lose sight entirely of that is to give in to the insurmountably vague, non-existent England 'envisaged' by Cameron. It is this sort of thing which provides the detail and the context now unknown to so many.