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.”
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 - http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2009/05/england-english-rural-series - 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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Exhibition - 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.