Sunday, August 8, 2010

Trollope's Art of Characterization and "Barcesters' Towers"

Trollope’s particular excellence is in the drawing of character. He himself said that characterisation was more important than plot and that the writer of novels must steep himself in his imaginary personages until he knows every detail of their appearance, every aspect of their character and every subtle shade of their personality. More than this, Trollope possessed the capacity to inter­pret character, that is, to infer a state of mind from a fleeting expression of the face, or an emotional reaction from a chance gesture.

In Barchester Towers Trollope is not skewering the amoral behaviour which he depicts, but rather holding it up for our amusement. The tone is one of delectation. The leading types of the series are also not that realistic: Grantly, the Proudies, Harding too, Slope, the Ullathornes all remain types. As Trollope proceeds he gets into in-depth psychology, but that’s to come in Dr. Thorne.
Thus we laugh with serious undertones at Proudie because we are not persuaded—as yet—of the full burden of humanity he carries. Still the pattern of the character and moral point of view which guides the shaping is that which lies behind Daubeny. How does this relate to Mrs Proudie? Coleridge said genius brought together things people don’t usually bring together. Trollope has had the genius to see that the trimmer in life is often the man who submits to people at home because one source of amorality and desire for personal comfort and the flattery and security offered to individuals by adhering to ceremony is anxiety over how others will respond to us, fear of others, need for their validation of ourselves. The man who submits in politics will often be the man who is henpecked by women, who will in all relationships of life not be the master but the servant.
Again and again great novels show us that in any given pair of people no matter what social roles they are given and named—husband and wife, master and man, lady and maid—the one who has a drive to dominate will be the master. The so-called servant in many relationships ends up the master; the two people are always engaged in a fascinating game of political give-and-take. That’s why we like master-and-man, lady-and-maid couples.
In Barchester Towers Trollope’s characters are almost all clergymen or the members of their families. We see the bishop, his wife, and his chaplain, the redoubtable archdeacon, the scholarly Fellow of Lazarus and vicar of St. Ewold’s, the impoverished vicar of Puddingdale, the prebendary and his bizarre, exotic family, and the gentle precentor with his beloved church-music.
We see no tradesmen or local businessmen; we see little of the lawyers and the doctors, and nothing at all of the working classes, the skilled artisans, of Barchester. We see a few local farmers, one or two sextons or churchwardens, and an occasional rustic or apprentice, but in general we see little but ecclesiastics and university Fellows. The Thornes represent the county squirearchy and are of the same upper middle class as the archdeacon and the bishop. We do, it is true, catch a glimpse of a Countess and an Honourable John—but these visitors from a higher social stratum do not stay long.
One consequence of this narrow social range is that the men, with one exception, are gentlemen, and the women, with possibly one exception, are ladies. The male exception is Mr. Slope. The possible female exception is La Signora.
Trollope attaches so much importance to character-drawing and we must note first how characters are introduced and then how they are built up. The first method of introduction is by a formal exposition of character, history, views and appearance of the person concerned before he does or says anything. The various members of the Stan­hope family are described very completely in this way before they take any action whatsoever in the story.
Trollope devotes a whole chapter to the two Thornes and the house in which they live. Another method is to refer to a character briefly before he actually appears. Then, when the reader knows of his existence, his character and outlook can be given fully at a later and more convenient point.
The best example of this is Mr. Arabin, who is first referred to in Chapter XIV, and then receives the whole of Chapter 20 for the formal exposition of his character. Yet in this case it must be admitted, Mr. Arabin scarcely seems to come alive after we have been told so much about him. The introduction of the Quiverfuls is also made in a similar manner, for the first we hear of them is when they appear at Mrs. Proudie’s reception in Chapter 10.
In the characters of Barchester Towers, Trollope’s range is somewhat limited. He does not undertake to portray the whole expanse of character and condition to be found throughout the length and breadth of England at the time; he is not painting a nation or an Empire, but a quiet market town in that most English of English counties, Barsetshire; and in that market town he is concerned principally with the cathedral close and its attendant rectories and villages.
These clergymen and their families, with their ambitions and quarrels and short-comings, were indeed only a tiny fragment—and perhaps not a very important fragment— of the England that was dealing with the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, building railways, making cotton shirts, mining coal and trading with every country in the world, but it was nevertheless a very real fragment. Mr. Slope with his fiery face and denunciatory sermons, Mr. Harding playing in moments of stress on his imaginary cello, Archdeacon Grantly that monument of ineffective energy, Mr. Quiverful poor, hopeful, and moderately honest—all these may be unimportant compared to the Gladstones and Brunels of the time, but they are none the less most authentic and valid in their sphere. Trollope has recorded for us an aspect of old England which it would be a pity to have lost.

Trollope does not go very deeply. His characters, though real and vivid, do not plumb the depths of human experience; they have joys and sorrows, it is true, but their mirth falls short of ecstasy and their grief stops well this side of despair. In addition to his full-length characters, Trollope can also, when he wishes, give us a thumb-nail sketch of a minor character; and of this we may cite as examples the sexton and the churchwarden whom Mr. Arabin meets at St. Ewold’s (though these are very slight indeed), Harry Greenacre, Mr. Plomacy, Mrs. Clantantram and the Countess de Courcy. Even though Trollope is not as prolific in his characters as Dickens or Balzac, he has nevertheless a fairly wide canvas of varying personalities.

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