A strange element in the nature of Anthony Trollope’s story-telling art is that his novels are stuffed with imaginary letters. So many that our story-teller cannot include them all: no, he summarises, paraphrases, and quotes epitomising snatches. Some he throws into free indirect speech in which he combines his characters’ thoughts with his own. When it is to his purpose, though, he fills whole chapters with letters, and labels them with titles like ‘The Stanbury Correspondence’. When it is important that we keep the order the letters were received, read, and answered clear, he numbers them for us. He will encapsulate in a single letter or a summary of lengthy correspondence episodes lasting several months or a few years. One lone letter can initiate a crisis in a novel; another, a novel’s central story.
Not that there are too many letters for Trollope’s characters. While they often dislike letters written or received by characters whose behaviour they want to control, Trollope’s characters like writing and receiving letters themselves. If they are thoughtful types, they plan the letters they write. They think about what response they want from the letter’s recipient. They consider, cross out and revise carefully. Characters have been known to go through five full drafts and secret these away until such time as it is appropriate to use one. When Trollope’s characters receive letters, they may dread unfolding them; nonetheless, once they’re unfolded, they proceed eagerly to read and interpret them. They may meditate and feel moved by letters. Many characters grow indignant and argue with other characters over a letter. Merciless and amoral characters destroy, or tempt other characters to destroy the letters which belong to yet another character. Some characters hesitate before some dimly-glimpsed possible ill consequence of writing answers on their own. They get a trusted accomplice to write their letters for them. Other characters are bullied into taking dictation. His nervous guilty characters hide notes. There are characters who write letters and then don’t send them; still others leap helter-skelter into the fray.
Critics have quoted and discussed individual letters as examples of Trollope’s virtuoso impersonation. Such quotation usually appears as part of a thematic discussion. Their excuse: the letter is just too good to ignore. David Pearson has carefully examined the large number of letters in one of Trollope’s short novels, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite. From it, Pearson generalises: Trollope is easily the most epistolary of non-epistolary novelists. Alas, one swallow does not a summer make. However, by surveying Trollope’s fiction, I can demonstrate that epistolarity is a basic important component of Trollope’s story-telling art, and that his handling of it distinguishes him from other Victorian novelists. This requires not only looking at the art inside the mini-genre we call a letter whereby Trollope develops conversational styles which make us feel we are in a particular character’s presence; I want also to discuss the inescapable elements which make up an epistolary situation.
First, throughout his novels Trollope plays upon the difference between the thoughts and speech of his characters and their written words: a letter is easily, nay readily, misinterpreted; its documentary nature allows it to be used as a weapon. In Trollope’s novels letters are often public performances. Some of Trollope’s characters write obliquely to convey what they daren’t say explicitly and hope their friend will understand; some letters are calculated to elicit a particular response, though the writer may not get it. Other characters write poorly controlled letters. The writers expose aspects of themselves, which, were they able to, they would have kept hidden.
Beyond exploiting the relationship between a letter-writing character, a letter, and its imagined recipient, Trollope takes advantage of the fact that the events retold in a letter can be organised independently of calendar time. Letters allow him to ignore the temporal sequence of his novel’s events to follow his characters’ or story-teller’s trains of memory and imagination. Letters link disparate stories drawing ironic parallels between the characters in these stories. Trollope’s story-teller is fond of making us read a pair of letters over a character’s shoulder in reverse order. This makes the character reading the letter seem realer to us. His narrator makes plain to us both what the character who is reading the letter infers from said letter and what, by contrast, his narrator would like us to notice or infer. Trollope is aware that the sudden inclusion of letters, in whatever order, deforms an otherwise omniscient narrative and imports into it meanings he cannot control.
If we believe that Trollope is one of the greatest nineteenth century novelists, it seems incumbent upon us to ask what he does better than most of his contemporaries, what he does that they don’t do? One thing he does is use letters as a narrative medium on their own and woven into a nuanced omniscient narrative, and he makes these letters and partly epistolary narratives central to his stories. This combined texture allows us to observe terrains in his characters’ minds which actuate real people’s behaviour in life. The outward behaviour a written letter provokes provides Trollope with a graphic and striking means of dramatising the real constraints of our lives.
It has often been remarked that novelists who use letters are themselves people who remain apart from others, who have had to work at integrating themselves into their society. In his Autobiography Trollope shows us he was such a man. Contemporary descriptions of him reveal a man who was not comfortable when in company, who would behave in ways that startled people. All his life he spent an enormous number of his waking hours apart from other people reading or absorbed in writing. He would be fascinated by the ways in which letters enable people to commune with one another while they remain physically apart; his customary destruction of all the private letters he received suggests a man acutely aware of how their documentary nature can be exploited. In his Autobiography Trollope also separates himself from the mystification by which theorists or the learned seek to raise their status; in his private letters he approaches his art pragmatically. Trollope’s review of an abridgement of Samuel Richardson’s million word epistolary novel, Clarissa shows he had read the whole thing previously, and had considered how to use epistolary narrative to make it appeal to nineteenth-century English readers.
We must not forget his thirty-four years in the Post Office. Trollope was a civil servant who thought of letters as objects entrusted to his care, each and every one of which should arrive unscathed and in a timely fashion to where or to whom it was directed. Trollope is the only nineteenth-century English novelist to recognise a failure of imagination in the expectation that letters magically turn up on breakfast tables.
The story of Trollope’s uses of letters in his fiction is not one of painstaking gradual artistic development, but of sudden changes and shifts in emphasis. Throughout his career, Trollope decides how many letters to have and how long his epistolary episodes will be to suit a book’s proposed length. He takes into consideration the occupations of its characters, their level of education and cultural milieu. I have been able to discern three phases of change, though these phases overlap.
The first phase of Trollope’s use of letters runs from The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1843-45) through to The Bertrams (1858). The most important developments in Trollope’s epistolary technique occur towards the end of these fifteen years. In his first five novels, The Macdermots, The Kellys and O’Kellys, La Vendee, The Warden and Barchester Towers, when Trollope writes an imaginary letter or note, he drops it in. His narrator stops moving forward chronologically. Reasons for the existence of the letter are adduced. It is inserted. The narrator guides our responses to it by interpreting it for us explicitly just before, during or after the letter closes. Omniscient narration resumes. When it is a letter which we must know about but which will not be included, we are given in lieu of it a brief description, a quotation or two which conveys its gist, or a very brief paraphrase dominated by a style and tone associated with the stance of our story-teller in the particular book.
In Trollope’s first five novels, letters are typically acts of friendship. They serve to “unite the absent writer with the recipient on the basis of common shared values, of some service done, or of reciprocating thoughts in the form of information the writer knows his recipient will be interested to hear, help offered, advice, kind words or expressions of love. Example: Mr Harding to Bishop Grantly in which he tells the Bishop those feelings he has which he hopes will make the Bishop sympathise with his decision to give up the Wardenship and reassure him that he and his daughter, Eleanor, will still have his income as precentor to rely upon (The Warden 19).
In all Trollope’s novels letters are mediators. It is the rare character who can forget that letters are substitutes for direct contact. In his earliest novels Trollope also uses letters to dramatise intangible truths about interactions between people he can’t get at any other way.
In the first five novels, the letters which are most vibrantly alive are those which are egregiously hypocritical, but intimidate only the very sensitive or vulnerable. I expect most people remember Mr Tom Towers’ articles in the Jupiter which caused Mr Harding so much distress (The Warden). In Barchester Towers, Trollope spins several episodes out of the different responses different readers have to the same letter. Mr Slope’s ‘long and tender’ epistle by which he meant to woo Eleanor Harding Bold, now a wealthy widow, by offering her father the Wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital enables Trollope to explore how very few people care about understanding what they read, except as it impinges on the practical realities or emotional beliefs of their lives. In this early heated and anxious debate by a group of characters who think they look on life similarly, we see that nonetheless they react very differently to the same letter: congenial characters are dismayed; distrustful characters form a community of spies. Eleanor’s sister insists the letter must have something in it Eleanor is ashamed of. Else why not show it to her? Dr Grantly does not know how further to reproach Eleanor when she lets him read the letter since he cannot understand her complacency towards it: she thinks Mr Slope’s offer of a place and income to her father is what is important in it; he thinks Slope’s unctuous tones and salacious words are what count. From The Warden on, Trollope’s characters’ meditations over letters often consist of speculations about how the letter will be read by other characters. From Barchester Towers on, Trollope wrote fictional variants on triangulations of motive, goal and assumption, misreading and emotional overreaction.
It was during the writing of his sixth through eighth novels, The Three Clerks, Dr Thorne and The Bertrams (1857-58) that Trollope developed important uses of letters and techniques for presenting them in compressed form that remains central to his story-telling for the rest of his career. In a few places in The Three Clerks and Dr Thorne, and then continually in The Bertrams letters record a character’s inmost mixed and vacillating feelings. These letters trace painful emotional and moral conflicts. Letters in Trollope’s fictions now may be sincere outpourings of a character’s inner life written to the moment under the pressure of some immediate distress, to someone whom they hope will respond with deep sympathy and equal candour. Such letters are performative: by writing them the characters reveal their personality or make a decision whose consequences they cannot foresee.
The other important change that happens around the time of The Three Clerks, Dr Thorne and The Bertrams is Trollope presents letters as highly compressed redactions, abbreviated versions of letters, within an on-going omniscient narrative. Trollope uses and gradually learns to exploit with great subtlety a mixed form of narrative which had appeared in fiction only intermittently before, and hardly ever in English novels during the nineteeth century. He weaves close paraphrases of imagined letters into webs of words which include his story-teller’s free indirect speech paraphrases of the writers’ thoughts as the letter was written. He includes the imagined reader’s thoughts. If the recipient of a letter is reading it in company, Trollope’s story-teller will describe the scerye and company’s reaction. These mixed mode paragraphs which replace letters include scintillating distinctive bits of the withheld letter. From now until the end of Trollope’s career telling a story through letters no longer requires that the narrator stop the story, insert a full letter, and resume again. Letters and reading events blend with Trollope’s story-teller’s continuous monologue or consciousness which also carries the dramatic narratives, third-person omniscient meditations, and the briefly related events of the book. The gain in nuanced control, concision, reading-time and variety of perspectives is enormous. The first occurrence of this enriched form of semi-epistolary narrative in Trollope occurs early in The Three Clerks.
Trollope is not the first novelist to dramatise the inward acts of writing, reading and interpretation. Jane Austen dramatises her heroines reading, responding to and having difficulty writing letters. However, in Austen’s novels her imagined readers do not misinterpret their letters; the imagined letters are not themselves chopped up into bits and paraphrased, and threaded tightly into the shared narrated consciousness of imagined readers and a continually active story-teller. Trollope keeps no distance between letter-writer, letter-reader and narrator. When he enacts minds responding directly to nuances of a letter, he allows us to confront immediate responses and thoughts which are not put on paper but lead to what is put there.
There is a thematic pattern which recurs in these semi-epistolary narratives when they form the crises of the later books. In Dr Thorne Augusta is a character whose self-respect is based on a group of social values to which she passionately adheres. These blind but also shield Augusta from foreseeing that Lady Amelia objects to her marriage to Mr Gazebee because Lady Amelia is unmarried, thirty-four and has a heart ‘as hard as flint’. In Trollope’s later fictions characters become distraught and agonised over their responses to and misinterpretations of other characters’ letters when their self-definition or values are at stake. In Trollope’s most powerful mid-career books he uses the act of composing and reading letters and of course letters themselves to depict characters who think and behave in ways that are dangerously self-destructive when their self-image or self-respect is threatened.
The second phase of Trollope’s epistolarity runs from the year and one-half in which Trollope produced two novels at once, Castle Richmond and Framley Parsonage (1859-60) and began his first blockbuster masterpiece, Orley Farm (1860-61). It ends with Lady Anna, written twelve years later. In Castle Richmond and Orley Farm Trollope initiates, picks ups threads of his stories, sustains, drops and resumes them again by presenting what happened since we last left off through dialogues between inserted and interwoven letters. In and after Framley Parsonage Trollope knits his stories together through correspondences between characters. From The Three Clerks on, without their letters, Trollope’s novels would be disconnected fragments; however, by the time of The Vicar of Bullhampton and Sir Harry Hotspur (both written in 1868), characters who live apart write one another at regular intervals and always at meaningful turning points in their lives (of which they seem to have very many). In the middle phase of Trollope’s epistolarity, it is almost true to say, a reader can get the gist of all that has happened of importance in a Trollope novel just by reading its letters and semi-epistolary narratives in a row, and skipping over everything else.
I have some numbers. The Bertrams is the first novel to show the exponential growth in the number of letters per novel which resulted when Trollope began to weave bits of letters and paraphrases from them into his earlier plain omniscient narratives. There are four letters in The Macdermots, ten in The Kellys and O’Kellys, one in La Vendee, and six in The Warden. Barchester Towers is the first of Trollope’s novels in which correspondences are casually referred to. Nevertheless, since these are few, brief and do not carry any of the novel’s events, we may still count eighteen letters. Dr Thome returns us to enumerable letters: there are thirteen. In The Three Clerks although Gertrude ‘in continuation’ to her family is an indeterminate correspondence, we can otherwise also count thirteen imaginary letters. There are in The Bertrams forty-nine individual letters, and epistolarity is no longer a matter of discrete units separable from the rest of the book: the narrator describes five different sets of correspondences, and he carefully characterises and paraphrases two more series of letters by two writers because they figure centrally in part of the novel’s action. In The Bertrams we also find for the first time that curiosity which occurs repeatedly in Trollope’s fiction after it: the letter a character attempts to write, meditates passages of, but fails to put on paper. Johnny Eames is one of Trollope’s later characters who dreams his thoughts as letters he might write (The Small House 14; The Last Chronicle, 35). It is to be noted that when a Trollope character experiences writer’s block, it is usually temporary and he or she gets over it.
There are exceptions to Trollope’s epistolary fecundity. Sir Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1873) contains no letters at all. With some exceptions, there are few letters in Trollope’s short stories and these letters are brief. The stories typically present characters who live in close proximity or whose culture does not encourage letter-writing — or, Trollopian thought, their Post Office is inadequate.
In this second phase of Trollope’s epistolarity we find him using letters as a way of entering into the psychology of his characters and presenting them to us for the first time. In the third chapter of Can You Forgive Her? we meet John Grey through letters which reveal a studious and shy man’s deeply-felt emotions. The many sets of letters in The Eustace Diamonds begin after Trollope has slowly built up the several interlocking stories, and the reader is thoroughly absorbed in the fiction.
The imagined letters and semi-epistolary narratives Trollope writes in the middle twelve-year phase of his career put before us inwardly-apprehended dramatisations of an extraordinary variety of human motives, moods and acts. In these years he seems often drawn to situations in which a friend or mentor writes a letter containing untrue information or harmful advice. He uses letters to reveal how bonds between people can make them pressure one another: in some cases, the imagined reader sees through the emotional manipulation but disregards it (Orley Farm 27); in others, Trollope shows us how his writers do not realise how harassing or poisonous their letters are because they cannot imagine any tone of mind but their own (The Vicar of Bullhampton 54). In these years Trollope enjoys writing comical epistolary interludes with characters risking a defeat which will make them look humiliated and become an object of ridicule (e.g., ‘The Turnover Correspondence’ in The Vicar of Bullhampton 26). Trollope also will repeatedly put before us earnest attempts by his men to explain their life’s goals to the women they consider themselves engaged to, together with the women’s replies (Rachel Ray, 16); more than one of his engaged females writes to a male character, acknowledging her love for him although she knows he is shallow and has betrayed her and could betray her again (The Duke’s Children, 77; Ayah’s Angel 38).
Trollope’s finest moments as a story-teller occur when he enters into the mind of someone tortured by failure or a lack of respect from other people. I am tempted, therefore, to quote one of the Rev. Joshua Crawley’s magnificient epistles in which he analyses accurately the motives of the letter he is answering, wherein it swerved from candour, and describes his own powerless impoverished situation and brave choices. In his careful avoidance of the least self-flattery his words are noble and self-lacerating (Last Chronicle 13, 62, 83).
Trollope’s third phase begins three years after ‘The Spotted Dog’: from The Way We Live Now (1873) through to An Old Man’s Love (1882), a river of only partly amused grief runs through Trollope’s fictions. Lady Anna heralds and The Way We Live Now makes plain a change in the stance of Trollope’s novels. Until The Way We Live Now in Trollope’s fiction, except for rare instances of villainy, his narrator remains detached from the values of the characters while attempting to make us sympathise with them. With The Way We Live Now, Trollope’s fiction turns satiric in outlook: a kind of steely self-distancing pervades the later books; Trollope’s narrator no longer works to make us like the characters --though he may urge us to identify with them nonetheless.
In Trollope’s later novels letters are uncomfortable or unwanted events. All the letter-writers in these late novels seem ultimately to regard one another as opponents in a battle; the intelligent writers know they must hide a goodly portion of what they feel about any situation from the recipient of their letter. With lightning speed characters who were close friends or lovers can become wholly alienated from one another. The letter as prying nuisance, the letter written to start a public war, the letter as a peremptory challenge or direct threat, the letter written to entangle someone in a lawsuit or to strike someone down emotionally; badgering, spiteful, revengeful, and brutal letters occur frequently in or dominate The Way We Live Now, The Prime Minister, Is He Popenjoy?, Dr Wortle’s School, Kept in the Dark and Mr Scarborough’s Family. In The Way We Live Now we meet our first forged signature on a letter which was stolen from a drawer but has since disappeared (58).
In the earlier phases of Trollope’s career, letters are rarely sheerly weapons; characters do not so consistently regard their imagined reader as an opponent as well as a friend. Throughout Trollope’s last books, his characters are allowed to see through the surface meaning of a letter to its manipulative content and act more or less unscrupulously on that. The three letters by Matilda, Lady Carbury with which The Way We Live Now begins are transparently corrupt; she does not bother to disguise her attempts to pressure her interlocutors. In Trollope’s last books, his characters often write letters in order to maintain a hostile relationship. In Is He Popenjoy? the only reason most of the characters can pretend not to be full open enmity is they are physically apart (2,6-7,15,20-21, 31, 36-37,40,46).
At the close of his career, Trollope also plays with letters and his memories of his life as a postal clerk mischievously. Everyone who has read John Caldigate remembers its ardent postal clerk, Samuel Bagwax, about whom Trollope as himself wrote to John Blackwood, ‘Was I not once a Bagwax myself?’ (Hall 2:815).
Trollope’s later novels are not comfortable books; in them letters show us characters mangling one another or themselves out of their need for and fear of one another. In its use of letters The American Senator (1875) typifies his later years. The ‘Rufford Correspondence’ includes a series of letters written by Lord Rufford, the wealthiest and in the town of Dillsborough (or for him by his brother-in-law, Sir George Penwether) to Arabella Trefoil, a penniless aging niece to an Earl, who wants to marry Lord Rufford. This correspondence is interwoven with another between Arabella and John Morton, a diplomat, who while less wealthy than Rufford, actually wants to marry Arabella.
First, the style of these letters is much broader and they are less detailed than the style of the letters of Trollope’s earlier phases. The language is simpler and slightly coarse. From Lady Anna on, Trollope goes for archetypal words. In Trollope’s last phase his characters often liken themselves to literary types. Even when comic or written by lovers who have had little contact with one another and speak into a vacuum, the letters in, say, Dr Thorne have a specificity and detail (18, 52) lacking in, say, Ayala’s Angel. The many more but shorter letters of Ayala’s Angel and The American Senator reveal broad allegorising tendencies and an impatience with individualising.
I began this talk by asking what does Trollope do that his contemporaries don’t do. My answer has been that he makes a perceptive use of all a letter’s characteristics as these are experienced in society. He is also innovative in his skilful compression of free indirect speech, redactions of letters, and acts of reading and writing within a omniscient narrative made subjective by an active story-teller’s consciousness. I think it significant that Trollope never makes the mistake many fiction-writers have made ever since people first began to write long prose stories and divide these up into parts. He never uses the label letter for chapters of stories written in the first-person. Trollope calls letters only those texts which are written with imagined readers in mind — and to the moment. The continuous psychological suspense of his books partly derives from his understanding of what a letter represents. In the book I wrote for this society I had an unexpected experience: I discovered that Trollope’s illustrators repeatedly depict his characters hunched over their desks writing or bent over their letters reading them.