Although I think that the title of Anthony Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? is very intriguing, I have, unfortunately, taken a very strong dislike to The Warden and to Barchester Towers, both of which I was so sure I would love. My uncritical self just wants to say that I hated them because they bored me, which is true, to a degree. But as I get deeper into my research for my dissertation on sensation literature, I think there’s a more “critical” explanation for why I hate Trollope (yes, hate–he really, really bores me!).
First of all, in his Autobiography, he describes his writing as “anti-sensational.” I know that this is no reason to hate a Victorian author–lots of people who valued “Realism” would probably have described themselves as “anti-sensational,” including my beloved George Eliot. (Although, I don’t think that “Realism” and sensation fiction were actually opposed, but more on that in the post about Steinlight’s “Why Novels are Redundant”). But, reading this self-righteous “anti-sensational” description of Trollope’s work, I remembered a passage from Barchester Towers (the end of chapter 15) that I found fascinating when I first came across it, but also intensely disappointing. Here it is:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?
And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.
And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.” Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.
I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.