The Madeleine Project is the name for my effort to go back and see if that which gave pleasure in the past still resonates when it’s revisited. The only rule is that it can’t be expensive to relive the past. For me that means you have to be able to check the past out from the library, rent the DVD, or get the ingredients for it at Safeway.
So far, I’ve looked at poetry (Donne’s St. Lucy’s Day). I’ve been meaning to re-experience my favorite green pasta with fake Parmesan, but haven’t gotten around to it.
Trollope is the next installment in the Madeleine series. About twenty years ago, while I was studying for the California bar exam, I spent the summer reading Trollope. I loved Barchester Towers, in part because it was so good at skewering an institution that takes itself so seriously. In the case of Barchester Towers, that institution is organized religion. Twenty years ago, I was worried about entering an institution sort of like the church, an institution that seemed to take itself awfully seriously, the law. In fact, the law and the church were two professions often chosen by sons who weren’t first in line for the family title. As the fourth child, and with no family title for anybody, it seemed like a good choice. Back then, I suspected I wasn’t going to be very good at my new job, the one I was due to start after the bar exam. I hadn’t liked law school. There weren’t enough stories. The interesting ones were buried in the case books and nobody ever wanted to really talk about them.
What Trollope did was demonstrate that people in power, the people I was a little afraid of, can be utterly ridiculous. I went on to read the Palliser novels, a series that took on politics. And then individual great novels like Can You Forgive Her? and the Eustace Diamonds. The last two are well worth reading again. I’ve never forgotten that thing about people in power often behaving in utterly ridiculous ways. The Palliser novels were a bit of a slog. Other people like them very much, so you might want to check them out too.
In case you’re curious, here are the things I know about Trollope. His mother made much needed money by writing. She was pretty good and pretty popular. Trollope didn’t have a patron, unless you count the postal service, which is where he worked, as an administrator for a good part of his life. Money was a worry for him. He is credited with inventing the post box, that wonderful British icon.
He is also one of the great 19th century novelists and Barchester Towers is probably his most well known novel. It’s the story of a lovely, leafy town in England and the shenanigans that happen among the clerical set when a new bishop and his odious wife and assistant come to town. The novel is full of men and women whose business it is to bring the Church of England to the world. (I say women because, although women obviously weren’t preaching from pulpits, one of the novel’s greatest characters, Mrs. Proudie, does her utmost to run things from behind the scenes.)
There are wonderful things here, very funny looks at how foolishly people behave. For that alone, this novel should be read more than once. It will cure you of pomposity and stubborness — at least while you’re reading it. Afterwards, well, that’s up to you.
The thing I kept noticing this time around, though, is something I don’t remember from reading it before. It’s the narrative voice. It’s a third person narrative, but the narrator (who is never named and not a character) has a personality. He’s a chatty guy. And every once in a while, he breaks in and tells you what’s really going on. It’s a little like the moment in film when a character turns and addresses the camera, except in this case the narrator isn’t a character. That moment, by the way, has seldom worked for me (too self-conscious, too hip, too meta). But this narrator really does. And he proves that Trollope had a light hand with the meta-stuff. (I’m just guessing, and I hope you Dear Reader will correct me if I’m wrong, but a meta-something is just a comment on the way that something works. A meta-novel draws attention to itself as a novel, for example.)
Here’s an example. One of the subplots in the novel concerns a woman named Eleanor Bold. She is that most wonderful of characters in English fiction: the rich, beautiful widow. Naturally, a lot of people are interested in whom she’ll marry next. (There’s no question she’ll marry again. The funny thing is that she’s the only one who’s utterly unaware of the speculation around what she’ll do. She’s too busy spoiling her young son to see much of this.) The worst thing that could happen, in the eyes of many (including her father, sister and brother in law) is that she’ll marry the horrible greasy curate, Snope, and bring the odious Mrs. Proudie into their circle and basically ruin their lives. And then there’s Bertie Stanhope, a ne’er do well fortune hunter who’s also trying to worm his way into her affections. Nobody really cares that these two men would be bad for Eleanor, they just don’t want her to chose someone they don’t like. I admire Trollope for recognizing how deeply self-involved we all are. And although he laughs about it, he sees this as a universal weakness rather than an individual character flaw — and that’s because he’s a generous novelist.
So how does he handle the suspense about Eleanor’s future? He tells you not to worry about it:
“But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.”
He goes on to explain that this kind of suspense isn’t to his taste as a novelist:
“And here, perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his view on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes too 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.”
Not for him, these kinds of mysteries. He points out that your friends are likely to tell you what happened anyway, or you can just turn to the last page to find out what happens. And then he says something I just love, which is, essentially, that a good story isn’t held together by keeping a reader in suspense:
“…take the last chapter if you please — learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there by 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 do so like that idea: A writer’s job is to make the reader feel like she’s been taken into his confidence. And what that means is that the writer will never deceive the reader as he tells his story. At its most basic, that simply means that the writer’s job is to be honest with the reader, to convey as carefully and accurately as he can the truth of the story he is telling. That doesn’t preclude humor or wit or even the occasional surprise — it means that the writer’s essential promise to the reader is that the writer will tell the best story he knows how to tell.
Twenty years later, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. I give Barchester Towers ten madeleines, ten being the highest on the madeleine scale.