From the review in
THE LITERARY GAZETTE.
LONDON, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1861.
IT IS A QUESTION whether on the whole we are gainers or losers by the extinction of the romantic element, so rapidly going on in modern English life. When we ridicule every thought or expression savouring of romance, and studiously repress all development of romantic notions, in those over whom we have any influence, we may, indeed, be rooting up much that is silly and pernicious, but may we not also be checking much that is healthy and beneficial? Perhaps we are plucking up the tares, but may it prove that we are plucking up the wheat as well. That romance is practically fast disappearing from society is plain. Even if our own observation did not convince us that such were the case, we might learn it from the fact that the most popular novelists, who professedly content themselves with a more or less accurate reproduction of ordinary social phases, seldom or never venture to introduce anything like genuine romance into their stories, or to deviate very far from the beaten track of jog-trot, every-day life. Romance is consigned to Reynold’s Miscellany and scullery-maids; and the rest of us can only endure novels which have neither hero, nor heroine, nor anything that is heroic. We have an instance in the volumes before us.
Few stories have of late years enjoyed such a wide popularity as has Mr. Trollope’s Framley Parsonage in the pages of the Cornhill Magazine. It has been the favourite portion of the favourite periodical; and some bold critics have even whispered that Mr. Trollope’s chieftain must look to his laurels, and that perhaps this would be best done by resting on those already acquired. Without inquiring, however, whether Mr. Thackeray’s most dangerous rivals are they of his own household, we must admit that Mr. Trollope has written a very excellent novel, and one which merits all the popularity it has gained: that is, if we measure it by its own standard. How far that standard, both of its composition by the writer, and its reception by the public, is a correct one, may be a matter of doubt. Mr. Trollope set himself to depict certain features of society, and at the same time to arouse his readers. He has succeeded in both these objects. He might have gone deeper than these superficial phases, and he might have aimed higher than this mere amusement of his readers. But he has not chosen to do so, and we suspect he is right. We cannot blame him for being a subtle analyser of human nature, nor a great renovator of the human race. His gentle cynicism, more kindly than the ferocious snarling of the Ursa Major; his truthfulness of detail, less tedious than the “damnable iterations” of Mr. Dickens; and his admirable appreciation of such human motives are tolerably near the surface, all show that the lower cast of fiction is Mr. Trollope’s vocation: and from Falstaff downwards, “’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” We deem it indeed a matter for congratulation that we have a writer to register so faithfully the average elevations and depressions of society, and in whose fictions we can recognize the most remarkable characteristics of passing facts.
We conceive that Framley Parsonage is a striking illustration of our opening remarks on the disappearance of romance from among us. Its two principal groups are Lord Lufton and Lucy Robarts on the one side, and the Vicar of Framley and Mr. Sowerby on the other. It is difficult to say which of the two pictures is more unromantically treated. With what contempt and ridicule would our ancestors have regarded a novelist who ventured to introduce the loves of a gentleman and a maiden of low degree, in so tame a fashion as Mr. Trollope has done. Even Lucy’s refusal of Lord Lufton’s hand would have appeared to them to be prompted by grossly prudential motives, though of an unselfish kind, which no artist should venture to mingle with the aethereal passion. Lord Lufton should have bearded his mother with much quaint bad language: Mark Robarts should have been an overbearing tyrannical brother, who wanted to barter his sister to Mr. Tozer, to relive himself from the burden of the unfortunate bills which that accomplished gentleman held; Lucy should have been resigned to her lord’s sweet will; an so on. This being done, there might have been something like a romance; but as it is, Lucy refuses Lord Lufton, because she thinks his mother would not like it; Mark Robarts takes no part whatever, lest the same terrible mother should be offended; and Lord Lufton himself heals his wounded spirit by six weeks’ salmon-fishing in Norway.
HAPPILY, OR UNHAPPILY, the day for romantic devotion or heroic love has certainly passed away. What Jacob would now serve fourteen years for Rachel, unless with a view to an ultimate share in Laban’s flocks and herds? Yet the course of true love probably runs no smoother now than in the times of Jacob and Leah. Parents are still stern; and daughters-in-law and sons-in-law are generally created with as much pain and trouble as real daughters and sons. But we have a different way of looking at things. Some, like Lord Lufton, find solace in salmon-fishing. Or if they are too busily occupied or too thrifty for salmon-fishing, they go through their ordinary duties with a curious admixture of placid fatalism and moody restlessness. Others again, unable to tolerate long separation, comfort themselves in surreptitious interviews at the pastry-cook’s, where, surrounded by the little haloes of dyspeptic confectionery, they make mutual vows of love and constancy, too frequently as fragile as the puffs over which they are whispered. Imagine Strephon munching pork-pie, and Chloe jam tart—and we have the modern phase of a romantic and blighted attachment. You meet the young lady in society, without any strong look of green and yellow melancholy, and would not know, till you were told, that she was the victim of paternal prudence. The young gentlemen, too, looks very much as usual; he does not smite his breast with mysterious significance, nor is his conversation more than ordinarily atrabilious, or resentful, or abstracted. He probably sleeps as soundly, and digests as perfectly (or imperfectly) as if the gods were all auspicious. If the reader had dined with Mark Robarts at Framley Parsonage he would never have known that Lucy had anything on her mind: and, doubtless, when Lord Lufton was fishing in Norway, the guileless Norwegians never thought he was in love. The present age cannot endure anything like demonstrativeness: and men and women not only do not seem, but do not even feel, demonstrative. They take a plain common-sense view of the crosses in courtship. The rejected son-in-law and the disappointed daughter, within a month after papa has been asked to no purpose, are in nine cases out of ten convinced in their own inmost minds that the paternal decision was a right on under the circumstances. The young gentleman who has been audacious enough to suggest to the stern parent, as he eyes him caustically from behind his spectacles, that a hundred and twenty pounds per annum is an income that at once provokes and justifies matrimony, will very, very soon be ready to proclaim with Saul,—“Behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” Conduct like that of Edgar Ravensworth in Lucy of Lammermoor would be deemed most absurd and reprehensible; and the general view of a lover like Romeo would be, that he was only fit for committal under the Vagrant Act.
Mr. Trollope is the representative of popular notions and popular doctrines on all sorts of popular subjects; and, in accordance with what we have been saying, his views of romance are of the most unromantic. Social pictures, with more than pre-Raphaelite fidelity to reality, if with less than pre-Raphaelite minuteness and elaboration, constitute the branch of art in which Mr. Trollope is a principal artist. He does for the middle classes what Dickens has done for those beneath them; though we never find in him the real genius which shines with more or less brilliancy in every page that Dickens has ever written. Mr. Trollope’s works are essentially without genius, and that they should be so good and so true without genius is perhaps the most astonishing fact about them. The secret of his success is probably that he confines himself to the delineation, in a rough, superficial style, of men and women of the most commonplace pattern. Every man likes to hear himself talked about, even if it be with a slight admixture of gentle abuse; and, from the same sentiment, likes to catch his own face, even if it be but of homely cast, reflected in a mirror. There are very few people who can trace any resemblance, or find much in common, between themselves and the highest characters in fiction. Not many women can realize, or regard as practicable by themselves, heroism like that of Jeannie Deans; nor sympathize actively and fully with the fine nature of Maggie Tulliver. There can only be a very artificial and transient appreciation of thy grander heroes and heroines by the British matron as she sits holding her novel on one side and her seventh-born on the other; not by her lord, as he dozes over the story after dinner. But Mr. Trollope’s pages contain accurate and faithful portraits of mediocre respectabilities. The events are not unpleasantly startling, and the pitch is not painfully high. Few men have not had as much trouble in gaining wives as Lord Lufton had. Few women have not endured as much from parental prudence as Lucy Robarts from Lady Lufton’s pride. Most of us, like Mark Robarts, have lent our name to friends’ bills and been punished very much as he was. Some of us have had interviews with Tozer, very like those of Mr. Sowerby with the worthy. We all of us know Mrs. Proudie, with her malicious tongue and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. In short, every character in Framley Parsonage is cast after the ordinary model of middle-class life. The reader sees in it a photographic register of his own or her own mode of existence, with a superficial account of motives and sentiments, just sufficiently distinctive to make the likeness recognisable.
THIS MODERN TASTE for writings of the school of Mr. Trollope is probably the result of a reaction which commenced some time ago, and which is still operating, against the Byronism which was so prevalent in the earlier portion of the present century. Bryonism was extravagantly morbid. The modern taste is soberly morbid. The former delighted in whatever was abnormal, extraordinary, and fantastic. The latter endures nothing which is not commonplace ordinary, and respectable. People, having discovered that the Byronic heroes were shams, are determined, in a sort of blind revenge, to do away with heroes altogether. After becoming sated with displays of passion which was wholly artificial, and could never find a counterpart in healthy natures, they reverted to the safer ground where passion, except in its most languid form, was entirely unknown. There is no more Byronic passion, no more of what was considered romantic thirty years ago, in Framley Parsonage than in Mill’s Elements of Political Economy. Mr. Trollope’s fictions are simply analyses of external social phases, and are the natural effect, as we have said, of a reaction against the extravagant Byronic analyses of the internal workings of the human spirit.
While we may justly congratulate our age on its delivery from the unwholesome influences of the old fashion, we may also find some ground for deploring the probable influences of the new. While we are glad that an admiration for romance that was seductively pernicious and unsound has passed away, we lament that there is also passing away all love for romance that is lofty and inspiring. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this new, cynical philosophy. Sophocles, who drew men as they should be, and even Aeschylus, who drew them greater than they could be, were better instructors than Euripides, who drew them as they are. The object of the writer should be to make men forget what they actually are, in representing to them what they might become. There are influences at work enough, and more than enough, to keep us down, cabined, cribbed, and confined in the narrow circle of the ordinary pursuits of life. Like the man who saw with agonized acuteness of perception that day by day the walls of his prison became closer and closer, until at length he was crushed in their embrace, so we are all in danger of being gradually, but with fatal certainty, overwhelmed by the ever-encroaching ring of mean cares and grovelling aims which so commonly bound human existence. It is, therefore, the function of the author to free us, temporarily at least, from this oppressive everyday atmosphere, and to transport us far away to those loftier regions where men are more nearly what they should be, and more nearly attaining man’s high ideal. Just as the pent up citizen, turning aside for a few moments from the crowded thoroughfare, with its noise and bustle, into the quiet market, where fresh spring flowers diffuse their pleasant fragrance, returns to his labour reinvigorated and hopeful; so we turn to the pages of fiction to find something purer and higher than the selfishness and foetid respectability which so closely environ us in the world of fact.
However, while entertaining strong prejudices against the school of novelists to which Mr. Trollope belongs, and believing the readers are benefited by contemplation of the ideal, than by unceasingly gloating over representations of the real, we gladly admit that, according to this light, Mr. Trollope is successful. Framley Parsonage is in the main a very good specimen of social photography, and though here and there a figure is a little askew, and the light and shade are occasionally somewhat unnatural, the characters are well drawn and fairly grouped.
This review was published unsigned. It was manually transcribed from The Literary Gazette [6:147 (20 April 1861) pp 363-4] for The Fortnightly Review to accompany the publication here of “The Intensive and Extensive Worlds of Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage” by Lucy Sheehan, graduate winner of the Trollope Prize 2011 at the University of Kansas.
An etext version of Framley Parsonage is available at Project Gutenberg.
- Framley Parsonage.
By Anthony Trollope. Three Vols. (Smith, Elder and Co.) ↩