A Trollope among the Brahmins?: Howells’s Rise of Silas Lapham and the Reform of the Fallen Novel

A Trollope among the Brahmins?: Howells’s Rise of Silas Lapham and the Reform of the Fallen Novel

Harry Heuser

Passion and the Individual Talent

“I have never greatly loved an author without wishing to write like him,” William Dean Howells remarks as he ushers us into his private library for the engaging excursion that is My Literary Passions (18).  “I have now no reluctance to confess,” Howells continues,

that it was a long time before I found it best to be as like myself as I could, even when I did not think so well of myself as of some others.  I hope I shall always be able and willing to learn something from the masters of literature and still be myself, but for the young writer this seems impossible.  (18-19)

To the inquisitive visitor eager to conjecture just in how far the volumes on the shelves—and not merely those Howells chose to put on display for us there—correspond with the ones penned by the tour guide himself, the “anxiety of influence” conveyed in above passage must seem a veritable invitation to linger long after the echoes of the author’s anecdotes, charming though they may be, have given way to thought-conjuring silence.

Such inspired stillness, of course, can be but of short duration, as it must in turn give way to the lively chatter of scholars eager to share their findings (or, shall we say, surmises?).  “Realism,” remarks one,

had been [Howells’s] literary faith from his earliest days, his characteristic faith ever since he had known that his profession lay in the commonplace and the average. . . .  He had absorbed realism from a dozen different sources—the eighteenth-century Italian dramatist Goldoni, the Spanish novelists Benito Galdós and A. Palacio Valdés, Turgenev and Tolstoy, Jane Austen (along with Tolstoy a prime favorite), Daudet, Mark Twain, and Henry James.  (Kazin 7; emphasis added)

“It was clearly Heine rather than Turgenev or Tolstoy that first stimulated the young Howells into using literature as a vehicle to express real life instead of the extravagances of overworked and tired romanticism,” asserts another (Marovitz 354; emphasis added).  Of both “the commonplace” and “real life” we shall have more to say presently; of methods and degrees of absorption or stimulation but little.  And if we feel compelled, nonetheless, to add yet another name to the list of authors conjoined with Howells de par le réalisme, we offer it here not in a study of general realist tendencies, but rather in one of propensities particular to Howells.  We do not wish to make a catalogue of literature, but a dialogue.  We concur with Lionel Trilling who holds that

[w]e have all too many American writers who live for us only because they can be so neatly “placed,” whose life in literature consists of their being influences or precursors, or of being symbols of intellectual tendencies, which is to say that their life is not really in literature at all but in the history of culture.  (83)

Yet whereas Trilling suspects this to be the very “fate to which we must abandon Howells” (83), we, dear reader, shall not lead our author to the altar only to declare him cursed to be precursor or doomed to be disciple, only to relinquish his living art (and ours) as sacrifices to the worshippers of cultural historicism.  We suggest an affinity of two writers since it has suggested itself to us during our reading of The Rise of Silas Lapham, a propinquity that has heretofore remained if not entirely unacknowledged, so at least insufficiently explored.  The only lengthy study to date appears to be a dissertation titled “Courtship, Marriage, and Community in the Novels of Anthony Trollope and William Dean Howells,” which seeks to establish that “in their fiction Trollope and Howells each in his way worked to sustain the dominant codes of his society by criticizing and offering to correct its weaknesses and errors” (Thomas).  Our movens behind augmenting above list of names is not to place Howells “neatly” but rather to inquire how Howells sought to position himself in the literary continuum.  The kindred writer we think of—our title signals as much—is Anthony Trollope.

Why Trollope? To be sure, his is not a name that features prominently in Howells’s literary autobiography, a fact that may have led at least one critic, Everett Carter, to conclude that “Trollope was not one of Howells’ . . . literary passions” (85).  Discussing Trollope’s influence on Howells only in passing, Carter suggests instead that Howells, as well as James, found Trollope “personally unattractive,” even though they “respected him as one of the major English realists” (85).  This assessment we would all too willingly let pass undisputed, if we did not suspect that it was Howells’s lack of avowed passion for Trollope’s fiction that resulted in a rather unfortunate lack of critical inquiry concerning the Howells-Trollope connection on the part of scholars of nineteenth-century fiction.  After all, even our critics, exsanguinated as their prose may at times appear, require at least a modicum of passion to stir them into any prolonged intercourse with the past.  “No poet,” T. S. Eliot asserts in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”

no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.  His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.  You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.  I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.  (27)

Yet the project of indicating correlations only, of suggesting a mere consanguinity between two dead writers like Howells and Trollope, seems hardly worth pursuing to most, since it does not promise the intrigue of the “drama of Howells’s life,” a drama that “lay in the stresses and strains of warring impulses” (Porte 451), such as those apparent in Howells’s “peculiarly ambiguous relationship to Dickens,” the tensions of which may be fashioned into the argument that “[n]ovel after novel sets out to be one thing and ends up being another, attempts to be not simply un-Dickensian but even anti-Dickensian, only to assert, ultimately, the primacy of Dickens himself” (Gardner 324).

The indisputable attractions of such storm-and-stress criticism notwithstanding, we shall refrain from proposing on these pages that Howells was a Trollopean in spite of himself or from proclaiming the primacy of either author.  Nor shall we make much of Howells’s remark that Trollope was to him “a thoroughly hateful person” (Selected Letters 3: 323), since it is quite apparent that personal animosity did not cloud Howells’s judgment of Trollope’s accomplishments as an author.  Whereas James F. Muirhead, who, in 1920, held it to be “vastly important that Britons and Americans who cannot meet in the flesh should do so in the pages of Trollope and Howells” (304), managed to single out some of the more obvious similarities in the works of the two novelists in question, the result of his quaint Plutarchan exercise in parallelism, however commendable (perhaps even Howellsian) in its aim, is hardly an encouragement to those determined to take such a comparative study further.  And yet, the comparisons deserve to be attempted anew, since they may help us to appreciate Howells’s individual talent, particularly the development of his narrative theories and techniques (realist or otherwise), as it defines itself in relation to the traditional British novel from Austen to Hardy.

That Howells was familiar with many of Trollope’s works is well documented in the second volume of Heroines of Fiction, which contains not only charming recollections of the (overall favorable) impressions Lily Dale, Lucy Robarts, Griselda Grantly, and the formidable Mrs. Proudie made upon him, but also insightful remarks (again, overall favorable) about their creator: “Trollope was doing his period the incalculable service of anticipating instantaneous photography in his likenesses of Victorian maids, wives, and widows in endless variety” (136).  “Upon the whole,” Howells concludes, “I should be inclined to place Trollope among the very first of those supreme novelists to whom the ever-womanly has revealed itself” (137).  

Whether such impressions ever translated into inspirations, whether Penelope Lapham, for example, whom Alfred Habegger identifies as the “first humorous romantic female lead in a novel by an American man” (115), owes her life or smiling aspect, say, to the well-spoken Miss Dunstable, an independently rich patent-medicine heiress “secure in her own strength of purpose and strength of wit” (Framley Parsonage 209), or to the discerning novel reader Lily Dale of The Small House at Allington who exclaims that “so many readers are fools” (484), we do not venture to predicate.  At any rate, the parallels in the works of our two authors become so prominent here that at least a few critics of Howells’s fiction take note and make “reference to a novelist who has the luck to share one trait with Howells conspicuously.  Anthony Trollope reveals an amazing insight into the love and the motive of woman” (Harvey 69); or, as Edward Wagenknecht puts it, “Howells is nowhere more like Trollope than in his portraits of admirable, thoroughly believable girls” (159).  Unless, perhaps, in his expressed interest in the spectacle of the moral dilemma.

While keeping the “purpose” of Heroines of Fiction in mind, Howells cannot entirely abstain from commenting on old Mr. Harding, doubting that in all of fiction there is “a lovelier or sweeter conscience-story than that of The Warden” (95).  Convinced that readers have underrated that which in Trollope is understated, Howells complains:

No one fails to note the attention given to questions of conscience in George Eliot’s novels; they are seen always present and imminent; but few readers seem to have been aware how very largely these questions enter into the texture and color of Anthony Trollope’s fiction.  (Heroines 94)

An illustration of Trollope’s attention to “questions of conscience” we can readily furnish:

If it were necessary for him to suffer, he felt that he could endure it without complaint and without cowardice, providing that he was self-satisfied of the justice of his own cause.  What he could not endure was, that he should be accused by others, and not acquitted by himself.  Doubting, as he had begun to doubt, the justice of his own position in the hospital, he knew that his own self-confidence would not be restored. . . .  (The Warden 123)

Indeed, Mr. Harding’s quandary is only one example of what J. Hillis Miller argues to be indicative of all of Trollope’s novels, namely their “hover[ing] around the impossibility, in the end, of distinguishing between apparently solidly grounded ethical choice . . . and, on the other hand, a disastrous and destructive ethical decision” (98).  This suggests to us the final confrontation between Silas Lapham and his former business partner, Rogers:

“You’ve ruined me!” Rogers broke out.  “I haven’t a cent left in the world! God help my poor wife!”

He went out, and Lapham remained staring at the door which closed upon him.  This was his reward for standing firm for right and justice to his own destruction: to feel like a thief and a murderer.  (292)

Even though the reader will have little doubt about the moral rectitude of both Mr. Harding and Silas Lapham (made manifest in their symbolic move to a more modest abode), the characters seem far from triumphant.  Virtue may be its own reward; yet neither Trollope nor Howells humor their readers with such neat novelistic conclusions.  Human nature may have been driven out with a silver fork in the past; but in the works of our two novelists it returns with a vengeance.  In fact, as any reader of Trollope’s novels knows, it returns, and returns, and returns.

Howells cannot but notice—and appreciate—Trollope’s “habit . . . of carrying the personages of one book into another” (Heroines 123), a habit that, James suggests, Trollope “may be said to have inherited from Thackeray, as Thackeray may be said to have borrowed it from Balzac” (1352).  However Howells acquired it, said habit is observable in many of his works as well.  In The Rise of Silas Lapham, a novel that George C. Carrington has labeled “an excellent example of techniques in action” (178), the recurring character becomes an ingenious novelistic device.

It is the reappearance of Bartley Hubbard—a journalist bearing no fleeting resemblance to Trollope’s newshound Tom Towers, who “loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power” (The Warden 190)—that affords “readers familiar with A Modern Instance . . . with a complex perspective within which to set the first chapter of Silas Lapham,” (Seelye 49).  Yet Howells’s subsequent and unceremonious removal of Hubbard, a character so remote from the lives of his fellow beings that he does not hesitate to mold them into remunerable news items, is, novelistically speaking, equally intriguing.  Like a number of Trollope’s reappearing characters, Hubbard has become rather plot resistant; he is not crucial to the development of the story, but to our understanding of it.  This may be seen as indicatory of a form of fiction in which “[i]mmediate artificialities of plot and characterization go out the window,” in which

[c]haracters appear and disappear without biographical sketch or obituary notice; while they are before us, we learn of them through their words and acts (or through unstructured interior monologue); when they have left the scene those same words and acts should be enough for us to understand them and their fate.  (Becker 29)

Such acts of defenestration are not infrequently called realism; we may also call them acts of poetic justice—and rather Trollopean ones at that.  Trollope, we recall, pronounces a similar sentence in the case of the nominal reformer John Bold, who, after having set the plot of The Warden in motion by well-nigh ruining the life of old Mr. Harding, fades rather quickly from our view and, despite his marriage to Harding’s daughter, is declared dead as the story continues in Barchester Towers.  In either case, what is proposed to us as a character ultimately reveals itself to be a device.  Perhaps our authors reasoned that any writer false enough to demand “the whole truth, and more” (Silas Lapham 11), any reformer deficient of “trust in the honest purposes of others” (The Warden 15) deserves to be thus demoted.

To be sure, Howells hardly concurs with Trollope on every aspect of storytelling, as we will establish shortly.  Yet even when he argues that Trollope’s resolution to “kill” Mrs. Proudie “censured both the art and the courage of the novelist, who should have had a faith in himself and his work superior to his sense of any reader’s impatience, and should have been above suffering dictation from it” (Heroines 123-24), he reveals himself to be in general agreement with Trollope, a novelist with whom he shares not only a “fascination” for recurring characters, but also the ability of living with them.  “No novel is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the page,” Trollope argues:

Let an author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his tears, and he has, so far, done his work well.  Truth let there be,—truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women.  If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.  (Autobiography 229)

Moved by Trollope’s novels, which attempt to provide a “picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos” (126), Howells agrees.  And although he calls Mrs. Proudie “artistically most admirable,” her death is by no means an artistic failure to Howells, since Trollope manages to convince him that “her spiritual pang translates itself into a physical pang, and she dies of heart-disease” (125).  “I call this all very touching,” Howells exclaims, “and it reflects a light upon her whole story which keeps me from seeing her altogether hateful and harmful” (125).  To Howells, Mrs. Proudie’s dying in character prevents her from becoming mere caricature.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Howells repeatedly urges his readers to experience Trollope’s creations firsthand, expressing confidence that “they will thank [him] for sending them to [a novel like Framley Parsonage] upon any excuse, when they have read it” (115).  “I wish,” he closes his chapter on Mrs. Proudie,

I might send my readers to the long line of his wise, just, sane novels, which I have been visiting anew for the purpose of these papers, and finding as delightful as ever, and, thanks to the extraordinary gifts of forgetting, almost as fresh as ever.  (137)

What signifies to us in above testimonial is not simply Howells’s position, but also his pose.

Throughout his discussion of Trollope’s works in Heroines of Fiction, Howells appears before his reader—whom he evidently conceived of as belonging to a younger generation—as a benevolent mentor seeking to impart the lessons of his youth.  He expresses his doubts, for example, that Trollope’s followers “are of that commanding class which they once were,” reminding his own readers that “[o]nce, there is no question but he had the largest number of authoritative readers, but for how long a time, or just when, it would not be easy to say”; the “period covered by our civil war” is suggested as a reference point (135).  To convey this impression of the pastness of Trollope (who, we should note, wrote his last novel only a little more than two years prior to the composition of The Rise of Silas Lapham), Howells even recalls the millinery fashions of the 1860s (97).  Quite clearly, writing at a time when Trollope’s novels were already old hat and Trilby all the rage, Howells suggests to his readers to try on for size what may no longer appear stylish, but what has proven altogether solid and sensible after all.  

Still, while Howells conveys—and, we sense, rather delights in conveying—his criticism in the form of reminiscences, it is important to note that Trollope was not an old favorite of his, but that the comments to be found in Heroines of Fiction are representative of an attitude toward Trollope’s novels that Howells developed only in his maturity.

Although My Literary Passions chiefly chronicles the readings of Howells’s youth and early adulthood—a stage in life erroneously referred to as the “formative years” by those who would have us believe that maturity is essentially a state of petrification—it not merely provides a record of the volumes that were added to young Howells’s library, but also tells us of those that had yet to enter his collection.  In the 1860s, for example, a decade during which Trollope enjoyed some of his greatest popular successes with Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), Howells read and relished instead novels such as Thackeray’s Adventures of Philip (1862), Eliot’s Romola (1863), and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865).  “I was not yet sufficiently instructed to appreciate Trollope,” Howells comments, somewhat apologetically, “and I did not read him at all” (219).

Not until later in life, that is; and not until he began to doubt the aesthetic, intellectual, and moral values of his earlier readings, which he forsook in favor of the “wise, just, sane” novels of Anthony Trollope, the “quiet truth” of whose scenes, “full of the gentle self-control of a nature superior to the impulses of passion, is worth worlds of ‘passion’” (Heroines of Fiction 102).  It is this reshelving of his private library that Howells continuously rehearses in his criticism, as well as in his fiction.

The Passionate Novelist to His Flock

“There are many persons who suppose that the highest proof an artist can give of his fantasy is the invention of a complicated plot, spiced with perils, surprises, and suspenses; and that anything else is the sign of a poor and tepid imagination,” Howells, sounding remarkably like Trollope, laments in his “Editor’s Study” of November 1889 (Editor’s Study 224).  And while he sets out to document “how an art can decay,” and to deplore how “people who had once known the simple verity, the refined perfection of Miss Austen, [could] enjoy anything less refined and less perfect” (222), it seems to us that Howells not merely outlines the decline and fall of the English novel—the “course of the disease,” as he calls it (226)—but also his own rise as a discriminating reader by disowning virtually every English author whose writings were the companions of his early years in favor of novelists like Trollope and Austen, the latter of whom became a “youthful rapture” with Howells “late in life” (My Literary Passions 247):

The art of fiction, as Jane Austen knew it, declined from her through Scott, and Bulwer, and Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte, and Thackeray, and even George Eliot, because the mania of romanticism had seized upon all Europe, and these great writers could not escape the taint of their time. . . .  (Editor’s Study 225)

To be sure, no study of parallels in the artistry of Howells and Trollope can entirely ignore the salubrious qualities of Jane Austen, Howells’s antidote to the “disease” of romanticistic excesses. To Howells, after all, “[r]realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material, and Jane Austen was the first and the last of the English novelists to treat material with entire truthfulness” (225).

There is much in a novel like The Rise of Silas Lapham that reminds us of Austen, or, as Howells calls her, the “divine Jane” (Editor’s Study 225).  Penelope Lapham’s bout with romantic fiction, for example, suggests the trials of Catherine Morland; Corey “unwittingly convinc[ing] the Laphams that he cares for the pretty one when, in fact . . . he is desperately in love with the clever one,” is, as Walter Benn Michaels has it “in the best Jane Austen tradition” (36); and the armchair-Momus Bromfield Corey bears no uncertain resemblance to Mr. Bennett.  A study larger in scope than ours could easily cull similar examples from the pages of Trollope, of whom it has been said that he “learned” from Austen “to develop a comic dialectic between character and community (including the importance of dialogue in representing change) and to render the intensity of personal relationships” (Polhemus 168).

The indisputable fondness for Austen shared by Trollope and Howells can, at least to some degree, account for the similarities in their art.  After all, many of Trollope’s essential qualities, “those elements which very different kinds of critics have praised in [Trollope’s] works,” as summarized here by N. John Hall, can be found in Austen and Howells alike.  Among them are

the convincing dialogue, the believable plots, the facility for dramatising the undramatic, the special presence of his narrator, his sympathy for all his characters, his “looking to circumstances” in a way that provides for flexibility in moral judgements, his “natural psychology,” his faithfulness in depicting social mores, and the plain, unobtrusive style, a style that doesn’t call attention to itself but is nonetheless loaded with gentle, almost constant irony.  (12)

Even though James laments Howells’s “increasing tendency to tell his story altogether in conversations” (505), Austen, Howells, and Trollope alike are exceptionally successful in their handling of dialogue, which Trollope argues to be “generally the most agreeable part of a novel” (Autobiography 239); all have a pellucid style, a style that, in Howells’s case, has led George C. Carrington to remark that “[o]ne has never felt exasperation (admiring or not) in reading Howells, as one may have felt in reading his friend James” (208); all of them either eschew or (in the case of Northanger Abbey) deride the excesses of plot and deficiencies of character development of Gothic romances, which, as Trollope remarks about Radcliffe’s Udolpho, are “merely a receptacle for old bones” once their mysteries are explained away (Barchester Towers 1:143); and all are wont to present at least their main characters with such “miraculous impartiality,” a quality for which Howells lauded Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (Heroines of Fiction 112), and with such irony that, Arlene Young says of Howells’s Silas Lapham, it may be “difficult to ascertain just where the narrator’s sympathies lie,” while it is, at the same time, quite easy for the reader to respect a character, “however flawed” (45).  In fact, when his ironies turn out to be less than “gentle,” as in The Way We Live Now, Trollope readily admits to a “fault which is to be attributed to almost all satires, whether in prose or verse,” namely that the “vices implied are coloured so as to make effect rather than to represent truth” (Autobiography 355).

Howells readily acknowledges the characteristics Trollope shares with Austen; consequently, he proclaims him to be the sole ray of light capable of brightening the overall lugubrious path of the English novel:

The only observer of English middle-class life since Jane Austen worthy to be named with her was not George Eliot, who was first ethical and then artistic, who transcended her in everything but the form and method most essential to art, and there fell hopelessly below her.  It was Anthony Trollope who was most like her in simple honesty and instinctive truth, as unphilosophized as the light of common day. . . .  (Editor’s Study 226)

While it appears that Howells (who, we noted earlier, holds Austen to be “the first and the last of the English novelists to treat material with entire truthfulness”) perceives Trollope but as a serviceable, if flawed, ersatz-Austen, an intermediate figure between the “divine Jane” and the “poetic” Thomas Hardy, whose novels he deems superior to Trollope’s in beauty (226), his apparent adoration of Austen and his admiration for Hardy do not challenge our impression that he aligned himself more closely with the decidedly terrestrial and prosaic productions of the businesslike Trollope, a craftsman who preferred to be seen as someone working on a lump of earth, rather than a little bit of ivory.  And when relying here upon the Horatian ratio of method and morals, the balance between delectare and prodesse he claims Eliot to have been unable to maintain, Howells does not so much impose a pragmatic approach upon Trollope’s works; instead, it is the very approach to the art of novel-writing to which Trollope himself adheres.

James, who otherwise so keenly observes that Howells “is animated by a love of the common, the immediate, the familiar and vulgar elements of life” (502) and that Trollope’s “great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual” (1333), his “great apprehension of the real” (1336)—without, to be sure, ever acknowledging such parallels in the works of our two authors—is perhaps rarely more off the mark as when he asserts that

is probably safe to affirm that [Trollope] had no “views” whatever on the subject of novel-writing.  His whole manner is that of a man who regards the practice as one of the more delicate industries, but has never troubled his head nor clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his business.  (1332)

True, Trollope never wrote a “history of English Prose Fiction”; yet, as he tells us in his Autobiography, he “intended to write that book to vindicate [his] own profession as a novelist” (215-16).  Trollope’s works hardly signal what James called a “want of doctrinal richness” (1348).  His “’views’ on the subject of novel-writing,” far from lacking, are clearly expressed in his fiction, which never merely portrays reality, but forever comments on the process of portraying it, thus vindicating the artist and defending the novel as both art and moral apparatus.  Indeed, as David Skilton puts it in his introduction to Doctor Thorne, Trollope’s novels have often been read as “a codification of [Trollope’s] practice over the years” (xvi).

Critics like Amy Kaplan may read this as a tendency among realists who “explore both the social construction of their own roles and their implication in constructing the reality they represent” (13).  “Rather than as a monolithic and fully formed theory, realism can be examined as a multifaceted and unfinished debate reenacted in the arena of each novel and essay” (Kaplan 15).  Yet the vindication of the artist, palpable in the self-consciousness element of creation, can hardly be claimed as an exclusively realist tendency; instead, it can be observed in the works of writers as diverse as Herbert, Fielding, and Keats.  Whether such a tendency becomes technique may very well be a matter of individual temperament.  It seems fair to assume, at any rate, that the stronger the convictions of the artist, the greater the artist’s inclination of voicing them; and that the voice of the passionate artist frequently resembles that of the preacher—that the artist occasionally conceives himself to be a preacher—strikes us as, well, altogether reasonable.

That we believe James to be mistaken when he asserts that Trollope does not take himself seriously as an artist (1332) we wish to state as a matter of mere opinion; that Howells would have agreed with us we make bold to state as a matter of supreme conviction.  After all, Trollope whom Howells declares to be at once a “true humorist” and a “profound moralist” (Heroines 122), distinctly expresses his awareness of the moral responsibilities of the artist, as well as his need for creative freedom.  “Novels,” Trollope reminds us, “are read right and left, above stairs and below, in town houses and in country parsonages, by young countesses and by farmers’ daughters, by old lawyers and by young students” (Autobiography 219).  “A vast proportion of the teaching of the day,” he points out, “comes from these books, which are in the hands of all readers” (220).  While arguing that “it is because the novelist amuses that he is thus influential,” that the novel is “taken because of its jam and honey,” Trollope insists that said delights ought never to be administered “unmixed with physic” (Thackeray 202).   The “novelist, if he have a conscience, must preach his sermons with the same purpose as the clergyman, and must have his own system of ethics” (222).  “I have ever thought of myself as a preacher of sermons,” Trollope declares, “and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience” (146).

While recognizing his civic duties as a novelist, Trollope not only admits to have “used” his works “for the expression of [his] political and social conviction,” but also insists that “they have served [him] as safety-valves by which to deliver [his] soul” (180).  Thus, the “gospel of Trollope, a prophet of as clear vision as need be” (Heroines of Fiction 117), seems rooted in a similar “vivifying faith” James realizes Howells to possess, a faith “he conceals . . . so little as to afford every facility to those people who are anxious to prove that it is the wrong one” (502).

Thus, it is not simply what Norris refers to as Howells’s “real Realism,” his dedication to “the commonplace tale of commonplace people,” in his attention to the “smaller details of every-day life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper, small passions, restricted emotions, dramas of the reception-room, tragedies of an afternoon call, crises involving cups of tea” (Pizer 71) that encourages us to pronounce Trollope and Howells to be kindred spirits; it is their advocacy of the “just,” the “sane,” and the “wise” in the art of storytelling, an advocacy so foregrounded in their artistry as to become one of its distinct features.  What Alan Trachtenberg observes in the case of The Rise of Silas Lapham, namely that the novel, “[i]n its narration . . . asserts itself as the very model of the kind of reading and seeing the world needs badly: a pedagogy as well as a story” (187), makes itself felt in many of  Trollope’s works as well.  And what both Howells and Trollope appear to be preaching most passionately to their readers is what to read—and how to read it.  Ultimately, the architecture of their novelistic lecture halls (with whose map and legend we are furnished by the authorial narrator and various substitutes) may be said to betray the attempts of our two authors to vindicate their craft, by distinguishing it from the reverie-reeking air-castles of their youth and the intellect-reviling torture chambers modeled after Otranto or Newgate.

The Presence of the Preacher

“The crucial litmus test of craft that realists applied to fiction revolved around the narrative presence,” Daniel H. Borus posits in Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market:

In general, realists opposed any narrative practice that called attention to its presence.  When the narrator became in effect an additional character in the drama, the illusion of naturalness was forever lost.  Any utterance that distanced the reader from the text reminded him or her that the text was artificial and under the writer’s control.  Instead realists opted for a narrator that closed the distance between narrator and narratee.  A narrator that made readers believe the possibility that the character and events described existed, even when the most sophisticated among them knew that the novel was technically made up, was the narrator that earned realist plaudits.  The skillful author created, therefore, a narrator and a text that concealed its actual origins and did not foreground its artificiality.  (91)

Neither Trollope nor Howells earned “realist plaudits” in this respect, since both possess the quality Hall refers to as the “special presence of the narrator.”  By this we do not mean the comments and generalizations by which the authorial narrator becomes a sharer of knowledge about character or plot (roughly one hundred in The Rise of Silas Lapham alone, according to Carrington [174]), but strictly those remarks by which the narrator comes before us as a sharer of insights into the novelistic machinery itself.

Trollope, who otherwise “can be as flat as a secretary writing the minutes of a meeting,” and whom readers “could paraphrase . . . without losing anything essential to his flavor” (Cecil 270), has become famous—infamous to some—for authorial intrusions such as the following:

          And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story-telling to which you probably have become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart.  (Doctor Wortle’s School 27)

To James, such intrusions are “little slaps at credulity,” indicative of Trollope’s “suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe” (1343).  The Rise of Silas Lapham, while doing without the mocking apostrophe, presents us with a narrator who, obligated to wrap up the tale, remarks that it “would be easy to point out traits in Penelope’s character which finally reconciled all her husband’s family and endeared her to them.  These things continually happen in novels . . .” (315).  Thus, in Howells’s conclusion to Silas Lapham, readers are encouraged to question the romanticistic confections, the tidy and tiresome denouements to which they have become accustomed, while in Trollope’s endings they are frequently provided with the customary “sweetmeats and sugar-plums” (Barchester Towers 2: 266)—but not without being taunted for wanting them.

The authorial narrator affords both Howells and the more whimsical Trollope to comment on major currents in the tradition of the novel.  Trollope responds to what Kenneth Graham calls the “long wrangling that ensued over which is superior, character or plot, . . . one of the most lively currents in Victorian discussion of technique” (97).  While proclaiming “I am realistic,” Trollope very much regrets this “great division” as a “mistake” (Autobiography 226-27); and in Barchester Towers the authorial narrator reminds us that plot and character are indeed inseparable.  While the narrator dispels the reader’s pleasurable suspense by revealing that it “is not destined” that Eleanor Bold, Mr. Harding’s daughter, shall marry her two suitors (1: 143), the character’s misery—and much of the plot—is based upon a series of misunderstandings that, as the narrator suggests, could have been easily extirpated “had she but heard the whole truth from Mr. Arabin.  But then where would have been my novel?” (2: 34).  What is Greek to the characters, we are reminded, often amounts to a Roman holiday for author and reader alike.  Howells, on the other hand, relies upon the services of his authorial narrator to comment on the distinction between romantic and realist fiction by denying his readers what “commonly happens” in romance while, at the same time, undermining the verisimilitude instrumental to realism.  “Howells novels,” as Campbell suggests, “are not so much realistic as they are about realism” (295); and it is this meta-realism that proved offensive to some of realism’s staunchest proponents.

Norris, asking in how far an author is “justified in putting himself into his work,” in how far it is “his duty to present only his story and his characters, suppressing himself, keeping in the background, or, like Thackeray, occupying the center of the stage himself, talking in his own person, explaining and commenting,” concludes that

in fiction the main thing is fiction.  In a novel I look for and want a picture of certain things that have happened, certain characters that have been studied, certain scenes that have occurred. . . .  Mr. Thackeray’s disquisitions, where he himself takes the stage, are, for me, dull to a degree.  They strike one as out of place.  If the artist stood by his painting with a pointer and “explained” his work, or if the dramatist commented upon his play in the midst of the action, one would be inclined to resent the intrusion.  Why is the intrusion of the novelist any less forgiveable? If his story is not self-explanatory, it is a bad story. . . .  (Pizer 55)

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, however, the “main thing” is not fiction; nor can its story be self-explanatory, unless by this we mean that it must constantly explain itself.  After all, as Brenda Murphy points out, “Silas Lapham’s structure is fundamentally a ‘correction’ of two popular nineteenth-century story paradigms, the rags-to-riches ‘success myth’ and the sentimental novel of self-sacrifice, two story paradigms which the realist Howells rejected as false representations of reality” (22).  The novel’s

narrative structure conveys the same message that [Howells] transmits in every other way in his fiction—that life is not as simple as sentimental popular fiction would have it. . . .  The action of Silas Lapham, like the action of Howells’ other novels, is primarily a disruption of conventional expectations and assumptions, a statement that the action of life is not so simple as novelists who live off these expectations and assumptions, and readers who escape to them, would like to make it.  (31)

Yet—and here our two novelists part company after all—Howells rather agrees with James and Norris by holding Trollope to be

so warped from a wholesome ideal as to wish at times to be like the caricaturist Thackeray, and to stand about in his scene, talking it over with his hands in his pockets, interrupting the action, and spoiling the illusion in which alone the truth of art resides.  (Editor’s Study 226)

Howells heartily regrets the “second-hand vice of twaddling Thackeraywise over his characters and situations” (Heroines 126) of  “poor Anthony Trollope, who wrote so much better of English life than any one except Jane Austen and George Eliot,” but who nonetheless “copied Thackeray’s most offensive and inartistic confidential attitude, though he knew him and had the courage to pronounce him, false to certain aspects of English society” (109-10).  Howells therefore more frequently employs techniques that allow commentary without reducing the minister in the pulpit to a master of puppets.

He creates a character like the Bartley Hubbard who, by furnishing “details necessary for the novel’s development without resorting to authorial comment and synopses” (Seelye 48), enables the novelist to begin in medias res, whereas Trollope’s narrator humorously alludes to the benefits of this “least objectionable” way of beginning a story by making a chapter of it in The Duke’s Children (69); he presents us with minister Sewell, who—by virtue of being so “intensely interested in the moral spectacle which Lapham presented” (Silas Lapham 319)—“is often viewed as the spokesman for Howells’s realism, as the sane, moderate voice of commonsense morality” (Kaplan 42), whereas Trollope’s narrator informs us that the clergymen in Framley Parsonage have been portrayed ecclesiastically, rather than spiritually, so as to prevent the author from burdening his “fiction with sermons” and from “degrad[ing his] sermons into fiction” (503); and he shows us Penelope Lapham struggling under the influence of romantic fiction, whereas Trollope’s narrator much rather tells us that Johnny Eames, for example, the day-dreamer of The Small House at Allington, “knew much,—by far too much,—of Byron’s poetry by heart” (148).

It is not so much that Howells hides behind characters like Charles Bellingham in order to remark that the “commonplace is just that light, impalpable, aërial essence which they’ve never got into their confounded books yet” (Silas Lapham179); his disguises, owing to quite unmistakable onomastic signposts, are generally rather too revealing for that.  Instead, Howells seems determined to avoid the comical aspects of Trollope’s Verfremdungseffekt, among which are the ludicrous names Trollope chooses for his creations.  “It would be better to go back to Bunyan at once,” James sneers, concluding that it “is probably not unfair to say that if Trollope derived half his inspiration from life, he derived the other half from Thackeray” (1344).  And while Howells, as Penelope’s ill-fated reenactment of Tears, Idle Tears demonstrates, “is defining, by negatives, what he himself would do,” as Ruth apRoberts remarks of Trollope (40), he is hardly willing to achieve this by lending his voice to extended Thackerayean parodies, injurious and injudicious jeux d’esprit that cause critics like James to deny the seriousness of faith governing Trollope’s authorial comments.  Neither the portrayal of the misguided Penelope Lapham, nor that of her illiterate sister Irene Lapham—whose ignorance may be rooted in her mother’s puritanical belief that all novels are “lies” (Silas Lapham 77), whose chats with Tom Corey expose her to be hopelessly below conversazione, and whose endeavors to compile the family’s future library are confined to finding books with “the nicest binding” (100)—bear much resemblance to Trollope’s crudely drawn mock-heroine Lizzie Eustace, who is “lying about books, and making up her market of literature for outside admiration at the easiest possible cost of trouble” (The Eustace Diamonds 13), only to receive her just reward by performing for us in a drawn-out parody of Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone.  Trollope, Howells complains in My Literary Passions, “jokes heavily or not at all” (247); and to Howells, a preacher of moderation, there must exist an economy of laughter, as well as pain.  It is this lack of balance that “deprived [Howells] of a final satisfaction in the company of Anthony Trollope, . . . whom [he] should otherwise make bold to declare the greatest of English novelists” (247).  In The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells manages to lecture us on the ill effects of the fallen novel without winking at us from the podium.  This we believe to be a measure of restraint of which his English colleague is altogether incapable.

We noted earlier that it was only late in life that Howells reshelved his personal library to make room for the works of Austen and Trollope.  Trollope, however, decided early in life that “Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language” before eventually bestowing the palm upon Thackeray’s Esmond(Autobiography 41).  This reversal may be argued to contain, in nuce, the very kernel of the likenesses and differences to be discovered in the works of our two novelists.

Coda; or, the Tail End of the Cassock

In Heroines of Fiction, Howells expresses his surprise and regret that critics have failed to compare two novelists like George Eliot and Trollope:

It is strange that in their far greater truth to English life, [Eliot and Trollope] should not be named together, like Dickens and Thackeray, as the representative English novelists of their time; but they are not, and it is doubtful if time will repair the injustice which long ago became inveterate.  They are both far greater artists, far greater intellectual and moral forces, than the masters whose names stand for Victorian fiction.  They paint English manners with a fidelity simply inconceivable of Dickens and Thackeray, and the problems they deal with are of an importance and interest surpassingly greater. . . . (94)

We express similar surprise and regret that critics of nineteenth-century literature have neglected, thus far, to pair our two authors more frequently, to explore more fully the affinity of two writers whose self-conscious artistry we meant to acknowledge here.  Eager to make amends for this oversight, we cannot but exclaim (and the perversion of an epigram of a certain garrulous Scotsman whom neither of our two authors held in particular high esteem seems permissible here): Open thy Trollope—and open thy Howells as well!

Perhaps, in sketching this dual portrait, we ought to have exercised greater parsimony than the brio of our brushstroke permits . . . but then, dear reader, where would have been our essay? 

Works Cited

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