Eulogies and Unmarked Graves: Plotting and Character Disposal in Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels
Corpses and Carriages
“A novel,” Anthony Trollope remarks in his Autobiography, “should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos.” The
plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you must have but a wooden show. (126)
While an author of whom it has been said that he “can be as flat as a secretary writing the minutes of a meeting,” whom one “could paraphrase [. . .] without losing anything essential to his flavor” (Cecil 270), cannot be expected to develop his occasional tropes much further than the one faithfully transcribed above, it may be worthwhile to take him at his word after all and picture the Barsetshire set in a commodious horse-drawn carriage, with Trollope holding the reins.
Much has been said about Trollope’s attachment to the numerous passengers he helped into suitable conveyances, his provision of transfer accommodations for some of his favorite travelers, his continued interest in the wayfarers as they step out into the world, and his relative indifference to—if not abhorrence of—a four-wheeled affair so intricate that it threatens to override its riders. “There must, however,” Trollope insists, “be a story. You must provide a vehicle of some sort” (Autobiography 126).
Now, what sort of vehicle is the Barsetshire omnibus? Does it always serve the characters it carries? Or does its itinerary, from Barchester to Greshambury, from Framley to Allington, from St. Ewold’s to London, reveal at times a subordination of the passengers’ individual demands to the maintenance of viable business for the author’s carriage service? As a Victorian novelist convinced that “[s]hort novels are not popular with readers generally,” Trollope felt compelled to “cover a certain and generally not a very confined space”; he allows that the “burden of length is incumbent on [the novelist]. How shall he carry his burden to the end? How shall he cover his space?” (237).
Aware that incidents must be generated to move even the slightest of stories forward, Trollope, responding to the “long wrangling that ensued over which is superior, character or plot, [. . .] one of the most lively currents in Victorian discussion of technique” (Graham 97), nonetheless held that a
novelist has other aims than the elucidation of his plot. He desires to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creations of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living, human creatures. This he can never do unless he know those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them well unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. (Autobiography 232-33)
Plot, Trollope points out, is the chief concern of sensational novelists but must remain secondary for the realist:
The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic. I am realistic. My friend Wilkie Collins is generally supposed to be sensational. The readers who prefer the one are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. They who hold by the other are charmed by the construction and gradual development of a plot. (227)
This, however, was a division Trollope considered to be a “mistake” that arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree” (227).
To be sure, above remarks were made nearly twenty years after the publication of The Warden and approximately eight years after the composition of The Last Chronicle of Barset. Still, as David Skilton puts it in his introduction to Doctor Thorne, they have often been read as “a codification of [Trollope’s] practice over the years” (xvi); and fragments of the Trollopean novel theory frequently enter the Barsetshire saga, since Trollope arguably “took a suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe” (James 116). Such self-conscious intrusions may very well have been the result of the novelist’s inability to fully reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of plot and character. In Barchester Towers, for example, much of Eleanor Bold’s misery is rooted in a series of misunderstandings, which, 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). Is Eleanor Bold taken for a ride so that the subsidiary re-marriage plot can be prolonged?
The relationship between the vehicle and the vehicled in Trollope’s Barsetshire series may perhaps best be approached by ignoring the cheerful chatter in the Barset chaise, and by paying instead closer attention to those unfortunate travelers who never escape the vehicle alive, to those whose deaths we are privileged to witness and those who perish almost unnoticed. While most passengers are set free to enjoy an extra-novel existence (equipped with a return ticket to Barset or neighboring shires to which some travelers are drawn back on occasion), a not inconsiderable number of characters can call the Trollope carriage their hearse.
Our autopsical investigation attempts to consider, if not determine, to what degree these deaths are based on vehicular concerns. Who among Trollope’s personages is dying in character, who is done in by the plot—and why?
So Much Depends upon . . . a Dead Stonemason
An occasional corpse must be expected from a chronicler of life in a rural community, from an author who, as Henry James once put it so aptly, has a “complete appreciation of the usual” (100-1). We shall not endeavor here to recall the deaths of every old bedesman Trollope suffers to expire at Hiram’s hospital; we shall not reflect upon the remark that “a dead dean with the necessity for a live one was a godsend” to London newspapers (Barchester Towers 2: 186); nor shall we respond to the report that Dr. Stanhope, a man whose most distinguishing feature was perhaps his very absenteeism, “died of apoplexy at his villa in Italy” (Doctor Thorne 257). Yet these deaths too deserve to be acknowledged, for once, as they are peculiarly Trollopean in their usualness.
Ironically, it is precisely Trollope’s treatment of death and dying as ordinary, unspectacular—albeit hardly inconsequential—realities of life, that has greatly contributed to the fact that, the celebrated and oft lamented deaths of Mrs. Proudie and Septimus Harding notwithstanding, the Barsetshire graveyard has not attracted many visitors. Indeed, with the notable exceptions of Melmotte’s suicide in The Way We Live Now and Lopez’s exit from The Prime Minister, none of Trollope’s dying characters have received much critical attention. A. O. J. Cockshut devotes a short chapter of Anthony Trollope: A Critical Heritage to “Death,” but merely concludes that Trollope “has no special tone in which to speak of it” (84). While this may be true, it has not intrigued Cockshut to speculate how to account for such tonal variations, to ponder why, for example, Mrs. Proudie’s departure differs so significantly from the deaths of Mr. Harding, Dobbs Broughton, Sir Roger Scatcherd, or John Bold. And even though James R. Kincaid points to the obvious link between plot-digging and character burials by remarking that the “Barsetshire chronicle consists of a series of variations on the comic myth of renewal and preservation” (69), he seems to share Stephen Wall’s fascination for Trollope’s recurring characters instead.
This lack of care among critics disposed to take a short stroll among the Barsetshire tombstones may at times even result in necrological negligence. Kincaid, for example, remarks that there “are no sacrificial deaths in Framley Parsonage, no deaths of any kind. Mrs. Crawley becomes ill, but she is ministered to by Lucy, and Lady Lufton sends marmalade” (120). No deaths of any kind? Framley Parsonagemay be painted in brighter tones than any other segment of the Barset panorama; yet all is not quite as quaint as Kincaid makes it out to be. There is death in Framley Parsonage, after all, namely in chapter 10, which links the entrance of Lucy Robarts to the death of her father. Whereas Lucy’s brother, Mark—not known to us for his keen awareness and unfailing judgment of his moral obligations—arrives “too late to see is father alive” (116), Lucy is introduced as the woman at her father’s deathbed. Dr. Robarts’s death is not merely plot-propelling; it is also character-forming, since it defines Lucy’s early maturity, as well as her maternal, nursing qualities, which become important later in the novel:
Nothing, perhaps, adds so much to womanhood, turns the child so quickly into a woman, as such death-bed scenes as these. Hitherto but little had fallen to Lucy to do in the way of woman’s duties. Of money transactions she had known nothing. . . . Her sister, who was three years her elder . . . had managed the house; that is, she had made the tea and talked to the housekeeper about the dinners. But Lucy had sat at her father’s elbow, had read to him of evenings when he went to sleep, had brought him his slippers and looked after the comforts of his easy chair. All this she had done as a child; but when she stood at the coffin head, and knelt at the coffin side, then she was a woman. (116-17)
Neither Trollope nor the people of Barset draw any attention to the fact that Lucy has become an orphan. Despite the ocular proof found in Lucy’s apparel, the memory of her dead father has been suppressed. Yet it is part of Lucy’s identity; and only when this is openly acknowledged—by none other than her suitor, Lord Lufton—can Lucy begin to consider a romantic relationship outside the boundaries of filial duty. “I never knew my own father,” Lord Lufton tells Lucy, “But I can well understand what a loss you have had” (128). And when Lucy learns that Lord Lufton “remember[s] Dr. Robarts well,” she is described as
turning sharply towards him, and speaking now with some animation in her voice. Nobody had yet spoken to her about her father since she had been at Framley. It had been as though the subject were a forbidden one. And how frequently is this the case! When those we love are dead, our friends dread to mention them, though to us who are bereaved no subject would be so pleasant as their names. But we rarely understand how to treat our own sorrow or those of others. (128)
Rather than luxuriating in the lugubrious, Trollope, as the passage above may serve to illustrate, was “content to indicate predictable conditions in his deathbed scenes” (Reed 159), and commonly stresses the very usualness of such incidents of everyday mortality. Performing her ordinary role, Trollope’s less than awe-inspiring Atropos often meets the narrator’s moralizing apostrophe: “how frequently is this the case!”
Although, as E. M. Forster puts it laconically, death is “congenial to a novelist because it ends a book conveniently” (86), the Barsetshire series, its living tissue fed on dead matter, proves an effective reversal. After all, from the death of old Hiram onward, the Barset chronicle, however lively, is essentially necrogenous. While playing a pivotal role in the events of Framley Parsonage in general and Lucy’s story in particular, Dr. Robarts is, of course, a stillborn character. Yet so is Bishop Grantly in Barchester Towers, at least to the reader unfamiliar with The Warden. The Bishop, Knoepflmacher reminds us, “has, for all intents and purposes been dead for a month; he is in a coma, and life and death seem so much alike to this good, old virtuous man who is so sure to find his reward in heaven” (20). His quiet departure is responsible for the noisy arrival of enemy forces; it upsets Barsetshire as it sets up the mock-epic battle between the Grantlyites and the Proudie faction. Still, while they undoubtedly bring about change, both the death of Grantly and Robarts are not merely serviceable to the plot. Instead, Robarts’ death subtly informs the character of Lucy, a central figure in Framley Parsonage, whereas the anticipated demise of Bishop Grantly turns the filius who “desire[s] to play first fiddle” (Barchester Towers 1: 10) into a more richly nuanced creation. In both instances, Trollope’s narrative is so carefully woven and nicely measured that the cutting of a single thread does not leave episodic ravels in the fabric.
Considered in this light, which, after all, is the light in which Trollope wished his fiction to be appreciated, the third Barset novel is a relative failure. In Doctor Thornethe influences of the death of a minor player on the life of a major one become a governing structural device, one too obvious to have gone unnoticed. As Stephen Wall puts it, The “plot requires Scatcherd to have made a great deal of money which he cannot live to enjoy because it must go to Mary Thorne. He is put out of the way by delirium tremens” (38).
This somewhat flippant response undoubtedly expresses what is felt by many, namely that the demands of character and plot have not been balanced successfully in Doctor Thorne. To be sure, a number of critics consider this novel to be one of Trollope’s finest achievements and rank it “among the most satisfying works of Victorian fiction” (Skilton xxii). Yet an attempt shall be made here to judge Trollope by his own standards, not by those imposed by his readers. And to Trollope, any author who pays too much attention to the plot-vehicle, and too little to the “speaking, moving, living, human creatures” within, “can only make novels of wood” (Autobiography 232; 233). It is no coincidence that Trollope offers the carriage-and-passenger trope which commenced our discussion to illustrate his reservations about Doctor Thorne:
The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot,—which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale,—is that which will most raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment. (126)
The critical and commercial failure of The Bertrams, a novel “relieved by no special character” did not surprise Trollope; but he was “surprised by the success of Doctor Thorne” (126), a novel whose borrowed plot conspires against the characters it contains.
Doctor Thorne, with its death-and-renewal theme, does have the potential of an intriguing character study, namely the casuistry of the story’s nominal hero, played out at the deathbeds of Sir Roger Scatcherd and Scatcherd’s son Sir Louis, the novel’s plot-born casualties. The physician’s duty to the dead Sir Roger is, if by human skill it be achievable, to keep dying Sir Louis among living men; his every inclination and desire is to let Louis die, to pile those golden sovereigns into Mary’s lap, to watch the cruel lady Arabella turn from frowns to smiles, to see the cloud of worry lift from Squire Gresham’s brow. Shall it be duty or desire? Which shall he choose? (Sadleir 381)
Yet the story of Doctor Thorne never becomes quite as compelling as Sadleir makes it out to be, not so much because there is never any doubt that the Scatcherds, incurable alcoholics, will die and that Mary Thorne will come to her inheritance, but because Trollope does not manage to explore the physician’s troubled conscience as forcefully as he lays bare the perturbations of Josiah Crawley or Septimus Harding. Wall suggests that the
relative listlessness of some of the writing may well be due to the fact that Trollope’s received plot inhibited his imagination because it restricted the possibilities open to his characters. . . . The crude narrative question that Doctor Thorne poses is: how long will it be and what do the characters have to go through before the hero gets the heroine and the heroine gets the money? The kind of question Trollope preferred to consider would be more like this: the circumstances being what they are and the protagonists being as they are, what is the logical and psychological effect produced in the combination? (35)
Less satisfying still are the character portrayals of the dying Scatcherds. Even though Sir Roger Scatcherd comes equipped with human features and a recognizable idiolect, he remains essentially a case: a case of alcoholism in Dr. Thorne’s records, a case of Victorian class struggle, and—with Sir Louis duplicating his father’s death—a case to be made for the heredity of diseases. As Lord Cecil once expressed it, a
large number of [Trollope’s] characters, for all their truth to fact, are not living creations in the fullest sense of the phrase. Such a character as Sir Roger Scatcherd in Doctor Thorne, for instance, is perfectly consistent and possible; he speaks and thinks and acts just as the rough, able, drunken, self-made man he is supposed to be would think and speak and act. . . . [But w]e believe in his existence as we believe in the existence of a character in a history book. (Cecil 265-66)
With the careful construction of the vehicle and the meticulous layout of the itinerary Trollope assigned each seat with such precision as to deny any of the passengers the freedom of independent movement. None of Dr. Thorne’s interventions could possibly prevent the scheduled exit of the Scatcherds; nor could any such medicinal remedies be deemed expedient by the reader, who, faced with such exhaustive planning, is simply not stimulated into fancying any alternatives. The Scatcherds, the plot convinces us, need to die; yet it is the insubstantial character study of the novel’s nominal hero that makes us doubt whether they ever deserved to live.
To be sure, the history of Doctor Thorne is so plotted that Sir Roger’s “share in Mary’s destiny is of the very essence of the tale” (Sadleir 380); yet while it is clear that both “Scatcherds do not die for nothing” (Kincaid 120), father and son do not survive as riveting characters, as victims of alcoholism or social ills, but, having been kept on life support for an unconscionable number of pages, they ultimately are mere rivets to the plot-coffin, thoroughly and forcefully driven into the contrived “wooden show” that is Doctor Thorne.
As the comments Sadleir and Kincaid made about the importance of the Scatcherds’s demise already suggest, the discourse about the relationship between plot development and character disposal in Trollope frequently commences and closes with the observation that deaths are “necessary” to the plot. The Penguin Companion to Trollope, which delights the statistically inclined with the insight that there exist significant deaths in twenty-six of Trollope’s novels and in eight of his short stories (Mullen 115), also offers this terse remark:
There are what one might call “necessary deaths,” some of which occur “off-stage.” They are necessary because without them the plot could not proceed as it does: John Bold’s death, announced at the beginning of Barchester Towers occurs because he was no longer needed and his widow must be free to remarry. (115-16)
While this may be the case, it does not explain why old Bishop Grantly is granted a deathbed scene, whereas the vigorous Bold, another central character in The Warden, faces his untimely demise in the interstices of the series. Both deaths are necessary—yet only one of the deceased is deemed worthy of a moment of leave-taking.
Barchester Towers is clearly a continuation of The Warden, and, as we know from Trollope’s letter to his publisher Longman, dated 17 February 1855, “was framed on this intention” (Hall, Letters 40). Has John Bold been intentionally framed as well? Having just left the Bishop’s deathbed, readers learn of Bold’s departure only through their reencounter with “Mrs. Bold, now, alas, a widow” (Barchester Towers 1: 12). Trollope does not spare a paragraph, nor even a phrase to establish the cause of Bold’s death. And while Eleanor’s black bonnet, as well as her baby boy (also called John Bold), may be read as being attestative of Bold’s existence and exit, the significance of cap and cradle as a solemn memento mori is immediately dismissed:
Poor Eleanor Bold! How well does that widow’s cap become her, and the solemn gravity with which she devotes herself to her new duties. Poor Eleanor!
Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. (1: 14)
Good riddance! is what an ironic Trollope offers in lieu of eulogia. Nor is it worthwhile pondering the future of Bold’s offspring; instead, the irreverent narrator, anxious to move on, remarks that it is left to
some other pen to produce, if necessary, the biography of John Bold the Younger:
But, as a baby, this baby was all that could be desired. This fact no one attempted to deny. (1: 15)
As the ill-advised reformer who causes so many problems for Septimus Harding, John Bold has fulfilled his function within the frame of The Warden without ever amounting to anything close to either hero or villain; in his place step the oleaginous Obadiah Slope and the fierce bishopess Proudie, two obstinate intruders who fully warrant the attention of both Trollope and his readers. To be sure, a single man is easily disposed of; for him, no awkward death scene need to be staged, since he can be assumed to have moved on, as unencumbered or disenfranchised men do on occasion. Let the gentle-hearted reader be under no misapprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Trollope shall bury Mr. Slope or Bertie. A husband, however, whose charming wife is still of some interest to the author, calls for annihilation.
In the case of Mr. Bold, the killing has been performed noiselessly—and without remorse. Trollope, it seems, felt neither compelled to deviate from his course of storytelling by succumbing to his readers’ demand for forensic details, nor inclined to be apologetic about having axed a character he simply did not admire. And even though it may be quite possible for the readers of The Warden to sympathize with the headstrong reformer, Trollope’s own lack of interest in the welfare of John Bold ought not to be ignored. Bold is introduced as a man “too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming” (15), an idealist at odds with both the realities of Barset and Trollope’s concept of realism. After his mission has set the plot in motion, Bold fails to exert further influence. A brief mention of his marriage to Eleanor notwithstanding, Bold essentially drops out of sight after chapter 15; and long before Eleanor Bold sheds his name to become Mrs. Arabin, the nominal reformer has faded into obscurity. This quiet removal reveals Trollope’s attitude towards creations he deemed so unworthy of further explorations as to render them inconsequential to the development of either plot or character.
It may be argued that the annihilation of Bold is not altogether an exception, since a similar fate awaits Lady Alexandrina. After having secured and shed Adolphus Crosbie, Lady Alexandrina, the concluding sentence of The Small House at Allingtoninforms us, is “seen in the one-horse carriage with her mother at Baden-Baden” (666), never to reenter the Barset vehicle again. While Johnny Eames and Lady De Guest both “wish she might have lived for ever” (Last Chronicle 241), Lady Alexandrina has become the carrion on which the story of Crosbie’s return is nourished, perishing long before The Last Chronicle of Barset commences. Operating the Barset vehicle, Trollope may have permitted Lady Alexandrina and John Bold to mingle with some of the more illustrious travelers for at least a small portion of the journey; but both have proven too lifeless to sustain the novelist’s interest, and their corpses are silently tossed onto the road before the ptomaine of rotten plotlines can corrupt the lively interior of the carriage. There are always new passengers to fill their seats.
How dramatically different are such off-stage assassinations from the scene in which the life of Trollope’s grand termagant Mrs. Proudie is terminated! E. M. Forster may have called Mrs. Proudie’s departure a “little death” (82); yet it is clearly magnificent when a Trollopean measure is applied. In her honor the vehicle comes to a momentary halt to allow for a tableau that has intrigued and irritated generations of readers:
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at [the Bishop]. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. (Last Chronicle 726)
It would be difficult to argue convincingly that Mrs. Proudie’s death is necessitated by the plot of The Last Chronicle of Barset, particularly since her influence on the Crawley affair has been effectively curtailed by the Bishop’s threat to resign his office. Does it suffice to conclude that “when the Bishop refuses any longer to allow his wife her own fun in attacking,” as Kincaid puts it, “[s]he has nothing to do but die” (139)? It appears instead that Trollope’s Proudie plot has met with so much opposition—the mildest reverberation of which is Bradford Booth’s remark that there is “infinite regret that Trollope should have taken seriously a chance remark overhea[r]d at the Athenaeum” (59)—exactly because her demise does not appear to be altogether inevitable. In fact, critics such as Ruth apRoberts appear to be so startled by Mrs. Proudie’s death that they not only turn to Trollope’s Autobiography for “the truth,” but, in a remarkable non sequitur, use the comments found therein to support the general statement that Trollope “will not mystify us” (43).
The “chance remark” alluded to—and the act of murder it might have provoked—has led critics to speculate whether Mrs. Proudie’s death may be a case of inspired expiration or, perhaps, expired inspiration. Yet, considered in Trollopean terms, that is, beyond the boundaries of secondary plot concerns, the death scene reveals itself to be more than a mere exercise in roadblock removal. It contributes significantly to the character development of Mrs. Proudie and the Bishop, who learns a lesson in wish-fulfillment, but also enriches the portrayals of several other characters.
Did Mrs. Proudie die in character? Christopher Herbert believes so when he contends that “Mrs. Proudie’s grotesquely rigid corpse [. . .] symbolizes the self-destructive rigidity and inhumaneness of all her attitudes when alive” (133); John Hazard Wildman, however, holds that
Mrs. Proudie’s death is a shock because the impression has been given that somehow she is grimmer and stronger than death, because death is something which is antithetical to her vigorous character. (15)
The spectacle of Mrs. Proudie’s body certainly invites both interpretations. Yet, the question remains: is it essentially a twist of the plot (albeit one far more carefully staged than most critics allow) or a shift in characterization? While arguably achieving “the miracle of elevating two characters of low comedy to the plane of high tragedy” (O’Connor 175), the scene also defies such classifications. “No novel,” Trollope writes in his Autobiography, “is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the page” (229). And indeed, the death scene, whether comedic or tragic or tragicomic, contributes greatly to our sense that “Mrs. Proudie at the palace is a real woman” (274).
To some degree, it is her dying that keeps Mrs. Proudie alive; her death concludes the comic routine of her uninvited interferences before it can ever threaten to reach the stage of rigor mortis. After having silenced everyone in her path, the now legendary vituperatrix becomes the talk of the town. “In Memoriam,” the chapter following the death scene, humorously anticipates the numerous reader-responses Mrs. Proudie’s passing provoked, as Barset’s postal Hermes, ethereally authorial, delivers the obit all over the shire. Reactions vary: Mr. Harding asks for solitude, Archdeacon Grantly asks for his tea (734; 736); old Lady Lufton “can hardly believe Mrs. Proudie is dead” (737), and Mr. Crawley never considers “that he and his affair had, in truth, been the cause of her death” (737); the Bishop, meanwhile, orders her tomb, “Requiescat in pace” (738). Mrs. Proudie, whose “ghost” continued to keep Trollope company (Autobiography 276) never did rest in peace, nor ever shall. As Paul Elmer More, commenting on the significance of Mrs. Proudie’s death, puts it:
That is why the lady abides in our memory also as a veritable person whom we have known in the flesh and have judged in the final court of conscience. It is for the same reason that the author’s habit of interrupting the narrative to expatiate on his own feelings does not diminish but heightens the reality of his imaginary world, and that he converts his readers into accomplices with him in executing the law of poetic justice. (54)
Pachydermatous readers who refuse to remember Trollope’s limited interest in vehicular concerns are likely to brush aside the notion of “poetic justice” in the Proudie case, and are apt to follow instead Mrs. Oliphant’s trail, tottering into the jungle of opinions, trumpeting “murder, or manslaughter at the least” (qtd. in Hall, Trollope: A Biography 301). Yet to those willing to consider Trollope’s designs of the Barset carriage and its path, the mention of Mrs. Proudie’s heart condition may be more than a mere indication of plot fudging. It also suggests that the narrator’s omniscience may have limitations (of which we are not infrequently reminded) and that characters we thought of as static and flat, installed only to perform tricks for our enjoyment, can be enriched by a scene that, free from the stench of sentimentality, offers a glimmer of their emotional complexities.
In death, both John Bold and Mrs. Proudie are treated justly: the former is unceremoniously thrown into an unmarked grave, the latter receives a tombstone whose inscription she defies in her characteristic obduracy.
Dead Ends and Thoroughfares
It comes as no surprise that critics who consider the deaths in Barsetshire to be primarily plot-promoting are shrouded in silence when faced with Mr. Harding’s withered frame. It is the silence of the mourner admiring the funeral service, Trollope’s “consummate artistry” (Polhemus 140), the “superlative emotion” (Super 214) of a scene executed “beyond praise” (Booth 59). Yet it is also the silence of the misologist shrugging his shoulders: while Mr. Harding’s death “makes a good end—what can one, novelistically speaking, say?” (Wall 89). Noting that it is “[o]ne of Mr. Harding’s last wishes that Mr. Crawley should have his living,” Wall politely points to “a pleasant formal connection between the first Barsetshire novel and the last” (89-90). Mr. Harding’s passing appears to have been reduced to a mere formality, a literary convention to be observed by the novelist and his critics. So what else can one, novelistically speaking, say?
One could say that Septimus Harding, like so many of Trollope’s creations, dies in character, not of structural necessity. In Barchester Towers, Trollope already refers to the “difficulty [which] begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this one volume” (2: 178)—yet piling them up in oblong boxes is clearly not Trollope’s top choice of short cuts. One could say that Mr. Harding is not made a supreme sacrifice brought to the altar of narrative structure, an offering to plot-worshippers calling for closure. In Thackeray, Trollope comments on the death of the old colonel in The Newcomes, a scene which, Mario Praz suggests, “he must certainly have had in mind” as he bid farewell to Mr. Harding (312). The death of Colonel Newcomes, Trollope argues,
though unnecessary to the story, and contrary to that practice of story-telling which seems to demand that calamities to those personages with whom we are to sympathise should not be brought in at the close of a work of fiction, is so beautifully told that no lover of Thackeray’s work would be willing to part with it. (120)
Septimus Harding’s death, too, is “unnecessary to the story,” but—and this makes it even more successful in Trollopean terms—essential to the character portrait of a man who has for so long lived in the company of the dying.
Although past middle age even when we first meet him as the eponymous antihero in The Warden, Mr. Harding—the only character to appear in all six of the Barset novels—may be called on to support Trollope’s maxim that on the “last day of each month recorded, every person in [a] novel should be a month older than on the first” (Autobiography 233). And while the people of Barset lose sight of the retiring old man after his refusal of social status and significance, Trollope, far from abandoning him, invites us to keep in touch with the former warden. Mr. Harding’s infrequent appearances in Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, or Small House at Allington add nothing to the plot; they indicate, instead, that Harding has become a plot-resistant character. Even though he could have played a central role in The Last Chronicle, as the only person in the shire able to shed light on the Crawley affair, Harding contributes little to the solution of the mystery. After having learned from Mr. Toogood, the attorney, about the Crawley case, a confused Harding sends a letter to his daughter Eleanor, “poste restante, Florence”: “It has something to do with the money which was given to Mr. Crawley last year, and which, if I remember right, was your present. But, of course, Mr. Toogood could not have known anything about that” (432).
Harding’s “decline and death,” are indeed, as Andrew Wright suggests, “part of the fabric of [The Last Chronicle]” (76); yet, as the old man’s isolation demonstrates, the Barset “fabric” does not require each character to be firmly knitted in. Rather than realizing his potential to disentangle the mystery, Harding remains severed from the plots that unfold around him. Yet, novelistically speaking, it is precisely Harding’s lack of interaction with other characters that allows for a continuation of Crawley’s story. As the denouement is prolonged, so is Septimus Harding’s existence. And only when The Last Chronicle is all plotted out, old Septimus, refusing to perform for us for a seventh time, steps into his sepulcher. He won’t be reduced to falling among the “few loose strings.” Trollope then ties “together in a knot, so that [his] work may not be become untwisted” (886). Nor will his casket become a convenient bookend for the Barset series, as bedesman John Bunce follows his former warden within a fortnight (864). “I have never been capable of constructing with complete success the intricacies of a plot that required to be unraveled,” Trollope remarks about The Last Chronicle, which he nevertheless considered his “best novel” (Autobiography 274). Aware of all his shortcomings as a plot-furnisher, Trollope appears to have been willing to temporarily surrender carriage, horse, and reins to humor Septimus Harding, an aging, yet determined, friend.
If so, the prolonged journey of Mr. Harding (whom we esteem too highly to claim his shroud in our efforts to wrap up our argument) may be responsible for the single most disgraceful accident to befall the Barset carriage: the death of Dobbs Broughton, a man who “[b]lew his brains out . . . just inside the entrance at Hook Court” (Last Chronicle 700). Several critics have regretted that Trollope’s carriage ever ventured into the city of London, while others, Hugh L. Hennedy among them, have defended the urban excursions, arguing that “Dobbs Broughton’s suicide is the most obviously disgraceful action in this part of the novel, a part which some critics [such as Booth and Ronald Knox], apparently confusing subject-matter and execution, imply or state is badly written” (114). It is quite possible, however, to be offended by Broughton’s suicide without confusing subject-matter and execution.
The “writer of stories must please, or he will be nothing,” Trollope proclaims in his Autobiography; but he must also “preach his sermon with the same purpose as the clergyman” (222). To accomplish this, Trollope was not opposed to resort to the depiction of violence. He greatly admired the violent death of George Osborne in Vanity Fair who is “killed almost before our eyes, on the field of battle, and we feel that Nemesis has with justice taken hold of him” (Thackeray 113). Still, in Dobbs Broughton’s suicide—the only violent death in the Barset series—there appears to be too much preaching and not enough pleasing.
A moneylender in need of borrowing, Broughton is described as a mere adjunct to his lucre-lured spouse, as a man “both blind and stupid” in matters of his wife’s amorous interludes (Last Chronicle 271), and a man who, like Sir Roger Scatcherd, tries to “mitigate the bitterness of his dislike [for his current position in life] by alcoholic aid” (441). A failure in marriage and money matters, Broughton’s life is, like Hook Court, a dismal cul-de-sac. In all this, The Last Chronicle contrasts the communal life in Barsetshire with the self-centered one in London. In Barset, friends join to rescue the reputation of a man accused of having stolen a check; in London, a ruined man is abandoned. Mr. Crawley contemplates suicide; Dobbs Broughton pulls the trigger. Granted, this imposed dichotomy considerably distorts the novel’s characteristically loose structure. The Last Chronicle is not a tale of two cities, and Mr. Trollope is not Mr. Sentiment. It is from London, after all, that Mr. Crawley receives assistance, namely in the person of Mr. Toogood, who is also “first-cousin to Mrs. Crawley” (312).
Thus, it is not that Trollope preaches too loudly—the exemplum is weak and ill chosen. Dobbs Broughton’s forgettable life story is hardly worth the reader’s candle; nor, for that matter, the author’s bullet. We are left with the image of Broughton’s blown-out brain before we ever came to know the man’s heart. Since the deaths of the Scatcherds may be explained—if not excused—as an unfortunate consequence of the author’s plot-borrowing that, rather than liberating, turned out to be enslaving, the violent death of Dobbs Broughton remains the single unpardonable flaw in Trollope’s portrait gallery of Kind Hearts and Coronaries.
Ann Radcliffe’s novels, we are told in Barchester Towers, are “merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight” (1: 143). Trollope was careful to avoid such “woodenness” of characters that are “cut out of blocks and are propped against the wall” (Autobiography 231); and, for the most part, succeeded in fashioning his Barsetshire novels into an appropriate receptacle for living characters. While approximately two dozen characters are reported dead in the course of the series, the Barset receptacle is not a coffin, but is best described as a carriage, the trope Trollope offers in his autobiography. Richard Stang, like so many critics, is wrong when he argues that for Trollope “plot and character are completely separable” (131). The carriage serves no purpose if it fails to convey its travelers, just as the trope collapses if the vehicle is severed from its tenor.
To be sure, if one approaches Trollope’s novels with the model offered by George Henry Lewes, who argued that “the distinctive element in Fiction is that of plot-interest. The rest is vehicle” (qtd. in Graham 101), the travelers will appear to be mere lackeys whose lives and deaths are obligatory to carry the author’s splendid sedan chair. Yet Trollope cared too much for his characters to permit the application of such a model. “When I shall feel that this intimacy [with my characters] ceases,” he once vowed, pondering his hold on the reins,“then I shall know that the old horse should be turned out to grass” (Autobiography 133-34). To this day, the Trollope omnibus, threatened disruptions of service on the Sabbath notwithstanding, follows its well planned route, as usual.
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