Athens and Elsinore (a Supercommentary)

In Hester, a novel published in 1884, Mrs. Oliphant briefly sketches out what she considers to be “the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy.” The character who presents her analysis of Hamlet does so while describing what ensued after the disappointment in love of one Catherine Vernon.

Something however, occurred after, much worse than his preference for another woman. The man turned out to be an unworthy man. I should think for my part that there cannot be any such blow as that. Don’t you remember we agreed it was the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy?  It is the tragedy of the world, my dear…Hamlet would never have discovered what traitors those young courtiers were, if his mother had not turned out a fraud, and his love a delusion–at least that is my opinion. The wonder is, he did not misdoubt Horatio too. That’s what I should have done if it had been me. But there is the good of genius Hester; the Master who knew everything knew better.

In an essay published in Blackwoods in 1879, Mrs. Oliphant fleshes out this idea at greater length. Her essay is exhilarating because–unlike so many other critical essays, which tend to focus on one or two interesting themes within the enigmatic play–it really attempts to join the apparently disparate elements of the plot and explain how they all fit together.

While she successfully ties together the Gertrude subplot, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot, and the Ophelia subplot, Mrs. Oliphant assigns relatively little weight to the revenge plot which most people consider to be the most important one in the play:

This horrible revelation of evil in the place where it should have been least suspected, this certainty which nothing can change or excuse or atone for, is the foundation of all that follows. The murder is less, not more than this. It may be proved, it may be revenged, and in any case it gives a feverish energy to the sufferer, an escape for the moment from a deeper bitterness still; but even were it disproved or were it avenged, it would change nothing.

To diehard Mrs. Oliphant enthusiasts like myself, this concession seems too easy. The moments in which Hamlet thinks about his own failure to carry out the revenge can actually be seen as those in which his most harrowing ruminations on the mutability of human love and loyalty occur. Hamlet is disappointed not just in his friends and in his relations, but also in himself. When he compares the Player’s compassion for Hecuba with his own failure to avenge his father’s murder, he exclaims

Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause…

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words…

In a later scene, Laertes insists that if he, Laertes, fails to instantly avenge the death of his father, it would show an unnatural want of love and faithfulness towards that gentleman–

That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,

Cries cuckold to my father…

These heated words pile an ironic condemnation of Hamlet on top of the many self-condemnations which Hamlet utters throughout the play, and most harshly characterize Hamlet’s behavior as unloving and disloyal. Just as Gertrude actively betrays her husband by marrying Claudius, Hamlet passively betrays his father by failing to instantly avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet’s carelessness towards one whom he has formerly loved is, of course, not limited to his treatment of his father. When he accidentally kills Polonius, he does not give a thought to the effect that his actions will have on Ophelia, who–putting the (perhaps justified) disdain of Mrs. Oliphant aside–continues to love Hamlet in her own weak way even after his poor treatment of her, and is actually driven mad by a manifestation of the same phenomenon which provokes the bitterness of Hamlet–who only pretends to be mad.

Horatio, the one true friend, the constant foil to half a dozen traitors, would have been a familiar character in a familiar situation to Shakespeare’s original audience. Boethius writes that bad fortune can be seen as a blessing in disguise:

Do you think it is of small account that this harsh and terrible misfortune has revealed those whose hearts are loyal to you? She has shown you the friends whose smiles were true smiles, and those whose smiles were false; in deserting you Fortune has taken her friends with her and left those who are truly yours.*

This idea is echoed in Hamlet’s speech to Horatio.

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,

And could of men distinguish her election,

Sh’ath seal’s thee for herself; for thou hast been

As one, in suff’ring all, that suffers nothing,

A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards

Hast ta’en with equal thanks…

This sketch of Horatio’s character is, of course, contrasted almost immediately with the inconstancy of the Player Queen in “The Mousetrap,” which follows it. Almost the entire dialogue of the play within a play serves to further strengthen Mrs. Oliphant’s theory.

Even the less educated members of Shakespeare’s audience would have been well acquainted with the theme of fickle friendship in the face of adverse fortune, if not from translations of Boethius, then at least from earlier plays written by Shakespeare himself. Timon of Athens, a later play, is the overarching theme of which is most similar to that of Hamlet, according to Mrs. Oliphant’s reading. Although he is faced with similar circumstances, Hamlet, unlike Timon, does not finally allow his bitterness to overwhelm him completely; while Timon completely surrenders to misanthropy and despair, Hamlet, especially in the last act, displays sprightliness, hope, and even (in his dealings with Laertes) charity. Mrs. Oliphant struggles to fit the last act of the play into her theory.

The last act of “Hamlet” remains to ourselves a mystery… Death indeed cuts the thread artificially both in real life and poetry; but it is an artificial ending, however it comes about, and, so far as we are concerned, solves no problem, though we make bold to believe that it explains everything to the person chiefly concerned. In the fifth act all is changed. That former world has rolled away with all its passions and pains. Hamlet, having delivered himself by the promptest energetic action, in an emergency which is straightforward and without complications, comes back with a languor and exhaustion about him which contrasts strangely with the intensity of all his previous emotions. Contemplative as ever, there is no longer any strain of mystic anguish in his musings. Unaccountably, yet most evidently, the greatness of his suffering has dissolved away…What is the secret of the subdued dead hush and calm with which he comes before us in the end? Is it mere weariness, exhaustion of all possibility of action, the sense that nothing more remains worth struggling for — for even his revenge, the one object which had kept the channels of life clear, has disappeared in the last chapter? …So far as our theory goes, the last act is in fact the return of the poet to his real theme. His hero has been wrecked throughout by treachery. The higher betrayals that affected his heart and soul wrung Hamlet’s being, and transformed the world to him: but the meaner tricks that assailed his life were too low for his suspicion. How was he, so noble, so unfortunate, measuring his soul against the horrible forces of falsehood, the spiritual wickedness in high places, to come down from that impassioned and despairing contest, to think of poison, or take precautions against it? Thus the traitor got the better of him, and death triumphed at the last.

The problem with this final point is that it is contradicted by the text. After he is informed of the conditions of the duel, Hamlet tells Horatio that “all’s ill here about my heart…it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman.” When Horatio suggests postponing the duel, Hamlet refuses, and consciously chooses to face danger, accepting whatever fate Providence assigns him.

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of the sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leave, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

In order to determine why it is that Hamlet, who has been steering in the same general direction chosen by Timon, suddenly swerves in the fifth act, it might be worthwhile to examine the end of the fourth act more closely. Hamlet’s rebuke of Gertrude in her bedroom (together with his general unhappiness regarding Gertrude’s remarriage) is understood by many twentieth century critics as a barely concealed sublimation of his Oedipal instincts. This interpretation is not supported by the text of the play. Hamlet’s concern for the chastity of his close female relative is normal, just as Polonius’s and Laertes’s concern for the chastity of their close female relative is normal. In fact, the two scenes in which the ladies are warned by their male relatives to be more careful of their chastity can be seen as parallel but contrasting bookends to the main body of the play. When the young girl is chastised by her father and brother it is natural and proper; when the middle aged woman is chastised by her grown son it is sad and strange. In modern performances of Hamlet, the sense of the words in this scene are always swallowed up by the amorous gestures. In the play Shakespeare wrote, Hamlet enjoins Gertrude to refuse Claudius’s embraces and to falsely inform him that he, Hamlet, is actually mad. Gertrude promises to comply with both of these instructions. In the next scene, we witness her lying to Claudius, just as Hamlet had told her to do. Later, in an aside, she confesses that

To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is),

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

This aside indicates that the repentance of which Gertrude has previously assured Hamlet is genuine. Although she does intervene to save Claudius from being murdered by Laertes, there is no indication in the text of the play that Gertrude ever accepts Claudius’s affections after the bedroom scene with Hamlet. It seems reasonable that, if his mother’s wantonness was the original cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness, her sincere repentance would make him happy again. Part of this has, no doubt, something to do with a personal reassurance that she is loyal to him. Another factor which may contribute to the lifting of Hamlet’s pall is the general reassurance about human nature that witnessing repentance may give. Many of Hamlet’s speculations focus on the tension between the animal and the ethereal in man, and are characterized by grief over the all too common dominance of the animal over the ethereal. Seeing the ethereal conquer the animal is balm to the soul of a philosopher like Hamlet.

Hamlet and Timon are alike in their fortunes, but they are unlike in their ways of coping with fortune. Hamlet remains introspective and wittily humorous throughout the time of his adversity, finding fault in himself as well as in others; Timon blames all of his unhappiness on those around him. Once Hamlet has witnessed his mother’s repentance, his faith is strengthened–he comes back to Elsinore confidently, and confronts a dangerous situation trustfully. While he is dying, he forgives Laertes for murdering him and receives Laertes’s forgiveness for killing Polonius. Both Timon and Hamlet are tragedies, but while the former is a thoroughly sad tragedy, the latter isn’t an entirely unhappy one, since Hamlet, unlike Timon, dies with dignity and goodwill. In other words, though he lives and dies bounded in a nutshell, Hamlet can indeed be counted a king of infinite space.



*Penguin Classics edition, Victor Watts translation

The Happiest Hipster

It is well known that the leftist hippies of a previous generation were directly inspired by cranky conservative writers, such as Wendell Berry and J.R.R. Tolkien. What is less well known is that the left-leaning urban hipsters of today partake of much of the unique aesthetic of another conservative writer–G.K. Chesterton. Like Berry, Chesterton eschewed cosmopolitanism and prioritized belonging to a certain place. It just so happened that the place to which Chesterton belonged was suburban London; he did not share Berry’s feeling that dwelling in the capitol was in any way inferior to dwelling in a country home. Not only did Chesterton fail to farm, as Berry does, he did not even work in his own garden, as Tolkien did. He writes of sitting in his garden and watching his gardener work:

The gardener was gardening. I was not gardening. .. It is quite certain that he would not have allowed me to touch the garden if I had gone down on my knees to him.
And it is by no means certain that I should have consented to touch the
garden if he had gone down on his knees to me…

And all the time I was thinking what a shame it was that he was not
sticking his spade into his own garden, instead of mine: he knew about the
earth and the underworld of seeds, the resurrection of Spring and the
flowers that appear in order like a procession marshalled by a herald.
He possessed the garden intellectually and spiritually, while I only
possessed it politically.

Like the hipster farm tourists of today, Chesterton firmly identified with the urban location and the relatively idle social class into which he was born; he also felt a deep ambivalence about hereditary class privilege, and wistfully admired people who work with their hands.

He even cultivated a fascination with the pleasures of local culture and cuisine. In a mock defense of Prohibition, he writes

But the private brews differ very widely; multitudes are quite harmless and some are quite excellent. I know an American university where practically every one of the professors brews his own beer; some of them experimenting in two or three different kinds. But what is especially delightful is this: that with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared. The professor of the higher metaphysics will be proud of his strong ale; the professor of the lower mathematics (otherwise known as high finance) will allege something more subtle in his milder ale; the professor of moral theology (whose ale I am sure is the strongest of all) will offer to drink all the other dons under the table without any ill effect on the health. Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all theses things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton wrote a few essays that elaborate more on the beauties of some of the items in his catalog of “goods which ought to be banned”–one essay is about the glories of local cheese, and another concludes with the thrill of locally sourcing chalk. He also wrote something about local wine. Twenty-first century anti-globalists can be divided into two broad camps: a camp of those who rebel against globalization by voting against international coalitions, and a camp of those who rebel against globalization by delighting in microbrews. Chesterton, who co-invented a rather locally oriented political philosophy called Distributism, carried Hipsterism to its logical conclusion.



The Heiress of Dickens

There are few pieces of criticism written on the books of JK. Rowling which neglect to mention the supposed influences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the Harry Potter novels. Nothing could be neater than tying popular, literary, twentieth century writers of fantasy fiction into one bundle. This pretty packaging, however, must seem forced to those who, like myself, are fans of all three writers. How can one seriously claim that the vibrant primary colors of Harry Potter are substantially derived from the golds, grays, muted blues, and greens of Narnia and Middle Earth?

Furthermore, the works of the two Oxbridge professors are permeated with ineffable nostalgia, a feeling that is rarely encountered in Rowling’s work. The magical world that Harry enters is not older or essentially better than ours; it is just more fascinating. If J.K. Rowling is ever really guilty of nostalgia, it is the nostalgia for the future commonly known as progressivism. Hogwarts, which, as Mr. Filch is fond of reminding the students, used to use interesting methods of corporal punishment, was not always as nice a place as it now is. Dumbledore is kinder and wiser than previous headmasters, — one of whom unjustly expelled Hagrid. In the larger wizarding world, the abuse of house elves used to go unquestioned, but Hermione Granger is determined to end this practice and liberate the downtrodden house elves from their bonds. We are always made to feel that Middle Earth and Narnia, on the other hand, were once much better places than they now are. The spiritual decline of those lands has come to such a point, in fact, that The Lord of the Rings must conclude with the departure of the Elves — with all their magic and wisdom — from Middle Earth, while the Chronicles of Narnia end with total moral decay and an apocalypse.

With the exception of Lewis’ lamp post, inanimate objects belonging to the post-industrial world are, in the eyes of Lewis and Tolkien, symbolic of evil and ugliness. Rowling, on the other hand, embraces such objects and gives them a magical twist: while the victorious hobbits get rid of Saruman’s utilitarian, modern buildings, and the children entering Narnia are thankful to shed their ugly clothes for beautiful ones, in Rowling’s world, train stations are enchanted, modern canvas tents are larger on the inside than on the outside, and old newspapers and rubber tires are given the ability to magically transport groups of people from one place to another.

There are two schools of romance. One, which can be traced back in a straight line to the Romans (hence, we suppose, the word romance), is the refined, discontented school: its members are always impatient with their actual surroundings and yearning for goodness that can only be found somewhere “far, far away,” whether in a pastoral idyll or a mythical past. A representative work from this group is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet tells his child that

                                          I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The other school sees lovely things everywhere, and hears the eternal language of God even in a cloistered city. Its doctrine is encapsulated in Chesterton’s poem about a mailbox:

“In mine own city” thus he said—
“There stands a little man in red
Who in the steep street standeth still
And morn and even eats his fill
Of tales untold, wild truths and lies
Small wars and secret chivalries
You may walk round him as may be
He guards his secrets soldierly—
A quaint red tower not three feet wide
And thousands of mens’ souls inside.”

Lewis and Tolkien mainly belong to the first school (although they both incorporate some elements of the second school into their stories); Rowling belongs solidly to the second school.  While the history and origins of the everyday sort of romantic poetry are not as obvious as those of the classical kind, one earlier author who stands out for seeing magic in the mundane is Charles Dickens.

While Dickens is most regarded for his deeply humorous characters and biting social commentary (both of which qualities can be found in Rowling’s books as well), it is less often remarked that he is a pioneering writer of fantasy fiction as well. Several of Dickens’ works contain magical elements, and it is to these, and not to any twentieth century book, that Rowling owes her greatest debt. The device of Dumbledore’s “Pensieve,” which carries its user back into memories in which he can observe without being observed, is a pretty obvious homage to A Christmas Carol. The general kind of magic that can be found in Harry Potter — the all-embracing, humorous kind — is similar to the magic in some of  the random anecdotes found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers. We hear in the cheeky banter of Hogwarts students with the school’s resident ghosts echoes of the young lawyer in Pickwick cleverly advising the tortured ghost-of-a-lawyer he encounters to leave his stuffy rooms in London and seek out fresher climes. Rowling’s image of an overstuffed couch that is revealed to be, in fact, a cowardly, obese man, is reminiscent of a chair in Pickwick with an old man’s features which coarsely boasts about all of the women who have “sat on its lap for hours together.”

Although we are certainly very lucky that Rowling picked up where Dickens left off, we suspect that even if Dickens hadn’t left any explicitly magical thread at all, it is possible that Rowling could still have been inspired by him (and similar authors) to create the wizarding universe. When Harry Potter first rides the Hogwarts Express, he discovers that wizard candy is more interesting than Muggle candy: Bertie Bott really does include all flavors in his jelly beans, including pepper, ear wax, and grass. There is nothing specifically “magical” about this; it is just amusing and different. Chesterton defines humor as “a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.” It is in Pickwick, which is the work of Dickens at his funniest and most incorrigible, that Dickens’ enthusiasm boils over: he cannot confine himself to appreciating the absurdities of other people, but must also explore the eccentricities and exaggerations of inanimate objects and imaginary beings. Given the long and rich tradition of English comedy — and the benefit of hindsight — we may even feel that the creation of a world in which everything is perceived through humor’s exuberant lens and in which many objects undergo a supernatural transformation (or transfiguration), was inevitable.

Rowling shares a few other stylistic similarities with Dickens, the most notable of which is a penchant for gloriously improbable plots (although hers are much more tightly constructed than his). Something else the two authors have in common is that the books of both have been received with wild popularity. Of course, it would not have been possible for them to be so popular if they weren’t good. We all know, however, that there are many excellent, literary books that will never be so widely read. What makes our two authors popular is the fact that, morally outraged and satirical as they may occasionally be, they are, essentially, unabashedly joyful. And it is this very joy which enables them to see everything transformed by a magical light. If the somber moods of Lewis and Tolkien can be traced back to Virgil (as well as, in Tolkien’s case, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets), who was a typically pensive pagan, the joyous moods of Dickens and Rowling may be traced to Isaiah, who proclaimed that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Failure of the Feminine in the Aeneid

Man is associated with a driving, pushing force, seeking after honor and glory. Woman is associated with the preservation of the status quo. Men value honor in battle above life. Women value home, marriage, and children. Because for the man what is important is his immortal soul, he promotes death. Women, who are the guardians of the body, champion life. In the Aeneid there is a cosmic war between these two forces – the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the physical. The champion of the masculine is Aeneas, the protagonist of the poem. He is constantly faced by various feminine obstacles, many of which are planted in his path by none other than Juno, the goddess of marriage, the hearth, and childbirth. In the first scene of the poem, Juno is mobilizing all of the force she can to stop Aeneas from reaching his goal. She, the most feminine deity, is Aeneas’ greatest enemy. She constantly causes delays and troubles to Aeneas, but, ultimately, all of her efforts are in vain. Opposed to Juno is her husband Jove, who wishes for his grandson Aeneas to win power and glory in Italy, and supports and encourages him on his journey. In the end of the poem Juno capitulates to Jove, and Aeneas triumphs over her champion, Turnus, in combat. The Aeneid teaches that the physical feminine force will always be subject to the spiritual masculine force. Although it may momentarily gain the upper hand, it will never gain a real victory, because it is inherently weaker. The Aeneid is essentially a song celebrating the victory of the masculine over the feminine, of reason over passion, of the spiritual over the physical.

The poem begins with Aeneas meeting Dido after his shipwreck. Of course, this eventually leads to their romantic involvement. The way that Rumor describes their situation is striking; “in lust, forgetful of their kingdom, they take long pleasure (IV, 255-256).” Their relationship is clearly perceived as unbecoming for a king and a queen. Jove is opposed to the continuation of this romantic involvement because “His lovely mother did not promise such/ a son to us; she did not save him twice/from Grecian arms for this – but to be master of Italy, a land that teems with empire/and seethes with war (IV, 303-307).” It is obvious to Jove that when the values of love and glory come into conflict, the masculine value of glory is to be preferred. While love may be a nice thing, when bought at the expense of glory it is ignoble and disgraceful. Since the Fates have determined that Aeneas is to gain glory in Italy, it is his duty to conquer his passion for Dido and to leave. When Mercury rebukes Aeneas and urges him to leave Carthage and travel on to Italy, he uses even stronger and more explicit language than Jove; “Are you now…servant to a woman…? Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate (IV, 353-357)?” Aeneas heeds their rebukes without delay, and his men “all are glad (IV, 394)” when he gives them orders to make the ships ready for further sailing. They, like Rumor, Jove, and Mercury, had also perceived the behavior of their leader as unbecoming. Aeneas’ forgetfulness of his destiny and his submission to love are inglorious and effeminate. However, he rectifies his shortcomings very quickly when he is made aware of them.

Dido’s reaction to Aeneas’ declaration that he is going to leave is emotional, hysterical, and supremely irrational. She is “a woman driven wild (V, 8).” She upbraids Aeneas for his reticence and lack of emotion – “For did Aeneas groan while I was weeping (IV, 535)?” She then curses Aeneas and threatens revenge, saying “I shall hunt you down with blackened firebrands (IV, 528).” Finally, she commits suicide. She values only family life, claiming to Aeneas that “Had I at least before you left conceived…if there were but a tiny Aeneas playing by me in the hall…then indeed I should not seem so totally abandoned, beaten (IV, 440-445).” To the feminine Dido, being a glorious queen is no consolation to compensate for her frustrated desire for a husband and children. It is Juno, the goddess of mothers and wives and Aeneas’ enemy, who has pity on Dido and eases her death. Aeneas’ calmness and determination in the face of Dido’s love and hysteria can almost be seen as the passing of a test. He proves that his piety and values are real, and cannot be compromised by feminine tricks. Additionally, Aeneas’ voyage from Carthage can be seen as a declaration of identity. He declares by leaving Dido that he values piety and honor above love.

The next feminine event in the Aeneid occurs in book V. While the men are involved in the funeral games for Anchises, the women are by the ships, wishing that they could settle down in Sicily. “They pray to have a city;/they are tired of their trials at sea (V, 812-813).” As women, they are not excited by the prospect of war and glory in Italy. They would rather assimilate into the kingdom of Acestes and build peaceful homes. Juno takes this opportunity to set an obstacle in Aeneas’ way, and sends Iris in disguise to convince the Trojan women to burn the Trojan ships (which is actually something that, in book IV, Mercury warns Aeneas that Dido is planning to do). Iris urges “we chase fleeing Italy…shall never see the Samois and Xanthus, Hector’s rivers? No! Come now and burn these damned ships with me!…Look here for Troy; here is your home (V, 829-842)!” The reasoning that Iris offers is that since the women cannot have their Trojan homes, any hospitable land to which they come is equally good. Iris ignores the idea which Aeneas explains to Dido; “If fate had granted me to guide my life by my own auspices then I should cherish first the town of Troy…but now Grynean Apollo’s oracles would have me seize great Italy…it is right that we…seek out a foreign kingdom (IV, 463-476).” His masculine ideals of power and honor will not allow Aeneas to settle anywhere other than Italy. According to some, the lines in which the matrons pause between the ideals of adventure and glory for their countrymen that are opposed to their ideals of home and comfort are the most poignant in the poem: “Torn between the present land and those that call by fates’ command (translation taken from Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, corresponding to V, 864-5).” The matrons give in to their feminine sides and set fire to the Trojan ships.

Aeneas is more affected by the burning of the ships than by all of Dido’s crying and pleading. Even after Jove has performed a miracle and all but four of the ships have been saved by rain, he sits by the ships and actually considers “whether to settle in the fields of Sicily,/forgetful of the fates, or else to try/ for the Italian coast (V, 925-8).” Perhaps Aeneas’ uncharacteristic despondence and lack of piety result from a feeling of betrayal. Even his own fellow Trojans are unwilling to continue! However, this despondence is only temporary. Anchises appears to him in a vision and encourages him to continue. Armed with new strength, Aeneas continues his journey to Italy.

Once the Trojans do arrive in Italy, the Italian women, animated by another messenger of Juno, Allecto, behave in a manner similar to that of the Trojan women animated by Iris. The Italian queen, Amata, is “kindled by a woman’s anxieties and anger (VII, 445-6)” regarding the prospect of her daughter being given in marriage to a foreigner – Aeneas – instead of Turnus, her Italian betrothed. Amata entertains the feminine values of stability and familiarity, and is annoyed by the fact that her husband is going to upset the status quo. She is also worried that Aeneas is not trustworthy and will take Lavinia away from her. Allecto is apparently more powerful than Iris. The Trojan women hesitate before setting fire to the ships, and are then instantly ashamed of their deed. The Italian women are totally carried away by the madness inspired by Allecto.

The wretched queen rages through the city…all of the matrons feel the same zeal, kindled by Furies in their breasts, to seek new homes…Amata lifts a blazing firebrand…her cry is savage, sudden: “O Latin mothers, listen now, wherever you are: if any love still lives within your pious hearts for sad Amata, if care for a mother’s rights still gnaws at you, then loose the headbands on your hair, take to these orgies with me.”

This is explicit rebellion of women against men. Fired by Juno, they protest against their husbands’ domination and ignoring of the feminine values, and then run off into the woods to celebrate the traditionally all-female Bacchanalian rites. They do not want progress, danger, honor, and change. They want their home to remain as it was. It is Aeneas who is threatening them, and they oppose him with all of their might.

The account of Camilla in Book XI is almost a story within a story. It is significant that the famous female warrior in this battle is fighting for the general feminine cause – for the preservation of the status quo. She is fighting on the side of Turnus, Lavinia’s Italian betrothed. Fierce and deadly, Camilla has been trained in the arts of war by her father from a young age. In the descriptions of her battle scenes, she seems just like a man. But she is only like a man. Her underlying womanhood is her undoing. Arruns, who is trying to kill her, cannot find an opening until she charges towards Chloreus. She picks out Chloreus because of his elaborate dress combined with her “female’s love of plunder and of spoils (XI, 1038-40)” – that is, with her female love of the material. This female inclination is a weakness, and it betrays her to Arruns’ shaft. So, although in some ways Camilla’s exploits form a story within a story, in other ways they serve to encapsulate the entire theme of the Aeneid into a smaller space. The feminine threat, although it may be menacing for a while, will inevitably disappear, because it is inherently weaker. It will bring about its own destruction.

All of this action occurs against the backdrop of Juno, the goddess of womanhood, desperately trying to stop Aeneas from succeeding. The poem begins with her complaint, “Am I, defeated, simply to stop trying, unable to turn back the Trojan king from Italy. No doubt, the Fates won’t have it…For after this, will anyone adore the majesty of Juno or, before her altar, pray to her (I, 55-74)?” Juno really knows that her efforts will be in vain, but she cannot prevent herself from trying to stop Aeneas. It is she who gives the signal for Aeneas and Dido to meet in a cave during a thunderstorm, she who incites both the Dardan and the Latin women. The goddess of womanhood, she takes advantage of women’s natural inclinations and emotions to further her greater plan of stopping the Trojans from settling from Troy. She tries to appear to be strong, but she knows that she is really weaker. When she sees that Turnus is about to die, she asks Jove to allow her to intervene. He allows only “respite from impending death for the doomed youth (X, 855).” She takes even that, continuing to hope against hope that he – the masculine god -will change his mind, and that she, his wife, will be able to save face. Finally grown impatient, Jove demands of his wife, “What is your plan? What is the hope that keeps you lingering in these chill clouds (XII, 1055-57)?” She, the weaker, finally realizes that she must succumb. There must be honor and glory for the Trojans. Still wanting to save face, she requests that Jove will at least destroy the name of the Trojans, if not their race. Like a parent smiling on an inconsequential child, Jove smiles and yields to her request. Weak, defeated, but not honest enough to admit that she is defeated, Juno agrees and “with gladness…quit(s) the skies, her cloud (XII, 1118-19).” Jove and his champion Aeneas have won. Masculinity has triumphed over femininity.

Anthony Trollope and the Cosmopolitans

The bicentennial of the birth of Anthony Trollope is this year. A Tablet magazine critic has decided to mark this epoch with an essay arguing that Anthony Trollope was, in some mystical sense, a Jew. A writer for The New Yorker, not to be outdone, makes the – if possible – even more bizarre claim that Anthony Trollope was a cosmopolitan. If Trollope were alive today, we are confidently informed, he “would be in Brussels, writing comedies about the European parliament.” Since, as  a proud Jew and and a most wretched cosmopolitan, I may hope for some immunity from charges of prejudice and xenophobia, I will most respectfully beg to differ with both writers.

The claim that Anthony Trollope was a Jew or a philo-Semite barely needs to be addressed. No, he was not. He certainly acknowledged, along with Shakespeare, Scott, and other celebrated Judeophobes, that Jews were human beings with human feelings. And — as evidenced by the quotations in the Tablet article itself — he clearly did not like them.

The distinction between cosmopolitans and regular “politans” — or what Wendell Berry calls “placed people” — is perhaps less distinct than that between Jews and Gentiles, but the Englishness of Trollope — many of whose novels contain extended fox hunting scenes — is quite unmistakable. While most of Trollope’s novels take place in England, he does have many shorter stories set in other lands. These stories, however, are hardly written in the spirit in which the truly cosmopolitan George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda or Romola, in which books she makes an effort to enter into, respectively, the cultures of the Victorian Jews and of the Renaissance Italians.  Trollope’s “foreign” tales, by contrast, are mostly just stories of the English being English, however exotic a setting they may find themselves in. Some of the most memorable ones involve uproarious gags in which Englishmen make fools of themselves with their rudeness abroad while the locals – from Father Giles of Ballymoy, Ireland, to a Spanish Marquis aboard a riverboat- respond with perfect good humor. Others, such as ‘Returning Home,’ in which a young Englishwoman, weighted down by her inappropriately heavy clothes, drowns in a South American river, are tragic tales of the hardships of exile.

The unpleasant truth is that any sane person who has a passing familiarity with Trollope’s corpus knows that that fox hunting, beef eating, deeply humorous civil servant was not only an insular, if amiable, English snob, but even an English class snob. His lower class characters, when they appear at all, are usually, like those of Shakespeare, brought in for comic relief, and are never, like those of  many other Victorians, given the dignity of moral agency. Unlike Shakespeare’s clowns, however, Trollope’s less fortunate folks (who usually come from the lower-middle-class) are not allowed the graces of wit, goodness, or pathos. We are meant to laugh at and not with such congenitally ungentlemanly or unladylike souls as Mr. Slope, Mr. Moulder, and Mrs. Greenow.

Trollope may have been the greatest English man of letters to unironically subscribe to the doctrine that

If thou never wast at court, thou never saw’st good manners; if thou never saw’st good manners, then thy manner must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation.

The finest of Trollope’s short stories, “The Spotted Dog,” is a cautionary tale, the moral of which is that no gentleman should condescend to take a wife from among the lower classes (one of the subplots in Orley Farm is essentially the story of such a tragedy averted). Although it must be admitted that Trollope’s novels are positively brimming over with aristocratic young men who are interested in marrying young women whose rank and fortune are not quite equal to their own, the argument in favor of the marriage is always that the woman in question is, her relative poverty notwithstanding, “a lady.” This is how, in his posthumously published autobiography, Trollope explains his opposition to open and competitive examinations for candidates for Civil Service employment:

As what I now write will certainly never be read till I am dead, I may dare to say what no one now does dare to say in print,—though some of us whisper it occasionally into our friends’ ears. There are places in life which can hardly be well filled except by “Gentlemen.”…it may be that the son of the butcher of the village shall become as well fitted for employments requiring gentle culture as the son of the parson. Such is often the case. When such is the case, no one has been more prone to give the butcher’s son all the welcome he has merited than I myself; but the chances are greatly in favour of the parson’s son.

The obvious question — of how Anthony Trollope, the snob, could possibly have come to be held up as a model Jew-lover and cosmopolitan — is not a question that is entertained for long, because the answer is more obvious still. Our two journalists are only interested in finding in Trollope’s books those ideas and sentiments which correspond to their own. Trollope certainly identified as a political progressive and liberal, as they do. He certainly wrote a novel in which the handsome hero conveniently forgets about his “insipid” girlfriend back home in the country while, in the big city, he pursues – and is pursued by – ladies with more prominent worldly status, as men of any era might fondly imagine themselves doing. He also, presumably, finds common ground with the modern journalists, in, as mentioned earlier, acknowledging that Jews are human beings.

However, these superficial similarities are surely recognizable as red herrings to those who, when they open up a book, neither expect nor desire to find a mirror. If Trollope voted for (and even tried to become) a Liberal MP, the actual political goals of the Liberal party of the time were mostly about removing protections from special interests and scaling back the Empire — a far cry from the modern welfare enactments — and it is impossible to know what Trollope would have thought about our latter day Liberals. What we do know is that, although a Liberal voter, he had a staunchly conservative personality, and that he broke with his party to oppose not only Civil Service examinations, but the Secret Ballot measure as well (he considered it to be an “unmanly restraint” upon the poor conduct of those who would exercise inappropriate influence upon voters, which he felt ought to be regulated by culture and not by the State). Of course, Trollope’s tendency towards nostalgia and loyalty to antiquated institutions is nowhere more evident than in his novels themselves. In The Warden, the first of his novels to achieve popular success, he is famously unable to take a side in a question of Church reform (the Church of England, is, of course, part of the government establishment of England), and is equally appreciative of both the beauty of the old ways of doing things and the seemingly inevitable practical necessity of adopting more utilitarian policies.

And if Phineas Finn, the handsome Irish member of Parliament, was not the most loyal in love, most of Trollope’s other heroes, such as Johnny Eames, Lord Lufton, and Frank Gresham, do stick by their ladies through thick and thin, and even Phineas finally does what Trollope couldn’t help but consider to be the right thing, and returns home to his Mary.

Trollope’s modern admirers have fallen into a great pitfall faced by lovers of literature, against which C.S. Lewis warns in Preface to Paradise Lost:

A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere L.C.M. is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself. If we are in search of the L.C.M. then, in every poem, we are tempted to treat as the most important those elements which belong to the L.C.M. which remain when we have finished the stripping-off process. But how if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief.

A common response to this argument is some formulation or other of the deconstructionist idea that what the author originally intended does not actually matter.  Lewis is dismissive of this objection in the introduction to one of his other books, The Discarded Image:

There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind which brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness,’ and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.

Lewis’ analogy may bring comfort to the contemporary journalists, as it illuminates yet another quality which they share with the great Victorian whom they admire: their literary attitude, like his general attitude, is profoundly insular and incurious.

As interested as we may be in perceiving an author’s original meaning, the option of not reading the books of an author whose perspective is profoundly distasteful to us, is, of course, always on the table. If Lucius Malfoy were gifted with the ability to tell a story as well as Trollope, and it was he who wrote the Chronicles of Barsetshire, many of us would probably opt not to read them. There are, however, qualities in Trollope’s work which have endeared him and which will continue to endear him, even to those who do not share his “gentle culture,” for generations to come. We do not necessarily possess these special qualities ourselves. We like them because we think think that they are good, and we think that Trollope is good because he has them.

He is one of the great English humorists, in the tradition of predecessors and contemporaries whom he admired, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Thackeray.  The haughty, loud, and domineering “female bishop,” Mrs. Proudie —  a recurring character, and one of Trollope’s most celebrated — is certainly at the receiving end of her fair share of clever quips and situational comedy, — for example, she is humiliated by a torn dress and forced to retreat just as she has worked herself up to a climax of rudeness and tyranny towards her guests — however, the  funniest thing about her is just,– herself, whether in action or at rest. She is so minutely described, realistic, and known, that the reader may sit back and simply bask in the unique idea of her. Many of Trollope’s more likable characters, such as the sweet and perplexed cleric, Mr. Harding, or the rigid but kind old mother and patron, Lady Lufton, are similarly amusing. They are amusing, just as every person in real life has an infinite potential to be amusing — whether intentionally or not — by virtue of his or her wild and beautiful idiosyncrasies.

The atmosphere of Trollope’s mind is very similar to that of Jane Austen’s: it is one of breezy, philosophical, happiness, punctuated by the occasional period of consternation or elation. It is not at all like the giddy highs and crashing lows of Shakespeare or Dickens, and still less like the solid, clever, pessimism of Thackeray.

The final quality of Trollope’s of which I wish to write is the hardest to describe, probably because, unlike the others, it is not at all common. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope’s capacity for really disliking other people — as groups or as individuals — was strong and vigorous. His dislike, however, though it pops up often enough, is, like all of his other feelings, not given to extreme expressions, and manifested by dry satire and sarcasm without a hint of vitriol or actual hatred. It is also tempered by true Charity, a concept which, as a gentleman and a Protestant, Trollope tended to favor more as a faith than as a work. This is how, in his Autobiography, he describes his feelings about the “killing” of Mrs. Proudie

It was with many misgivings that I killed my old friend… I have sometimes regretted the deed, so great was my delight in writing about Mrs. Proudie, so thorough was my knowledge of all the little shades of her character. It was not only that she was a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her; but that at the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors. And as her tyranny increased so did the bitterness of the moments of her repentance increase, in that she knew herself to be a tyrant,—till that bitterness killed her. Since her time others have grown up equally dear to me… but I have never dissevered myself from Mrs. Proudie, and still live much in company with her ghost.

As we read through Trollope’s novels, we often get the sense that he really loved even where he thoroughly disliked. Insular though he was, he was far removed from bigotry after all.