The Poetics of Pilewort

It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it, in fact, something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough.

–Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

In a footnote to “To the Small Celandine,” Wordsworth observes that “it is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse.” The subtext of Wordsworth’s comment is that he is not really surprised by the fact that “vain” poets ignore the small celandine: it is an “unassuming” weed, “careless of its neighborhood,” and its beauty was appreciated exclusively by the “thrifty cottager,” until Wordsworth himself came along. A more clearly articulated dismissal of the artificiality and snobbery of his predecessors can be found in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Surely, however, no sane person,–least of all Wordsworth, who admired Shakespeare–would include Shakespeare in a general accusation against the snobbery of poets. So, despite the subtext of the footnote, there must be some other explanation for the omission of this flower from older poetry.

Perhaps earlier poets’ neglect of this flower can be partially explained by the previous footnote, in which Wordsworth carefully informs his readers that the small celandine is none other than “the common pilewort.”  Shakespeare is more likely to write poetry about the medicinal virtues and symbolism of herbs and flowers than about their “pleasant faces.” His “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” is echoed by the matter of fact Culpeper, who informs us that rosemary “helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses.” In his description of Eden, Milton (who was also admired by Wordsworth) vaguely mentions “flowers of all hue” and “without thorn the rose,” but it is to a magical healing plant in another poem that he devotes a painstaking, Worsdsworthian description: “a small unsightly root,/ But of divine effect…The leaf was darkish, and had prickles on it/But in another country…Bore a bright golden flowre…” If Shakespeare had chosen to write about pilewort, he would probably have incorporated it into a satirical poem or a comedic scene, and it is difficult to imagine Milton writing anything either indecorous or mundane enough to warrant a specific pilewort reference.

Macaulay remarks that, while rugged scenery is–unlike a certain pretty, medicinal weed–present in pre-Romantic literature, it is consistently regarded with distaste.

In the south of our island scarcely any thing was known about the Celtic part of Scotland; and what was known excited no feeling but contempt and loathing. The crags and the glens, the woods and the waters, were indeed the same that now swarm every autumn with admiring gazers and stretchers…Goldsmith was one of the very few Saxons who, more than a century ago, ventured to explore the Highlands. He was disgusted by the hideous wilderness, and declared that he greatly preferred the charming country round Leyden, the vast expanse of verdant meadow, and the villas with their statues and grottoes, trim flower beds, and rectilinear avenues. Yet it is difficult to believe that the author of The Traveller and of The Deserted Village was naturally inferior in taste and sensibility to the thousands of clerks and milliners who are now thrown into raptures by the sight of Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond. His feelings may easily be explained. It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers, till there was as little danger of being slain or plundered in the wildest defile of Badenoch or Lochaber as in Cornhill, that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of the lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.

Although Macaulay’s explanation is sensible and cannot be completely discarded, I wonder whether it accounts for the full story. Wordsworth, in particular, writes not only about the beauty of nature, but also about the awe and danger sometimes associated with it. For example, regarding the mountains in the part of England in which he grew up, he attests that

…images of danger and distress,
Man suffering among awful Powers and Forms;
Of this I heard, and saw enough to make
Imagination restless; nor was free
Myself from frequent perils; nor were tales
Wanting,—the tragedies of former times,
Hazards and strange escapes, of which the rocks
Immutable and overflowing streams,
Where’er I roamed, were speaking monuments.

In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis outlines an entire web of associations and beliefs about the natural and metaphysical world(s) which were held by medieval and early modern people. This web had, at some point between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, come undone. Isn’t it possible that it was this same gradual stripping of associations and the substitution of new ones which helped to free Wordsworth to write about plants without alluding to their planetary influences or their medicinal uses, as well as to allow him and and his contemporaries to appreciate the beauties of the wild Scottish landscape? Although Wordsworth still associated mountains with danger, the habit of disregarding old poetical and aesthetic conventions and creating new ones led him to appreciate their beauty as well.

Of course Wordsworth may be thinking about his more immediate predecessors when he wonders at the neglect of the small celandine. Poets such as Erasmus Darwin had continued the Renaissance tradition of involvement in all disciplines of gentle study,–including philosophy, art, and natural science–while, like Goethe, adapting their scientific mindset to the post-Bacon era. Instead of referencing the four humors, angelology, or herbs to expel evil spirits, this group of eighteenth century poets tends to describe natural phenomena in minute detail and reference Linnaean classifications. Wordsworth adopts these poets’ interest in nature for its own sake as well as the descriptive style of their “empirical” poetry, but drops their scientific pretensions. It may be that members of this school actually did neglect the small celandine because of their snobbish tendencies.

It is clear from a few lines in The Borderers that Wordsworth himself was keenly aware of the changes in attitudes which had occurred within the previous few centuries. When Marmaduke asks Oswald whether he prefers roses, poppies, or nightshade, Oswald replies that he prefers “that which, while it is strong to destroy, is also strong to heal.” I think that this line, which occurs early in the play, together with a dense volley of references to “saints,” “masses,” “Mary” etc. in the first act, serves to set the historical scene–the story is supposed to take place in the thirteenth century.

In addition to freedom from the old associations, another factor which would have made it easier for Wordsworth to pay attention to the small celandine is his specialist attitude towards poetry, which he discusses in his preface to Lyrical Ballads.

 If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

While the well-rounded Renaissance poets and those who come just after them are pleased to dispense dietary advice and share their views about the natural world, Wordsworth sharply defines himself as a poet, in contrast to a man of science. While he and his successors do, as he had predicted, grapple with the outcomes of science, they do so as outsiders. If Wordsworth had been a doctor, like Vaughan, or even an amateur medicine enthusiast, like Shakespeare, it might have been difficult for him to keep his interests in plants’ uses from boiling over into his poetry (medical herbs did not fall out of widespread use until the early twentieth century). Because Wordsworth was a specialist, he labored under no such difficulty.




Bowlby on C.S. Lewis

In Loss, the third volume in his series on attachment, John Bowlby makes an interesting connection between an account of disordered mourning in the diary C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife and Lewis’s description of the nature of his earliest loss in his autobiography. Bowlby writes that Lewis’s account of mourning as an adult “strongly suggests a man whose feeling life had become to a great degree inhibited and suppressed during childhood and who had grown up, as a result, to be intensely introspective…The passages following are striking…”

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy…you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away…

Is it…the very intensity of longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel like we are staring into a vacuum…? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

Bowlby continues:

To anyone who approaches problems of mourning from [the point of view of attachment theory] certain inferences regarding how Lewis’s parents had responded to him when, as a child, he was distressed and sought comfort will be obvious; and some confirmation of these inferences is to be found in his autobiography. Not only did his mother die of cancer when he was nine and a half, but his father, always temperamental, became so distraught that he was in no state to comfort his two grieving sons. On the contrary, he alienated them: “he spoke wildly and unjustly…With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Lewis would probably have appreciated Bowlby’s insight. Over a decade before the occurrences described in his mourning diary, Lewis had written

We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.

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.”

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.