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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green on Friends, the modern successor to the Victorian multi-part novel. Wonder what a degree in British literature helps you do? Write sitcoms. Ross and Rachel is what you call the "A" plot, or the equivalent to the Louis/Emily Trevelyan


He Knew He Was Right
by Anthony Trollope
p. 1869
Oxford World's Classics 2008
foreword/notes by John Sutherland

 Anthony Trollope seems like an impossibly prolific author.  He Knew He Was Right- which is 930 pages flat in a standard paperback format- was only one of two novels that he published in 1869 alone. The other, Phineas Finn, also made it onto the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, as did the Last Chronicle of Barset (1867).

  I'm interested in the way Audiences receive the work of prolific Artists, and Trollope wrote in a well documented era where criticism had begun to assume some of its modern forms, so I went ahead and picked up the excellent Anthony Trollope: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Smalley- part of the The Critical Heritage Series by Routledge & Kegan Paul.  This book collects the various reviews of all of Trollope's many, many novels. I was curious to see if contemporary critics had a similar response to Trollope in 1869 as I did in 2013.

  It seems to me that the pleasures and depth of a prolific Artist are something that can only be fully appreciated with the passage of time.  For example, lets say a musician puts out two soundtracks, two EPs and an LP during a calendar year.  The Audience: critics and general audience alike, will focus on the LP because that is the work that is most in sync with the needs of the marketplace.  Let's say the other four releases are ignored.  Then the LP is released and hailed as a masterpiece- it seems to me like then the Audience size for the other ignored releases increases and then over time there is the potential for a level of growth until the Audience size for each work is roughly equal.

  For someone interested in these questions, Anthony Trollope is a fertile field of inquiry since he was both incredibly prolific and well documented. One irony that I've noticed from reading the 2013 opinions about Trollope vs. 1869 opinions is that today Trollope is regarded as being psychologically astute in terms of his character development, whereas in 1869, critics complained that his characters were unrealistic and that he dwelt on the surface instead of diving to deeper motivations. (1)

  Critical notices in the 1860s and 1870s were unsigned- none of the reviews in The Critical Heritage volume contain by-lines.   The condescending attitude of Victorian society towards journalism itself is embedded in the very plot of He Knew He Was Right.  He Knew He Was Right is an example of the "multi-plot Victorian Novel."  The nearest analogue today is the structure of a network sitcom or hour long drama where you have an "A" story, a "B" story and/or "C" and "D" stories among a group of inter-connected characters.

  Here, the "A" story is that of the Trevelyans: She, a young bride who grew up in the British colonial Empire, he a wealthy lord: Emily and Louis.  Louis becomes obsessed over Emily's relationship with an old friend of her father and his degeneration into insanity and the impact it has on Emily is the main plot.
Courteney Cox as Monica on Friends, Monica/Chandler was the "B" story on Friends.  Sitcoms are the spiritual and stylistic successor of the Victorian Multi Plot novel, of which He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope is an excellent example.



 However the "B" story is the relationship between Hugh Stanbury and Nora, Emily's sister.  Stanbury is an old buddy of Louis Trevelyan.  Unfortunately he decides to be a journalist instead of a lawyer and is therefore "unsuitable" to marry Nora.  Mind you, this takes 930 pages to play itself out.

 There is also a "C" story that shows up pretty late in the game, which is the marriage of Charles Glascock, an unsuccessful early suitor of Nora to Caroline Spalding: An American. Caroline and her American counter parts are, to my knowledge, the first such depictions of American chicks marrying British lords in literature.

  Oh and a "D" story involving yet another marriage.  930 pages!

  Summaries of He Knew He Was Right typically focus on the "A" plot but that's like saying that Friends was simply about Ross and Rachel: Sure, their on again, off again relationship was the undisputed highlight of that show, but it wasn't the only story line.  Monica and Chandler?  Joey and no one?


NOTES

(1)  "His writings have no aesthetic purpose; they mean nothing more than they say; they are not written at the reader; the author thinks of nothing but how his work may be made a correct copy, complete and minute; he looks at human nature as a man looks out of a window, painting exactly what he sees, up the exact square of a pane." - Unsigned notice, The Times, published August 26th 1869, pg.4  published in Anthony Trollope: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Smalley- part of the The Critical Heritage Series by Routledge & Kegan Paul

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