And what better way to celebrate than with Trollope’s Barchester Towers? (And Oliver Twist, too.)
It’s actually been a few weeks since I finished reading it, but I only got around just now to taking notes on it, and it’s frightening how much I forgot in that time. I’m terrible at taking notes, and generally rely on my imperfect memory with the internet as my supplément. It works, most of the time, but probably not such a good idea for the orals!
One of the things I forgot was how much one paragraph of John Sutherland’s introduction to the OUP edition influenced my decision to switch the theme of my Victorian fiction list to Past and Present. Here’s the nicely phrased passage in question:

The cathedral–as we take our leave of it–is still ruled over by Bishop and Mrs Proudie (who, as Trollope says, wears the invisible apron). But the Dean is now an arch-Conservative and becoming , as we hurry over the last few paragraphs, higher and dryer by the minute. And deans, as Trollope stresses… have immense independence. It is, finally, stalemate: new bishop versus reactionary dean, evangelical versus Tractarian, Whig versus Tory, Present versus Past. A typical Trollopian conclusion, that is, in which much is ventilated and nothing is concluded.

For Sutherland, this ambivalence is distinctly Trollopian; he contrasts it with Dickens’ complete lack of “any nostalgia for worn-out social machinery,” for example. The larger argument, though, that I’ve been thinking of is that Trollope’s ambivalent treatment of the past and its institutions is actually foundational to the Victorian worldview, including Dickens’, of course. Not an earth-shattering hypothesis by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s interesting to think of the different ways in which this ambivalence manifests itself. In Barchester Towers, Trollope does it through bitchy satire, poking fun at both present and past. Dickens could critique old “worn-out social machinery”–recall the dummy books he had installed at Gad’s Hill Place, The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: I Ignorance, II Superstition, III The Block, IV The Stake, V The Rack, VI Dirt, and VII Disease–in addition to more contemporary phenomena, such as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment condemned in Oliver Twist (1837-1838). This latter book, which I’ve finished reading more recently, tends to conform to the straightforward trope of the corrupt city of the present and the pristine country of the past. I’m thinking in particular of a set-piece apostrophe to the countryside:

Who can describe the pleasure and delight, the peace of mind and soft tranquillity, the sickly boy felt in the balmy air, and among the green hills and rich woods, of an inland village! Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.

But if countryside-as-Platonic-Ideal tends to valorize the past at the expense of the “crowded, pent-up streets” of the present, it’s not like the novel’s London looks much like the industrial cities in the Condition-of-England novels of the next decade; there seems to be a conscious evocation of eighteenth-century lowlife (the subtitle “A Parish-Boy’s Progress” pays homage to Hogarth). And it’s not like the pre-Poor-Law baby farm Oliver was raised in was vastly superior to the post-Poor-Law orphanage he’s then brought to.
In my last post, I speculated on parallels between present and past of both the macrocosmic society and the microcosmic individual. In both Barchester and Oliver, amid the bitchy and social satire (respectably), there are small glimpses of an open-ended melancholy far more textured than provincial nostalgia. This is Trollope’s Arabin:

He had, as it were, proclaimed himself to be indifferent to promotion, and those who chiefly admired his talents, and would mainly have exerted themselves to secure to them their deserved reward, had taken him at his work. And now, if the truth must out, he felt himself disappointed–disappointed not by them but by himself. The daydream of his youth was over, and at the age of forty he felt that he was not fit to work in the spirit of an apostle. He had mistaken himself, and learned his mistake when it was past remedy.

And this is Dickens’ Brownlow:

After musing for some minutes, the old gentleman walked, with the same meditative face, into a back ante-room opening from the yard; and there, retiring into a corner, called up before his mind’s eye a vast amphitheatre of faces over which a dusky curtain had hung for many years. “No,” said the old gentleman, shaking his head; “it must be imagination.”
He wandered over them again. He had called them into view, and it was not easy to replace the shroud that had so long concealed them. There were the faces of friends, and foes, and of many that had been almost strangers peering intrusively from the crowd; there were the faces of young and blooming girls that were now old women; there were faces that the grave had changed and closed upon, but which the mind, superior to its power, still dressed in their old freshness and beauty, calling back the lustre of the eyes, the brightness of the smile, the beaming of the soul through its mask of clay, and whispering of beauty beyond the tomb, changed but to be heightened, and taken from earth only to be set up as a light, to shed a soft and gentle glow upon the path to Heaven.
But the old gentleman could recall no one countenance of which Oliver’s features bore a trace. So, he heaved a sigh over the recollections he had awakened; and being, happily for himself, an absent old gentleman, buried them again in the pages of the musty book.

Maybe what’s important in thinking about past and present isn’t so much which is the winner, but the linking of retrospection (individual and social) with subjectivity (or national identity). (I’m thinking of Hegel, here, but I’m too tired to work it out in more detail right now.)
Oh yes, and note that things work out well after Arabin’s mid-life crisis and for the old bachelor Brownlow. I don’t think these Trollope and Dickens would be so kind to a female character who thought these things.

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