On Reading Trollope: Simple Pleasures & Managing Expectations

Bowling for Jane just met to discuss our second Trollope read, The Warden. (Our first was Barchester Towers. Why did we do that backwards? No one knows.) I think it’s safe to say that, as before, the reaction was mixed. Speaking only for those in attendance, no one in the room appeared to actually dislike the book, and some went so far as to like it very much indeed and perhaps (am I putting words in their mouths?) even to love it. But from those who didn’t appear to actually dislike it, well, there was still plenty of criticism.

I think I see the appeal of Trollope, although I’m not one who particularly likes him. The Warden was enjoyable in a (to me) surface sort of way. Good characters with nice complexities, very human without drastic extremes, sympathetic and understandable. There was nice writing, some humor, some pointed opinions. As one person said, it’s a book that pushes and nudges. It’s gentle. It doesn’t burn down the house with drama. And I can easily imagine that Trollope’s world becomes a familiar and comfortable one to sink into with the entire six novels of the Chronicles of Barsetshire at your disposal. Not to mention the other 40+ books he wrote.

But you won’t find me there.

I don’t think Trollope is Great. And I think that’s very, very okay! I also think that it’s good and important to admit that sometimes what we love isn’t masterful, groundbreaking, genius, etc. Let me go on record right now and say that I do not AT ALL read books I only consider to be Great. Like anyone else, I read for many different reasons.

The fault lies with me when it comes to my fairly neutral reaction to Trollope. You see, somehow he got built up in my mind as being better or more than he actually is. And what is he actually? A very good (and apparently efficient) author, who wrote a lot of books that people really liked to read. He’s agreeable, not particularly deep or challenging, and he’s really quite skilled at what he does. But it has its limits, and I think it’s fair to acknowledge that.

As I was thinking about Trollope, Barbara Pym came to mind as a decent comparison. I LOVE Barbara Pym. She has been described—not by me—as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. Like Austen, her novels are primarily about women and the domestic sphere. Middle-aged spinsters volunteer at the church, cook meals for curates, and contemplate love and marriage. She is funny and witty, and her social commentary can be biting but delivered in a manner that makes it palatable. But her writing lacks the depth of Austen’s. She is wonderful! But she is not great. Her characters and their worlds are delightful, but in all honesty, many of them have blurred together in my mind over time. I have recommended Barbara Pym to countless people, given her books as gifts, and I’ll continue to do so. Frankly, I think most Trollope lovers should give her a try! Just don’t try to make her out to be more than she actually is, and I think you’ll really, really like her.

Okay, Trollope fans. Let’s hear from you!

New Favorites

Yesterday I realized something pretty cool: In the past two months, I have read three of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. This would be amazing in any case, but it’s particularly exciting to me because I’ve lived with the (somewhat reasonable) fear that I’ve maybe already read all the books that I will ever truly, deeply love. I’m so glad that fear is unfounded! So, in the order in which I read them:

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This H_is_for_Hawk_(Macdonald_novel)book was on my wish list (my literal Amazon wish list, in fact) ever since it was first published in 2014 and I read review after incredible review. Michelle gave it to me for my birthday, and it lived up to all my expectations. And not just mine–it’s won tons of awards.

Primarily a memoir, the book details the year or so after the sudden death of the author’s father. It follows the evolution of both her grief and her relationship with a young goshawk (Mabel) she purchases and begins to train. At the same time, there is more than a hint of biography as Macdonald weaves in the story of author T.H. White’s (The Once and Future King) failed efforts to train his own goshawk, Gos, which tells more than a little about the man. And it is part nature-writing. The books combines these three genres in a really unusual and beautiful way. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like it.

There is an immediacy to Macdonald’s writing that drew me in from the first. There is urgency, rawness, a spareness of words. I utterly loved this book and cannot think of a single person I know who I would not recommend it to.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

downloadThis is the first Neil Gaiman novel I’ve ever read. It was so perfect, I’ll probably never read another. It’s an adult fantasy, but one that I am eager to read with my children. It is short. In it, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and remembers events that occurred there when he was seven years old. But most of the story is told from his point of view as a seven-year-old. It is terrifying in all the best and right ways, I think, that stories of magic and fantasy should be dark and frightening. Parts of it have a dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality. I can only tell you that at the end of the book, as I was turning pages and wanting everything that was happening while not wanting it to end, my heart felt bigger.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

download (1)This was my second attempt at reading this book, which comes so highly recommended it’s a little ridiculous, and I’m so glad I made the effort! It had a few things working against it. Namely, it was gigantic. I don’t mean it was too long; I mean it was too big! At more than 800 pages, it’s huge, heavy, and difficult to carry around. You can’t read it in bed; you can’t hold it one hand while you read; and people are so impressed with its size that they constantly interrupt your reading to ask you about it! Apparently, it can now be purchased in three volumes.

It takes place in the Regency period, during the Napoleonic Wars, in an England in which magic is real. Strike two. I don’t generally like magical realism, it makes me feel uneasy. But! Clarke has given her magical England an entire history with a set of rules. This depth makes it feel almost like a plausible setting, and the structure helps to define it. Within this world it is fairly clear what is possible, what isn’t, and what is at stake. After I’d figured this out, at about 100 pages in, I was pretty much in love.

The writing style is kind of like Austen. There is wit and social commentary. There is also a strong narrative voice. There are well-drawn characters. I loved it. It is intimidating and smart and imaginative. She needs all those pages to do what she’s doing with this story, and it is so tightly constructed.

I wish I was still reading this damn book! Fortunately, it sounds like she was writing another that takes place a few years after. Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took ten years to write, and the second one has been delayed due to illness. At least there’s the BBC series to enjoy in the meantime.

Also? John Childermass is my new boyfriend:

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Childermass (ENZO CILENTI) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

The Heart of the Matter

I was reminded yesterday of this quote from Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, which we just read in our book group: “Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful, one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast.”

Pity is one of two topics I was left feeling like I wanted to discuss more. Greene speaks so often of pity in this book. Consider these two quotes:

“The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?”

“He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.”

I had an easy time relating to many of the emotional states of the book, but this one still evades me. Is there another word for pity that would help? Responsibility? Concern? Compassion? None of those are it, but I wonder how else to describe what he’s saying.

The other part of Graham Greene that I didn’t get to talk about enough was his masterful language. So many fantastic lines. Perhaps Scobie was not realistic. But this line from him is amazing: “I’ve lost the trick of trust.”

My favorite little part of a sentence was, “…happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness…”

And finally, the Writer’s Almanac two days ago featured the poem “The Heart of the Matter” by Dana Gioia. The heart of the matter seems to me to be poetry itself but I wonder if Graham Greene coined the term? I’m too lazy to look it up right now but maybe we can find that answer together.

So there you have it: pity, Graham Greene’s terrific lines, and the heart of the matter itself. Discuss!

Another look at the 2013 JASNA AGM, Minneapolis

Michelle has done so much justice to our JASNA AGM experience in Minneapolis, it’s not even funny. It was an amazing four days away from it all—so much so that we didn’t even usually bother to stop and recall that we were, indeed, away from it all. We were just there, immersed in all things Austen, all things Pride and Prejudice, and it was great.

Like Michelle, I came away with two things at the forefront of my mind: 1) I am only a fan and avid reader and lover of Jane Austen; I do not approach the level of serious, scholarly, and academic thought that goes into a real and deep study of her novels, although I desperately admire it and have just enough knowledge to be excited by it; and 2) Jane Austen is even more awesome than I realized. I suppose we’ve become very used to her. Her novels and the film/mini-series adaptations of them are a sort of comfort food for me, and she and her characters have been embraced by contemporary culture. That in no way diminishes what she does, and I now stand more in awe of it than ever. I can maybe imagine that her stories don’t speak to everyone—really, I can try to imagine that—but her writing is genius. Trust me, it just is. Or better yet, don’t trust me, trust John Mullan!

The plenary speakers were all so incredible, they alone would have been worth the trip. On top of that, I enjoyed several break-out sessions on array of topics including: performing to strangers, the militia in Austen’s time, Charlotte’s back parlor, and what was the matter with Anne de Bourgh. I don’t want to go into too much detail about any of these, but I think a taste of each is in order.

Performing to Strangers: Being, Seeming, and Courting in Pride and Prejudice. This was a good talk with a lively Q&A at the end. It’s going to stick in my mind, however, as the paper read by Ted Scheinman in place of his mother, Deborah Knuth Klenck, who had broken her leg and couldn’t attend. Fortunately, Ted is a British literature scholar, and he gamely read his mother’s paper—and ably responded to questions about it—including all the pronouns as they had been originally written. I recall a memorable opening line about when he was a young girl, and a passage near the end about his worries of one day becoming a dowager trying to marriage off her children… Highly amusing. Or perhaps I’m just simple.

“I liked a red coat myself very well—and indeed, so I do still at my heart”: The Role of the Militia in Pride and Prejudice. Blame the fact that I woke up at 3am, or that I’d already been to the opening session and one breakout session, but I can’t recall a lot of detail on this one. I found it really interesting at the time! But it’s all left my head. I can tell you that there was a much higher proportion of men in the room for this particular talk.

Charlotte Settles in the Back Parlor: Her “pleasantest preservative from want”. I quite like Charlotte Lucas/Charlotte Collins. In fact, I find her practical outlook on life easier to relate to, in some ways, than the impetuous idealism of Elizabeth Bennet. And we are meant to sympathize with Charlotte, her plight, and her actions. Elizabeth condemns her choice, but the author and the reader do not—or not so strongly. Her situation was all too familiar and realistic. One interesting point of the talk was how Charlotte devalued herself with her pursuit and acceptance of Mr. Collins—something Elizabeth would never have done. And we must, of course, never forget that poor Charlotte has to sleep with Mr. Collins. I don’t know why it’s important to say that, it just is.

What’s the Matter with Anne de Bourgh? This was, by far, my favorite break-out session, and it was presented by a three-person panel, each of whom had different theories on what was the matter with Anne de Bourgh. The first suggestion was rheumatic fever, which affected many young girls and could have been the cause of many of her physical symptoms—to the degree that we can identify them (thin, small, pale, sickly, cross). The second was that she is proud and rude and the luxury of being “ill” is a mark of her social class. She is, after all, seen talking to people she is close to, just not to Elizabeth. The third is that she suffered from childhood depression which, as she grew older, became situational depression—the situation being her mother. This was such a fascinating talk, and there’s no way I describe it all, so if you want to know more, just ask me! One of my favorite suggestions was that perhaps Anne de Bourgh uses her illness—real or imagined—as a way to escape her planned marriage to Mr. Darcy. After all, she is wealthy and will inherent (no entailment away from the female line in her family), and she has no need to marry at all. Perhaps she does not wish to—not even to Mr. Darcy!!

Before I wrap this up—and I’ve gone on too long already—I wanted to mention The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The closing session featured several people involved with the creation of that Emmy Award-winning project, a modernized Pride and Prejudice that aired 100 short YouTube segments and took place across a variety of social media platforms, including: facebook, twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and many others. (You don’t have to use any other social media platforms to follow it, although they enhance the stories and the characters.) I watched a handful of episodes when I got back, and they’re engaging enough, but I doubt I’ll end up watching the entire thing. I can see, however, that the appeal might really rest in its immediacy—kind of like reality television—and the project has now been over for several months.

But! We are in luck. Tomorrow, October 7 is the start date for Emma Approved, a similar project updating…Emma. I think I’ll check it out. Agree or disagree with their version, I assure you that the creators are very thoughtful about the decisions they make with these beloved stories and characters.

I am now extremely excited about Montreal in 2014! Mansfield Park. So get your outfits ready! We will have SO much fun.

Photos: white soup, regency dress

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