Sunday, February 16, 2014

Trollope and Thirkell's Barsetshires: Neo-Victorian Formalism and Racial Purity

       Formal criticism about Anthony Trollope's series fiction centers on its open-ended nature. Not only are his individual novels reticent about the generic conventions of the Victorian domestic novel, but the Barsetshire Chronicles and the Palliser Novels push formal innovations to an extreme. Ever the willing novelist, Trollope satisfies his readers' desire for marital resolution by deploying what Caroline Devers calls "embryo plots": half-realized plots accumulate only to fall aside as the desired, "natural" plot fulfills itself, achieving at best a contingent, near-Darwinian sense of an ending. Embryo plots, the series reader quickly realizes, stay half-born only so long. Characters pop up in new novels to "realize" plots laid long before. These novels as they delineate the social milieux of clergy, gentry, aristrocracy, and parliamentarians are ever fraught with invasions by other characters, from incursions from other territories. The Barsetshire Chronicle's  Old Duke on Omnium gossips about the Palliser novel's Lady Eustance and her stolen diamonds. Liberal Planty Palliser's Tory nemesis, Mr. Daubeny, sits for Barsetshire. Trollope's series fiction is always permeable.
      Despite wide-spread popularity throughout the '60's and '70's, Trollope's popularity precipirously declined after his death, reaching a nadir during the first world war.
      Enter Angela Thirkell.
      During the interwar period, Trollope's fiction underwent a resurregence. Part of a craze for of "South Counties England" -- the literary embodiments of which also comprise Austen, Hardy, and Shakespeare -- Trollope's series fiction, especially the Barsetshire novels, satisfied a British need for social cohesion under the creeping shadow of Nazism. In the Grantleys, Dales, Pallisers, and Finns of Trollope's fiction Britons found a common heritage, a common identity as strong as any provided by the great bard.
    Or so it would seem. Beginning with 1933's High Tide Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels resurrected the varied geneologies of Trollope's orginal fiction, placing decedents in an every changing Britain. The heirs of Omnium loved and lost across two world wars. The Grantleys steered Christian flocks through war and peace and war again. Thirkell's series is notable, however, not for the repetition of character names, but also for the continuance of constitutive Trollopian formal practices: near-contemporary chronicling and social milieux permeated with a cast of recurring characters.
   One could peg Thirkell as opportunisitc, a literary recyclist intent of quick returns. And of course, the same had been said of Trollope himself -- such a complaint famously drove Trollope to kill off the Barsetshire novel's Mrs. Proudie.
    Instead, Thirkell's recurrence to Trollope's recurring characters is a cagey neo-Victorian formalism. And hers is one with profound inplications for the nature of series fiction. If Trollope's own series novels were porous, and if such permeability was generated by the artfully self-referntial recurrence of characters, then Thirkell's Barset novels are as "authentic" as Trollope's.
   Imagine the reading experience of Thirkell's generation of series readers. Not only would they faithfully wait the latest contemporary installment (a reading practice little different from the Victorians' serial reading practice), but they would while their waiting with Trollope's novels. The oscillations between generations could have created a seemingly coherent history of English culture, a fictional continuity across three generations reassuring to a nation imperiled.
  Of course, Thirkell's expanded series served conservative, nativist desires. The continuity of racial (and class) bloodlines across multiple generations is, to a degree, a more staid version of the racial purity bellowed across the channel.

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