Thursday, September 15, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Trollope Ices Favorite Reader Character)

Sept. 15, 1866—Anthony Trollope, well into the serialization of his latest novel, overheard two readers carping about one of his most popular characters. Now in her fifth book, Mrs. Proudie, the domineering wife of the Bishop of Barchester, struck this pair of clergymen as tiresome and clichéd. The big, bearded, bellowing author walked across the drawing room of the Atheneum Club to assure the astonished ministers that he would “go home and kill her before the week is over.” And so he did.

One of the most feared mob hit men was nicknamed “The Ice Man” for his lack of emotion in dispatching victims. I’m afraid that many Victorians felt that one of their favorite authors had displayed similar callousness toward a character they looked forward to reading about in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

Trollope would not be the last Victorian author to kill off a popular character. When Arthur Conan Doyle tired of Sherlock Holmes, he sent the detective hurtling off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, helplessly entangled in a seemingly fatal fall with arch-villain Professor Moriarty.

But the manner of the passing allowed Doyle to revive his creation when readers demanded Holmes’ return: The fall, it was revealed nearly a decade later, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, had all been staged for Dr. Watson’s benefit, to allow his friend to evade Moriarty’s still-at-large, dangerous confederates.

No such plausible way out existed for Trollope: The death of Mrs. Proudie was irrevocable, the result of a heart attack. Her demise robbed readers of coming to grips with the kind of domineering, annoying, but all-too-human character they were likely to encounter in real life. 

Trollope had enjoyed a highly popular run with his series about the imaginary county of Barset (which previously had included The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage and The Small House at Allington). But Mrs. Proudie possesses such intrinsic power—a moral busybody still utterly convinced that her actions will benefit her more restrained husband, Dr. Proudie—that her end can lead to only one logical conclusion: the last installment of this novel sequence.

What made Mrs. Proudie so compelling? It strikes me that certain aspects of Trollope’s gift for characterization are shared by Leo Tolstoy. In Anna Karenina, for instance, the Russian sets the stage for the title character's infidelity by contrasting her warmth and spontaneity with the cold-blooded intelligence and ironic speech of her husband Alexei, then tops it off with a detail that captures perfectly why she now finds him tiresome: he cracks his knuckles.  Yet, when she appears to be on her deathbed, Tolstoy allows Alexei an unexpected dimension: the cuckold forgives Anna for her adultery.

With Mrs. Proudie, Trollope employed similar details. In church, she wears a “dark brown silk dress of awful stiffness and terrible dimensions.” But at the moment when her husband turns on her with the most awful words he has ever expressed in their marriage—“You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head”—Trollope plumbs her psyche to allow a moment of sympathy:

“At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife. And yet she had meant to be a pattern wife! She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided! She had sufficient insight to the minds and feelings of those around her to be aware of this. And now her husband had told her that her tyranny to him was so overbearing that he must throw up his great position, and retire to an obscurity that would be exceptionally disgraceful to them both, because he could no longer endure the public disgrace which her conduct brought upon him in his high place before the world! Her heart was too full for speech; and she left him, very quietly closing the door behind her.”

How hasty and impulsive exactly was Trollope’s decision to knock off Mrs. Proudie? Perhaps the seeds of his decision had been planted for awhile: The Saturday Review, for instance, had made a complaint similar to the two clergymen’s when Framley Parsonage and The Small House at Allington appeared. 

But the novelist could certainly have set the stage for his nasty surprise a bit better. Readers did not even know, for instance, that Mrs. Proudie even had a heart condition before her fatal attack. Moreover, the bishop has already endured so much at the hands of his wife that this breaking point here seems anti-climactic.

In a prior appreciation of Trollope on his 200th birthday, I discussed how the novelist hurt his critical standing by revealing his working method in his Autobiography (writing three hours each day before breakfast, itemizing how many words and pages he produced each hour as well as how much he was paid for his various works). I’m afraid that his discussion in the same memoir of how he came to dispatch Mrs. Proudie reinforced this critical disdain. What careful artist could be so thoughtless as to kill off a character on the mere say-so of two people he overheard in a London men’s club? 

Even the author came to feel pangs of regret over his decision: “I have never dissevered myself from Mrs. Proudie,” he wrote a decade later, “and still live much in company with her ghost.”

No matter how much he rued that decision, however, Trollope was prepared for similar ruthlessness toward a major female character—one a good deal more beloved than Mrs. Proudie—in his next series of books. At the start of the sixth novel in his “Palliser” series, The Duke’s Children, readers learn that Lady Glencora Palliser, the vivacious wife of the reticent politician the Duke of Omnium, has died. 

While the decision to eliminate her from the series allowed Trollope to explore different dramatic possibilities—i.e., how the Duke would cope alone with the coming of age of their three children without her mediation and sympathy—it came at a cost that his most devoted readers could hardly bear.

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