Crusoe was a gentleman

John Sutherland

  • The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct by Shirley Letwin
    Macmillan, 303 pp, £15.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 333 31209 0
  • The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel by Robin Gilmour
    Allen and Unwin, 208 pp, £10.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 04 800005 1

This year brings the centenary of Trollope’s death. On the whole, the anniversary has been taken calmly by his countrymen: with far less celebration than, for instance, George Eliot received in 1980. There is to be no British Library exhibition (although they hold significant manuscripts); no plaque in the Abbey (although Trollope was more devout than the other novelist); no portrait stamp, no commemorative pillar-box at Waltham Cross. Perhaps the Surtees Society will do something for ‘the novelist who hunted the fox’.

It would be a mistake to surmise from this that Trollope’s actual fiction has gone the oblivious way of Surtees’s, or Mrs Oliphant’s or Charles Lever’s. The Penguin English Library, the Dover reprint series and the new paperback World’s Classics have returned an impressive number of the 47 novels to print. A new and complete edition of the letters (edited by N. John Hall) is about to take over from Bradford Booth’s handy but imperfect single volume. A new and definitive biography (by Hall again) is in hand. And there has been an astonishing number of monographs and hardbacked collections of essays on Trollope in the last five years. I guess that he is currently the most commented on of all the major mid-Victorian novelists. As surprising as the quantity of this commentary is the diversity of critical approach. Trollope would seem, in Frank Kermode’s phrase, a ‘patient’ author, capable of absorbing all new lines of analysis. As well as orthodox readings of a literary-critical or literary-historical kind which the subject could himself have read without perplexity (for example, those by P. D. Edwards, Arthur Pollard, John Halperin, R. C. Terry, Geoffrey Harvey), there are structuralist analyses (for example, Walter Kendrick’s and, in a less doctrinaire manner, James Kincaid’s) and commentary with a feminist slant (by Juliet McMaster, for instance).

Shirley Letwin’s book arrives in this busy field of study indicatively titled The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct. Given Trollope’s world view, it’s a solid theme and, up to 1982, one which had not been dealt with at full length. The vacancy was evidently noticed elsewhere, for in the same season there has appeared another book on the subject: Robin Gilmour’s The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. Gilmour’s thesis can usefully be outlined for the contrast it makes with Letwin. In a wide-ranging and lively survey he considers the idea of gentlemanliness in two illuminatingly large contexts. First is a literary tradition, of which the main span extends from Thackeray to ‘the lesser Thackeray’ – Trollope. He refines an argument originally put forward by Gordon Ray: that Thackeray’s great project in fiction was to ‘redefine’ the gentlemanly ideal for a middle-class Victorian ethos. Historically, Gilmour sees the Victorian preoccupation with gentlemanliness (and its derivative, ‘manliness’) as signalling the transference of ruling power from the landowning and aristocratic élite to the Trollope-reading classes. The transfer culminated in the public school, an ideological apparatus which Gilmour conceives as a factory system for the reproduction of little Victorian gents. So efficient was the schools’ ‘common, shaping ritual of education’ that they fatally cheapened the product.

For Letwin, the Trollopian idea of gentlemanliness is to be put neither in a historical nor in a literary setting. She admits no such dependencies. Gentlemanliness is a ‘moral practice’ – not an ideal celebrated in literature, nor an ideology generated by the historical conjuncture. ‘There is nothing in the nature of a gentleman that makes him dependent on circumstances,’ she maintains. Gentlemanliness is primarily ‘a state of mind’. This state she terms ‘moral’. The vocabulary is specialised (and not my specialism), but by this she means that the gentleman is not ‘self-divided’ – not, that is, torn between reason and emotion, the ideal and the actual. For the Trollopian gentleman-hero, there is no oscillation between the here and now and the remote and what should be: the world is of a piece. The benightedly self-divided are, by contrast, ‘like people locked in a dispute about whether a ball is round or red because they think that redness and roundness cannot exist together’.

Two points can be made here. First is that Letwin is standing on its head an old-fashioned critical reading of Trollope with which, since she doesn’t mention it, I assume she may not be familiar. This conceives Trollope as the prime example of the Victorian ‘divided mind’, as it is called. Secondly, Letwin’s argument (if one accepted it) would explain the drastic slump in Trollope’s reputation immediately after his death in 1882. The novelist lost his standing when the English mind (whose sustaining ‘gentlemanliness’ he embodied) became ‘self-divided’.

The years during which Trollope became a popular novelist saw the spread in England of a new way of thinking. By the Seventies and Eighties, the last decade of Trollope’s life, it had become common in intellectual circles to denigrate English achievements. Her philosophers were found to have produced nothing but partial and superficial schemes which did not even aspire to give a coherent view of the universe and revealed nothing, as Carlyle charged, ‘about our mysterious relations to Time and Space, to God and the Universe’ ... once profundity came to mean a disdain for mortality, the ill repute of English writers was bound to follow.

The decline of Trollope’s critical fortunes coincides for Letwin with a national loss of direction in the 1880s – a result of the ‘division’ of the English moral consciousness. (Materialists like Eric Hobsbawm have, of course, put it down to such things as German supremacy in steel production.) The kernel of chauvinism at the heart of Letwin’s book – which asserts that if Britain had cleaved to the old monistic Trollopian ways we should still be great – has earned her applause from Peregrine Worsthorne and Telegraph reviewers. Her contentions are less easy for the student of literature or the more orthodox Trollopian to swallow. It is not just novel items of vocabulary that one has to strain at. The whole language and orientation of the discussion is unusual. ‘This is a philosophical study,’ the author informs us: a claim which has surely never before been made for an ostensible commentary on Trollope’s novels. ‘Gentlemanliness’ is set up, not as a historically specific code, nor functionally as an etiquette, nor as a hobby-horse of Trollope’s (which incidentally it was), but on the same plane as ‘existentialism’ or ‘stoicism’ might be treated. Conditioned by the disciplines of another subject, Letwin habitually does things which are not just strange but barbarous by the conventions of literary criticism. Take her use of the past imperfect tense in the following passage about The Vicar of Bullhampton:

At the centre of the story is the attitude of the vicar, Frank Fenwick, to the fallen girl. He was a clergyman who often wondered about the nature of his duties. Though he believed that there was nothing so hateful as the constant interference of a self-constituted adviser, that seemed to be what a clergyman had to do. Worse still was his consciousness of inconsistency when on the one hand he warned his parishioners of the everlasting fires that awaited sinners, while on the other hand he told them to believe in God’s mercy.

The form that Letwin adopts here and everywhere in her book suggests that Fenwick is a historical personage. Ever since L.C. Knights was so scathing about Bradley and Lady Macbeth’s children, every English Literature undergraduate has been wary of that trap.

There are other discordances in Letwin’s book. Her belief, for instance, that gentlemen are as asexual as angels. Thus she can write, ‘in Lizzie Eustace, Trollope drew the perfect antipode of a gentleman,’ or: ‘the most perfect gentleman in Trollope’s novels is Madame Max Goesler.’ It’s not a way of talking that Trollope himself would have been happy with. He admits in The Prime Minister that ‘gentleman’ is a ‘difficult word’ and needs to be used with ‘unexpressed allowances for possible exceptions’. But this allowance does not extend to subordinating the attributes of a wellbred woman (a distinct ideal type for the novelist and his age) to those of her sexual partner. For Trollope, to juggle with Letwin’s definitions, the ‘perfect antipode’ to Lizzie would certainly have been Madame Max: not because she was the better gentleman, but because she was the finer lady.

And yet, when she is not forcing paradoxes, Letwin comes closer to defining the essence of Trollopian gentlemanliness than anyone I have read. For Trollope, the ‘perfect gentleman’ (as he says in the Autobiography) is represented in Thackeray’s Colonel Newcome. In his study of Thackeray (1879 – it’s not a book Letwin notices) Trollope specifies this ‘grace of character’, describing the Colonel’s pathetic end as an almsman of Grey Friars (i.e. Charterhouse) school: ‘He dons the gown, – this old colonel, who had always been comfortable in his means, and latterly apparently rich, – and occupies the single room, and eats the doled bread, and among his poor brothers sits in the chapel of his order. The description is perhaps as fine as anything that Thackeray ever did. The gentleman is still the gentleman, with all the pride of gentry; – but not the less is he the humble bedesman, aware that he is living upon charity, not made to grovel by any sense of shame, but knowing that, though his normal pride may be left to him, an outward demeanour of humility is fitting.’ This goes very neatly with Letwin’s final eulogy on the condition, patterning the ideal, not on Newcome, but on Robinson Crusoe: ‘What defines a gentleman is a way of being in any circumstances. Even alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe is a gentleman. He reveals a gentleman’s attitude to his plight in his unfailing respect for the humanity of himself and all men; his ability to appreciate the treasures of civilisation; his efforts to refashion them for new circumstances; his readiness to build new skills on old; his learning to recognise and repent for his sins; his determination to give his days an orderly shape, to reconcile himself to his misfortune and endow his life with what grace and contentment he can manage.’

In passages like the above, Letwin is fighting effectively on two fronts: she is making general assertions of a moral-philosophical kind and at the same time claiming a congeniality between her definition of gentlemanliness and Trollope’s. The exercise is stimulating, and in elaborating her conception she penetrates to the heart of Trollope’s thinking on the subject – perhaps more articulately than he himself ever did (in the Autobiography, he ventures no further in definition than to say that ‘he knows what he means’ when he talks of gentlemen). But Letwin’s book has collateral claims to be a commentary on Trollope’s fiction. As such, it has severe limitations. Principally, one is led to question how well up she is in her literary subject. The preface blithely assures the reader that ‘there is no need to be familiar with the novels to which I refer.’ Is Letwin familiar with the novels to which she refers? Take her discussion of The way we live now. This is the Trollopian text to which she (like Gilmour) refers most frequently. Yet, for all the pages and asides which she devotes to the massive work, Letwin’s acquaintance with it is evidently slender. She habitually refers to characters such as ‘honest Joe Crumb’ (John Crumb), ‘Georgina Longestaffe’ (Georgiana Longestaffe) and ‘Father Barnham’ (Father Barham). This could be put down to dyslexia or forgetful proof-reading. But one could make no such excuse for the extraordinary misconception of Roger Carbury, the character Trollope nominated as the novel’s hero. On the many occasions that Letwin refers to Roger (even, grotesquely, in the book’s erratum slip) he is called ‘Sir Roger Carbury’. As even the most cursory reading of The way we live now reveals, Roger is the country squire and his cousin, Sir Felix Carbury, is the town baronet. The point that Trollope makes, insistently, is that although Roger is plain ‘Mr Carbury’, he is nevertheless the true head of the family and more the gentleman than his despicable cousin Sir Felix. Letwin seems to have fallen into the same titular quagmire as the foreign financier Melmotte, when he grapples with the apparent contradiction of Roger Carbury Esq. having family seniority over Sir Felix Carbury Bt:

Perhaps if there is one thing in England more difficult than another to be understood by men born and bred out of England, it is the system under which titles and property descend together or in various lines ... It was everything to Melmotte that he should understand the ways of the country which he had adopted; and when he did not understand, he was clever at hiding his ignorance. Now he was puzzled. He knew that Sir Felix was a baronet, and therefore presumed him to be the head of the family. He knew that Carbury Manor belonged to Roger Carbury, and he judged by the name it must be an old family property. And now the baronet declared that he was heir to the man who was simply an Esquire.

To write a book on Trollope and the idea of the gentleman, and misapprehend that in a text central to your discussion the hero is a commoner, not a baronet, raises doubts as to qualifications. Nor is Letwin always more reliable on deductions from the text. She writes, for example: ‘Cohabitation without marriage is not unthinkable [in Trollope’s fiction]. Paul Carbury (The way we live now) and John Caldigate (John Caldigate) lived with a woman as man and wife without being married.’ In the first of these novels the man in question is called Paul Montague, but the reader must inure himself to Letwin’s way with names. More importantly, there is no legitimate indication from Trollope that Paul ever ‘cohabits’ with Mrs Hurtle. This fornication would seem to exist only in Letwin’s mind, and is entirely out of Montague’s character. (See Trollope’s remarks about his ‘clean living’ in the notes he made for the novel.)

I have come round from praising the heterodoxy of Letwin’s book, and its introduction of a fresh angle, to carping at her lack of bread-and-butter Trollopian competence. There is no doubt which is the more important aspect. Letwin’s remarkable contribution to Trollope studies deserves to be read (if warily) by everyone interested in the author.