Visitor: ‘You will feel a gap in your life’ … Demelza: ’tis more than a gap … ‘ (the cant of condolence answered in Warleggan, Bk 1, Ch 4, p 55)
“How doth the busy bee improve each shining hour …” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Dear friends and readers,
This weekend we managed to improve a number of our hours. On Friday night 31 years ago Yvette was born, after a protacted seige of labor, C-section, hemmorhage, and blood tranfusion for me, and tests for her that wrongly discovered she was in danger of a fatal cat disease so an ICU unit for her, needles in her tiny feet, and then when she forgot to breathe, an apnea monitor for the next four months. Caroline was lost to view and Jim went wild with grief. We weathered it, just.
On Friday night the three of us now left went to the Olive Garden and had a yummy meal and talked and laughed. Today Yvette and I went to a local cinema to see a second film adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
I’ve seen it twice before: once with Jim in the 1970s in a movie-theater (complete with a ten minute intermission between two-hour segments) because he so liked Julie Christie; and then again in the mid-1980s with Yvette and Jim having rented a DVD and having a color TV. Yvette still remembered it today; all I can recall is we saw it again and Jim could scarce understand why he had been so infatuated. Well the new rendition is very good, though both are Hardy by way of D.H. Lawrence; I will recommend seeing it, and rereading the book on Austen Reveries in the next couple of days. Yvette has begun working on another song, carries on with her novel, and Caroline, following Jim’s perverse bee, relaxed from Constant Writing.
For the rest when I’m not reading, writing, working towards teaching and otherwise like the exemplary busy bee (which Jim used to quote in the perverse version), the experience of widowhood now more than a year and six months after my beloved died, is of a silence without borders. It is endless and everywhere and goes deeper and spreads further and feels hard in the bearing of it as time goes on. This increase in iron shot through life’s experience comes partly from the sense I feel increasing from others’ implicitly (as usual unwritten codes enforced by expressions, gestures, silence) and explicitly (sometimes to me astonishingly, shamelessly I feel, voiced) that the past doesn’t matter, and memories should be erased. Get rid of memories’ objects. Then what are you left with? But to answer such a command, is dialoguing with, entering into it. As if memories could be erased, as if one could live extracted from one’s past.
Specifically in this instance of course the point made when I am around (advice given!) and at me is implicitly the person who is dead doesn’t count or matter anymore because he doesn’t literally exist and can’t know what you are doing now; one of them someone who supposedly believes in an afterlife. The person who isn’t there is irrelevant for everyday experience; it’s only when he or she exists elsewhere that the effect of his existence is acknowledged. I know that most people seem not to use words meaningfully, not think what their words mean when they say them or their implications, only the approved social message they think implicitly conveyed by it. So let’s think about that message.
Each minute of our existence comes out of the memory of the previous; we define and understand our identities, do what we do today because of what happened last week, last month, last year, memories from decades of life back to early childhood. Death (to quote the title of Rowling’s non-Harry Potter novel) is not a casual vacancy.
I watched Ian the other day, pick up a favorite string toy — it is just a string with a kind of knot at its end — in his mouth. He trotted along with it through the dining room into and out of the living room, into the hall which goes into the back of my house. There he did drop it and appeared for a moment or more to forget it was there, shake himself, turn about, look at Yvette’s door, for the umpteenth time not liking it to be shut.
But then as it were resolutely, he picked the string up again, and carried it into my bedroom, through to the bathroom — which is where I often find it. Later I came in and found both rugs all mussed up, with the string entwined somehow in them. He had proceeded to play with his toy. He acts on memory which enables him to plan and put into effect a desire to do something, be somewhere, feel something. How he loves to be high up on his cat tree, feeling safe and looking about to see far and wide across the house. The mantelpiece has fun objects sometimes too.
His personality emerges now that I am with him without any second human presence continually. He meows far more than Clarycat: I will come into a room and there he is waiting, and as I come in he meows. I’ve read meowing is the cat’s imitation of talk to human beings. They don’t meow that way to one another. He is trying to tell me something. Sometimes it’s “pay attention to me:” then he usually makes some rustling mew noise. Sometimes it’s “play with me:” then he comes over and puts his paw on my arm. Sometimes he has that string toy near him or is sitting on it, and the message is “play with the string with me.”
Clarycat does neither of these things — though she is direct, comes up on me and hunkers down cuddling up, and using her paws to clutch at me, pushing her face under my typing arm,nudge, nudge, nudging me with her wet nose and when I look down making intense eye contact with my eyes. Both will cry — separately, this to me distressing caw-sound and I go over and ask them, “what is wrong pussycat?” and cry back, slightly frantic, “don’t cry, it upsets me.”
Have I mentioned my grandchildren have four paws?
Trollope’s 200th birthday passed April 24th and it seems lots of people acted on memories they didn’t even have. Dinners, parties, lectures, and an announcement by Julian Fellowes at a particularly posh one (Susan Hampshire was there, so too John Major) held in the Athenaeum to which Trollope once belonged, a building he may have known part s of. Fellowes has signed a contract with ITV to do a three part mini-series film adaptation of Dr Thorne. The New Yorker felt it had to observe the birthday of this famous Victorian novelist and Adam Gopnik was given the task of reading enough of Trollope to write an essay. He called or his editors called it “Trending Trollope,” and indeed Hashtag-AnthonyTrollope (or ATrollope or just Trollope) was trending on twitter over the course of several days.
Gopnik had read enough Trollope to make some intelligent remarks and emerged with a man who shares many of our supposedly liberal enlightened attitudes. He says the form of these books takes is the novels of manners. Not all but any means, but many do, so, What is a novel of manners? Gopnik neglects to tell us. It’s a phrase used for English novels in general – from Barchester Towers to Brideshead Revisited. American novels are said to be symbolic: man called Ahab goes about chasing whales called Moby Dick. Women wear red letter A’s under their blouses and stand on scaffolds at midnight. William Styron wrote a hilarious play about a hospital for sick military men: each man wore a yellow Letter V under his shirt. Novels of manners dramatize customary codes of acting, behaving and thinking, and some of those who read Barchester Towers with me this term agreed that no police are needed in Barchester Towers because the codes are enforced and policed by everyone in the community.
In his Annoying the Victorians, James Kincaid suggest this category is a pious fraud. What Trollope does that makes him worth reading – and other novelists worth reading – is to expose these systems, and the values attached to them, and show how they work to protect the positions of those in power and in this novel at any rate how they hurt vulnerable others, those without rank, status, money, outcasts, misfits. The whole category is part of a “pious fraud” which allowed good novels like this to slip under the radar of the Cornhill disciplinary image of this is what upper middle class life looks like and to be part of it you must obey and be like. The problem is the way people often gossip about the characters as if they were people is ideologically conservative: characters are supposed to be admirable within the terms of the code so some readers use the exposure of the code to reinforce it. What Trollope does is he makes these codes talk, everyone is forced out of hiding. He is showing us bogus ways of thinking about what happens and why these things happen. He is exposing to us that why and how. Put case Dr Thorne, through characters like Miss Dunstable, Sir Roger Scatcherd, and Dr Thorne himself.
By digressions we find directions out (somewhere in Hamlet someone says this). This blog is partly about (what Dr Thorne is partly about) how customary codes of acting, behaving and thinking police people, hurt and maim them, leave them to turn to borderless silence.
Trollope also took up the 1st 3 articles in The Times literary Supplement for April 24, 2015; Two illustrations provided, perhaps not well known, the first not by both Phiz and Miss E. Taylor (as it was labelled); just Miss E. I add the correction because in the second of the articles there are several errors by Gerri Kimber on a new edition of the Autobiography edited by Nicholas Shrimpton (“Never a slave to it”), If you make a very narrow definition of “major Victorian novelist,” he’s almost right that Trollope was the single Victorian well-known writer to write an autobiography — except he forgets Hardy and Edmund Gosse and Margaret Oliphant. Substitute writer and there’s Ruskin, Mill, and several others (see AOJ Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography, 19th & 20th centuries).
The first is by John Sutherland (still there, not yet erased!) centered on the new edition of The Duke’s Children and is (as usual) very interesting. The opening on AT’s last years of ill health fully described (not common), Sutherland suggests Trollope himself sort of elected to cut DC, some reasons for this, and he offers a reading of the novel “A father’s dilemma.” The third by Matthew Ingleby, “Town and Country” on new editions of all six Barsetshire novels, with commentary to show these new editions take exemplarily frame the books by our contemporary way of seeing Trollope, with Dinah Birch covering Amelia Roper much more (from Carolyn Dever); the theme of ‘precarious livings and tenancy” dominates Framley Parsonage (ed Katherine Mullin and Francis O’Gorman). Simon Dentith, using “ground-breaking Queer Trollope by Holly Furneaux for Dr Thorne, tells us the novel presents an alternative or elective family group. There we are. In Barchester Towers we can console ourselves with the “delightfully unmarriageable Bertie Stanhope.” We’re told about continuing radio dramatizations, and although Trollope’s birthplace has been literally knocked down (replaced by new structures) he is now the subject of papers in conferences.
An illustration sketching part of the place in London where Trollope was born in 1815, a place whose buildings are not so wholly configured as to erase any cement-and-mortar evidence of what Trollope’s world experienced on that site in 1815.
This is for all those widows, widowers, people who have experienced loss and are asked to make their fundamental situation and realities invisible, to rip away the instincts of their hearts, by the assertion (hearts, realities, situation) they don’t exist, don’t matter. Yes the great fact of his death (and our mutual failure to act effectively in the crisis of our existence, from which there is now no retrieval) or whatever your grief or loss was — might seem to make small these codes, but if the codes don’t matter Trollope certainly wasted much ink and paper in many books analyzing, exposing and — let’s be as for Veritas as Miss Dunstable — in his most powerful novels attacking them.