A Victorian Novel ~ Trollope’s The American Senator

by Clement Greenberg
Reproduced from Trollopiana, Number 38, August 1997.

It is characteristic of the more robust Victorian novelists that both their characters and their scenes get out of hand. The obvious formal considerations came last for such a writer as Trollope, and he was always ready to sacrifice the planned shape of a work of fiction to the resistances and deflections met in the writing of it. As with Dickens, a character that insisted strongly enough could snatch more than its allotted space.

By the curious vitality one of its characters arrogates to himself, The American Senator ascends to a realm Trollope may not have anticipated its entering, and becomes one of the most curious and interesting novels in English. That it has received so little appreciation so far must be attributed to its faults of structure, rocked as that structure is from side to side by three parallel narratives which barely relate to one another in any but an anagogical sense that, like all anagogy, is illusive.

The primary and ‘serious’ story in The American Senator is the halting romance – halting, perhaps, because it takes place in Purgatory – of Reginald Morton and Mary Masters, a Victorian set-piece that is only partly redeemed by its incidentals. Reginald is a studious recluse, a member bf the gentry, embittered for some inadequate reason, chaste, intense, pipe-smoking, Byronic-proud – a Brontë type in whom Trollope is not sufficiently interested to rescue from what was already fictional desuetude, and whom he lets walk through his part. Larry Twentyman, a mildly prosperous young farmer, is frantically in love with Mary, daughter of the local lawyer and compendium of the negative virtues. She prefers Reginald, who is much more romantic in spite of his being forty. It was virtually impossible in Trollope’s time – and maybe it still is – for any one stationed under the upper middle class to appear romantic unless he had committed a crime, or was a bona fide artist. Larry is far from qualified on either score. Nevertheless, as a character in fiction he has all the vitality his rival lacks. Larry’s trouble are organic and cannot be solved by a clearing up of misunderstandings; he is in his fix for good, and the pathos of that fix, which is not exclusively Victorian, is lingered over. He lives in the limbo reserved by the English (as it seems to a foreigner) for those who are not quite gentlemen or ladies, but are not altogether plebeian either. Trollope observes with real cruelty: ‘there was a little bit of dash about him – just a touch of swagger – which better breeding might have prevented,’ Reginald animadverts through clenched teeth on Larry’s billycock hat (a kind of derby), and the wrong as well as the right people call him by his first name.

The real anguish of Larry’s hopeless suit is caused by the suspicion that snobbery is· at the bottom of his rejection by Mary. Trollope – and it attests to his great novelist’s instinct – is willing to allow for, but not admit, the suspicion, and he tries to invalidate it by having Mary’s vulgar stepmother express it comically, and also by making Reginald’s maternal grandfather a Canadian innkeeper – for which reason Reginald too is exposed to certain slights. But the suspicion only flowers the more; Trollope pours too much independent life into certain of his characters, and the harangues of Mary’s stepmother in her effort to persuade Mary to accept Larry are the liveliest speeches in the novel. Of course, the author assents to Mary’s snobbish motives, and knows his readers do too – not in principle perhaps, but certainly in practice, and Trollope was the fiction writer he was because he knew how to qualify principle in the name of practice. And he also knows, and his readers know, that another two hundred and fifty pounds a year would have made Larry a gentleman, swagger and all.

The secondary plot of The American Senator, Lady Arabella Trefoil’s hunt for a husband within the lists of English social form, takes place in Hell, and is the richest vein of the book, as episodes in Hell usually are. Since class relations are not involved, only criticism of the upper class on its own terms, Trollope writes here with a freer and more savage hand.

For him, the depravity of life in ‘Europe’ is nothing so esoteric as it was for James, and it does not have to be revealed by the stripping away of veils. The baseness of the Trefoil family is presented with what James – as a professional – might, moreover, have thought an excessive liberalness; yet the scenes in which father, mother and daughter are closeted with one another amount to some of the most brilliant passages of fiction-writing I have read in English.

One of Trollope’s assets is that he is more interested in evil as a phenomenon than as a principle. And, of course, he does not have that aversion to the specific which acts for the later James as a shaping rule of art. It may be a virtue in James that he saves the reader from the local experience of evil and transforms its revelation into a cathartic exercise, but it is not a defect of Trollope’s art that he seems to do the opposite and pander to our appetite for the facts. It speaks for that art – and not at all for Trollope’s heart or elevated social awareness – that we receive a more fundamental criticism of society from his works than he himself intended. And he is able to be such a good artist, and such a good critic of society, precisely because he is a connoisseur of things as they are, with an avidity for social facts and acts as facts and acts.

Nearing thirty and poor for her position, Lady Arabella lives by and on her social connections. The circumstances of her life give her little other alternative as a solution than a rich wellborn husband. And Trollope would perhaps have held her entitled to one, if only her need were not so desperate. His rule, like life’s itself, seems to be that to want anything too desperately is to lose the right to it. But it is hard to tell whether Lady Arabella’ s bad character is a function of her predicament or vice versa. Her father ‘rather liked being hated bywomen and did not want any man to be in love with her – except as far as might be sufficient for the purposes of marriage.’ Aside from finding a rich husband, her own main ambition, a far more common one than Trollope seems to realise, is to be ‘one who might be sure to be asked everywhere even by the people who hated her.’ When Lady Arabella first appears she is engaged to John Morton, squire of Bragton, a diplomat, and Reginald’s cousin. But catching sight of the sporting Lord Rufford, who is a much more spectacular prize, she changes course and (to pursue the metaphor of the hunting field) rides into what is eventually a horrible situation. The lord, one of those stupid, successful and attractive persons who are indispensable to any human society, almost proposes to Arabella in a moment of exuberance, and her attempt to use the rules of Victorian social form to press him into accepting the consequences of an actual proposal leads her through a circle of Inferno called humiliation. The code of moral justice obligatory for most novelists requires that she lose the lord, but it rewards her for her momentary impulse of pity toward John Morton on his deathbed, by granting her a wellborn and upright husband who is not rich. Arabella’s story, ending upon an unexpectedly cheerful note, is entered under the heading of satirical comedy.

The morality is almost openly one of money. In Trollope, sinners, as well as mere victims, almost always suffer from financial or social insecurity, and they are recruited, for both categories of suffering, from either the lowborn rich or the wellborn poor. Limitations are imposed by circumstances rather than character, and the moral of Trollope’s fiction seems to be that people should abide by the limitations of social circumstance. (In drafting his novels, he would assign an income in exact figures to most of his characters, as part of their essential conception.)

But the character in The American Senator that gets most out of hand is the American senator himself, who as a foreigner neither has nor needs social definition. The Honorable Elias Gotobed, senator from the state of ‘Mickewa’, is visiting England to study ‘conditions’ in that country. A highly marginal one to start with in terms of plot and action, his role becomes even more so, paradoxically, as his anagogical importance grows. And yet his story, which takes us into the Paradise that completes the Purgatory and Hell of the other two narrative strands, gives the novel much of its unique irony and depth. What begins as a rather standard nineteenth-century caricature of the Yankee swells gradually into a figure of Reason incarnate, stalking and scolding the English land. The senator’s twang fades and his cigar dwindles, and in the end all that is left of him is pure morality and pure logic.

Trollope’s attitude here is unusually ambiguous. Starting out as a caricature, the senator gradually turns into the mouthpiece of the author himself, but not without setting up stresses and strains that are almost more than the novel form can bear. The criticism of things English that is attributed to Senator Gotobed is designed at first to characterise the senator himself rather than to point to that which is criticised. But Trollope soon begins, obviously, to agree with the criticism, and it becomes very difficult in the end to distinguish between those of the senator’s words which reflect on himself and those which are seriously meant to reflect on England. The senator may appear a bit simpleminded to those who acquiesce in what seem the necessary anomalies of any social order, but in the end his simple-mindedness turns into something that defies ridicule and reminds the sophisticated of insensitivities of their own. (It may be that, through the senator, Trollope was giving vent, unawares no doubt, to his feelings about the poor critical reception his books were beginning to get in the latter 1870s.)

As a supposedly typical, representative American, the senator has an ideology (Trollope does not use that word, but it is what he means), and this ideology is compounded of Jeffersonianism, Abolitionism, Radical Republicanism, Rationalism, Utilitarianism, etc., etc. The combination turns out to be something far more radical than the author himself apparently realised; it is not at all a characteristically American set of ideas, even for the purposes of satire. The senator’s rhetoric is truly typical only in a fondness for large abstract words, not in what the words actually say. He delivers himself of phrases like ‘the demand for progressive equality which is made by the united voices of suffering mankind’; and marvelling at the docility of the English lower classes, he disagrees with the proposition ‘that one man should be rich and another poor is a necessity in the present imperfect state of civilisation … ‘ He sounds far more like an old-fashioned, self-educated English socialist than a post-Civil War Midwest Republican.

The senator is the type, also, of the anti-aesthetic man whose eye is so intently on the ball, on the universal and abstract, as to make him obtuse to particularities, shadings, tones and moods, no less than to the reactions of the persons he talks to. This type can be depressing, but it can also compel our respect, at least to the extent that we feel guilty about our usual absorption in the petty. Though Trollope relishes the petty, and we are grateful to him for it, he feels this guilt, and when he has the senator attack his own beloved sport of fox hunting, he allows him to do so on grounds well taken. (And since fox hunting can be defended only aesthetically, he files his rebuttal by writing several superb hunting scenes.)

The senator provokes much resentment by his outspoken amazement at the injustices and anomalies of the English social order, and by siding with a disreputable farmer in his litigation with Lord Rufford over the crops eaten by the latter’s game pheasants. After finishing his study of English ‘conditions’, which he has prosecuted with an utter conscientiousness, the senator delivers a lecture in London at which he tells a packed and distinguished audience just what he has found wrong with England: namely the irrationality of its inhabitants. His listeners riot and he is unable to finish. ‘He had not much above half done yet. There were the lawyers before him, and the Civil Service, and the railways, and the commerce of the country, and the labouring classes.’ But no matter, he already floats high above the rest of the Trollopian world, escorted by its reluctant admiration. By virtue of being consistently exaggerated in one direction, the senator finally transcends the grotesque and comic, and becomes endowed with the highest seriousness. His Americanness is revealed as a kind of moral imperialism – the kind for which the world knows us. It is quite different from the Americanness of Henry James’ pilgrims, who carry their innocence to Europe humbly, and their Columbianism – if they have it – furtively. Even so, the senator does betray a few Jamesian twinges, just to show that he is not altogether a simple, silly, holy, irrelevant being; he goes out of character – and it is one of the many blemishes of this novel – by writing home of his admiration for the ‘easy grace’ and ‘sweet pleasant voices and soft movements’ of aristocratic Englishmen, and confessing that there is a ‘pleasure in associating with those here of the highest mark which I find hard to describe.’

Except for the senator’s apotheosis, the novel ends weakly. Reginald discovers that he loves Mary, and they are wed. Poor Larry’s fate is left suspended, as if it were on the author’s conscience. Lady Arabella is sent off to do penance in Patagonia, where her husband has been assigned a diplomatic mission of little importance; her story had seemed to be working up to some much more exciting denouement that would have left it ringing in one’s memory, and Patagonia is simply not enough. We are left with the senator. Trollope’s inferiority to Dickens lies in his surplus of realism, in that satisfaction with the ‘normal machinery of experience’ of which Sadleir, his biographer, approvingly accuses him. His fiction answers too well, at times, an important but crippling demand made on the novel; that it be a recital of events more interesting in themselves and their texture than in their resolution.

Illustration by E.C.Grenville Murray from ‘Under the Lens’.