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Cliff Notes, Or Whatever They Call Them These Days

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There’s some Internet version of the things that all my students use, so that if I’m teaching lit at all, I get twenty papers that all have the same mistakes in them.  The other thing they do, of course, is to watch the movie, if there’s been one.  One term, required to teach “The Color Purple,” I got past that one by asking them to explain the symbolic significance of the masturbation scene and of the fact that its center was one specific character.

And I didn’t name the character.

But this isn’t really that kind of thing.  It’s just a couple of points about Trollope, since a surprising number of you went off and got a few.

1) In an era when writing for money was the accepted concept in the profession, Trollope took a remarkable amount of flack for doing just that and being unapologetic about it. 

He also wrote without ceasing, a set number of pages every day, without fail.  He had a job as an administrator in the Post Office, and on work days he wrote on the train on his way to work.

And if he finished a book during his alloted hours, he just drew a line under the ending and went to work on the next one.

2) He was a breathtakingly successful writer for most of his career, easily earning enough at it to live like a gentleman in London, which was not cheap.

He kept his day job in spite of that, and had for a while rather a distinguished career of it.

3) His books fall into three categories:  the Barsetshire novels (focused on the Church of England); the Palliser novels (focussed on Parliament); and the stand-alones. 

The Way We Live Now is a stand-alone.

4) Parliament and the Church of England were the reigning passions of his life, but read the novels for a bit and it becomes obvious that it was Parliament he thought was closer to God. 

He did stand for Parliament once, but lost his race, and never tried again.  Successful author or not, running for Parliament in those days was very, very expensive, and for most of Trollope’s life MPs were paid no salary.

5) If you are assigned Trollope to read in an academic course, the chances are good that you’ll get one of the Barsetshire novels, and probably Barchester Towers.  BT is actually the second book in that series.  The first is The Warden. 

It was BT I read in an undergraduate course on the Nineteenth Century British Novel, and it bored me to tears.

The problem was not the book itself, I don’t think–most Trollope is like most other Trollope–but the fact that I’m not very interested in looking inside the Church of England, or in country parsons and their bishops, either, unless one of them is a dead body in the library.

I would probably never have looked at Trollope again if I hadn’t been assigned Phineas Finn in graduate school, and found that I was very, very interested in Parliament and the people who were connected to it.

6) At that point in time, the early to mid Seventies, the Palliser series was all out of print except for Phineas Finn, and the only available edition of that was in a tiny, pocket-sized hardcover with whisper-thin pages. 

I read the book and decided, right away, that I was going to read the entire series from start to finish–and then I wasn’t able to do it, because I couldn’t find them in print and I couldn’t find them in libraries. 

That’s the way that stood until about five years ago, when I realized that Penguin had put them all out in paperback.

The first of the Palliser novels is called Can You Forgive Her?  The best of the Palliser novels is The Eustace Diamonds, and it’s a book that is oddly modern in terms of plot and pacing.  And Lizzie Eustace joins Becky Sharpe in the gallery of literary sociopaths in skirts. 

7) I go back and forth about the way I feel about the introductory essays that are always included in Penguin Classics.  Some of them are good, some of them are not, and some of them are just odd.  Mark Musa, who did the essays for all three of the volumes of Dante’s Divinia Comedia, was so in awe of his subject that he seemed to find it impossible to conceive of the possibility that Dante made mistakes.   Some perfectly egregious lack of continuity would come along, and Musa would go “Dante is a genius, so he couldn’t have made a mistake here” and then spend paragraph after paragraph trying to “understand it.”

The essays for the Trollope novels, written by different people, have gone back and forth in terms of quality and insight, but the one for The Way We Live Now makes what I think is a really egregious mistake.

I’m perfectly willing to believe that Trollope did not have the attitude to Jews and Judaism we have now, but if you actually read the book instead of just reacting to the surface of it, you’ll find he spends a good deal of time almost mercilessly skewering the fashionable anti-Semitism of his time.   Trollope thought Lady Monogram should have been thoroughly ashamed of herself on more than one count, and you have to be listening only to the voices in your own head not to hear it.

8) For what it’s worth, The Way We Live Now has become my favorite Trollope novel of the ones I’ve read–but it was a late book, and not a very popular one. 

It is, as I’ve pointed out before, oddly contemporary in its situations and characters.

Sometimes I think the Bernie Madoffs of this world succeed because we want them to succeed.

They certainly haven’t changed much in a century.

Written by janeh

May 26th, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Cliff Notes, Or Whatever They Call Them These Days'

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  1. The Bernie Madoffs succeed because they tell people things–maybe just A thing–that they desperately wish to be true: that wealth can be had honestly without expert knowledge, hard work, frugality or risk. On consideration, I’m not sure how many really care that the means are honest.

    Tell people the truth–that you have to work hard and live under your income to have money to invest, and that the rewards of investment are pretty well proportionate to the risk–and they’ll line up in front of Madoff’s prison to hear a more comforting message.

    But the Madoff have a lot of company. Would you like to go through a bookstore and find all the titles promising weight loss without onerous diet or serious exercise, the ones promising sexual attraction without actually accomodating the needs and interests of the opposite sex, and–watch these next year–the books by politicians promising that the government will do wonderful things for you, but the taxes and intrusive regulations will fall on someone else, or not be necessary? Pull those titles from the shelves, and Barnes & Noble will fold.

    Bujold said once something to the efect that statesmanship was a politician getting people not to follow their impulses, while demagogery was telling them what they wanted to believe. You CAN fool an honest man. But there are so many lined up to hear comforting lies that it doesn’t seem worth the extra effort.

    As far as teaching students to read and analyze goes, it would be tacky of me to suggest that there are a number of excellent science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels which haven’t been made into movies, nor assigned by every English department, so I won’t do it.
    However, it would only be mischevious to point out that THE COLOR PURPLE is only one of the many movies which departed so far from the novel that the watcher could be left high and dry on certain test questions. The ending of THE SCARLET LETTER, anyone? How about THE TWO TOWERS? I would regard a simple statement that test questions would be based on the written form and not the film as sufficient warning–but I’m like that.


    26 May 11 at 3:55 pm

  2. I didn’t follow the Bernie Madoff scandal in detail but I think he was offering consistent returns of 10% a year. That isn’t really a get rich quick scheme – just unrealistic returns.

    For what its worth, Australian bank term deposits offer 6% for a 6 month deposit and home mortgage interest is about 7 to 8% a year.


    26 May 11 at 5:54 pm

  3. SparkNotes, in case you want to see what they are saying about the novels you are teaching.



    26 May 11 at 9:46 pm

  4. I’m trying to read “The Way We Live Now” and finding it hard going, After 3 chapters, I’ve met a series of thoroughly unpleasant characters. I suppose that’s the point!


    27 May 11 at 4:40 pm

  5. It’s an excellent book, John. Persevere.


    27 May 11 at 9:35 pm

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