Tag Archives: the Cornhill magazine

Book Corner – October 2019 (5)

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

The nights are drawing in and it is time to curl up with another Trollope. The Claverings, written in 1864 but not serialised in the Cornhill Magazine until 1866 and published in book form until a year later, could rightly be described as one of Trollope’s unappreciated gems. The author was rather pleased with it, noting in his Autobiography that it was well-written, with both humour and pathos. The problem, though, as he noted, was “I am not aware that the public has ever corroborated that verdict. I doubt now whether anyone reads The Claverings”, he sniffed.     

Well, if very few read it then, matey, these days it has pretty much fallen off the radar screen. If anyone reads Trollope nowadays it is probably going to be the Barchester series or the Pallisters or The Way We Live Now, which is a shame. The Claverings is classic Trollope and a perfect introduction to his world and style.

Yes, it is a tad long-winded – what Victorian novel, especially one written for serialisation, isn’t? – but has a pace about it and an engaging enough story to keep the reader interested. It is almost as perfect a novel as you can imagine, not a thread left undone, every loose end tied up. Trollope playfully cross-references the Barsetshire series, Bishop Proudie forbidding Henry Clavering, the rector, from fox hunting. So, why did it never find much favour with the reading public?

Part of the trouble, I think, lies in the fact that the lead characters are a tad ordinary with all the human failings of the common man. As the narrator of the story says, “men as I see them are not often heroic”. The plot revolves around a love triangle. The story opens with Julia Brabazon rejects the marriage proposal of Harry Clavering, a man she loves but who has very modest prospects, in favour of hooking up with the loathsome, dissolute but rich, Lord Ongar. In answer to the obvious Mrs Merton question, Julia “had no reliance on her own power of living on a potato, with one new dress every year”.       

The marriage was an ordeal but Lord Ongar quickly succumbed to the strains imposed on his body by his dissolute lifestyle. Meanwhile Harry has plighted his troth to Florence Burton, the daughter of his boss. When Julia reappears on the scene, what should Harry do, return to his first love or remain faithful to his vow of marriage? Cue much soul-searching and wringing of hands as all three protagonists try and work their way through this moral Gaudian knot.      

It takes an intervention of Neptune as an improbable and extremely convenient deus ex machina to resolve the dilemma. The accident, telegraphed well before it occurs, suggests that Trollope was grappling for a way out for his story and many might see it as a structural weakness which detracts from the reader’s enjoyment of the book. I find with many a Victorian novel you need to suspend credulity when considering the plot. Whether you consider the device to be a cop out or not, it does free the main characters from their torment.

I thought Trollope treated the moral anguish of the characters with sympathy and gave the reader an insight into their psychologies. On a more superficial level, the book is full of humour, social insight and pathos. Along the way we meet some wonderful characters including a supposed Russian spy, the sporting and devious Captain Boodle, who I’m sure gets a namecheck in Phineas Redux, a belligerent cleric, Dr Saul, the brothers Clavering, Sir Hugh of the hard heart and Archie, the feckless one, a sleazy foreign Count and many more.

I enjoyed the book and as a book that stands alone as opposed to being one of a series and being of moderate length (by the standards of the day) it is a good introduction to the author.

Book Corner – January 2019 (4)

Armadale – Wilkie Collins

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted.

At over eight hundred pages long it is a bit of a doorstep and there are points in the book where it gets a bit turgid but it is well worth persevering with. It is Collins’ longest work, serialised in the Cornhill magazine between November 1864 and June 1866 before being published as a two-volume novel in 1866. It is considered to be up there with the finest of Collins’ novels and I think rightly so.

The plot is incredibly complicated and as I try to restrict my reviews to around 600 words I will not even attempt to summarise it. Suffice it to say, the action is kicked off by a foul murder and the deathbed confession of the murderer and his fears as to what would happen if his son and the murdered man’s son, both called Allan Armadale to add further confusion, ever met. Of course, they did and the rest of the novel plays out what happened.

What comes through loud and clear in this novel is Wilkie Collins’ interest in human psychology. Much of the drama and, certainly, the plotting involves a dream which foretells dread consequences. Ozias Midwinter, the improbable alias of the son of the murderer, seeks to analyse what the contents of the dream mean by way of premonitions and resolves, to the best of his abilities, to ensure that the situations that the vision foretells never occur. This allows the author to delve into the psychology of crime.

Of course, Midwinter’s plans are frustrated, not least by the cunning of one of Victorian fiction’s greatest femmes fatales, Lydia Gwilt. Perhaps the best thumb-nail description of her is that she is a flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband poisoner. Her portrayal shocked Collins’ publishers, the critics and readership alike and almost put the kibosh on the book ever seeing the light of day. That would have been a great pity as she is a wonderful creation, conniving, grasping, ruthless.

I cannot help think that Collins, who was highly inventive in his use of names, took care in naming his malevolent female lead Gwilt. There are connotations of guilt and gilt – Lydia is a consummate gold digger – and possibly even a hint of will – she is infinitely resourceful. But inevitably she meets a deserved end, overcome by remorse and guilt when she discovers a potentially lethal switch of victims. Was this Collins’ way of assuaging the moral sensibilities of his critics? After all, as T S Eliot, an ardent admirer of this book calling its construction “almost perfect”, remarked “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Stylistically, the book is a mix of testimony, narrative, letters and Gwilt’s diary, each of which in their own way drive the story on. As you come to expect with Collins, the plot takes some surprising twists and the story relies on more than its fair share of coincidences. But that is in the nature of sensationalist novels of the period and at least Collins is the consummate master of the form.

I did find the middle section of the book hard going and the complexity of the relationship of the protagonists could be perplexing at time without reading the text with some attention. But having taken some time to set the story up the finale is gripping and a page turner and certainly worth the effort of having got there. Of course, there is melodrama but not the saccharine sweet guff of Dickens at his worst.

This is not the book to start one’s acquaintance with Wilkie Collins with but, if you like him, it is one that definitely deserves to be rescued from the obscurity in which it now languishes.