Little World

downtown Charlottesville mall

The other night, I reached the end of an era in my little life. I read the final words of Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. Sweet sadness overwhelmed me.

Six Barsetshire novels–all of them about the country clergy, their families, their interactions with their neighbors and doctors and benefactors. About how young people move from the county into London, and their city lives. About the scramble for suitable marriages and adequate incomes.

Trollope concludes the series with a seriously wise reflection on the clerical life, which I would like to quote at length. But I will save that for an appendix to this post.

…For five years, from 2011 to 2016, I lived in greater Roanoke, while my dear mommy lived in Washington D.C. She hasn’t driven a car in decades, but she loves to ride the train. It doesn’t take a geographical genius to figure out the perfect place for the two of us to meet for a couple days during those years: Charlottesville.

Airbnb provided us with small downtown apartments. We ate at The Nook, or Citizen Burger, or Downtown Thai. My mom shopped at Caspari while I took my daily run up the hill and around the University Rotunda.

So my first reaction to the big news of the weekend involved intimate geographic familiarity. “Emancipation Park” is not a place I read about in the news; it is where I have done cool-down stretches at the end of numerous runs.

So I have experienced an enormous amount of frustration in trying to find a straightforward and clear report of what exactly happened on Saturday and where–by which I mean: at the corners of which streets (because I know them all).

I weep because downtown Charlottesville does not in any way deserve this crushing disturbance. Downtown Charlottesville deserves to have its own quiet life, and not be the object of a news-camera spectacle.

In August of 2015, the peaceful carp pools of Bridgewater Plaza, Franklin County, Va., also became the focus of the insatiable media spectacle, because of arbitrary and cruel death. I wept then, for the same reason.

I refuse to do any grandstanding for an end to racism here on my blog, at least not today. What I want to do is: pray that downtown Charlottesville gets to return to normal life, with people eating al fresco of a summer evening, sipping Budweisers, and leaving the moral absolutes alone.

Appendix. From the final paragraphs of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series:

Before I take my leave of the diocese of Barchester for ever, which I purpose to do in the succeeding paragraph, I desire to be allowed to say one word of apology for myself, in answer to those who have accused me–always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness–of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen, the first and most prominent characteristic of the ordinary English clergyman’s life.

I have described many clergymen, they say, but have spoken of them all as though their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them, were matters of no moment, either to me, or in my opinion, to themselves…

There are those who have told me that I have made all my clergymen bad, and none good. I must venture to hint to such judges that they have taught their eyes to love a colouring higher than nature justifies.

We are, most of us, apt to love Raphael’s madonnas better than Rembrandt’s matrons. But, though we do so, we know that Rembrandt’s matrons existed; but we have a strong belief that no such woman as Raphael painted ever did exist. In that he painted, as he may be surmised to have done, for pious purposes–at least for Church purposes–Raphael was justified; but had he painted so for family portraiture he would have been false.

Had I written an epic about clergymen, I would have taken St Paul for my model; but describing, as I have endeavoured to do, such clergymen as I see around me, I could not venture to be transcendental.

Trollope, Petards, and Providence

In my middle age, I have come to love reading Anthony Trollope novels.

Trollope’s characters all have one thing in common:  They wander through life in a fundamentally hapless manner.  Sometimes, they have grand plans, and the plans never get realized.  Sometimes they have delusions of grandeur about their own sterling qualities, and they never live up to those delusions.  They fill their minds with pure visions of what life will be like, and it never works out that way.

Anthony TrollopeNow, this does not mean that Trollope novels depress the reader.  To the contrary.  As we all know, nothing is more truly funny than comparing the schemes and plans of man, the delusions and airy castles in the sky, with the pure reality that dwells in the mind of God.

God does not hand us scorpions and stones for breakfast.  That is a motto to live by.  The Almighty simply doesn’t hand us scorpions and stones for breakfast.

Let’s try to remember this—that God is in charge, and not us; that He is much better, and smarter, and kinder to us than we are to ourselves.  Let’s try to remember all that, and pray, instead of scheming too hard about what is to come.

Then we too will smile in the end, even when we manage to hoist ourselves by our own petards.  We will smile right along with our heavenly Father at the fact that we are a fundamentally hapless and comical race, we human beings.

The Claverings

Young man falls for his cousin-in-law’s beautiful younger sister. She jilts him and marries for money. Young man goes racing down the wrong career path, but along the way he finds just the right woman. Then his first love returns, a rich widow, offering him everything. A crisis ensues.

The Claverings TrollopeThe entire plot of this perfectly constructed Anthony-Trollope novel turns on this one moment: The protagonist lied in bed at home, laid up with a wicked cold. His mother offers him some advice. He takes it.

…Where does the joy of reading a Trollope novel truly lie? In the comic relief, perhaps? The Claverings has one of the funniest chapters I have ever read. A hapless, ill-educated, blue-blooded boy, cousin to the protagonist, seeks help in his love suit. From a cheap Franco-Polish con-woman, whom he believes to be a Russian spy.

Does the joy come from Trollope’s withering, righteous indictment of all the inhumane cruelty doled out by the heartless oligarchs he manages to capture perfectly? Hugh Clavering strides through the pages of this novel as one of the most believably loathesome villains I have ever encountered, the Victorian drawing-room equivalent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Does Sir Hugh receive his just desserts in the end? I won’t spoil the novel for you. But we learn a lesson in boatsmanship: don’t go fishing off the coast of Norway in a small craft.

Maybe the deepest joy of a Trollope novel comes from the relentless struggle for honesty waged by the good guys. Henry Clavering faces an enticement to falseness–which he comes by perfectly honestly. The way all the other characters react to his predicament gives us a grand tour of all our predilections to judge our neighbor.

For my money, though, the most amazing thing about this novel is the character of Julia Brabazon. And the Way of the Cross she follows to reach a state of self-possessed kindness by the story’s end.

Now, I can’t say that I wished The Claverings had kept going longer than it does. The plot is not easy on the nerves. None of the characters sits with you like a relaxing companion (as some of the denizens of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles manage to do).

But every single page of The Claverings is worth reading. Reading them all both delighted and instructed this particular reader. Of all the things a person can find himself addicted to, Trollope novels have got to be one of the most thoroughly healthy options.

Trollope Quote for the Summer-Reading-List Young People

My new favorite person ever, Anthony TrollopeMen and women say that they will read, and think so–those, I mean, who have acquired no habit of reading–believing the work to be, of all works, the easiest. It may be work, they think, but of all works it must be the easiest of achievement. Given the absolute faculty of reading, the task of going through the pages of a book must be, of all tasks, the most certainly within the grasp of the man or woman who attempts it.

Alas! no; if the habit be not there, of all tasks it is the most difficult. If a man have not acquired the habit of reading till he be old, he shall sooner in his old age learn to make shoes than learn the adequate use of a book. And worse again–under such circumstances the making of shoes shall be more pleasant to him than the reading of a book. Let those who are not old, who are still young, ponder this well.

The Claverings, chapter 45

Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams

Above all, I recommend keeping the Ten Commandments. Secondly, I recommend reading Trollope.

I have three of his Barchester novels under my belt. But I will defer commenting on that particular shire for now. (In Trollope’s Shire, the hobbits are Anglican clergymen.) The years march on with the relentless hope of the fertile earth in Barsetshire. We will consider that fundamentally happy world some other time.

In 1859, Trollope took a break from publishing Barchester chronicles. That year he gave us a novel which his devoted fan Cardinal Newman found to be disturbingly “melancholic and skeptical.” Trollope more or less said that he came to dislike The Bertrams himself. But I think it is a heartbreaking masterpiece.

My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope
My new favorite person ever, Anthony Trollope

Near the end of The Bertrams, the two bachelors around whom the plot revolves find themselves on-board ship, returning from Egypt to England. (This novel involves a couple elegant interludes in the Arab world.) Also aboard the ship: two young widows, homeward bound, having lost their husbands to disease in colonial India.

One of the widows is particularly pretty. Both take vivacious advantage of the quick intimacy of shipboard life. They need husbands, and they have no intention of losing the chance.

Both of the bachelor-heroes love women back in England. But one of those women is married to a third man, a rising star of Parliament. And the shipboard bachelor who loves her could have been a rising star of the world himself, had he not flailed his way down another path. He resorted instead to bohemian circles and tried to understand the meaning of life and find true religion.

This bachelor has a nasty, aging, avaricious Croesus for an uncle. But the principled young man will not try to curry favor. He has no concern one way or the other whether he winds up in his uncle’s will.

The Bertrams TrollopeIn other words, this young man—George Bertram—has shown himself a willful, splenetic, self-destructive, and irresolute vagabond. He can manage to be faithful to only one thing: his unshakeable desire to live in the truth.

He finds himself on deck with the prettier widow. His future opens before him like an impenetrable night. He rolls the dice, and offers himself to her. She bats her eyelashes, but she hesitates. Maybe this fella doesn’t have quite enough money?

In the nineteenth century, young people had to contend with the question, love or money? Like they do in the twenty-first century. Of course, in the nineteenth century, divorce involved such agonies and ruinations of oneself that is was best regarded as all but impossible. Like in the twenty-first century.

In 1859, the National Review (of England, not the USA) excoriated the newly published Bertrams for unfairly portraying the profession of a clergyman as morally superior to that of a lawyer. We might find that criticism rather laughable now.

What I do not find laughable at all is the beautiful and heartbreaking climax of the novel, which actually occurs near the beginning. (All good stories are at least two-thirds denouement.)

Trollope knew the Holy Land. He despised the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, like many Protestants of his day. We will leave that to the side for now.

But Trollope, like me, loved the Mount of Olives. Twentieth-century Barluzzi churches dot the hill now. But in the mid-nineteenth century, pilgrims just sat on rocks amid the Jewish graves and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount, and the city beyond, where the Savior carried His cross and was crucified, and rose.

Trollope put George Bertram on that spot, had him gaze at Jerusalem, had him choose to dedicate his life to the service of Christ and His Church, in a humble country parsonage, fame and money be damned.

But George abandoned his resolution.

The rest is the heartbreaking tale told in The Bertrams, peppered with delightful comic relief, and insight as deep as I have encountered into what truly makes a human soul independent and free.