13th April 2003: A truly horrible thought

It’s possible to write an 850 page novel, well constructed, symphonic, and to feel, with the typical overharsh judgement people make about their own writing, that you’ve failed at making one of the characters sufficiently sympathetic. Then, a hundred and forty years later, it’s possible for it to be edited and introduced by a brainless moron who completely fails to see anything you were doing at all except the place you felt you failed.

I don’t know what the usually reliable Penguin Classics thought they were doing in employing Mr Kermode to edit He Knew He Was Right. I don’t often bother with footnotes, but these were particularly bad, spottily noticing the walk-on presence of characters from other novels and never when they’re not mentioned by name. (Phineas Finn appears as a young Irish under-minister for the colonies, but isn’t named, if anything ever needed a footnote saying “Look, look, did you notice, it’s Phineas, isn’t it cool!”) But the introduction, which I read after the novel, to avoid spoilers, managed to contain spoilers for half a dozen other novels, one of which I haven’t read, and to totally miss the point of the book. Totally.

Mr. Kermode thinks it’s a story about Louis Trevelyan’s jealousy, with a lot of rambling and minor characters to fill out the word count. He thinks Trollope isn’t sympathetic to women. He thinks that Victorian marriage customs are so unfamiliar to the reader that he needs to explain it all, and then gets the explanation wrong in the way you would if something is completely unsympathetic to you. (What he’s trying to explain is perfectly obvious from the text anyway.) He hasn’t noticed the fact that it’s funny — and this in a book that made me put it down to laugh twice and contains one of the most hilarious uses of the omniscient aside I’ve ever seen. (Trollope tells you on page 730 or so what there is left to do in the novel, but in such a way!)

So, in introducing a clever funny novel with a lot of shadowing and doubling and echoing, and one of the few Trollope novels where there is actually any tension about what is going to happen, he explains it’s tedious and rambling and doesn’t, as Trollope admitted, make Louis sufficiently sympathetic. He doesn’t give a thought to how difficult it would be to make him sympathetic. Do you think Shakespeare worried about whether Othello was sufficiently sympathetic? At least he didn’t leave a note saying so. I swear I’ll wipe my hard drive on my deathbed so nobody ever knows I feel I didn’t get chapter 32 quite right!

He also castigates Trollope for writing every day and keeping a note of his wordcount. He thinks this is churning it out. It would be better to be in awe of how much he achieved that way.

I wish I hadn’t bought this edition, though goodness knows I’m glad to have read the story. I shall look out for a Oxford World Classics edition, or even better an Everyman mini-hardback edition like the Phineas Redux I bought in Hay, and consign this one and Mr. Kermode to oblivion.

I can’t believe an editor who thought he put in a lot of characters to make the book longer, and that he didn’t like women, when in fact the book is an examination in major and minor keys of under what circumstances women in 1867 did and did not subject themselves to men.

Trollope might not have tied himself to any railings, and he might have made fun (in other books) of the excesses of some violent feminists, but he did see that middle and upper class women of the time were in a really horrible predicament.

Not one of those characters is extraneous.

And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with doing a running wordcount.

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