Friday, October 26, 2012

Anthony Trollope

We have been watching the BBC television production, The Barchester Chronicles, once again. The series has been around for a while, and will never be forgotten in this house, but this time it has quite outdone itself by inspiring more than pleasant memories, meditations, and gratitude for the talents of actors, screen writers and all the other skills of the crew that can make something so entertaining and abidingly worthwhile. This time it sent me rummaging for our hardbound copy of Barchester Towers, the novel that made Anthony Trollope an unquestioned master of his craft, and as soon as I started reading it again, before I went to bed, I realized that I had been set upon a turning point in the current schedule of literary deliberations. The spirit of priority has come and gone with that book, over the years, but now it was time for it to come, and stay, with major significance.
I first met Trollope when I had just turned twenty two. Or, rather, I met his spirit and reputation, for I had never heard of him before that voluntary moment, in spite of his brief mention in the major text of UBC English classes 100 and 200, College Survey, and I did not read him for a year-and-a-half after that first acquaintance.
And even then, I did not read the novel right through, as the personality of Mr. Slope and the doctrinal squabbles of nineteenth century Anglicanism were poor competition to the texts I was also reading by that time, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Summa Theologica. Slope was simply outrageous, Bishop Proudie was as unlike the "Iron Duke", as they called the archbishop of Vancouver in his day, as any "bishop" could be, and Mrs. Proudie and other clerical wives, good and bad, had not existed in the Roman Catholic Church for a thousand years. Given the pressures to learn the wisdom of the Church I had not known at all in my youth, at the level known it by John of the Cross and Thomas Aquinas, Trollope was simply not that high a priority. Moreover, although in one of his later novels I wondered if I detected a hint of the heartbreaking beauty of mysticism, I could find none of it in the otherwise excellence of Barchester, and I was much beyond believing and applying the ordinary rule of the novel, that the major plot must turn around a romance, especially a romance that shared none of the high adventure of my own courtship.
But it is also to be admitted, and forcefully, that some of the text had been an unforgettable inspiration, a professional directive from on high, for in the book, in the main, I had beheld the possibility of my own fiction, as fully staffed with clergy and doctrinal discussions. In my youthful confidence, of course, and totally unaware as yet - and for some time - of so much of the hideous material that would later occupy my inspirations of plot and character - I assumed my own masterpiece was just around the corner, like Agamemnon's swift conquest of Troy, and had no idea that such a fiery little feast of light - precisely aboard the Canadian Prince, as she throbbed through Johnstone Straight on her way to Alert Bay - on radar - through the dense fog of middle August, 1959, would not find its true target for many years, and in a certain sense, insofar as the whole truth of a major piece of fiction is concerned, for half-a-century.
Such are the ways of God with a story teller also a mystic. The greatest thing any man can do is pray, and the better God makes him at this most supreme and most universal of arts, the more likely he is to be more of a soul of prayer than a soul of anything else. After all, there is a good deal of writing, even of literature, which never got anyone out of purgatory, whereas it is well known that simply by being devoutly hidden away and not writing a sentence for the eyes of the world, humble, quiet, religious are helping souls get out of purgatory all the time.
They also help the Church get itself out of disastrous situations, which has been a pressing need of these times, as the pages of the press and the records of the courts, both criminal and civil have amply shown. And by the press I include the newest members of that profession, the bloggers, especially those who write out of a genuine love for theology and all that pertains to it. Just hours ago, Marianne was bringing me news, from one of the Net columnists she reads regularly, of a list of the theological crimes of the Basilian priest, Gregory Baum, a cleric in high places who yapped incessantly for years, with no one in authority shutting him up, in such a way as to flatly contradict everything Saint Paul ever said. The little man from Tarsus probably received more respect from Mohammed than he has from Baum. I vaguely recall Baum, I think, at the height of his influence, when I saw a late 60s TV special on the intellectual climate of Saint Michael's, the Basilian stronghold at the University of Toronto, which was disturbing on an astounding scale. I think that was my first intimation, locked away in the Kootenay mountains, of other areas of the Church smelling as bad as the diocese of Nelson under Emmett Doyle and a variety of other perverse priests.
Baum, who had been a peritus, or expert, at Vatican Two, was recently interviewed by Father Thomas Rosica, also a Basilian, who runs the Net programme, Salt and Light. Why he would give time and space to such a plain enemy of the Church I have no idea. Baum left the priesthood and got married long ago. Like Luther. The only thing more stupid that I can think of would be for a judge trying an alleged murderer to allow him to take a nice chunk of the court's time to air his theories on the value of murder as a method of population control.
But back to Trollope and his skill at making clergy the interesting protagonists in a work of fiction. As I said, there was a small mention of the Victorian novelist, enormously successful in his own day, in our text book, but I never saw it then. I did not swat my books, because my main interest was my fellow students, especially at the Ubyssey, who were all themselves writers of one degree or another, and if not novelists or playwrights in themselves, at least capable of being interesting characters within either format. So, in my fifth year on the campus, half-way through, in February just after Shawn and I had met, she announced to me that the Vancouver writer Ethel Wilson, originally from South Africa, was giving a lecture on Anthony Trollope and his writing and she was definitely going to it, and I could come if I liked.
I distinctly remember my first two responses. I was embarrassed at not knowing anything of Trollope at all, and I was delighted at the idea of sitting beside her listening to a fellow, local, writer catch me up on someone, Shawn said, who had been right in there with Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot. This sort of opportunity was  precisely what I had come back for, instead of trotting off to Toronto to become a journalist. To be honest, I knew nothing of Ethel Wilson either, but I have always been grateful for that lecture.
There was a full house, although I can't remember in what setting. I do remember that there were a lot of windows in the the north wall, and that the February light streamed through them as Ethel poured out her appreciation of the man that Britain had learned to forget, not just at that time, but decades earlier, not very long after Trollope was dead. Listening to her was like listening to Lister Sinclair a couple of years previous. I can recall no precise words of advice, just the utter conviction that without a life with literature, you had no life at all. And here was a new star in the firmament I had known ever since I learned how to read.
Nonetheless, I did not immediately sack the UBC stacks for every Trollope they held. I had been at work on my own novel for a few weeks by then, I was getting increasingly hammered by the dark night, and I was inch by inch crawling toward my final leaving of law school. And, of course, hanging on every word Shawn Harold said, and every gesture she made. As Trollope experts will have to admit, this simply made good sense. As brilliant as he was with his early morning pen, he created no Catholic intellectuals, especially of the female sort. This novelist already had something to study neither he nor his British culture never laid eyes on. At least not in any print that I had ever seen.
To be continued, as was the landing on the beaches of Normandy.