- “Tremendous Trifles”Trollope through Jamesian Lenses
James has been praised over and over again (by the James cult, I mean) for having removed the “auctorial presence” of the nineteenth century novelists from the novel form. But the “points of view” or the “centers of illumination,” which he substituted were all . . . James’s point of view. Behind them he lurked, he plotted and planned and schemed, more despotic and dictatorial than any old-fashioned novelist lecturing his readers about the sins and frailties of human character.—Maxwell Geismar, Henry James and the Jacobites
I begin with an ocean voyage of October 1875, a transatlantic crossing from New York to Liverpool of the Cunard liner Bothnia that brought together for the first time the dramatis personae of my essay, Anthony Trollope and Henry James—perhaps the most engaging premodernist writer of English fiction and the most acute of its critics. Trollope was returning from a visit to Australia, where his younger son’s 27,000-acre sheep station had fallen into financial difficulties. He had crossed the United States by train from San Francisco to board the ship in New York. Henry James had been visiting family and friends in New York and Boston.
I am not sure that Trollope would have known the younger man—James’s popular short novel Daisy Miller and his first masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady, were, respectively, three and six years in the future. But James was certainly aware of Trollope, for James had been writing about the Englishman’s fiction for a decade and not always politely. Such rivalries are far from uncommon. Apprentice writers whet their edges by rivalrous encounters with precursors: a process that Harold Bloom has called the agon, the struggle with and against influence. We can spot the beginnings of James’s agon with Trollope in his review of The Belton Estate (1866). “To become involved in one of his love stories,” [End Page 367] wrote the thirty-three-year-old James, “is very like sinking into a gentle slumber. . . . In the tale before us we slumber on gently to the end. . . . We do not open his books with the expectation of being thrilled, or convinced, or deeply moved . . . and accordingly, when we find one as flat as a Dutch landscape, we remind ourselves . . . that we have no right to abuse the scenery for being in character”—and so forth, at some length, in much the same vein. At this early stage of his writing life James had not yet formulated the exacting narrative principles—regarding who could know what in a story—that would animate his later and more generous observations on Trollope and his fiction.
James later recorded two personal impressions of his distinguished fellow voyager on the Bothnia—one contemporary, the other mellowed by a decade of reflection. “We had on board also Anthony Trollope, who wrote novels in his state room all the morning . . . and played cards with Mrs. Bronson all the evening. He has a gross and repulsive face and manner, but appears bon enfant when you talk with him. But he is the dullest Briton of them all.” In 1883, his recollections softened by Trollope’s recent death, and no doubt by a maturing modesty, the shipboard encounter took on a benevolent glow:
It was once the fortune of the author of these lines to cross the Atlantic in his company, and he has never forgotten the magnificent example of plain persistence that it was in the power of the eminent novelist to give.
The season was unpropitious, the vessel overcrowded, the voyage detestable, but Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning for a purpose which . . . could only be communion with the muse. He drove his pen as steadily in the tumbling ocean as in Montague Square; and as his voyages were many, it was his practice before sailing to come down to the ship and confer with the carpenter, who was instructed to rig up a rough writing table in his small sea-chamber.
James was among those who considered that the prolific Trollope—who sat at his writing with a watch before him, registering the...