The Dean’s Daughter

“The dean leaning on a gaunt spinster, his only child now living with him, a lady very learned in stones, ferns, and vermin, and who had written a book on petals. A wonderful woman in her way was Miss Trefoil.”

Thus does Anthony Trollope introduce us to the dean’s daughter at the new bishop of Barchester’s reception. The brevity and fun of the description are sufficient to tell us that Miss Trefoil will not figure largely in the subsequent narrative. She is vividly presented, a flower in a bouquet, a face in the crowd, one of the supernumeraries of which fiction is in need. We know that Trollop could have written a book about her – why is she unwed, whence the odd learning, who are her siblings who have left the nest, what binds her to her aged father? Her cameo appearance provides us with a sense of the abundance of Trollope’s potential dramatis personae.

Trollope loves all these characters; maybe, as Updike said of Salinger, he loves them even more than God could. There are no villains without a trace of virtue, no hero without a toe or two of clay. Salinger is a bad comparison. I think Trollope loved his characters just as much as God does his.

Could a misanthrope write fiction? The question is similar to one Camus posed: Can the novel be absurd? That is, can the point of a story be that there is no point to the story? Camus answers the question in the negative: if the point of the story is that the story has no point that is the point of the story. The novelist cannot avoid suggesting a context in which his narrative has meaning.

All very metaphysical, perhaps. If you want to convey the thought that life is meaningless, that will be the meaning of your story. Fiction is filled with dreary characters who must nonetheless be made interesting to the reader. Trollope seems never to have imagined a minor character; there are only some for whom he did not devise a narrative where they would take center stage. Yet like Miss Trefoil in that fleeting description, we sense her potential as a Mary Bold or Griselda Grantly.

Like Dickens, Trollope is enamored of all his characters, but Dickens’ love is of already gilded characters; Trollope’s embraces the apparently humdrum. Characters in Dickens sparkle with fantasy; in Trollope the marvelousness of the ordinary is displayed.

Any story by a natural author will seem but a sounding from a vast ocean of human variety. Anyone can be a major or a minor character; it is merely a matter of the focus of attention. The task is not to find a story, but to discard all the clinging possibilities, For all that, Trollope bids adieu to the dean’s daughter as he reveals more of Mr. Slope, currently in narrative ascendancy

“And then Mr. Slope descended with the learned Miss Trefoil on his arm. Could she tell him, he asked, whether the ferns of Barsetshire were equal to those of Cumberland? His strongest worldly passion was for ferns – and before she could answer him he left her wedged between the door and sideboard. It was fifty minutes before she escaped and even then unfed.” Mr. Slope requires attention, a slow emergence into prominence, but who does not miss the unfed Miss Trefoil?

Long thoughts to be triggered by a brief passage, perhaps, but then we have lived into a time when novels are written with the intention of thwarting the traditional expectations of the reader. Modernity in any art can be defined in terms of such subversion of expectation. On another occasion one might confront this directly and show that, as with Camus’s absurd novelist, the effort is bound to fail. I am more inclined to be thankful for the vast trove of past fiction with which to enlighten our sense of human existence. And of course there are mysteries and thrillers which continue to exhibit the classical features of fiction.

I have written all kinds of novels, some of them pretty good. I am now engaged in what is called a mass paperback series call the Rosary Chronicles. The first, The Third Revelation, came out in February; the second, Relic of Time, is due in October. There will likely be a third and who knows how many more? When I began to write, many decades ago, there were writers who churned out paper back originals for flat fees of two thousand dollars, producing maybe six a year. Following a rosier and primmer path, I was fascinated by these journeyman writers. Like the magazines on which I served my apprenticeship, rule one was to engage the reader’s interest. Rule two was, to retain it with a gripping story, then bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Poor devils in creative writings courses across the nation are taught to smile at such simplicity.

Plot is, as Aristotle said, the soul of story. Where it is absent there is only deadly narrative. Characters serve plot, and vice versa too, and so with the other elements of fiction. I came to think that fiction is a vast spectrum stretching from pulp fiction to more profound explorations of the mystery of human existence. E. M. Forster dreamt of writing novels without plot, that vulgar concession to the unwashed. Luckily, he didn’t listen to himself. He knew instinctively that every room needs a view.

It is with a certain sense of épater l’avant garde that I am writing my jumbo thrillers where the techniques lie closer to the skin of the narrative. In a way, these novels provide a means of recovering some of the dean’s daughters who never made it onto center stage in my other novels. Most important of all, there is the recovery of the sheer fun of writing fiction. The stories are a little hokey, light on subtlety, one might almost say more lifelike. But that is for you to judge.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.