Thursday, April 08, 2010

The lens of the artist

The focus of the artist’s lens: Austen, Hardy, Trollope and Dickens
Robert L. Fielding

Born in the same year as Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, Anthony Trollope lived a full life removed of the threat of invasion by the French. Hardy, on the other hand, knew those times and wrote about them; his novel ‘The Trumpet Major’ is full of the threat of imminent invasion by Napoleon’s Grande Armee. Austen, writing earlier than both, sharpened her focus to the drawing room’s of landowners and other gentry, bringing in the ‘outside world’ only rarely.

Hardy’s tragedies drew back from the inner confines of his protagonists, and included trends and changes of the days of which he wrote. Sergeant Troy enters the sylvan, bucolic tranquility of Bathsheba Everdene, struggling to run her farm, and brings worldliness and dash to her world of rustic simplicity.

With such innovations as the opening of the first public steam railway when he was yet a boy of ten, and later, in 1835, the mania created by steam, Trollope’s novels reflect, not entirely a sylvan setting in the cathedral close of Barchester, but an onrush of the modern to deluge his characters in the form of the dominance in all matters, public as well as private, of the fourth estate: the Press.

Tom Towers, top man at the Jupiter, represents both the independence of the Press, essentially a truly modern entity, and its ubiquitous presence, influence and commentary on every facet of life. Warden Harding’s peace of mind is disturbed, cataclysmically and forever, by a lawsuit against him and his inherited stipend.

Trollope, unlike Austen, and on a smaller scale than his contemporary, Charles Dickens, allowed the issues and trends of the day into his stories. And whereas Hardy let them intrude but little, preferring to use omnipotent forces to quell the beating hearts of his characters, Trollope showed his falling prey to the omnipotence of powers centred upon a country increasingly dominated by its capital, London.

Dickens embraced the life of London in a way that neither Hardy nor Trollope ever did. Trollope dealt with the power emanating from the capital at a more telescopic distance.

Dickens infused most of his novels with the influence of London, dealing with the malign forces that oppressed some of its inhabitants, chiefly the young and the very old, and the poor.

While the literature of these great novelists is not exactly looking at life through ‘the cracked looking glass of a servant’ as Irish art was once described, every writer purposely leaves out that which he or she does not wish to write about. Put the other way round, writers in any age only deal with those facets of life they know something about or wish to discover or delve into whilst writing. For Austen, it was the ways we can delude ourselves, for Hardy, how forces beyond our control often affect our lives, for Trollope, it was how institutions like the Church can be manipulated and themselves manipulate, for Dickens, it was the ways man can and does work against man.
Robert L. Fielding