Tuesday 1 February 2011
I very recently entered what I'm calling my Anthony Trollope period. I have them all lined up in the shelf next to my bed, the six Palliser novels ands the six Chronicles of Barsetshire, tome-like in their mute appearance, a formidable wall of books containing an ocean of words!
I’m now reading Can You Forgive Her?, the first in the Palliser series of political novels. The author has an interesting style, much more controlled than Charles Dickens, his contemporary, and much less exuberant, though with subtle comic overtones. Like Dickens he offers a fascinating insight into the habits, attitudes and mores of Victorian England, though clearly the social milieu he prefers to look at is quite different.
He also offers himself, at least a part of himself. In Can You Forgive Her? he makes an appearance as Mr Pollock ‘the heavyweight sporting literary gentleman.’ I was delighted to discover that Trollope was indeed a keen huntsman. It shows particularly strongly in Chapter XVII of the novel, the one headed Edgehill, which describes a hunt meet and all the vagaries that arise from a hunt meet. The chapter begins so beautifully;
Of all the sights in the world there is, I think none more beautiful than that of a pack of fox-hounds seated, on a winter morning, round the huntsman, if the place of the meeting has been chosen with anything of artistic skill. It should be in a grassy field, and the field should be small. It should not be absolutely away from all buildings, and the hedgerows should not have been clipped and pared, and made straight with reference to modern agricultural economy. There should be trees near, and the ground should be a little uneven, so as to mark some certain small space as the exact spot where the dogs and servants of the hunt meet.
The whole chapter in some ways reminds me of Tolstoy’s description of a wolf hunt, one of the highlights of War and Peace, though at a far more intimate, a far more English level. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I’m thinking of the difference between epic grandeur, the sort of thing that becomes the wide-open spaces of Russia, and the more circumscribed social and physical geography of nineteenth century rural England.
Edgehill is a chapter that could only ever have been written by a rider and a hunter. Trollope captures perfectly the highs and the lows, the anticipation and disappointment that so often accompany a hunt. He knows his way and he knows his people.
They are still there, the amateurs who want to be up with the hounds, who jump every hedge and fence, who want to be in at the end, only to find that their horses are blown far too early. And then there are the experienced hunters, people who know the lie of the land and the capability of their horses; who know when to jump and when to look for ways through, who know the ditches and obstacles to be avoided. There are people who in general do not, at the close of the day, end up walking for miles, leading exhausted mounts! These are also the people who know how to keep on the good side of the hunt master, who rules the proceedings a little like Captain Bligh ruled the Bounty. Good reading; good hunting!