• William Powell Frith Prison SceneAnthony Trollope's 1874-1876 serialised novel, The Way We Live Now raises some interesting (and telegraphically suggestive) problems about sequencing information. Switching: Mrs Hurtle’s Letters When Mrs Hurtle summons Paul Montague to her for their penultimate interview, it is by letter.  A very short letter, which reads, “Yes. Come.  W. H.”  The reader knows this is in fact the third of three letters that she has written to Paul, but the only one she has posted.  When he arrives she shows him the two others, explaining that “I could not send them all by post, together. But you may see them all now.” By delivering them herself, in the order she chooses, Mrs Hurtle makes her letters into a linear sequence under her control – a sequence they would obviously have lost if she had posted them all at once.   “There is one. You may read that first. While I was writing it, I was determined that that should go.’”  “There is one,” she says, not – ‘there is the first’, but ‘there is one’, for in fact the letter she now hands him is “the sheet of paper which contained the threat of the horsewhip,” which was not the first letter she wrote, but rather the second. She avoids ordinal numbers, which would reveal the sequence of writing. The very first letter she wrote she presents to Paul last, explaining that “‘[t]he charm of womanly weakness presented itself to my mind in a soft moment,--and then I wrote this other letter. You may as well see them all.’ And so she handed him the scrap which had been written at Lowestoft.”  She deliberately muddles the sequence of the letters, and, without exactly lying, strongly implies that the softer letter was written after the angry one, and so reduces Paul to tears so that he throws “himself on his knees at her feet, sobbing.”

This all occurs in Chapter 51, a chapter entitled, ‘Which Shall it Be?’ When Mrs. Hurtle, having written the self-sacrificing and loving note at Lowestoft, turns over the sheet of paper she has written on and “gave play to all her strongest feelings on the other side,--being in truth torn in two directions.”  “On the other side” refers of course to both of the sheet of paper and the other side of the question.  In an interesting moment of meta-plot-switching, (Which Shall it Be?), Trollope’s novel draws his readers’ attention to the control of information.  Mrs. Hurtle controls Paul’s reactions by re-sequencing her letters.  He is controlled, as we are both as readers of this novel and also as citizens, by his access to information and the order in which it is dispatched. The part-issue monthly serial form that he uses for The Way We Live Now was already out-of-date and unusual by 1874.  But Trollope creates something new of it in this novel, by making it switchback and fast forward, thereby stylistically compressing and distorting the regular distances between characters and stories.  When we switch back three weeks, or are told something has not yet happened, the effect is of a kind of time-collision.  Too much is happening in too many different places for the narrative to control, so that the timeline has consequently overloaded, and its linear seriality has buckled.  And the risk of losing the serial system is that we lose the order.  The ordinal numbers, what happened first, second, third, are confounded by late delivery, and I suggest that for Trollope this represents a political risk, as much as a narratological one. In social terms, too much compression of distance, too much muddling of the order, could lead to “equality,” to a society where there is no first, second or third at all, but rather what Trollope himself described as “communism…ruin… insane democracy.”[i]   The ‘Liberal’, explains Trollope in his Autobiography, (and he had of course himself stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate at Beverley in 1868), “is alive to the fact that these distances [between people of different classes] are day by day becoming less,” and while he applauds the prevailing “tendency towards equality” he stops short of advocating total “equality,” a word which he claims is “offensive.”[ii]  Of course the fact that it is Mrs. Hurtle, the not-quite-respectable American with ‘a bit of the wild cat in her breeding,” who muddles the texts in this scene further suggests a connection between the disruption of narrative, and democracy and social risk.

[i]  Anthony Trollope An Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Nicholas Shrimpton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p.183.  Trollope writes, “I will not say equality, for the word is offensive, and presents to the imaginations of men ideas of communism, of ruin, and insane democracy.”

[ii] Ibid., p.182.