December 26, 2003

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I admire the sinuous mind that can enjoy Anthony Trollope's novels but decide that they aren't really about humans - women, especially, being misrepresented - but about dragons. Tooth and Claw is a cross-section of major Trollopian themes, in a society of dragons with explicit biological reflections of Victorian landed morals. For instance: inheritances include the right to feast on the dead, and lordship the right to feast on the weak; a maiden is covered with an unmistakable blush when a suitor gets too close to her, and a blushing maiden is either engaged or ruined. Parsons aren't supposed to fly, much less hunt, and have crises of faith when confronted with the Old beliefs.

I recognize the Victorian novel in all this, and some sentences are outright Trollopian. I enjoyed it greatly. It was a romp. The oddity, though, is that the accusation is particularly unfair to Trollope. I really don't think he believed that women were innately what Victorian mores expected them to be; in Can You Forgive Her?, for instance, it seems to me that by expectation you can't, but by Trollope's leading you can. I also remember him being startlingly more accepting of "Boston marriages" than, for instance, Henry James' The Bostonians, although to my embarassment I can't remember which Trollope novel I'm thinking of... Trollope certainly thought people would be happier if they could conform themselves to society, but he didn't think everyone could, he sympathizes with some characters who can't, and he's always conscious of the enormous pressures brought to bear on everyone in society to keep them all mutually sociable. This is one reason his novels are so gloriously long.¹

However, Walton's argument is a fair attack on Charlotte M. Yonge². Yonge was pinned into a narrow ecclesiastical taste; her good women accordingly must renounce their own gifts; villainesses are interesting but far too rare.

¹All of which can be argued over at nearly equal length, and regularly is.

²Pushing a little harder, it's effective mockery of such evo-socio-biologists as reliably find that our nature and development fit us just exactly to a society in which those who are now rich and powerful will continue to be so. I doubt it's what Walton meant, I don't remember anything that seemed a commentary on modern life or even from a modern perspective. But writing about dragons who have to act so cruel, or starve, points up the free will we, or the Victorians, had in most of those acts of cruelty. ...And now that I think about it, even her dragons might not need to be so cruel, they just find it hard to resist the comparative advantage from being so. There is an emancipation movement, little detailed.

ISBN: 0-765-30264-0

So wrote clew in Fiction (19th c.). , SF&F. | TrackBack
And thus wrote others:

I admit it may be a little bizarre to postulate an entire species with the sexuality of Lily Dale, but it's _The Small House in Allington_ that gave me the image of the dragon turning pink and getting stuck that way. I thought the whole of the Alice thread of CYFH was really an issue of whether or not she turned pink with George or with John Grey, and I think Trollope palmed a card there.

It's precisely because Trollope is a nice person and a tolerant person, within his ability to be so, that the weirdness of his heroines seems so odd to me. He showed all these awful awful marriages, yet marriage is held up as the happy ending. _He Knew He Was Right_ could easily be the sequel to pretty much any of Trollope's own happy ending marriages between people who didn't know each other, and he knew that, but he kept on writing them.

Oh, and I was thinking about sociobiology, or at least it did cross my mind at one point.

I haven't read any Yonge, but she's been recommended to me recently and I'll look out for her even more keenly now.

Thanks for the review.

yclept: Jo Walton at January 7, 2004 01:46 PM

I wonder who the oldest woman I know is, because I would like to ask her just how innocent it was actually possible to be, about something that would shape one's whole life. Hm; I know a teenager from such a culture now, but the thing is that no matter what her thoughts are it would be too embarrassing for her to talk about it. So embarrassing, in fact, that it seems just barely possible to me that Lily Dale really couldn't think That Way about more than one man, or pretend she hadn't when she had.

What I need is an old reckless grandmother from such a society, who can tell me whether she personally was innocent or pretending.

Once married, Trollope's women are about as normal as the men, allowing for their smaller spheres of knowledge and action. This is suggestive. Madame Max Goesler is a whole adult person. So is Sebeth in Tooth and Claw; parallel?

yclept: clew at January 8, 2004 12:43 AM
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