Victorian novelists often spoke with a narrator’s voice that was very much the voice of the author. It’s an explicit acknowledgement that the relationship is between a reader and a writer, that although the action will play out between the characters, the hand of the author is not entirely invisible. Dickens opens Our Mutual Friend with the words, “In these times of ours, although concerning the date there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance…” and then sets the scene. A writer now would simply begin “A boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames…”
When Anthony Trollope asks the question ‘Can you forgive her?’ in the famous novel of the same name, he asks it not just of his characters, but directly to the reader.
I came across this wonderful paragraph in Trollope’s political novel Phineas Finn, where he begins the chapter with a parliamentary scene, then breaks off and almost sets the story aside to share his reflections on the work of a writer:
The poor fictionist very frequently finds himself to have been wrong in his description of things in general, and is told so, roughly by the critics, and tenderly by the friends of his bosom. He is moved to tell of things of which he omits to learn the nature before he tells of them–as should be done by a strictly honest fictionist. He catches salmon in October; or shoots his partridges in March. His dahlias bloom in June, and his birds sing in the autumn. He opens the opera-houses before Easter, and makes Parliament sit on a Wednesday evening. And then those terrible meshes of the Law! How is a fictionist, in these excited days, to create the needed biting interest without legal difficulties; and how again is he to steer his little bark clear of so many rocks,–when the rocks and the shoals have been purposely arranged to make the taking of a pilot on board a necessity? As to those law meshes, a benevolent pilot will, indeed, now and again give a poor fictionist a helping hand,–not used, however, generally, with much discretion. But from whom is any assistance to come in the august matter of a Cabinet assembly? There can be no such assistance. No man can tell aught but they who will tell nothing. But then, again, there is this safety, that let the story be ever so mistold,–let the fiction be ever so far removed from the truth, no critic short of a Cabinet Minister himself can convict the narrator of error.Phineas Finn, Chapter 29.
What I like about this is that even a great novelist like Trollope knows there are limitations to a writer’s knowledge and experience, which must be overcome through imagination. We can do all the research possible, but sometimes we simply have to make it up and hope for the best. Both critics and friends will tell us which parts were wrong, and we must take it on the chin.
This passage comes just before Trollope writes the scene of a Cabinet assembly. He seems almost to be saying, ‘Look, I don’t really know how to describe this scene, but the only people who can tell me it’s false are the few people involved in a very particular job role, so I’m going to make it up and I’d like you to go along with it.’
This is, of course, in the context of a book full of authentic, thoughtful and well-researched detail. Trollope knows a lot about his subject matter. But it’s a reminder that part of the job of a writer of fiction is to simply make things up!