Books in instalments, and literary structure

I thought I’d be a bit booksy today. I’ve recently been reading two novels, one 19th and one 21st century.

The first was “The Eustace Diamonds” by Anthony Trollope, first published in monthly instalments in 1873. I had read it before in my teenage Trollope Period.

The second was “The Woman Who Stole My Life”, my first experience of contemporary Irish writer Marian Keyes.

Spoilers follow.

Like many of Trollope’s novels, “The Eustace Diamonds” has three interlinked plots, all of which here feature a woman whose name begins with L. Lizzie (Lady) Eustace is a wealthy, beautiful and unscrupulous widow whose diamonds are stolen – or are they? And were they hers to start with? She’s an intriguing anti-heroine, and her plot is amusing and original. Lucy Morris is a governess engaged to Lizzie’s cousin. She has to spend the book waiting patiently for him to decide whether he can afford to marry her. He can’t, but marries her anyway. This is an extremely common Trollope plot, here more tediously drawn-out than usual.  Lucinda Roanoke is being cajoled by her aunt into a marriage she doesn’t want. Her reaction is fascinating and not at all “Victorian”, and alas we don’t get enough of her.

“The Woman Who Stole My Life” is the 1st person narrative of Stella. It has one plot, split between several time-lines. Part One alternates (in different fonts) between Stella’s tale as housewife who spends a year in hospital unable to communicate other than by blinking; and Stella much later, physically well but very unhappy. Parts Two and Three fill in the gaps, covering her divorce, love affair, period as celebrity author, American book tour, and failure, when her life is “stolen”. Part Four finishes off. I think rather too much happens in this book. But the minor characters are wonderful.

It’s been a while since I read much Trollope, but I enjoyed again his smoothly chatty prose, his naturalistic dialogue, and his wise commentary on Victorian life. But I had forgotten how repetitious he can be. Maybe this is one of the worst, but there were endless repetitions of “as we know, X was lying”, “her friends worried about her [again] but could do nothing to help,” and similar. The book could probably have been half its length. When I complained about this to someone, they pointed out the word “instalments”. Trollope couldn’t be sure that all his readers knew the details of what had gone before, so he reminded them. More than once.

There is also a tendency for the plots (especially Lucy’s) to meander to their end rather than crisply conclude. The Introduction quotes Trollope himself as admitting that he had to improvise to make everything fit in with what had gone before, rather than having planned it beforehand, as (he says) his contemporary Wilkie Collins would have done. Again, this sounds like a result of writing in instalments. The temptation for an established author to have a bright idea and just start off, with only a vague idea of where he’s ending up, would have been immense.

Instalments were the regular way for Victorian authors to publish – the books were issued in full in the normal way afterwards, and presumably any horrendous errors could be amended at this stage.

(TV series have also been known to start off with a promising scenario, and then not know where to take it…)

Such vagueness was not an option for Marian Keyes. Her book came out in one piece, as do most today. She may have started writing Stella’s story without knowing where she was going to end up, but by the time the reader read the first chapter, the story had been finished.

This allows her, as I’ve indicated, to play around with structure. Many modern authors do this, but 19th century writers rarely do. Jane Austen’s novels, Dickens’ novels, start with chapter one, and proceed in an orderly and chronological fashion to chapter 40 or whatever. The most radical thing Dickens does is sometimes divide novels into larger sections, as with “Little Dorrit’s” two books, Poverty and Riches.

Dotting between timelines, as Keyes does, is for the modern author, who knows the reader can flip back, and who can, if she wishes, rearrange chapters one to 40 in any order she likes. We’re very used to this nowadays – see the juxtaposed timelines of “The God of Small Things”, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “White Teeth”, and many other modern classics.

The first few chapters of “The Woman Who Stole My Life” are indeed fairly tricky to follow, deliberately so. Apart from the flipping back and forwards, there is also a prologue/introductory incident about karma, which in my view adds little but confusion to the story. You can be too clever.

Whereas with Trollope, the reader always knows where, when, and with whom they are.

Interestingly, it is again Wilkie Collins who bucks the 19th century trend here. His most famous books, “The Moonstone”, and “The Woman in White”, perhaps the earliest true detective stories, were organised around collections of fictional documents to be used as evidence; narratives by various different characters. This would have taken a lot of planning in advance.

Writers like myself, who need many re-drafts, are thankful not to have to publish in instalments. The early draft of “The Lord of the Rings” apparently introduced a mysterious hobbit called “Trotter”, whom Frodo meets in Bree. Much rewriting later, and Trotter has become Aragorn, son of Arathorn, rightful King of the West.

So patterns of publishing change the style of books. Presumably this will continue.

By the way, I hope I’m not putting everyone off Trollope. I did finish it thinking I wouldn’t be reading that book again for some time, but fully intending to go back to some of the other Barset and Palliser novels.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS The blogger is about to go on holiday, and there will be no blog until 1st September.


  • Matthew Perry

    4th August 2017 at 6:21 pm Reply

    Perceptive comments about Trollope of whom I’m quite a fan but could never have explained this way; there was a reason I hated Eng Lit!

  • Judith Renton

    4th August 2017 at 9:53 pm Reply

    Confession time.
    I have never read any Trollope.
    Please forgive me.

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