Do We Need Footnotes?

Anthony Trollope

Do we need footnotes in Trollope’s novels?

In Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, she is adamant about her loathing of footnotes.

In Chapter 94, she writes,

I once got into an argument on a Trollope mailing list with people who like footnotes.  (I hate all footnotes not written by the authors.)  The people I was arguing with maintained that they needed footnotes to understand the story, because Trollope wrote expecting his readers to know what a hansom cab was and to understand his jokes about decimalization.  I argued that they’d either figure it out by context or they didn’t need to.

I have had this same comical argument many times.  Mind you, I enjoy footnotes.  They are an art, though often of interest mainly to scholars. When I have time on my hands, I’ll skim footnotes.

But even when a footnote is necessary, it is often too protracted.  I  have gleaned everything I know about England in the 19th century from reading many, many, many novels, and I am often too involved in the story to stop.  How many times have I interrupted my reading to skim long footnotes on the history of Corn Laws or Corn law repeal, not only in Trollope, but in George Eliot, George Meredith, and Charlotte Bronte?  So far, Trollope hasn’t required me to take a test.

And sometimes the footnotes are a bit dippy.

For instance, in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (Penguin), Note 1 in Chapter 3 tells me that the Acrobats (a club in the novel), may have been “the Garrick, originally in King Street, a block away from Pall Mall.”

The Dover edition (left) doesn’t have footnotes, but it’s fine with me.

Jo Walton says she tries to find editions of Trollope without footnotes.

One must have notes to read Satyrica.I admit, there are times when you need footnotes.  If you read the extant fragments of Petronius’s Satryica (formerly known as the Satyricon), you rely on notes.

We have only fragments left of this risque Roman novel. Only one manuscript (in very bad shape) survived to the ninth century:  The monks did not go out of the way to copy it, and I admit there is much that might not appeal to them:  men losing their boyfriends to other men, buggering, rites of priestesses of Priapus, and witches attempting to cure the hero’s impotence.

This irreverent, sometimes obscene, masterpiece was written by Petronius Arbiter, Nero’s arbiter of taste. It is probably (so scholars hazard) a Menippean satire (a long work of prose mixed with verse) of the first century A.D.  (Some are not sure that Petronius the author is the same as Nero’s Petronius.)   The longest chapter extant, “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Fellini’s movie Satyricon.

If you have time to read only a bit of this, I recommend “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.”  It requires the fewest footnotes.  Trimalchio is a hilarious, kindly, vulgar millionaire, a freedman who started as an accountant.  He pisses in gold chamber pots, washes his hands with wine, dries his hands in slaves’ hair, serves gourmet dishes shaped like the Signs of the Zodiac, and has acrobats jumping through flaming hoops during dinner.  Yes, like Gatsby, he’s nouveau riche.

During dinner, when an accountant  interrupts to read  to Trimalchio about the day’s happenings, Trimalchio is shocked to learn there was a fire in the gardens at Pompeii..

Hold it,” Trimalchio said, ‘when did I buy any gardens in Pompeii?”

“Last year,” the accountant told him, “that’s why they haven’t been entered in the accounts yet.”

Trimalchio blew up.  “Whatever properties’ve been bought, if I don’t get told within six months, forget it.”

petronius-satyricon-folio1This excerpt is from Frederic Raphael’s lively translation (only available through the Folio Society, alas, but now out of print and hence cheap on the internet):

Petronius’s Latin is odd, using vocabulary rarely used, and as you can imagine, one needs the notes.  But I am laughing as I read the Latin.   The guest Seleucus philosophizes on death after a friend’s funeral.

My translation?

We walk around inflated bags.  We are less than flies.  Nevertheless, flies have some virtue; we are not more than bubbles!

Yes,we are not flies but bubbles!

8 thoughts on “Do We Need Footnotes?

  1. I definitely am *not* a fan of too many footnotes – they really get in the way of the narrative and frankly if I’m reading a classic for enjoyment it really doesn’t matter if I don’t know every single little reference – I can always go and look them up on this thing we have called the Internet… 🙂


  2. Very nice piece on Petronius. When footnotes are longer than the text, something is wrong, and sometimes one needs them (as in Framley Parsonage by the way), but often footnotes can be an art in themselves, especially when they sort of dialogue with the text and keep up a running ironical alternative to what’s being said. Jim used to enjoy that — Julian Barnes was good at it.


    • Yes, lots of novelists play with footnotes. David Foster Wallace, Susanna Clarke, etc. I often very much enjoy notes, but sometimes I really need an essay, not a note. Knowing just how much to explain really IS an art.


  3. That last quotation reminds me of the epigram to John Crowley’s _Little, Big_, from Flora Thompson’s _Lark Rise to Candleford_:

    ‘A little later, remembering man’s earthly origin, “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return,” they liked to fancy themselves bubbles of earth. When alone in the fields, with no one to see them, they would hop, skip, and jump, touching the ground as lightly as possible and crying, “We are bubbles of earth! Bubbles of earth! Bubbles of Earth!”‘

    I’m all for footnotes, but I have no qualms about passing them by entirely.


    • Oh my goodness, lovely quote! Have read Flora Thompson and now must get out the Crowley. (I do have a copy somewhere.) I wonder where this bubble thing came from?

      Some footnotes are great, but I do pass up a lot of them in Trollope.


  4. There’s a whole book by Anthony Grafton on the footnote. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire benefits from judicious footnotes and in Flann O’Brian’s wonderful novel The Third Policeman many of the most interesting incidents take place in the footnotes.


    • I’m sure I would need the footnotes in Gibbons! I do need them in histories. . The Third Policeman sounds like great fun. Had no idea that there was a whole book on footnotes.


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