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!