No one can read very far in Trollope's novels without noticing a preoccupation with whether people are gentlemen and ladies. Though it is hardly a question that we keep asking nowadays, there is a widespread belief - the only one shared by all the political parties that the importance of the gentleman in England is the cause of all the nation's troubles. Not many go so far as Conrad's sailor who defined a gentleman as someone with a very thin backside because he sits so much. But generally, a gentleman is expected to be well-born, wealthy, addicted to ceremony and averse to dirtying his hands with money-making. That is nothing like Trollope's idea of a gentleman.
Think of Dr. Thorne, who announced that he wished to be paid, not in guineas, but the inelegant, plebian fee of seven and six. He did not even mind being seen at the coarse work of putting together common powders for rural bowels or spreading vulgar ointments for agricultural ailments. Far from being given to elaborate politeness, his bedside manner often consisted of a stern lecture. And he ended his proposal of marriage with: 'I can hardly keep myself from thinking that I am an old fool: but I try to reconcile myself to that by remembering that you yourself are no longer a girl'.
This flattery was addressed to Miss Dunstable, who had been floated into aristocratic drawing rooms on the oils of Lebanon and was hardly dainty, being adorned by strong, bright, crisp, black curls and given to hearty laughter. She was not worried by Lord Chesterfield's dictum that a gentleman never laughs. When friends suggested that her curls were not quite the thing, she assured them that her curls would do very well when done up with bank notes. She not only looked after her business interests herself but made a point of letting everyone know that she did. Yet Trollope allows not the slightest doubt about whether Miss Dunstable is as splendid a lady as Dr. Thorne is a gentleman.
Or consider Plantagenet Palliser. His rank is the highest and his wealth immense, but his behaviour hardly fits the stereotype. He works ceaselessly at his political duties and is obsessed with bringing in decimal coinage. As a host he disappears from the party with a spinster who entertains him by talking about cork-soled shoes. And he abruptly orders one of his guests to leave. He persecutes his daughter with an unreasonable opposition to her marriage and unjustly accuses an old friend of betraying him. Nevertheless, Trollope calls him a perfect gentleman: 'If he be not, then am I unable to describe a gentleman'.
There are no such obvious flaws in Will Belton. But he is a bluff farmer, who dines on beans, is absorbed in making farming pay and is wholly uninterested in literature or politics. His rival, Captain Aylmer, is a member of parliament, writes a pamphlet every two years and reads Dante in the recess and laces his conversation with quotations from the poets. Nevertheless, Belton is a gentleman and Aylmer is not.
Neither class nor wealth nor manner makes a gentleman but a distinctive moral outlook. It flourished in England as nowhere else since the middle ages. And that Trollope's gentlemen is the vehicle of this moral outlook may explain why many readers today feel that Trollope's novels hold an answer to some urgent questions. For although the morality of a gentleman was never explicitly recognized and is all but forgotten now, it has sustained institutions that we still value.
A quick way to describe a gentleman's moral outlook is that he believes that he possesses an immortal soul, which he is responsible for shaping and for which he will have to answer in eternity. In some interpretations of Christianity, this has been taken to mean that a human being is really a spirit that has been imprisoned in a brutish body from which he must try to escape by renouncing all earthly pleasures. This is far from Trollope's view. He believes firmly that life is a gift given by God and that we have a duty to cherish that gift. He does not encourage us to emulate Mrs. Bolton (in John Caldigate) who is sure of getting to heaven because she disdains the comfort of a fire when she rises before the sun, shivers and stubs her toes as she dresses in the dark. Trollope is no fonder of Mrs. Prime (in Rachel Ray) who lives by the moral absolute that a couple given to courting in the churchyard will burn in the eternal fires.
Trollope also refuses to interpret belief in an immortal soul to mean that the further removed an occupation is from physical labour or the pursuit of profit, the higher it is. When Luke Rowan (in Rachel Ray) abandons his chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields in order to run the brewery of Bungall and Tapitt and make it even more profitable, Trollope treats Rowan's readiness to be 'contaminated by malt and hops' as evidence for his being a gentleman.
What a gentleman means by possessing an immortal soul is that each human being is a distinct personality which he makes for himself. This has two implications: human beings are ends in themselves, never to be treated merely as a means to the good of a superior whole, whether a nation or the human species. Secondly, human beings are what they learn to be. In short, a gentleman's belief in an immortal soul identifies respect for human beings with respect for their individuality.
But a gentleman is not the sort of individualist who supposes that he has within him a candle of the Lord that lights the way to God's mind and reveals indisputable truth. His relationship with God rests rather on faith and love an acknowledgement that human existence is embedded in an impenetrable mystery.
Nowhere does Trollope suggest any doubt about the divinity of Christ or the truth of Revelation. But he does hold that the words of Revelation cannot by themselves provide indisputable directions for what to do here and now. Any set of words has to be interpreted and reasonable people may disagree about what is the right interpretation. The Church is there to give its members an authoritative answer. But as there may be more than one interpretation, there may be more than one church. Some, like Mr. Harding, will consider music a natural part of a service while others, like Mrs. Proudie, will hear in it the piping of Satan.
While Trollope's sympathies lie with Mr. Harding, what he objects to in the Proudies is their arrogant certainty that anyone who disagrees with them is doomed. A gentleman never confuses human judgments with divine commands.
But his acceptance of diversity does not make him willing to tolerate everything. He does not feel obliged to refrain from censuring and vigorously opposing what he considers to be wrong. He is careful to observe and support the laws and conventions of his society. And he does so just because he believes that human beings have no infallible touchstone for truth and virtue; for that makes them wholly dependent on fragile human inventions like laws and conventions to bring order into their lives.
It is a much more difficult assignment than bland tolerance. The Vicar of Bullhampton, for example gives himself the task of helping a girl who ran off to live in sin. Just as Mr. Gladstone was, he is suspected of the worst motives. He nevertheless persists in his project and quarrels with anyone who calls Cary Brattle a 'lost soul'. Yet he does not try to make things easier for himself by denying that Cary had sinned. On the contrary, he tells her that she is a fallen woman and cannot escape punishment for that 'dirt and vileness and depth of misery into which she had fallen'. He even discovers 'a look of boldness across her mouth which the use of had words, half-wicked, half witty will always give'. What he insists on is that she not be denied the hope of repentance nor the help she needs to achieve it. At the same time, for all his pugnacity, the Vicar keeps asking himself how it is possible to reconcile his duty to warn sinners of the everlasting fires that await them with his duty to teach them to believe in God's mercy.
How exceedingly complicated is the moral reasoning of a gentleman is shown quite explicitly in Dr. Wortle's School. A conscientious clergyman and headmaster, Dr. Wortle unwittingly hires a teacher who is living with a woman to whom he is not married. When Wortle discovers the truth, however, he refuses to banish the guilty couple. Neither does he suggest that bigamy or adultery should be condoned. When his school is ruined by the rush of parents to withdraw their children, he acknowledges that they have good reason to do so even though he himself has come to believe, after agonizing deliberation, that the circumstances of the couple are so unusual that the conventional response is not the right one.
Nowadays when we tend to see people as either conformists or rebels, Trollope's gentleman is difficult to understand because he is neither. He respects the established norms but, in interpreting them for the circumstances he faces, he is not afraid of reaching conclusions that meet with disapproval. Once he has chosen he stands his ground even though he remains aware that he might be wrong. That is why Trollope's fighting parsons are both tougher and less dogmatic than the liberal churchman today who doubts everything but the rightness of his belief in unmitigated tolerance and equality.
The spread of that belief has made it improper now to recognize social distinctions. Trollope's world is full of social distinctions. To a gentleman, they are simply unavoidable because people who live together invariably classify one another. Moreover, as people who are closely associated acquire certain resemblances, generalizations about different groupings may not be altogether wide of the mark, and the labels provided by such generalizations are handy for making quick identifications. A gentleman even sees a virtue in a social hierarchy because it may serve as a standing reminder of admirable qualities that are not, at the moment, rewarded with success. But that is only part of the story. A gentleman also recognizes that at best a label cannot accord fully with the personal reality of the wearer and that therefore it should sometimes be ignored. That both aspects of a social hierarchy should be given their due is the moral of the story of Lady Anna, where the Solicitor General argues on the one hand that Daniel Thwaite, the radical tailor, is wrong to despise aristocrats, and on the other hand that Thwaite is a wholly suitable husband for the very aristocratic Lady Anna.
There are plenty of parallels in other novels, not least in the history of Madam Goesler, a foreigner of unknown origins, a woman who lives alone. She becomes the closest friend of Lady Glencora. But when offered his coronet by the Duke of Omnium, Madam Goesler refuses because she would not take advantage of an old man's weakness. Yet she does not hesitate in the least, when Plantagenet Palliser wrongly accuses her, to reprimand him with all the blunt forthrightness of an equal. Madam Goesler is Trollope's most flawless gentleman. Despite the social distinctions, the importance of the gentleman in Trollope's world means that it is dominated by the spirit of equality. But it is an equality of respect for personality, not of rank or wealth. And that requires instead of denying or ignoring differences among people taking care to notice differences with a refined sensibility.
The details of moral conduct, which Trollope so generously provides, are all important because moral quality depends not on what is said or done but on why or how. A gentleman has no short cut to virtue, no code, only an awareness of what considerations he is obliged to take into account. His moral reasoning is consequently far more intricate and vulnerable to error than scientific reasoning. How a model gentleman, whose motives are always honourable, can fall into error and learn to correct it is superbly illustrated in the history of Plantagenet Palliser. And what is perhaps most remarkable about the character of a gentleman is that, in managing his intricate balancing act, he preserves his equanimity. That equanimity he owes to his religion which reconciles him to what Michael Oakeshott so exactly describes as 'the dissonances of a human condition’.