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Trollope's views on women

David Skilton

Trollopiana, Issue 2. 1988

Few among the major male writers of English in the mid-Victorian period had the understanding of systematic feminism which we find in (say) Ibsen's Doll's House of 1879, and Anthony Trollope is no exception. Nevertheless later critics have found much to praise in his imaginative awareness of women's needs and aspirations. At his worst he presents comic quasi-masculine feminists like the 'enthusiastic hybrid', Dr Olivia Q. Fleabody, and the daunting Baroness Banmann from Bavaria, who battle for control of the 'Institute for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females' in Is He Popenjoy? - an organisation full, the narrator tells us, of 'strong-visaged spinsters and mutinous wives' (World's Classics, 1944, 1.162 and 11.266). Alice Vavasor, the sympathetic heroine of Can You Forgive Her? wants to do something with her life, but has to be dissociated from the 'flock of learned ladies' who had arisen around her: 'She was not so far advanced as to think that women should be lawyers and doctors, or to wish that she might have the privilege of the franchise for herself (Penguin, 1972, pp. 140-41). Yet Trollope is often very good in allotting a wide scope of action to the women in his fiction. (One thinks of Madame Max Goesler, for example.) And his mentions of Robert Kennedy's suit for the restitution of his conjugal rights over Lady Laura are still chilling to read.

In 1869, the year in which J.S. Mill's Subjection of Women appeared, Trollope began the serialisation of The Vicar of Bullhampton, his only novel to be structured around that important issue of the 1860s and '70s, the 'Woman Question'. The Vicar of Bullhampton is one of those novels which have been unfairly neglected because they have been seen as poor cousins of the Barsetshire books, as though they were unsuccessful attempts to recreate the Barsetshire magic. In fact The Vicar of Bullhampton stands as one of Trollope's better examinations of a set of complex issues; and if he doesn't come to a 'solution' to the problems involved, then, one may say, so much the better for him.

The Vicar of Bullhampton contains one of those characters frequently met with in Trollope who spend much of a novel trying to decide between two marital candidates. At the time the story-pattern involved was met with irritated disdain by a critic in the Saturday Review who accused Trollope of being like an artist who year after year submits to the Royal Academy a painting of a donkey hesitating between two bundles of hay, the only difference between his recent novels being that the 'expression of the donkey's eye may vary a little' (Review of The Belton Estate in the Saturday Review xxi (3 February 1866), 140-42). Everyday difficulties, problems and decisions - particularly when they are a woman's - are not suitable subjects for 'noble' art: 'There is a brisk market for descriptions of the inner life of young women,' the Saturday Review explained in its notice of Rachel Ray, 'and Mr. Trollope is the chief agent in supplying the market' (vxi (24 October 1863), 554-5). Yet in 1927 Michael Sadleir praised one of the offending pieces of the novelist's merchandise, The Vicar of Bullhampton, f6r the psychological modernity of its principal woman character. 'Mary Lowther, its heroine,' he wrote was condemned at the time of her appearance for fickleness and lightness in her loves; to-day she seems sensible enough and, as a young woman, wholly natural. Wherefore The Vicar of Bullhampton shows that an author, who is in many ways aggressively a product of his age, may yet, in psychological judgments, forecast the standards of another, later period' (Trollope: A Commentary, p. 396).

Half a century on, the late twentieth-century reader has to wonder just what issues are involved. The first striking thing about the book is that it is unique among Trollope's novels in having a preface. A few years earlier he had been quite firm: 'No dedication and no preface. It is all nonsense. I never wrote a preface and never dedicated a book' (letter of 31 May 1867). Yet less than three years later we find him addressing his readers directly in a preface, to apologise for introducing in The Vicar of Bullhampton 'the character of a girl whom I will call - for want of a truer word that shall not in its truth be offensive - a castaway', and bringing of her back 'from degradation at least to decency'. He feels compelled to go on to explain that he has not made the character attractive (or 'glamorous', as we should say today), and that the novel is therefore not an encouragement to vice. From the distance of more than a century his fears seem groundless. The fiction is carefully designed to exclude any identification with the 'castaway', Cary Brattle, and indeed any very close knowledge of her at all. His difficulty arises from the fact that he was trying to integrate the question of prostitution into a treatment of 'the Woman Question', the social issue which in the late 1860s was occupying most thinking people in every medium of public discussion, from Parliament (where John Stuart Mill proposed an amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 to extend the franchise to women) to fiction and the Press.

Two references in chapter 37 of The Vicar of Bullhampton reveal that one of the stimulae to Trollope in writing the novel was the furore caused by an article in the Saturday Review of 14th March, 1868, entitled 'The Girl of the Period', which stood in a long line of articles in the same weekly paper on the manners and morality of Englishwomen in society. In 'The Girl of the Period' Mrs Eliza Lynn Linton announces the disappearance of the modest 'brown-haired' girl, at first sight so like the young women celebrated by Trollope in his novels 'the simple genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesties'- and her replacement by a painted follower of the fashions of prostitutes -'this loud and rampant modernization, with her false red hair and painted skin, talking slang as glibly as a man, and by preference leading the conversation to doubtful subjects'. The 'Girl of the Period', moreover, was supposedly unresponsive to the claims of family, and selfishly disregarded the needs and feelings of all around her.

Trollope included a brief, mocking reference to the 'Girl of the Period' article in He Knew He Was Right, the novel he was writing when it appeared, where an American feminist, Wallachia Petrie, relates what the Saturday Review has said about fashionable English motherhood, to a friend who is planning to marry an Englishman: 'If you have a baby, they'll let you go and see it two or three times a day. I don't suppose you will be allowed to nurse it, because they never do in England. You have read what the Saturday Review says' (Chapter 81, World's Classics, 1948, p. 758). Mrs Linton indeed used breast-feeding as a touchstone to distinguish motherly love from vanity and selfishness, asserting that the new generation of English children received 'but a stepmother's cold welcome' from their mothers. It seems that this was not the England and English family life Trollope knew, and Wallachia Petrie's ready credence of the claims put forward in 'The Girl of the Period' represents Trollope's characteristically defensive belief that feminists and Americans in general, and hence American feminists in particular, based their arguments on evidence that was simply untrue. Mrs Linton, he believed, was just as fallible when she asserted that in all other areas of emotional and familial life too, 'the girl of the period has done away with such moral muffishness as consideration for others, or regard for counsel and rebuke'. The Vicar of Bullhampton was written to make Trollope's point that a young woman could have a due and proper regard for herself and her own emotional and material interests without adopting the manners of a prostitute on the one hand or being politically speaking a feminist on the other.

The narrator discusses Mary Lowther, his heroine, at the conclusion of chapter 71: The conduct of his heroine will, he fears, meet with the disapprobation of many close and good judges of female character. He has endeavoured to describe a young woman, prompted in all her doings by a conscience wide awake, guided by principle, willing, if need be, to sacrifice herself, struggling always to keep herself from doing wrong, but yet causing infinite grief to others, and nearly bringing herself to utter shipwreck, because, for a while, she allowed herself to believe that it would be right for her to marry a man whom she did not love.

Contemporary critics were not favourably impressed by this attempt of Trollope's to demonstrate that a young woman who had a clear sense of her own worth and identity when making a marriage choice was not in consequence either what the Saturday Review would consider 'fast' or he would judge unfeminine. A 'contradictions tone and temper pervade every scene', the Saturday reviewer complained: 'Nobody is pleasant ... A sort of savageness pervades the book both in gentle and simple ... ferocity is the required gauge of feeling throughout ... Nothing tender or engaging would suit [the heroine] or anybody else in the story' (Saturday Review, 14 May, 1870). Trollope characteristically side-stepped the issue in An Autobiography with the suggestion that this strand of The Vicar of Bullhampton was unimportant to him: 'As I have myself forgotten what the heroine does and says - except that she tumbles into a ditch - I cannot expect that anyone else should remember her' (World's Classics, 1980, p. 333). What the heroine does and says, however, is at the very centre of the book.

Whether the first germ of the novel was the story of Mary Lowther, or whether this tale of genteel life was concocted later to give his target readership the sort of characters they expected to be able to identify with in a novel principally written about a 'castaway', the fact is that Trollope put the two stories together as a full response to Mrs Linton's attack on contemporary social morality. If modern young women were accused of adopting the behaviour of prostitutes, it must be shown not only that the case could not be substantiated but that the real life of 'fallen women' was essentially unattractive. He introduced an unglamorous 'fallen woman' into the novel to demonstrate that the average 'gay' woman (as they were then called) was somebody neither to envy nor to emulate.

Trollope's care in treading an unimpeachably moral line in the matter of Carry Brattle is obvious from our dispassionate distance, but it is worth asking why he felt so defensive about combining the two major strands of this novel and making the stories of Mary Lowther and Carry Brattle cast light on each other. The Saturday's critic makes a revealing comment.

There is, he says, 'no connection whatever between the two trains of events and two groups of characters which occupy its pages' except for 'a sort of involuntary unity' deriving from 'a local colouring associating all the personages as one cast in the reader's mind. Mary Lowther and Carry Brattle never come across one another, but they have points in common.' These 'points' are - to the reviewer unpleasantness and incivility. To the modern reader Mary's stance represents an attempt at independence, while both young women justly (from our point-ofview) resent the interference and condemnation of others, particularly the Vicar of the title. It also becomes clear that Frank Fenwick, the eponymous Vicar, must supply the title of the book since neither young woman can be allowed titular pre-eminence if their stories are to be put in quiet partnership.

'The Girl of the Period' explains the question of the novel's title, since Mrs Linton based her argument on assumptions as to how men perceived the attractiveness of women: 'all men whose opinion is worth having prefer the simple genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesties, to this loud and rampant modernization'.

Though scornful of systematic feminism, Trollope liked more life in the women in his life and his works than Mrs Linton would approve. The difficulties that arose from his imaginative concession to the needs of female self-assertion in the face of his rejection of the feminist case are dramatised in the relation of the Vicar of Bullhampton to the events around him. Frank Fenwick gives the name to the book because it is essentially a book about men assessing the behaviour of women and having problems with it.

It would be pointless to summarise Fenwick's stages of incomprehension of Mary Lowther's position, or his rather more than pastoral affection for Carry Brattle: the narrative charts these quite clearly, pointing up the second point with an expressive rhetorical disclaimer: 'And then, too - but let not the reader read this amiss - because she was pretty and might be made bright again, and because he was young, and because he loved her, he longed, were it possible, to make her paths pleasant for her' (page 283). Throughout the novel the author understands much more about other people than does his character - or his narrator, come to that. At first he presents Janet Fenwick's 'sensible' and conventional ability to have 'learnt to love' her husband almost as though it were a desirable model to be followed by all young women. Yet when Mary explains her feelings for Harry Gilmore, and why she cannot accept his offer of marriage, she is entirely vindicated. Even so Mary's state of mind is unenviable: 'She believed of herself that she was much to blame in that she could not fall in love with Harry Gilmore' (page 32). Then when she discovers another kind of love it seems to receive the narrator's endorsement:

It was true enough that though she loved this man with all her heart and soul, so loved him that she could not look forward to life apart from him without seeing that such life would a great blank, yet she was aware that she hardly knew him. We are apt to suppose that love should follow personal acquaintance; and yet love at third sight is probably as common as any love at all, and it takes a great many sights before one human being can know another. Years are wanted to make a friendship, but days suffice for men and women to get married (page 216).

Many people today disapprove of the kind of devotion Mary considers it right to feel for Captain Marrable, but there is nothing wrong in Trollope's diagnoses of her mental twists and turns along the route to this love. We can still read Trollope for his attention to the stages and techniques of self-deception, and for his characters' attempts to 'teach' themselves to think, behave and feel in certain ways which they rationally approve, while 'learning' more-or-less painfully about their emotional needs and the strategies of emotional survival. The requirements of modern women with regard to the conduct of their lives have changed, but the preservation ' of self in everyday life is no less an imperative demand. Trollope's virtue is that his imaginative awareness stretches to breaking point the institutional commonplaces he so often utters. He could not accept the virtue of major instutional changes, but within existing social structures he imaginatively identified with his women's needs for self-fulfilment and self-determination.

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