Friday, October 7, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 3

A continuation of A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire and Part 2: The Palliser novels.

The Way We Live Now (1875): One of Trollope's greatest and most entertaining novels, which is eerily prescient about the destructiveness of rampant greed and speculation. Augustus Melmotte, a financier of immense wealth and mysterious (and possibly Jewish) origins, sets up in London and soon has rich men clamoring to buy shares in a railroad investment scheme. Paul Montague, a young and near-penniless partner in the scheme, raises questions about what is happening with all the money, but is brushed off. Meanwhile Paul is falling in love with Henrietta Carbury, which causes a breach between him and his older cousin and patron Roger Carbury, who has long loved Henrietta. Henrietta is in turn heartbroken when she learns that Paul has been seen with Mrs. Hurtle, an American woman with whom Paul has had a long-term affair and to whom he may have promised marriage.

Then there is Henrietta's ne'er-do-well brother Sir Felix Carbury, who has quickly run through his inheritance. He sees in Melmotte's daughter Marie a way of disembarrassing himself from his present and future debts, while Marie sees in Sir Felix a way of escaping her stultifying family life. Finally, there is Georgiana Longestaffe, a sister of one of Sir Felix's cronies. In her desire to marry a rich man, she makes a series of blunders that lead instead to her social ostracism. Ultimately she engages herself to the considerably older Ezekiel Breghert, an upright and honorable Jewish banker; but then she learns that, thanks to Melmotte's fraudulent machinations, Breghert has lost a vast sum of money. The portraits of Melmotte, Sir Felix and Georgiana—people who measure their relationships with others solely on the basis of the monetary and social benefit to themselves—are devastating. For none of them is happiness truly possible.

Perhaps this is the place to address the anti-Jewish attitudes that are occasionally expressed in Trollope's novels. It is difficult to know whether these attitudes are Trollope's own, or whether they are simply the expression of the prejudices of (often not very admirable) characters. Certainly, anti-Jewish feeling was quite common in Victorian society; Trollope, in portraying that society, could not ignore those feelings, and it would be remarkable if he himself were completely immune from them. However, Mr. Breghert, who is the only unambiguously Jewish character in The Way We Live Now, is also unambiguously kind, respectable, and honest. He is also one of Melmotte's victims, and Georgiana's treatment of him is a reflection of her weak and shallow nature.

Similarly, Trollope seems to share some of the common Victorian attitudes about the proper sphere and deportment of women. In Can You Forgive Her? he is capable of writing about Alice Vavasor's acceptance of Mr. Grey, "Of course she had no choice but to yield. He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy." But at the same time, Trollope shows a keen awareness of how painful and unjust could be the duties of women in Victorian society. Alice Vavasor, Lady Laura in the Palliser novels and Mrs. Hurtle in The Way We Live Now chafe at the domesticity and subservience expected of women. They want to live in a way that has an impact on the larger world, and Trollope portrays their dilemmas with great sympathy.

Then there are the portraits of spirited, independent women—among them Lady Glencora and Isabel Boncassen in the Palliser novels—which are among his most delightful creations. So again, while Trollope doubtlessly shared some of the typical attitudes of his day, he could also examine them critically and offer examples, both good and bad, of characters who transcend the expectations and constraints placed on them.

In social life we hardly stop to consider how much of that daring spirit which gives mastery comes from hardness of heart rather than from high purpose, or true courage. The man who succumbs to his wife, the mother who succumbs to her daughter, the master who succumbs to his servant, is as often brought to servility by a continual aversion to the giving of pain, by a softness which causes the fretfulness of others to be an agony to himself,—as by any actual fear which the firmness of the imperious one may have produced. There is an inner softness, a thinness of the mind's skin, an incapability of seeing or even thinking of the troubles of others with equanimity, which produces a feeling akin to fear; but which is compatible not only with courage, but with absolute firmness of purpose, when the demand for firmness arises so strongly as to assert itself. With this man it was not really that he feared the woman;—or at least such fears did not prevail upon him to be silent; but he shrank from subjecting her to the blank misery of utter desertion. After what had passed between them he could hardly bring himself to tell her that he wanted her no further and to bid her go. But that was what he had to do. (The Way We Live Now, Ch. 47)

The Way We Live Now was made into an excellent BBC TV miniseries in 2001.

He Knew He Was Right (1869) is a portrait of the corrosive power of jealousy. The happily married Louis Trevelyan becomes at first uncomfortable with, and then bitterly suspicious of, the friendship of his wife Emily with one Colonel Osborne. Trevelyan orders Emily not to see or correspond with Osborne; her disobedience (and Osborne's) throws the marriage into crisis. By the standards of Victorian society Trevelyan is "right," but his rigid adherence to principle destroys his happiness and ultimately threatens his sanity.

Meanwhile, Emily's sister Nora is being wooed by the wealthy Mr. Glascock, while her heart belongs to the penniless journalist Hugh Stanbury. And in another subplot, Hugh's sister Dorothy is pursued both by the unctuous clergyman Mr. Gibson and by her charming cousin Brooke Burgess—but both Dorothy and Brooke are informed by Dorothy's wealthy aunt that she will disinherit Brooke if he marries Dorothy.

Nora, for the last ten minutes, had been thinking that this would come,—that it would come at once; and yet she was not at all prepared with an answer. It was now weeks since she had confessed to herself frankly that nothing else but this,—this one thing which was now happening, this one thing which had now happened,—that nothing else could make her happy, or could touch her happiness...But when she was asked to come and be his wife, now and at once, she felt that in spite of her love it was impossible that she could accede to a request so sudden, so violent, so monstrous. He stood over her as though expecting an instant answer; and then, when she had sat dumb before him for a minute, he repeated his demand. 'Tell me, Nora, can you love me? If you knew how thoroughly I have loved you, you would at least feel something for me.'

To tell him that she did not love him was impossible to her. But how was she to refuse him without telling him either a lie, or the truth? Some answer she must give him; and as to that matter of marrying him, the answer must be a negative. Her education had been of that nature which teaches girls to believe that it is a crime to marry a man without an assured income. Assured morality in a husband is a great thing. Assured good temper is very excellent. Assured talent, religion, amiability, truth, honesty, are all desirable. But an assured income is indispensable. Whereas, in truth, the income may come hereafter; but the other things, unless they be there already, will hardly be forthcoming. (He Knew He Was Right, Ch. 39)

He Knew He Was Right was made into another well-produced BBC TV miniseries in 2004.

Miss Mackenzie (1865): In An Autobiography (1883) Trollope wrote, " nineteen...I had already made up my mind that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language." Miss Mackenzie is Trollope's most Austen-like novel, and not just because much of it is set in "Littlebath," a fashionable coastal resort that strongly resembles Bath. Miss Mackenzie reads something like a sequel to Persuasion—but a sequel to a Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth's letter declaring his love for Anne Elliot goes undiscovered.

Miss Margaret Mackenzie is a woman "neither beautiful nor clever," who has reached the age of thirty-five after spending two decades of her life serving as a nurse for her sickly father and brother. Like Anne Elliot, Margaret Mackenzie possesses an endearing kindess together with a clear-sightedness about those around her, and about herself.

On her brother's death she suddenly finds herself in possession of a modest fortune, which enables her for the first time to begin to live by and for herself. Her newfound independence of means attracts four suitors: Harry Handcock, a longtime family friend; Samuel Rubb, Jr., the self-regarding son of her brother's business partner; Mr. Maguire, a charismatic but unscrupulous clergyman; and the widower John Ball, a middle-aged cousin, whose resentful, scheming mother believes that Miss Mackenzie's inheritance really belongs to her son.

Miss Mackenzie was voted a "Neglected Classic" by the listeners of BBC Radio 4, and has been dramatized with the superb Hattie Morahan (of BBC TV's excellent Sense & Sensibility (2008)) as Margaret.

But still, if she left all her chances to run from her, what other fate would she have but that of being friendless all her life? Of course she must risk much if she was ever minded to change her mode of life. She had said something to him as to the expediency of there being money on both sides, but as she said it she knew that she would willingly have given up her money could she only have been sure of her man. Was not her income enough for both? What she wanted was companionship, and love if it might be possible; but if not love, then friendship. This, had she known where she could purchase it with certainty, she would willingly have purchased with all her wealth. (Miss Mackenzie, Ch. 13)

An Old Man's Love (1884) is Trollope's heartbreaking final novel. Written just a few months before Trollope's death, much of the novel was dictated to his 27-year-old niece, Florence Nightingale Bland. Florence was the daughter of his wife Rose's sister, Isabella Heseltine Bland. Isabella and her husband Joseph Bland died when Florence was eight years old; Trollope and his wife took Florence into their house and raised her as their daughter.

Florence's life has suggestive parallels to the situation of the 25-year-old Mary Lawrie, the heroine of An Old Man's Love. When both of Mary's parents die, she is taken in by William Whittlestaff, a friend of her father. As time passes Whittlestaff, despite being twice Mary's age, begins to fall in love with her. Mary, however, has already given her heart to John Gordon, a young man who has gone to South Africa to make his fortune in the diamond mines. However, keenly aware of everything she owes to her guardian, and having heard nothing from John Gordon for three years, Mary agrees to marry Whittlestaff. Before she does so, though, she confesses to her future husband that she loves another man. Then Gordon unexpectedly returns, and all three are faced with painful choices.

What if he should give her up to one who did not deserve her,—to one whose future would not be stable enough to secure the happiness and welfare of such a woman as was Mary Lawrie! He had no knowledge to guide him, nor had she;—nor, for the matter of that, had John Gordon himself any knowledge of what his own future might be. Of his own future Mr Whittlestaff could speak and think with the greatest confidence. It would be safe, happy, and bright, should Mary Lawrie become his wife. Should she not do so, it must be altogether ruined and confounded. (An Old Man's Love, Ch. 15).


  1. Dear Pessimisissimo,

    I am fascinated by your Trollope series while not, as you know, entirely riveted by the extensive discussion of his even more massive novels. But as someone with my own tastes for arcane literature, I entirely understand the impulse...

    This time around, I am fascinated however, and feel compelled to respond in some way, to the first entry, particularly the "Perhaps this is the place to address the anti-Jewish attitudes that are occasionally expressed in Trollope's novels" paragraph.

    British anti-Semitism has been a most curious historical phenomenon, indeed, as practically no Jews lived in England before the enormous outmigration from Eastern Europe and Russia at the end of the 19th century - and yet it is a recurring, ambivalent, and even ugly theme in English literature since Chaucer, if not before. Unlike the European Mediterranean world, or Central and Eastern Europe, there was a lack of converted "hidden Jews" or pogroms sanctioned by princes and the likes of Martin Luther. And Jews who had come to England tended to be Sephardim, rather than Ashkenazim.

    The emancipation of Jews did occur during the Victorian era, however, an included the rise of individual politicians and businessmen of Jewish ancestry to significant positions, most notably Benjamin Disraeli, Tory MP and twice Prime Minister. The "Wiki version" of all of this may be explored:

    The most erudite treatment is Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford UP, 2010 - in paper in England and should be soon in the U.S., too) - although it is as massively long as a Trollope novel and, if reader reviews can be trusted, a far from literary pleasure to read.

    On the topic of Mr. Breghert being "unambiguously Jewish" yet also "unambiguously kind, respectable, and honest," you're perhaps best off reading Proust. Or more timely, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. While outside of England, these marvelous readings provide insights into ambivalent and racist European attitudes toward artistically, intellectually, professional, and financially successful Jewish individuals and families in Europe. Highly recommended.

    With most sincere feelings of respect,

    M. Lapin

  2. Cher M. Lapin,

    Many thanks for the resources and links you suggest on the subject of Victorian anti-Semitism.

    I hope in my post that I didn't sound like an apologist for Trollope's (or anyone's) anti-Jewish attitudes. I did mean to suggest, however, that the question of anti-Jewish attitudes in Trollope's novels is a complicated one.

    For one thing, while Trollope is never shy about addressing the reader directly, whenever an anti-Jewish comment is made it is—so far as I've been able to discover, anyway—always in the voice of a character (and often a not very admirable character) and not the author. For another, if we take Melmotte (from The Way We Live Now) and the Rev. Emilius (from The Eustace Diamonds and Phineas Redux) as perhaps the most negative and stereotypical portrayals, neither character is, in fact, unambiguously Jewish. Melmotte's origins are obscure, and Emilius has become a Church of England clergyman. They are both, however, foreign, and have mysterious and indeterminate histories; xenophobia is also a major element of the Victorian social attitudes evident in the world of Trollope's novels.

    Thanks again for your comment!