Since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the word "Victorian" has entered our vocabulary with a range of meaning that owes more to our preconceptions of the age than to reality. "Victorian" has so many associations which vary, depending on whether the discussion is historical, political, moral or literary. If I hear, in conversation, someone described as "Victorian", I might assume that I am hearing about a tyrannical father, or someone with straight-laced views about sex, or even someone with a taste for dark, solid, rather ornate furniture. It has been fashionable to see the Victorians as being open in coping with death but repressed in their approach to sex, the reverse of suppositions about the mores of today, where sex is everywhere and explicit and no-one knows how to talk to the bereft any more. This is a simplistic generalization of our own era, and recent academic research shows such stereotypes about life in Victorian England to be similarly shallow. Just as today people do know how to be kind and supportive in the face of death, and are circumspect in their sexual behavior, so underneath the veneer of the Victorians' own codes about acceptable behavior, people lived out lives that had much in common with our own, as they fell in love, raised families and coped with the knocks that life dealt them.
The reputation of Anthony Trollope, who lived for forty-five of his seventy years under Victoria's rule, has suffered from this same propensity on our part to make assumptions.
He has been commonly regarded as the writer of long and unwieldy novels, with a multiplicity of plot and sub-plot, about clergymen living cosy lives in cloistered cathedral sees, where the lives of his heroes and heroines, firmly positioned in the upper echelons of the well-heeled and well-born, conform to the demands of the conventions of romantic comedy. And while there has always been a solid coterie of Trollope readers who have argued for a subtler interpretation of his skills, for many years his reputation has fallen short of his merits as a novelist. This is sometimes attributed to his robust acknowledgement of the importance of financial reward from his writing and his insistence that writing novels is more akin to shoe-making than inspiration by some muse. It has been said that he advanced this theory of composition to counter the sarcastic and deflating tone adopted by Henry James in his contemporary reviews of the novels (most notably his review of The Belton Estate). Such reviews certainly colored the views of the arbiters of literary tastes for many years. James recanted to some degree in his post-obit reappraisal: however, it is intriguing that his list of Trollope's sins as a novelist now reads like a list of good reasons for reading him today, when he is enjoying renewed popularity. After years of neglect, four scholarly biographies were published between 1988 and 1992.. All his novels are now in print, in a choice of editions, and the serious bibliophile can subscribe to the Trollope Society edition. (Thirty years ago one had to scour the second-hand bookshops for his lesser-known novels, or turn to American academic editions.)
Today's reader will still find the expected stories of clerical life and political satire, but may be surprised also to find a writer who invites his reader to join him in playing games. He uses an authorial persona to step out of his narratives to comment on his characters; he tells us what is going to happen in his book, and defies us to stop reading; he teases us with what is not going to happen to his characters, and with his possible choices as author. In "The Art of Fiction" (Long-man's Magazine, September 1884), Henry James described this as "want of discretion". He continued:
In a digression, a parenthesis, or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only "make-believe". He admits that the events in the narrative have not really happened, and that he can give the narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime.
Today it smacks more of the tricks of the post-modernist's trade. Indeed, the comparison with the post-modernists is not as far-fetched as might be supposed, for examining the genealogy of Trollope's style demonstrates a close affinity with Lawrence Sterne, and Tristram Shandy is fashionably described as the first post-modernist novel. When one examines his robust and rakish taste in jokes, Trollope has far more in common with Fielding, Sterne and Smollett than he has with his contemporaries, Thackeray and Dickens. Vulgar humor in Trollope's novels is a sadly under researched field of study, but it forms a small but significant part of the texts I examine. Sceptics might consider, for example, "There's nothing like a good screw" (Phineas Redux, i, p. 164), and "the Folking property" (John Caldigate, p. 13). Henry James noticed that Trollope was "by no means destitute of a certain saving grace of coarseness" ("Anthony Trollope", Century Magazine, July 1883), which suggests that contemporary audiences heard the jokes and laughed. The mystery is why subsequent readers and commentators chose not to notice them. The World's Classics notation of, "It'll cost you something to mount Lady Tewett" (The Eustace Diamonds, i, p. zo), is, "to provide her with a horse (a mount)".
This is not to imply that the Trollope whom earlier readers thought they had read is entirely the construct of their preconceptions. On the surface, his novels do conform to many of their expectations. He does write about virtuous, well brought-up young women making rational decisions to marry decent, honest and equally well brought-up young men. Their decision to marry is based on a happy mixture of love and the pragmatism of an adequate income. Occasionally (for instance in Rachel Ray and The Way We Live Now), their virginity and their demonstrable purity are made an explicit part of the betrothal. Where the plot entails accounts of less than moral probity, a sub-plot always makes clear what true virtue is. Mary Wortle's betrothal in Dr Wortle's School is one clear-cut example of this.
The presentation of his feminists for comic effect ensures that the surface of the novels supports the status quo in the contemporary debate abut women's suffrage. His campaigners, if British, are either old and spinsters, or frustrated in their marriage ambitions; while his three major feminists are either German — with a moustache and a penchant for imitating male styles of dress in costume — or American. With both Baroness Banman (Is He Popenjoy?), and Wallachia Petrie (He Knew He Was Right), Trollope seems to be implying that their views are connected to their sexual orientation. Dr Olivia Q. A. Fleabody (Is He Popenjoy?), the Ph.D. from Vermont, is ultimately subdued into conformity by her marriage to a storekeeper and the arrival of a posse of children. Their advanced views on the emancipation of women become the displaced feelings of the sexually frustrated or the sexually deviant.
This mocking tone is notably absent from other current women's issues. The Custody of Infants Act (1839), the Matrimonial Causes and Divorce Act (1857), and the subsequent Married Women's Property Acts (1870 and 1882) are all brought to bear in his plots. He Knew He Was Right is a powerful commentary on the Custody of Infants Act. The need for better protection for women's finances is a major theme of The Prime Minister, but also prompts a large number of passing comments in many novels about a woman's need to take care when she entrusts herself to a man. The harsh operation of the Contagious Diseases Acts (of 1864, 1866 and 1869), may well have influenced the sympathetic way Trollope presents the plight of a young woman driven by want into prostitution in Can You Forgive Her? It is almost certainly implicit in Euphemia Smith's powerful description of the injustices of her position in John Caldigate, published in 1879, as Josephine Butler's crusade against the Acts was coming to fruition.
It is also possible to detect in He Knew He Was Right a shift in Trollope's opinion about women's behavior while he was writing it, in response to an article which gained much acclaim at the time. Elizabeth Lynn Linton's article in the Saturday Review, entitled "The Girl of the Period", lambasts young women who affect fast morals and modes of dress, and predicts dire consequences for the men they marry and any children they may bear. It was published when he was two thirds of the way through writing his novel, and there is good evidence in the text that he had read the article and felt Mrs Lynn Linton's views to be extreme, and that this influenced passages in the later chapters of the book. His next novel, The Vicar of Bullhampton, specifically mentions the article, and the plot is constructed to refute her view. These issues are pursued in depth and at greater length in this book, though they are not the major thrust of the argument.
What I am primarily concerned to demonstrate is that, while it is clear that there is a surface to the novel where his creations conform to the expectations of the age, and support the conventional view of Trollope, close examination, particularly of the women, reveals that he can demonstrate a deep and subtle understanding about how relationships between the sexes operated. In his autobiography he says of the novelist's task:
He desires to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creations of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living, human creatures. This he can never do unless he knows those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them well unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false .. . There is a gallery of them, and of all in that gallery I may say that I know the tone of the voice, and the color of the hair, every flare of the eye, and the very clothes they wear. Of each man I could assert whether he would have said these words; of every woman whether she would have smiled or frowned. (An Autobiography, pp. z32-33)
In acquainting himself so intimately with his characters, he discovers insights into their behavior that go beyond straight observation. The method-acting techniques which he reveals that he uses lead to a portrayal of his characters that is deep, committed and satisfying. When we notice the effect this has on the delineation of his women characters, we are forced to move on, from a conventional view of the novelist, to a Trollope who is one of the truest of observers and recorders of human behavior, and this is a most compelling reason to re-read Trollope and to re-evaluate him.
In order to establish some bench-marks on the lives of women at the time he was writing, the book begins with a brief examination of the constraints — social, legal and educational — that limited women's fulfillment. Ensuing chapters examine groups of women drawn widely from Trollope's novels, with detailed examination of individuals to illustrate the more general observations about the group. Some of the detail about these women is surprising. What close study of Trollope's women reveals is the number who refuse to conform to the expectations of the age. His virgins can be erudite, rebellious, independent-minded, stubborn, and passionate when sexually aroused. He portrays with considerable empathy women who flout the codes of socially acceptable behavior. He exposes the double standards of a society that says that women's only career is marriage, but that it is unseemly to seek a husband. In examining marriages he marches fearlessly into the bedrooms, and is intrepid in examining those intimate relationships unhallowed by the sacrament. And while the primary story-line supports the status quo – and some comic lines appear to deride the women's cause – a strong sub-text emerges that urges reform for the traps that his women find themselves in.
This I find all the more remarkable in the context of his conventional reputation. Could it be that it is our generation's sensitivity to these issues that has contributed to the surge in Trollope's popularity today?