Tag Archives: 19th century British literature

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

Time to pull another Trollope novel randomly from the shelf. This time it was Lady Anna, and on the back cover of my Penguin edition there’s a snippet: “Trollope pronounced Lady Anna (1874) ‘The best novel I ever wrote.’ ” And after finishing it, I cannot understand that statement at all–what about his beloved Barchester Towers (1857) or my personal favourite to date The Claverings (1867)? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Lady Anna, and it certainly had its merits, but at just over 500 pages, Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.

Lady AnnaLady Anna revolves on a legal case, certainly not an unfamiliar backdrop for Victorian novels, but here instead of fusty old legalities, there’s more than a touch of scandal and a heavy dollop of debauchery. The case involves a woman known as Josephine Murray who married Earl Lovel, and from the small parish church the 24-year-old bride was taken to Lovel Grange, an “ill-omened looking place.”  Trollope tells us that she did not love her much-older husband and that she married for ambition; “she wanted to be the wife of a lord.”  Thus he sets the stage for us to have some, but not too much, sympathy for this character.

Unfortunately Josephine Murray made a very bad choice. While the Earl is an extremely wealthy man, he’s also rumoured to be quite mad. That’s as good a term as any for the Earl’s strange, antisocial behaviour

He had so lived as to teach himself that those men who devote themselves to their wives, as a wife devotes herself to her husband, are the poor lubberly clods of creation, who had lacked the power to reach the only purpose of living which would make life worth having. Women had been to him a prey, as the fox is a prey to the huntsman and the salmon to the angler. But he had acquired great skill in his sport, and could pursue his game with all the craft which experience will give. He could look at a woman as though he saw all heaven in her eyes, and could listen to her as though the music of the spheres was to be heard in her voice. Then he would whisper words which, to many women, were as the music of the spheres, and he would persevere, abandoning all other pleasures, devoting himself to the one wickedness with a perseverance which almost made success certain.

So the wicked Earl is a seducer of women, but this time, with Josephine, his best efforts fail, and he “could be successful on no other terms than those which enabled her to walk out of the church with him as Countess Lovel.”  With a lecher for a husband, you’d expect Josephine to be unhappy, but her misery goes far deeper. Six months after the marriage, the Earl announced that he committed bigamy when he married Josephine as he had a wife still living (who has since died) in Italy. He refuses to remarry Josephine and tells her that he’s back off to Italy and that she can chum along as his mistress. The Earl, now supposedly a widower, departs for Italy … alone.

Josephine, with debts mounting, lives in precarious circumstances and the only person who offers to help her is a humble tailor named Thwaite. He takes Josephine and her daughter, Anna into his home, devoting his time and money towards Josephine’s restoration as the Countess of Lovel. It’s acknowledged that the Earl went through a marriage ceremony with Josephine, but the big unknown is whether or not the Earl is lying when he belatedly revealed himself to be a bigamist. There’s some evidence that points to the fact that the woman was already dead when the Earl married Josephine, but the Earl, who’s buggered off to Italy, argues otherwise and proof, one way or another is sketchy. It doesn’t help matters that some Italian woman, alive and well, claims to be the Earl’s first wife, but she may be the sister of the deceased first Countess, simply after money.  

Josephine now has a dilemma: should she choose to pursue prosecution and win the case against the Earl for bigamy, she will, in reality, publicly acknowledge that she was the man’s mistress and that her daughter is illegitimate. Both Thwaite and Josephine expect the case to fail, but it’s the necessary first step in proving her likely-legitimate claim to the earl’s title and fortune.  The Earl (in absentia) is acquitted of bigamy and then the case is slowly fought to establish Josephine’s claim.  Decades pass, and the death of the Earl throws the issue of inheritance back to the fore. Suddenly it’s Josephine’s claim to the estate vs the claim of the new young handsome Earl ….

Lady Anna reminded me of Is He Popenjoy?–another novel about illegitimacy and a mysterious marriage that may or may not have taken place in Italy. The characters in Lady Anna were not as satisfying however, and our hero, Daniel Thwaite, the son of the noble tailor, and Anna, Josephine’s daughter are not particularly interesting characters. Daniel, a capable serious young man, seems a little on the self-righteous side while Anna is entirely overshadowed by her mother, Josephine–a far more interesting, damaged, character.

Josephine is a woman obsessed. She married a blackguard for money and position and she’s spent her life to its pursuit–all in the name of her daughter, but this devotion becomes questionable as the novel wears on and we see that Josephine loves her daughter in as much as Anna can fulfill all the latent longing for titles and social position–even though these things have proven to be useless, empty ambitions. Josephine nurses her grudges against those who refused to help her when she was abandoned by her husband, and while that’s certainly understandable, she also, in a manner which shows her true nature, turns her back on the Thwaites. It’s one thing to remember your enemies, but it’s another thing to forget your friends

While there’s romance here, one of the underlying theme is legal vs. moral justice. Josephine seeks legal justice against her husband and yet when she finally gains that, she’s not too interested in moral justice–she ascribes her own desire for money and position to Daniel Thwaite when he seeks to marry Anna, but he’s challenged by the new Earl. Who will win Anna’s hand?

Lady Anna drags on past its due date, and events could have been wound up much sooner, but even so this is a Trollope novel, and he always has some wonderful observations to make about human nature. Here’s Daniel a radical who longs for the eradication of nobility;

Measuring himself by his own standard, regarding that man to be most manly who could be most useful in the world, he did think himself to be infinitely superior to the Earl. He was the working bee, whereas the Earl was the drone. And he was one who used to the best of his abilities the mental faculties which had been given to him; whereas the Earl,–so he believed,–was himself hardly conscious of having had mental faculties bestowed upon him. The Earl was, to his thinking, as were all Earls, an excrescence upon society, which had been produced by the evil habits and tendencies of mankind; a thing to be got rid of before any near approach could be made to that social perfection of which he fully believed.   

In Lady Anna, Trollope creates some subversive situations in his observations of class distinctions. Daniel believes that nobility is an antiquated fetish of the society in which he lives, and we see, through Trollope’s characters, that Daniel is right. Josephine is twisted by her dreams of regaining the long-elusive title, and through her daughter, she plots, along with the two opposing legal teams, to reestablish the status quo of titled society.

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Henry Dunbar by M.E. Braddon

M.E. Braddon’s Victorian Sensation novel Henry Dunbar followed enthusiastic readings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife, and while Henry Dunbar shares some characteristics with Lady Audley’s Secret, it’s not nearly as good. Both novels hinge on the question of identity, but Lady Audley’s Secret throws in some other elements too which add greatly to the novel’s pacing. For this reader, Henry Dunbar started very promisingly indeed but then became caught in a repetitive loop until the novel’s best character was introduced towards the conclusion.

henry dunbarBut first the plot…

Henry Dunbar is about to return to England from India after a thirty-five year absence. Following the deaths of his uncle and father, he is the sole heir to the fortune of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, East India bankers, one of the oldest and richest firms in London. In his youth, Henry Dunbar was a bad boy. He was a dashing young officer with mounting debts when he persuaded the very young and very impressionable Joseph Wilmot, an underling at the company, Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby, to cover his debts with a short-sighted forgery scheme. The forgeries were revealed. Wilmot was sacked from his job with no references and young Henry Dunbar was packed off to India. In the 35 years that followed, Henry Dunbar has worked hard in India, married, fathered a child, and become a widower.

That which would have been called a crime in a poorer man was only considered an error in the dashing young cornet of dragoons, who had lost money upon the turf.

When the novel opens, Sampson Wilmot, the younger brother of the forger Joseph Wilmot, is the only person present at Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby who knew the young Henry Dunbar. Sampson tells the story of the scandal involving Henry Dunbar and Joseph Wilmot to Mr Balderby (who owns 1/4 of the company), and this story sets the scene for the drama that follows. Joseph Wilmot paid dearly for the forgery while Henry Dunbar was not ruined. He was simply put on ice–as many young scoundrels were in the days of the British Empire–by sending him out to India where presumably, he would ‘learn his lesson.’ Joseph, on the other hand, with no references, went from “bad to worse,” and was eventually transported to Australia for life for forgery crimes. Mr Balderby listens to the story and shows sympathy for Joseph who acted solely under pressure Henry Dunbar’s influence. Balderby notes that as a wealthy man, Dunbar “has had a long immunity from his sins. I should scarcely think it likely he would ever be called upon to atone for them.” Sampson doesn’t agree:

“I don’t know, Sir,” the old clerk answered. “I know that I’ve seen retribution come very late, very late; when the man who committed the sin had well night forgotten it. Evil trees bear evil fruit, Mr. Balderby.”

This first chapter, full of foreboding, is very well done, and Braddon ratchets up the suspense so much so that I actually felt the story possibilities being narrowed down dramatically. In this well-crafted beginning, we learn very early on that no one knows what Henry Dunbar looks like. He sent his infant daughter, Laura and step-daughter back to England years before, and all of Dunbar’s other relatives are dead. No one except old and frail Sampson Wilmot can identify Dunbar. There was at one point a portrait of Dunbar commissioned by his family, but that went mysteriously missing. Now Dunbar is about to arrive back in England after a 35-year-long absence and old Sampson Wilmot is being sent to meet him. Braddon seems to relish in dropping hints about the story to come. We’re told that “Laura Dunbar might pass her father in the street without recognizing him,” and that “no portrait of Henry Dunbar exists.” Dunbar was originally accompanied by a valet but he became ill and was left at Malta. Henry Dunbar will arrive alone in England.

In the next chapter, we meet a bitter shadowy character who calls himself James Wentworth and his saintly daughter, Margaret, who puts food on the table with her meagre earnings as a piano teacher. This domestic scene gives a strong sense of James Wentworth’s character, for he’s unable to appreciate his daughter’s love due to the bitterness of early experience and hatred of society. He tells Margaret how he was “brand[ed] by society” and “transported for life,” and for all of his life’s woes, he blames Henry Dunbar who, according to Wentworth “never suffered” for what happened.

Fate, darkly brooding over these two men throughout half a long lifetime, had held them asunder for five-and-thirty years, to fling them mysteriously together now.

Yes the two men meet and what occurs takes up the rest of the story.

We can chew over some of the story elements and draw our own conclusions. We are told, for example, that Joseph Wilmot was a good person before being corrupted into a life of crime by Henry Dunbar, and yet Joseph Wilmot’s actions throughout the course of the book would argue otherwise. He’s a crap human being, criminal past or no criminal past. He’s a horrible father and brother and seems to think of no one else except himself.

The prevailing idea in the novel is the idea of justice for the rich vs. justice for the poor. Of course, there’s the 35-year-old forgery case in which Dunbar was sent off to India to stew while Joseph Wilmot was sacked without references. Dunbar recovered without tarnish from the event. Joseph Wilmot, who already had a lowly position in life, never recovered and was hammered lower and lower until all he could do was commit crimes in order to survive. But while that’s all history, when the novel begins, Braddon shows us a repeat lesson that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. The question of murder arises and Braddon rather cleverly shows that a millionaire is above the law.

Money is a very powerful agent, and can buy almost anything. It is rarely that a man with almost unlimited wealth at his command, finds himself compelled to commit an act of violence.

Some characters seem to be created to little purpose. Henry Dunbar has a step-daughter, but she’s always off in the sidelines and isn’t developed. Margaret Dunbar is so saintly that her choices grate at times. She’s determined to martyr herself on her principles, and that of course, spurs on her lover, Clement Austin to finally hire a detective to solve the mystery at the novel’s core. This clever, relentless detective, Mr. Carter is the best character in the book:

little by little, I put my questions, and keep on putting ‘em till every bit of information upon this particular subject is picked clean away as the meat that’s torn off a bone by a hungry dog.

Lady Audley’s Secret is also centred on the question of identity–a question that was drawn out by missed encounters and slippery opportunities. Braddon uses the same plot elements here but to weaker results as the characters in Henry Dunbar are not as well drawn. Braddon, however, keeps us guessing–although we are given plenty of clues along the way.

The origins of Detective Fiction can be found in Sensation fiction, and here we see crime rooted in the domestic lives of Braddon’s characters. Happy couples in love cannot marry, cannot begin family life until a crime is solved. The police remain a nebulous ineffective bunch who make a fatal error, and it takes Clement Austin and his love for Margaret to cast caution to the winds and pursue the case–no matter the consequences. Gambling all, Clement employs the wily detective Mr. Carter to solve the case, and Carter approaches the case with fresh, unprejudiced eyes.  In the book, The Literary Lives of M.E. Braddon, author Jennifer Carnell argues that “nearly all of Braddon novels contain an element of crime and detection,” and that “of all the sensation novelists Braddon was the one most associated with crime and criminal life.”  In The Doctor’s Wife, Braddon’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a murder sneaks into the narrative–almost as though Braddon can’t resist adding it. The element of crime which appears in Braddon’s novels adds a subversive level to the tales. In Henry Dunbar, for example, we see one law for the rich and one for the poor. Henry is given multiple chances while Joseph Wilmot is not. “The laws of society are inflexible,” yet crime usurps social order so social order dictates the punishment or lack thereof.

** I read Henry Dunbar on the kindle. The edition shown is the Victorian Secrets edition. Unfortunately I did not know that there was a recently re-issued edition when I began reading the book.

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Victorian Secrets: Publisher

No, I’m not talking about lingerie, so keep your smutty thoughts to yourself.  I’m talking about a publisher I recently came across and I wanted to spread the word:

VICTORIAN SECRETS

A small, independent UK based company obviously going against the flow, and for that reason alone, they deserve some support. My regular readers know that I read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed two novels by George Gissing: New Grub Street and The Odd Women.   I was lucky enough to have long-ago purchased print copies of these books on my shelf. Yes, if you have a kindle, Gissing is available FREE, and while there’s a lot to be said for e-versions, these new Victorian Secrets critical editions have their advantages too. Some of us like to read those 19th century multi-plot Victorians in a print version with introductions and notes.

Victorian Secrets have several other Gissings in print:

Demosdemos

Thyrza

ThyrzaWorkers in the Dawn

workers in the dawnVictorian Secrets has some interesting non-Gissing titles too, so I encourage all you 19th century fanatics to take a look. Some of their titles are pleasantly and tantalizingly obscure. And here’s their latest release:

Not wisely but too well

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The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon Part II

Carrying on from part I, there’s an important quote from one of the novel’s great characters, sensation author Sigsimund Smith. Sigismund, who appears to be a fictional stand in for Braddon, after all, earns a living from writing exactly the sort of books that have led to Isabel’s skewed vision of life. It seems ridiculous to presume that either Sigismund or Braddon would ever preach against novels, yet Isabel’s problematic world view has been formed by reading. According to Braddon, Sigismund Smith “sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers.” As Sigismund tells his smitten friend, Gilbert, Isabel is beautiful but “she reads too many novels.”

“Don’t suppose that I want to depreciate the value of the article. A novel’s a splendid thing after a hard day’s work, a sharp practical tussle with the real world, a healthy race on the barren moorland of life, a hearty wrestling-match in the universal ring. Sit down then and read Ernest Maltravers, or Eugene Aram, or the Bride of Lammermoor, and the sweet romance lulls your tired soul to rest, like the cradle-song that soothes a child. No wise man or woman was ever the worse for reading novels. Novels are only dangerous for those foolish girls who read nothing else, and think their lives are to be paraphrases of their favourite books. That girl yonder wouldn’t look at a decent young fellow in a Government office, with three hundred a year and a chance of advancement,” said Mr. Smith, pointing to Isabel Sleaford with a backward jerk of his thumb. “She’s waiting for a melancholy creature with murder on his mind.”

The Doctor's wifeIndeed, Isabel doesn’t dream of a happy-ever-after; her dream is of tragic doomed love. She idolizes Ernest Maltravers, Henry Esmond and Steerforth, and “sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind.” Sometimes she dreams of dying young of tuberculosis–a painful death, but one to her which is infused with tragic glamour.  A glimpse of Isabel’s character can be seen through her employment as a nursery governess for two orphaned children under the guardianship of Mr. Charles Raymond. She loves playing with the children and teaching them her romanticized version of history:

she gave them plenty of Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots, –fair princess Mary, Queen of France and wife of Thomas Brandon,–Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday.

The children only said ‘Lor!’ when they heard of Mademoiselle Corday’s heroic adventure: but they were very much interested in the fate of the young princes of the House of York, and amused themselves by a representation of the smothering business with the pillows on the school-room sofa.

Mr. Raymond understands that Isabel’s approach to education is flawed, but he considers that she possesses a “decent moral region.” And that’s a rather important distinction as it turns out.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Isabel marries Gilbert. She doesn’t love him, but this marriage is an opportunity for a different life, and momentarily even Isabel is caught up in the romance of courtship. What follows is a drab, budget honeymoon with Isabel, who so wanted to look like Florence Dombey on her wedding day, dressed in a brown silk dress, not of her choosing, but purchased by Gilbert for its “homely merit of usefulness.” On her wedding day, she acknowledges “her life had never been her own yet, and never was to be her own.”  She makes one attempt to glamorize her home and then when that fails, she returns to the solace of her books. Rejected by her peers who tediously discuss “the last popular memoir of some departed Evangelical curate,” Isabel withdraws even more. Gilbert who choose Isabel because she was so different from all the other young women he knew, wishes to “smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.” Life goes on. Isabel is “content with a life in which she had ample leisure to dream of a different existence.”

Some time later, through Isabel’s former employer, Mr. Raymond, Isabel makes the acquaintance of a very wealthy man, Roland Lansdell, a local landowner who is also an author of a volume of poems An Alien’s Dream, one of Isabel’s favourite volumes. Roland Lansdell is flattered by Isabel’s very evident worship, and worship can be a very powerful aphrodisiac. Lansdell isn’t a great poet, and somewhere deep down, he knows this, but to Isabel, who trembles in his presence, he’s one of her idols–a hero stepped out from one of her books: wealthy, troubled, difficult, handsome, & restless. In fact, Roland and Isabel have a lot in common and when it comes to temperament, they rather dangerously share some character traits, a passion for books, and a yearning for doomed, impossible romance.

In Madame Bovary, the novel that inspired The Doctor’s Wife, we see Emma Bovary at the end of the line. Unleashed she destroys herself. The Doctor’s Wife is Braddon’s take on the tale, and there’s a very different moral element at play here concerning the “affair” and its consequences. For this reader, The Doctor’s Wife is a delightful read, and particularly for the growth of the characters. Even though Braddon intended to create a more literary novel which is mostly achieved here by literary allusion, there some elements of Sensation Fiction–coincidences that defy plausibility and even a murder.

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The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon Part I

After finishing and thoroughly enjoying Lady Audley’s Secret, I moved on to another Braddon novel. I rarely read two novels by the same author in a row, so that’s an indication of my latest obsession with Victorian Sensation Fiction.  This time it’s The Doctor’s Wife–a complete change of pace for the author. The novel appeared in 1864, and according to the introduction to my Oxford classics version:

 Braddon seems to have been in the process of developing a strategy, which she pursued for the next couple of years, of producing pairs of novels, one of which was aimed purely at the commercial market and the other at ‘Fame’ and artistic recognition.

Lynn Pykett goes on to explain that for 1864, The Doctor’s Wife (Braddon’s personal favorite) was her “literary novel” for the year, and that Braddon “an inveterate recycler of her own and other novelists’ plots, borrowed this one from Gustav Flaubert.”

Here again is a quote from the intro in which Braddon acknowledged her source;

The idea of The Doctor’s Wife is founded on “Madame Bovary,” the style of which struck me immensely in spite of its hideous immorality.

Given that Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon’s best-known novel contains bigamy, madness, blackmail, arson, murder, and desertion, I couldn’t help but wonder quite where Braddon was coming from with the comment about the immorality of Madame Bovary. Did she really mean that comment to be taken at face value or was this a pose–a pretense of shock or an excuse to “recycle” the book as her own? I’m not a Braddon scholar, so I can only speculate, and in my personal opinion, I can’t take Braddon’s comment at face value as I consider her to be a bit of a trickster. Gustav Flaubert’s novel certainly went through the laundry cycle repeatedly in Braddon’s version; the s0-called scandalous aspects of Flaubert’s novel are bleached clean and instead we get the bare bones of Madame Bovary Anglicised and Braddonised. As a result Braddon’s characters are much better-behaved people than those found in Flaubert’s tale.

The Doctor's wifeThe title gives it away, of course; this is the story of a doctor’s wife, but let’s back up a little bit.

Small town doctor George Gilbert, who grew from a “commonplace” lad to a decent, solid man, is just 22-years-old when he travels from his hometown of Graybridge-on-the Wayverne to London for a week’s holiday to visit an “old schoolfellow,” Samuel Smith who’s now churning out Sensation Fiction under the name Sigismund Smith. Smith is one of the novel’s great characters (and there are several here); always taking notes and looking for inspiration for the next blockbuster, he seems to be a fictional stand-in for Braddon herself:

Mr. Sigismund Smith was a sensation author. That bitter term of reproach, ‘sensation,’ had not been invented for the terror of romancers in the fifty-second year of this present century; but the thing existed nevertheless in divers forms, and people wrote sensation novels as unconsciously as Monsieur Jourdain talked prose. Sigismund Smith was the author of about half a dozen highly-spiced fictions, which enjoyed an immense popularity amongst the classes who like their literature as they like their tobacco–very strong.

Sigismund is currently working on Smuggler’s Bride which will appear, as do all of his novels, serialized in “weekly numbers at a penny.”  In spite of making a decent living writing titles such as Lilia the Deserted and Colonel Montefiasco *, or the Brand upon the Shoulder-blade, he “fondly nursed” the “dream” of writing something serious and substantial. It’s through Sigismund that George Gilbert meets Isabel Sleaford, the daughter of a barrister of questionable reputation. The Sleafords rent a modest home in Camberwell, and Sigismund lodges with the “free-and-easy” family in a ramshackle house in sore need of repairs. The Sleafords rent on a “repairing lease,” and we’re told that Mr. Sleaford “must have anticipated a prodigious claim for dilapidations at the expiration of his tenancy.” Sigismund tells Gilbert that the family is thinking about sailing for Australia.

Gilbert enters into this haphazard household, meets, and is completely entranced by Isabel Sleaford, a young pale, black-eyed beauty who’s busy reading a novel by one of her favourite authors, Algerman Mountfort–a novelist whose books, according to Sigismund are “dangerously beautiful,”

beautiful sweet-meats, with opium inside the sugar.

Sigismund’s descriptions are closer to the truth than he realizes. 17-year-old Isabel’s real world is not a happy one. The Sleafords live in poverty while Mr Sleaford juggles schemes and bills. Isabel has four half-brothers and a step-mother. She’s had a patchy education, and all she wants to do is read, read, read. Unfortunately, her reading choices emphasize romance and thrilling adventure, so she has grown up with a very romantic, skewed view of life. Books are her escape, but because they’re the best part of her life they’ve also become alarmingly real.

She had been taught a smattering of everything at a day-school in the Albany Road; rather a stylish seminary in the opinion of the Camberwellians. She knew a little Italian, enough French to serve for the reading of novels that she might have better left unread, and just so much of modern history as enabled her to pick out all the sugarplums in the historian’s pages,–the Mary Stuarts, the Joan of Arcs and Anne Boleyns, the Iron Masks and La Vallières, the Marie Antoinettes and Charlotte Cordays, luckless Königsmarks and wicked Borgias; all the romantic and horrible stories scattered amid the dry records of Magna Chartas and reform Bills, clamorous Third Estates and Beds of Justice. She played the Piano a little, and sang a little, and painted wishy-washy-looking flowers on Bristol-board from nature, but not at all like nature; for the passion-flowers were apt to come out like blue muslin frills, and the fuchsias would have passed for prawns with short-sighted people.

*There’s that trickster peering through

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Cousin Henry

Cousin Henry (1879), a short novel which runs to just 280 pages in my edition, came late in Trollope’s career. Weak on characterisation, but strong on its depiction of guilt, it’s not the best place to start for anyone treading into Trollope territory for the first time.  Trollope’s sub-plots are absent and instead this is a very simple story in which Trollope examines the question of inheritance.

The elderly, childless Indefer Jones owns an estate, Llanfeare, in Wales. When the book opens, he’s close to death, and he’s spent the last few years of his life vacillating back and forth regarding the disposition of his estate. For many years now, his young niece, Isabel Broderick, has lived at Llanfeare. Isabel is the product of Indefer’s now deceased sister and an attorney who has since remarried and has several children by his second wife. Mr. Broderick’s new wife, Isabel’s stepmother, considers Isabel a burden and a threat to the family’s limited resources. During visits back home to her father, Isabel has been courted by the local curate, Mr. Owens–a man who has but 200 pounds a year to live on. Uncle Indefer cannot decide whether to leave his estate to Isabel or to a male relative, a young clerk, the Cousin Henry of the title, who lives in London.

cousin henryA dilemma arises. Indefer, when he’s in the mood to leave his estate to his devoted niece, Isabel, forbids her to marry Mr. Owens, “the grandson of an innkeeper,” so when he keeps changing his mind, Isabel, who still expects to be left a sizeable legacy from the estate if it goes to Cousin Henry, believes she will be free to marry Mr. Owens. Indefer agonizes about the decision:

Mr. Indefer Jones, who was now between seventy and eighty years old, was a gentleman who through his whole life had been disturbed by reflections, fears, and hopes as to the family property on which he had been born, on which he had always lived, in possession of which he would certainly die, and as to the future disposition of which it was his lot in life to be altogether responsible. It had been entailed upon him before his birth in his grandfather’s time, when his father was about to be married. But the entail had not been carried on. There had been no time in which this Indefer Jones had been about to be married, and the former old man having been given to extravagance, and been generally in want of money, had felt it more comfortable to be without an entail. His son had occasionally been induced to join with him in raising money. Thus not only since he had himself owned the estate, but before his father’s death, there had been forced upon him reflections as to the destination of Llanfeare.

Indefer, at one point had a younger brother named Henry, who “disgraced the family.” He ran off with a married woman and spent too much time at “race courses and billiard-rooms.” While Indefer strongly disapproved of his brother’s lifestyle, he acted as a benefactor for his wastrel brother’s son, the Cousin Henry of the title. Indefer even paid for his nephew to attend Oxford, but he was sent from there in disgrace. The young man is seen to be “sly” and “given to lying,” and is considered a great disappointment. Shortly after the book opens Cousin Henry is summoned to Llanfeare and this releases Isabel to visit her family. Indefer still agonizing about the disposition of the estate, thinks that Isabel ‘deserves’ it  but believes that the estate should go to a “Jones.” The perfect solution, as far as he is concerned, would be if Isabel agreed to marry her cousin, but she refuses to do so.

Uncle Indefer dies, and the last will, drawn up by the very sagacious lawyer, Mr. Apgood indicates that Cousin Henry is the heir. Isabel is supposed to inherit 4000 pounds, but there’s no 4,000 pounds to give. This leaves Isabel penniless and Cousin Henry the new owner of a large estate. But is there another will? Did Uncle Indefer, famous for his will changes, dictate another will prior to his death? Two local farmers swear this is so and that Isabel is the rightful owner. Where, then, is the last will?

One of the problems with the story is that Cousin Henry is seen by everyone in the novel as weak and despicable.  All the servants at Llanfeare and the locals think that Isabel, a young woman  they know well, should have inherited the estate, and the fact that Cousin Henry is the heir is seen as grossly unfair. For his part, Cousin Henry thinks he’s rather hard done by, and he has a point. His uncle summoned him from London–it wasn’t as though Henry weaseled his way into the house on false pretenses. If anyone needs to share some blame here, it’s Indefer Jones for not being able to make up his friggin’ mind. Cousin Henry, quite frankly, has my sympathy. The estate has been dangled in front of his nose for years. Yes, he’s a vacuous young man, but he was promised the house repeatedly, and now Master of Llanfeare he’s treated badly by the servants, who, in some sort of mini-rebellion, all give notice and depart–with the exception of the housekeeper who serves him very poor meals.

Isabel is not an appealing heroine. She says she thinks that the house should go to Cousin Henry, but then when the chips are down, it’s clear that she’s bitter about it (not that I blame her). She rather hypocritically considers that she’s too much of a “lady” to appear to care about the inheritance, and so she refuses to join in the hue and cry when the house is searched for the missing will. And then there’s her relationship with Mr. Owens–a very flat character who doesn’t leave much of an impression. Isabel proudly refuses to take that 4,000 pounds in payments from her cousin. So even though she didn’t become the heiress of Llanfeare, she still can’t marry Mr. Owen as he’s too poor to support a family. Isabel’s stepmother wants to shake some sense into Isabel and I did too.

The best part of the book is Trollope’s understanding of Cousin Henry’s thought processes : he has the justification, the opportunity, and the need to seize the moment, but he isn’t a bad man, and so he believes that passivity still leaves some room for the moral high ground. I loved the descriptions of Henry’s inner moral arguments as he goes back and forth, trying to decide if he should do the ‘right thing,’ and then arguing with himself about what that ‘right thing’ might be.

 While the main characters are weakly drawn, there’s a peculiar aspect to this book–I wondered if Trollope considered making it longer at some point. A court case for legal action against the local newspaper which has published numerous anti-Cousin Henry articles is in the works and the formidable Mr. Cheekey (otherwise known as Supercilious Jack) is mentioned and discussed in tones of fear and awe by several of the characters. It is arranged that during the trial Henry will be brought “under Mr Cheekey’s thumbscrews” in order for the truth to be discovered. The legendary Mr. Cheekey, however, never appears and we are left only with his awesome reputation for wringing the truth from his victims in court. Mr. Cheekey, a character who is only talked about in Cousin Henry remains firmly established in the mind of this reader. Seems like a bit of a waste of a wonderful character.

Trollope seems to be playing with the roles here of the good vs the bad characters. Traditionally Isabel would be considered the heroine, but she’s hard to like, and poor Cousin Henry would be the villain, yet here Trollope clearly intends Henry to be a sympathetic character– in fact he even addresses this victimization of Henry towards the end of the novel. Perhaps that’s why Trollope treats these two with generosity–opting for the positive outcome. Trollope also considered the question of inheritance in the excellent novel: The Belton Estate.

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Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon Part II

From Norman Donaldson’s introduction to my copy of Lady Audley’s Secret:

Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire whether his copy of [her] Braddon’s novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself “steeped in Miss Braddon” and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R.L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that “it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and that you have attained.”

High praise indeed.

Lady audley's secretIn my last post, I wrote a little about M.E. Braddon. After finishing Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which I loved, if you can’t already tell, I wondered how much the author’s background as an actress contributed to her novel. Yes it’s a Victorian Sensation novel and occasionally melodramatic, but it also has a stage-quality to it; in other words it’s ripe for adaptation. This is an incredibly well-plotted book, and at its heart, its very dark heart, is a mystery connected by two seemingly separate story threads.

Sir Michael Audley, a 55-year-old widower and the father of an only child, 18-year-old Alicia, meets and unexpectedly falls deeply in love with Lucy Graham, an orphan with no family, a governess for the children of the local surgeon. With her angelic looks, blonde curls and soft “melting” blue eyes, there’s something fey about Lucy Graham; she’s a veritable enchantress:

Wherever she went she seemed to take joy and brightness with her. In the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam. She would sit for a quarter of an hour talking to some old woman, and apparently as pleased with the admiration of a toothless crone as if she had been listening to the compliments of a marquis; and when she tripped away, leaving nothing behind her (for her poor salary gave no scope to her benevolence), this old woman would burst into senile raptures with her grace, beauty, and her kindliness, such as she never bestowed upon the vicar’s wife, who half fed and clothed her.

That passage gives an indication of the charm that Lucy Graham possesses and the spell she weaves on some people. Sir Michael Audley considers his first marriage to his long-dead wife a “dull jog-trot bargain made to keep some estate in the family.” This time, he wants to marry for love, but he goes ahead with the marriage knowing that Lucy does not love him and accepts his proposal due to his wealth and position. Not all people, however, are won over by Lucy. Alicia Audley can’t stand Lucy Graham, but then perhaps she’s prejudiced and disgruntled by being displaced in her father’s affections and in the household. Then again, Alicia’s Newfoundland dog, Caesar, growls at Lucy in spite of her efforts to befriend him. As for Lucy Graham, or Lady Audley as she becomes, she’s very child-like, given to pouts, giddiness, headaches but more than anything else, she is indulged by her new husband who gives her everything she wants. Overall, to outsiders, the marriage seems successful.

The other story thread concerns 25-year-old George Talboys who abandoned his wife and child in England and sailed to Australia to make his fortune. Gone 31/2 years, he returns to England a rich man only to discover that his wife is dead. Talboys reconnects with a school friend, Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Audley, the cousin, then, of Alicia. Robert Audley, who is the moral centre of this wonderful story, is my favourite character in the book. When the novel begins, he’s a wastrel. He’s “supposed to be a barrister,” but “he had never either had a brief, or tried to get a brief, or even wished to have a brief in all those five years, during which his name had been painted upon one of the doors in Figtree Court.” He lives on 400 pounds a year, maintains a small household with one faithful servant and is a thoroughly “lazy, care-for-nothing fellow.” Almost against his will, and certainly against his nature, Robert Audley assumes the role of an amateur detective of sorts as he becomes involved in the mystery surrounding George Talboys and his wife. He’d rather just ignore the mystery and return to his lazy ways but it becomes a matter of conscience and morality, and even Robert cannot ignore that. He’s a marvelous character, and we see his growth as a human being as the novel continues. Initially it almost takes a crowbar to gouge him out of his comfortable, undemanding little life and take action, but take action he does. Once faced with the moral dilemma of whether he should seek the truth or turn away, he’s persistent and not to be swayed from his mission to discover the truth even though he’s all too aware that he may seriously wreck the lives of other people he cares about.

Lady Audley’s Secret is partly about compulsions–the things that drive us. Robert Audley, for example, gets to the point that he feels he cannot control the compulsion to discover the truth. When the book begins, he’s a very happy man, but he loses that peace of mind. He asks himself if he’s “tied to a wheel” turning “with its every revolution.” But he’s not the only character to be driven by a compulsion. Sir Michael Audley, who can’t help himself, marries Lucy against his better judgement, and then there’s George Talboys, driven by compulsion to abandon his wife and child and set sail to Australia. That brings me to Lady Lucy Audley, driven by compulsion in all her acts. Why? Well read the story to find out.

The title Lady Audley’s Secret seems to give a hint to the reader, and I thought I more or less knew the plot before opening the first page. While it’s easy to guess some of the plot before it rolls out, this does not alter the book’s intense, page-turning readability. Yes there’s a secret and but there are also multiple crimes to be revealed before the end of the novel. In other words, it’s the journey not the destination that grips the reader.

Here’s the beginning of the novel, heavy with description of Audley Court–a screen-play style opening, so cleverly constructed, that places the reader at the scene with its intense descriptions of a house in which all is not as it should be….

It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.

At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand–and which jumped straight from one hour to the next–and was therefore always in extremes. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.

A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county. To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss. To the left, there was a broad graveled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by godly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.

While this tale of bigamy, madness, murder, blackmail scandalized and thrilled its Victorian readers, scratch the surface and there’s a poignancy to this tale regarding the fate of women whose careers are limited to the ignominy of becoming a governess or hoping for marriage–for better or worse, love or no love. For those out there who’ve read the novel, did anyone else feel sympathy for Lady Audley?

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Lady Audley’s Secret by M. E Braddon Part I

I’d intended to read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel, Lady Audley’s Secret for years. I don’t know what stopped me–perhaps because my copy had sat on the shelf for so many years, I no longer really noticed it. I saw a film version I didn’t like much, so perhaps that was also a deterrent, but now that I’ve read it, I’m in the position of wondering what took me so long. My Dover edition comes with an intro from Norman Donaldson which I read before turning to the novel itself. Donaldson states that the novel has waned in popularity in “recent decades, but for more than half a century after its appearance in 1862 it was one of the most popular mystery stories in the English-speaking world.” Donaldson also goes on to list Braddon’s admirers who included Thackeray, Tennyson, and R.L. Stevenson.

Lady audley's secretMary  Elizabeth Braddon  (1835-1915) who wrote approximately 90 books, often two a year, was a magazine editor, and also wrote poetry and plays. She had a nomadic childhood and her parents separated when she was four years old due to her feckless father’s adultery. Mary lived with her mother and moved frequently, and by age 8, she was introduced to the novels of her “literary hero,” Edward Bulwer Lytton. By age 17, faced with the need to earn a living, she eschewed the drudgery of becoming a governess and instead made the controversial decision to become an actress. According to The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon by Jennifer Carnell (and many thanks Jennifer for writing this book on a much neglected author) which details Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s years on the stage, Mary was an actress for seven or eight years with “the stage name” of Mary Seyton.  All this time, she had literary ambitions and was writing and publishing poems & short stories, and abandoning several unfinished novels. She had a commission to write Three Times Dead ( later rewritten and reprinted as The Trail of the Serpent a) a “lurid novel in penny weekly parts,” while still an actress and then followed an impressive number of other novels: The Lady Lisle, The Black Band or The Mysteries of Moonlight, The Octoroon or The Lily of Louisiana, Captain of the Vulture, Ralph the Bailiff, Woman’s Revenge or The Captain of the Guard. All these were serialized before Lady Audley’s Secret.

Braddon, still working on Three Times Dead first met John Maxwell, owner of the magazine The Welcome Guest in 1860 (founded by Henry Vizetelly in 1858). Maxwell was a married man, the father of six surviving children, and there seems to be several stories about that marriage. Jennifer Carnell relates how Maxwell told someone that his wife was “defunct,” (whatever that means) and speculates that Maxwell may have “told other people that his wife was dead.” There’s also a version that she was in an insane asylum, but there’s also a fourth version that she was simply living in Ireland. Well whichever one is the correct scenario, or a combination of scenarios, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Maxwell moved in together (along with Braddon’s mother Fanny). Their first child was born in 1862.

So back to Lady Audley’s Secret… Maxwell had formed a new magazine, Robin Goodfellow, but “their lead serial had failed to be delivered.” From Carnell’s book again come the details, that initially Maxwell decided to delay publication, but Braddon stepped up and offered to write the first episode of a new serial. The next day, by breakfast time, Braddon had completed the opening chapters of Lady Audley’s Secret. A legend is born…

Jennifer Carnell, in the introduction to her book, makes the point that M.E. Braddon has been sadly neglected and quotes one of Braddon’s sons. M.B. Maxwell stating that his mother’s books are viewed with “amused tolerance.” In all my English Lit classes, Sensation fiction and Braddon were absent. These books were off-stage, in the dark corner, trashy,  ignored and deemed unworthy of attention. So now, finally picking up Lady Audley’s Secret, I am stunned and impressed and have to admit to a fascination with Braddon. She must have been an incredible person. This is subversive stuff. Yes, it’s melodramatic (again, I’m fascinated about this aspect of the book and its connection to Braddon’s years on the stage), but it’s also a great read, a detective novel, a mystery story if you will. The Victorian Era is known for its stuffiness, its morality and sense of propriety. Lady Audley’s Secret is a tale of a woman off the rails–a story of bigamy, madness, murder, scandal and… well lots of other things.

To be continued….

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Is He Popenjoy? by Anthony Trollope

The delightfully understated Is He Popenjoy? isn’t my favourite Trollope novel, but it’s excellent. As with so many of these multi-plot Trollope novels there’s a great deal going on. The book’s main thread is concerned with the question of establishing legitimacy, and also wrapped into the plot are a couple of love affairs and a few peculiar, battling feminists. The story centres on sweet Mary Lovelace, the only daughter of the Dean of Brotherton who marries Sir George Germain, the second son of the family. George’s older brother the ‘head’ of the family, the Marquis of Brotherton, called simply Brotherton by his many siblings (1 brother and 4 sisters) lives in Italy, and there seems little chance that he’ll return since he detests England and detests his family. George, on the other hand, has a strong sense of family obligation, so when he falls in love with his penniless cousin Adelaide, his brief rebellion causes no small amount of distress to his many sisters–especially the steely-spined Lady Sarah. But Adelaide has no intention of leading a life of financial restriction, so she refuses George and marries, instead, the much older, malleable, and wealthy Mr. Houghton. Poor George is broken-hearted but eventually recovers enough to see the sense of proposing to the Dean’s only daughter who will have an instant dowry of 30,000 pounds and will also inherit her father’s none-too-shabby estate. The match is made with the Dean delighted that a man of his humble origins may live to see his daughter become the Marchioness of Brotherton, and 18-year-old Mary obeying her father, buries her notions of romance and hopes that the day will come when she loves her husband.

is he popenjoySo the die is cast….or so it seems. The Dean, whose money comes with the taint of trade, assumes that the current Marquis, a confirmed bachelor, will die without issue. The Dean, therefore, looks forward to seeing his daughter eventually becoming a marchioness and his hypothetical grandson, a Marquis. Who, then, could have predicted that the contentious Marquis of Brotherton would enter the picture with a wife and child?

Shortly after George marries, Brotherton sends him a letter announcing his upcoming marriage to an Italian widow, so then imagine everyone’s astonishment when Brotherton returns a few months later, throws his family out of the house and moves in a wife who speaks no English and a child who is possibly 2 years of age. Questions begin to emerge regarding the legitimacy of the child, and at the forefront of those who are skeptical is the Dean of Brotherton who sees the little Popenjoy, as the heir to the title is called, as a usurper, a “so-called Popenjoy,” and about to rob his daughter of the chance of being the Marchioness of Brotherton. While Mary has no ambition to be a marchioness, the Dean’s aggressive battle mode against the Marquis places George in an awkward position. George wishes to avoid scandal and he has strong family loyalty combined with snobbery directed against the Dean’s origins. George would be quite happy if the Dean disappeared out of his life, but he feels obligated to the Dean because of his money and also because he is his father-in-law.

There’s an unpleasantness about the whole Popenjoy episode, and the Dean, who is shown to be a good, solid fellow, and an exceptional father, exhibits an unhealthy ambition when it comes to the legitimacy and health of poor “rackety” Popenjoy. This ambition is a fissure in the Dean’s character, and while the Dean, an intelligent, kind man and an exceptional father, is one of the two moral centres of the novel (he shares the position with the indomitable Lady Sarah), he’s still one of Trollope’s flawed figures. The Dean’s father “kept livery stables in Bath,” so the Dean, who married wealth, has seen a phenomenal rise in fortune, and he wants that to continue for his daughter and his future grandson. His desire to see his daughter with a title appears to be unpleasantly outside of his normally reasonable character, and while his questions regarding the actual timing of the birth of Popenjoy are legitimate, his desire for the child’s death is tasteless and unkind.

There’s an underlying problem in the match between Mary Lovelace and Lord George–he’s basically marrying her for her money which will prop up the family fortune, and she marries into the Germain family because her father desires the match. This ‘arrangement’ as delicate, subtle, and unspoken as it is, acts initially as an impediment to the young married couple’s happiness. It’s certainly what society deems a ‘suitable match,’ but it’s not based on love, and it’s also soiled with snobbery. Lord George is painfully aware that he’s obligated to keep the Dean in his life even though he feels that his father-in-law “isn’t quite  …,” and thinks that while the Dean “ looked like a gentleman, [but]  still there was a smell of the stable.” George also finds Mary’s wealthy great-Aunt Tallowax disconcertingly vulgar; she’s another relative he’d like to ignore, but Mary is set to inherit her fortune too. There’s a wonderful scene in the chapter Miss Tallowax is Shown the House in which the Dean and Aunt Tallowax are invited to lunch which includes some scrawny mutton chops and a much more meagre table than Miss Tallowax expected. After lunch, she is given a tour of Manor Cross–a magnificent old house in dire need of renovation:

Then they entered the state dining-room or hall, and Miss Tallowax was informed that the room had not been used for any purpose whatever for very many years. “And such a beautiful room!” said Mis Tallowax, with much regret.

“The fact is, I believe, that the chimney smokes horribly, ” said Sir George.

“I never remember a fire here,’ said Lady Sarah. “In very cold weather we have a portable stove brought in, just to preserve the furniture. This is called the old ball-room.”

“Dear me!” ejaculated Miss Tallowax, looking round at the faded yellow hangings.

“We did have a ball here once,” said Lady Amelia, “when Brotherton came of age. I can just remember it.”

“Has it ever been used since?’ asked Mary.

“Never,” said Lady Sarah. “Sometimes when it’s rainy we walk up and down for exercise. It is a fine old house, but I often wish it were smaller. I don’t think people want rooms of this sort now as much as they used to do. Perhaps a time may come when my brother will make Manor Cross gay again, but it is not very gay now. I think that is all, Miss Tallowax.”

“It’s very fine–very fine, indeed,” said Miss Tallowax shivering. Then they all trooped back into the morning-room which they used for their daily life.

Trollope explores, quite successfully, how George Germain is driven by family loyalty. He is repeatedly insulted by his brother the Marquis and takes more than any human being should be expected to swallow, but then when the Marquis goes too far, even George can no longer accept his brother’s behaviour. Trollope dabbles with the idea that the Marquis is insane, and underlying this is the idea that Mary Lovelace, from humble stock, will produce a stronger heir than the “so-called” sickly Popenjoy. Particularly enjoyable are the delightfully understated currents under all the polite behaviour: George doesn’t want to examine too closely exactly why he keeps Aunt Tallowax and the Dean in his life because to admit that Mary will inherit their money is to admit that he’s motivated by financial concerns–the very subject he finds vulgar and common. The Germains, who think themselves ‘above’ earning money through trade also think they are better people than the Dean and Aunt Tallowax.  The Dean’s eagerness to prove that the son of the Marquis is illegitimate is, of course, self-serving, but the Germains are mostly offended because the Dean insists on talking about the subject and seeking legal advice, and this is bad manners as far as they are concerned.

Since this is Trollope there are several subplots including a strange one involving battling feminists–Baroness Banmann and the American Olivia Q. Peabody–both presented as particularly unattractive females. Trollope’s feminists are a rather motley bunch who hang out at the “Rights of Women Institute. Established for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females,’ caricatures really, and one almost wonders why they are written into the novel as they play a rather small role which includes a trace of Mary’s rebellious streak. It’s too simple to say that Trollope is making fun of these feminists–although he certainly has a good time with them. The novel subtly addresses the issue of women’s rights through the battling feminists, but the subject is also addressed through George’s treatment of his wife and how we see Mary stuck between obeying her father and obeying her husband. It would be easy to dismiss this  feminist subplot with its peculiar females as evidence of Trollope’s misogyny, but the episode serves to show independent thought from Mary–something her husband doesn’t think he should tolerate. So while the battle between the feminists is seen as a comic episode, the real battle occurs between husband and wife as Mary asserts her right to be treated as a thinking human being and not as a decorative appendage. And then there’s the issue of money: Mary receives 1500 pounds a year income from her dowry. George has the sum total of 4,000 pounds (we’re also told 5,000 pounds)  “and no means of earning a shilling.” With this vast imbalance, George is acutely aware that the family’s fortunes rest on money that he is ashamed of, so that perhaps explains why he overdoes it when it comes to how he treats his wife under the umbrella issue of ‘improvement’:

But Lord George made out a course of reading for her–so much for the two hours after breakfast, so much for the hour before dressing–so much for the evening; and also a table of results to be acquired in three months–in six months–and so much by the close of the first year; and even laid down the sum total of achievements to be produced by a dozen years of such work.

Mary isn’t seen by the Germains as an individual in her own right or even as a wealthy heiress. She is required to sit and sew petticoats for the poor with her dreary sisters in-law for two hours every day. Mary does the mathematics in her head and offers to pay I pound 19 shillings if she can avoid the petticoat drudgery for the next year, and this incurs the wrath of Lady Sarah. Initially, the Germain family try to shape her character, but over time, Mary develops her own opinions and rebels….

Possibly the most delightful aspect of this book is the way that Trollope shows the growing maturity of several of his characters. Mary is a sweet, young girl who learns to gracefully say NO to people, and Lady Sarah, who began the book as a dragon becomes much more human as she acknowledges her own shortcomings and her tendency to judge people by her own tastes and choices. I wish we could have seen more of the dissipated Marquis and his strange Italian wife and  poor sickly little Popenjoy, but their appearances are all too brief. There’s also a delightful subplot involving matchmaker Mrs Montacute Jones who believes  “there are some men who never get on their legs till they’re married,” and while perennial bachelors Jack de Baron and Lord Giblet try their best to avoid matrimony, Mrs Montacute Jones has other plans.

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The Odd Women by George Gissing

In 2012, George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street made my Best-of-the-Year list, so in 2013 it was time to pick up The Odd Women, and after reading this remarkable novel which I can’t praise enough,  I can easily say that George Gissing has become a new favourite author. Published in 1893, in late Victorian England, The Odd Women examines ‘The Woman Question’–the shifting roles of women in a world of social change, and given the topic, it should come as no surprise that the novel concentrates on the lives of several women who make various choices–some traditional and some courageously non-traditional. Under examination is the societal expectation that women will marry and move from their father’s economic cloak of care to suitable husbands who can take over that role. But what happens if there is no husband–by fate or by choice? What happens to these Odd Women (and there’s a double meaning here) who remain single?

So many odd women–no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives.

The novel opens in 1872 with the family of a widowed Dr. Madden who has six daughters ranging from 19 to 5 years of age. Although Dr. Madden isn’t an affluent man, he has tried to ensure that his daughters receive an adequate education–a decision he sees as “the next best thing to saving money,” and the assumption is that, if for some reason he can’t support his daughters or they don’t marry, then they will be able to seek genteel employment as teachers, companions or governesses. As the novel continues and leaps forward to 1887, we see just how this ‘genteel’ employment decimates the Madden girls.

The odd womenThe Madden girls are middle class with a marginal education, so when they are forced to seek employment, they are not skilled enough to seek positions with the upper classes. Instead, Alice and Virginia Madden find themselves accepting live-in positions with people barely above their own social sphere, and these are jobs in which they are overworked and sometimes receive ‘board and care’ and no wages whatsoever. Humiliations pile on to humiliations, and years later,  in 1887, Alice and then Virginia, the latter who becomes an alcoholic, drift to a bleak London boarding house where they share a room. All their hopes and concerns rest on their youngest sibling, Monica, the beauty of the family, her health under threat, who works 6 exhausting days a week, typically 18 hours a day, as an underfed and overworked shop girl.

Enter Rhoda Nunn, a very determined young feminist “with zeal for womanhood militant,” who works at a business school which trains “young girls to work in offices,” owned by philanthropist, Miss Barfoot. Rhoda knew the Madden girls years earlier, and when she runs into them again in London, she’s shocked by what’s become of them, and she is determined to help the sisters rise out of their economic quagmire. Monica withdraws from the exhaustive, exploitive work as a shop girl and is enrolled at the school, but she’s courted by a much older, dour bachelor, Edmund  Widdowson who loves her with an unhealthy, possessive fixation.

While the novel opens with the Madden family, Rhoda Nunn is at the novel’s centre. Rhoda, an extremely attractive and self-possessed young woman, is determined not to marry and believes that she needs to set an example to the school’s female pupils. Rhoda is more far radical in her attitudes towards men and marriage than Miss Barfoot, and some of their differences float to the surface after a former pupil, a Miss Royston, a young woman who ran off with a married man and was subsequently abandoned, writes to Miss Barfoot for assistance. Rhoda harshly and coldly insists that Miss Royston not be allowed to return to continue her abandoned studies whereas Miss Barfoot has pity for their former pupil:

“Personal feeling is misleading you,” Rhoda pursued. “Miss Royston had a certain cleverness, I grant; but do you think I didn’t know that she would never become what you hoped? All her spare time was given to novel-reading. If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea we should have a chance of reforming women. The girl’s nature was corrupted by sentimentality, like that of all but every woman who is intelligent enough to read what is called the best fiction, but not intelligent enough to understand its vice. Love–love–love; a sickening sameness of vulgarity. What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won’t represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced. Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. There is the sexual instinct, of course but that is quite a different thing; the novelists don’t dare talk about that. “

Rhoda’s hard-line position comes under assault after she meets Miss Barfoot’s relative Everard Barfoot, a man of the world who is attracted to Rhoda and sets out to test her defiant declaration to abstain from any relationships with men. Barfoot has a bad reputation when it comes to women. Is that bad reputation deserved? Gissing is very clever about this aspect of this brilliant novel; he first introduces Barfoot as a bit of a cad, and then Barfoot later explains away what happened. But then later still, Barfoot gives his side of the story to his male friend, Mickelthwaite, and there’s something rather chilling about Barfoot’s cold delivery. Then there’s Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda–at times he’s genuinely intrigued by Rhoda’s radical feminism, but his cold, calculated seduction of Rhoda suggests that she represents a challenge more than anything else.

Marriage and male-female relationships are under scrutiny in the novel, and so Monica and Widdowson’s miserable, disastrous marriage becomes the perfect late Victorian example of just how wedlock corrupts both partners. Monica realizes too late that she’s trapped in a suffocating marriage. This was a marriage that was supposed to free her from degrading servitude, but Monica discovers there’s a terrible price to pay. The very traditional Widdowson assumes the patriarchal role, and he seems genuinely confused when Monica refuses to obey him. For her part, Monica is unable to grasp her husband’s frustration. Monica has spent time with feminists and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to sally forth in London alone; her husband, however, contends that he’s there to ‘protect’ his wife, and that basically translates to not letting her out of his sight. Unfortunately, Widdowson’s efforts to control his wife do not stop there; he also demands that she read certain approved books, and he sees her refusal to bend as “rebellion.” Widdowson somehow always misses the point. He suspects the wrong people of being a bad influence and he sees a threat in the wrong man. But there’s fault in Monica’s view too. She married for security and material ease but discovers that’s no enough. Where’s the love and the romance? Clearly Monica is not ready emotionally or mentally to keep the bargain she made, and Gissing hints at Monica’s frame of mind through her selection of reading material.

Similarly there’s an element in Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda that demands a type of submission–a bending of her will to his seductive powers. So much for male-female relationships. Miss Barfoot, not so radical as Rhoda, has a sliver of romance in her heart, and she accepts that marriage, for most women, is inevitable and perhaps a better choice than the life of a spinster. Miss Barfoot’s goal is to train ‘genteel’ (middle-class) young women for careers that offer a reasonable alternative to virtual shop or domestic slavery, but for those who opt for marriage, Gissing gives examples which show that wedlock is a corrupting institution that forces a destructive, forced and unnatural relationship. Gissing lands on the idea, however, that marriage is a questionable state for all parties involved with no one sex more of a victim than the other. Mr Barfoot, whose own brother is a victim of his wife’s capricious whims, also holds his friend Poppleton up as another example of a victim of an impossible marriage. Poor Poppleton now resides in a lunatic asylum  as a result of years spent under the same roof as his humourless, dragon of a wife. Then there’s Mr. Orchard “worn to skin and bones” who fled his wife when he became suicidal. Miss Barfoot, Everard Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn discuss these relationships one evening:

“Why will men marry fools?”

Barfoot was startled. He looked down in his plate smiling.

“A most sensible question,” said the hostess, with a laugh. “Why, indeed?”

“But a difficult one to answer,” remarked Everard , with his restrained smile. “Possibly, Miss Nunn, narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.”

“I should have thought,” replied Rhoda, elevating her eyebrows, “that to live alone was the less of two evils.”

Gissing seems to say that marriage, Victorian-era marriage at least, is an institution fraught with peril and difficulties–perhaps as Rhoda says, an institution best avoided, and it does not appear that one sex is to blame here. Marriage may claim its victims in The Odd Women, but Gissing offers us Micklethwaite and his middle-aged bride as a sort of consolation. After a seventeen-year engagement, Mickelthwaite can finally afford to marry (and blissfully so), and with this note of optimism, shrouded with bitter economic reality, Gissing’s novel lands firmly not against the vagaries of men or the narrow-mindedness of impossible wives, but on criticism of Victorian society and morality.

The Odd Women is also available FREE for the kindle.

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