“I think it would be well if all single women were strangled by the time they are thirty.”
Years ago, a very dear friend recommended periodic reading of Trollope as a tonic against modern life, so recently I picked up The Belton Estate, one of Anthony Trollope’s comic novels. It isn’t his best, and it’s not his funniest by any means, but it is a lesser-known Trollope that I hadn’t read before. The Trollope Society categorises Trollope’s novels into the following divisions: The Barset Novels, The Palliser Novels, The Irish Novels, The Overseas Novels, The Dramatic Novels, The Comic Novels, The Short Stories, and The Non-Fiction Books. Whether you are a Trollope devotee or you’re thinking of reading (more) Trollope, the Trollope Society site is extremely informative.
In 1865, The Belton Estate appeared in serialised form in the new magazine, Fortnightly Review. Trollope, who was one of the magazine’s founders, eventually featured three novels in this publication: The Belton Estate, Lady Anna, and The Eustace Diamonds. The Belton Estate was published in book form in December 1865.
The novel–a comedy of manners–examines the question of entailment and the disastrous consequences to women through Trollope’s lively cast of characters. Other examples of literary examinations of entailment can be found in Austen’s novel: Pride and Prejudice and to a lesser degree Persuasion. In one part of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is pressured by her mother to agree to marry her cousin, Mr Collins. With 5 daughters and no male heir, the Bennets know that the entailed family estate of Longbourn will pass to Mr Collins upon the death of their father, and this unpleasant fact makes Mr Collins both an eligible and a convenient match. And while Mr Collins wants a wife, he feels free to pick from his five cousins–feeling at once an assurance that he will be accepted and at the same time a moral obligation to solve, so very sensibly, a situation that may become embarrassingly difficult in the future. The same issues of entailment–a female left with no means of support, and a marriage that would appear to solve the more unpleasant aspects of entailment–appear in The Belton Estate. In this novel, Trollope clearly shows his sensitivity towards women through the issue of inheritance, scandal and divorce.
In Trollope’s The Belton Estate there is, or rather was a male heir to the property, but his untimely death has thrown the fortunes of the family–and in particular his unmarried sister, Clara–into total disarray. The Belton estate is owned by the Amedroz family, and when son and heir Charles, runs up a substantial amount of debt he is bailed out by his father, Bernard Amedroz, at the expense of whatever dowry sister Clara might have expected. But Charles continues to gamble, gets into even more debt and then commits suicide. It’s at this point that the novel opens, with the recent death of Charles leaving a pall of grief and depression over the Belton household.
The death of Charles is mourned, but as the loss of the heir sinks in, it’s clear that the “remnants of the Amedroz family” —father Bernard and daughter twenty-five-year-old Clara face a signficant problem. With the death of the male heir, the entailed Belton estate–the house (rather grandiosely called Belton Castle) and its surrounding lands will pass out of the Amedroz family and revert back to the next living male heir–Will Belton, a cousin and a gentleman farmer who owns Plaistow Manor in Norfolk. This will leave Clara homeless and without a penny to her name. Mr. Amedroz, however, hopes that Clara will become the recipient of another will; this time it’s the will of a Mrs Winterfield. Mrs Winterfield is known to Clara as an ‘aunt,’ but in truth, she is a relative by marriage only and is “the sister of a gentleman who had married Clara’s aunt.” Since Mrs Winterfield will die without issue, and since she’s hinted at leaving Clara a substantial amount of money, it’s hoped that Clara will inherit from Mrs Winterfield. At the same time, it seems likely that the wealthy widow will leave her house, Perivale to her nephew, Frederick Alymer.
With these prospects facing the Amedroz family, cousin Will Belton arrives at Belton Castle to visit his estranged uncle. The visit begins awkwardly with Mr. Amedroz feeling that Will is a buzzard eyeing his inheritance and impatiently wishing he could move in and take over. But Will isn’t at all what is expected. He’s kind, thoughtful, and more importantly, a good manager. Clara’s only friend, Mrs. Askerton, teases Clara that Will is there to “make matters right” through a proposal of marriage that would effectively smooth over any future difficulties. So when Will does indeed propose, Clara is not flattered or pleased. She sees the offer of marriage as a just a matter of convenience and herself as little more than a piece of furniture that comes with the estate. Will’s proposal is doomed to failure as Clara nurses secret feelings for Captain Frederick Alymer.
When Mrs Winterfield dies, she leaves her house and all her money to Frederick, but on her deathbed, she extracts a promise from her nephew that he will marry Clara. Frederick, the second son of the Alymer family, and a consummate politician does exactly what is expected of him and precipitously proposes to Clara. Both the proposal and Frederick’s courtship, however, leave a great deal to be desired.
Clara finds herself in the difficult–albeit interesting situation of being courted by both Will Belton and Frederick Alymer. In matters of love, Will is impetuous and passionate while Frederick is studied and cold. Both situations have their drawbacks–although Clara loves Frederick, his formidable, bombastic mother tests the limits of her future daughter-in-law’s patience. On the other hand, Clara suspects that Will proposed not out of love but out of a sense of obligation. After all if Will marries Clara, he won’t be forced to turf her out of the house when he inherits. But when it’s exposed that Frederick’s proposal is founded in a death-bed promise, it appears that he too is pressured to wed Clara. Chafing against the lot of an impoverished single female, Clara find herself in an impossible situation in which she is supposed to agree to marriage as there are no other alternatives:
“Was she therefore bound to sacrifice herself? Could it be the duty of any woman t0 give herself to a man simply because a man wanted her?”
Trollope sensitively follows the courtship of Clara by these two very different men. Over time, Clara’s feeling shift, and this shift is due partly to social situations in which the characters are cast. Clara, for example, goes to Aylmer Park and is exposed to Frederick’s impossible family, and she also meets Will’s devoted, invalid sister. Relationships with these individuals cause Clara to reexamine her suitors, but it’s perhaps Clara’s relationship with a certain Mrs. Askerton that influences her final choice. Mrs Askerton is a woman with a secret past; condemned by society, she has spent a lifetime paying for the sins and neglect of a male.
As always, the delight to be discovered in a Trollope novel is in its characterisations. The very best scenes in the book occur at Aylmer Park where we see Frederick Alymer in the family nest, and it’s here Clara is introduced to her fiance’s insufferable and suffocating family. The obnoxious Lady Alymer puts Clara to the test in a struggle for independence, will and domination while her hen-pecked husband hides out elsewhere in the house. Insincere, shallow Frederick Alymer is a man who has a promising political career ahead of him. Every decision Alymer makes is coloured by his mother and his desire to succeed in politics. Consequently, there is little that is actually Frederick, and he runs his life rather like politicians run their lives today–through opinion polls. Alymer is so very hollow, he no doubt has a stellar career in front of him and is destined to rise to–let’s say the dizzying heights of Prime Minister:
“It must be understood that Captain Alymer was member for Perivale on the low church interest, and that, therefore, when at Perivale he was decidedly a Low Churchman. I am not aware that the peculiarity stuck to him very closely at Aylmer castle, In Yorkshire, or among his friends in London; but there was no hypocrisy in this, as the world goes. Women in such matters are absolutely false if they be not sincere; but men, with political views, and with much of their future prospects in jeopardy also, are allowed to dress themselves differently for different scenes. Whatever be the peculiar interest on which a man goes into Parliament of course, he has to live up to that in his own borough. Whether malt, the franchise, or teetotalism be his rallying point, of course he is full of it when among his constituents. But it is not desirable that he should be full of it also at his club.”
When I first read novels in Trollope’s comic category, I expected something as funny as Barchester Towers. Now I approach the majority of the comic novels as studies in the folly of human behaviour. And Trollope, such a marvelous, forgiving observer of human nature, is a wonderful writer, and one of the greatest recorders of our deepest foibles and vanities.