Anthony Trollope likes to present his readers with moral dilemmas, and Mr.Wortle’s School is no exception. A case of bigamy raises moral questions for the characters, but interestingly, the two people who are in the bigamous marriage, have settled all moral questions to their satisfaction. Their decisions, however, send shock waves through the small, quiet village community in which they live. Here’s the plot: Dr Wortle, who is a Reverend, runs an extremely successful school for boys. Wortle, the Rector of Bowick, is a strong-willed man who knows his own mind and has quarreled with many people in the past. Some people think he shouldn’t be running a school at all, and others think that the 200 pounds a year he charges for each of the 30 boys under his care, is not enough:
It may be said of him that he knew his own [mind] so well as to justify him in repudiating counsel from others. There are very different ideas of what “a fortune” may be supposed to consist. It will not be necessary to give Dr. Wortle’s exact idea. No doubt it changed with him, increasing as his money increased. But he was supposed to be a comfortable man. He paid ready money and high prices. He liked that people under him should thrive,—and he liked them to know that they throve by his means. He liked to be master, and always was. He was just, and liked his justice to be recognised. He was generous also, and liked that, too, to be known. He kept a carriage for his wife, who had been the daughter of a poor clergyman at Windsor, and was proud to see her as well dressed as the wife of any county squire. But he was a domineering husband. As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant. His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so. They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.
Dr Wortle’s life can be seen as a series of battles: his employment at Eton, his Bishop, the parents of his pupils; he could “bear censure from no human being.” The latest battle involves the Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup, an unpleasant woman, whose son became ill with influenza while attending Wortle’s school. Mrs Staniloup, who already expected a discount from the school, is outraged by the bills for her son’s care. Following this incident, she withdrew her son from the school and became Dr Wortle’s mortal enemy.
In his exhaustive efforts to run the school, Wortle decides to employ a married man as a resident assistant-master and his wife as matron. In this small, gossipy community, many discuss Dr. Wortle’s search for the perfect employees and think he has set himself an impossible quest: what gentleman employed as an assistant head-master would want his wife to work??? But things always seem to go Wortle’s way and he employs The Peacockes who recently returned from America. Mr Peacocke already carries a slight taint– After all, he left a brilliant career at Oxford to seek his fortune in America. That decision alone makes the man slightly suspect. Further, Mr. Peacocke stresses that he will perform no clerical duties for Wortle, but after a short passage of time, he backs off from that decision and “preached a sermon.”
There’s a bit of a mystery about the Peacockes. They refuse to socialise, and the truth is that they harbour a dark secret. Mrs Peacocke’s first marriage was to Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy, a man from an affluent family, ruined by the civil war, who then, along with his brother, turned to a life of crime. He abandoned his wife in poverty, and she later heard he was dead. Peacocke confirmed the fact; they were married and then her first husband showed up very much alive. Then he disappeared again and so the Peacockes fled to England. Peacocke reasoned that he could not abandon his wife and so they chose to stay in a bigamous marriage.
Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting;—but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption,—he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin,—that he and she had continued in one great falsehood,—is manifest enough.
Peacocke has just decided to tell Dr Wortle the whole story when Robert Lefroy, the ne-er-do well brother- in-law to Mrs. Peacocke, turns up, claiming to bring “tidings” and demanding money.
The novel’s structure is interesting. The bigamous couple are not torn with moral quandary; they made their peace with their moral decisions long ago, but soon the entire community is buzzing with the salacious news of the Peacockes. Everyone expects Dr. Wortle to kick the Peacockes to the curb, but he advises Peacocke to go to America and ascertain whether or not Ferdinand Lefroy is really dead. And in the meantime, Wortle insists that Mrs. Peacocke should remain at the residence under his protection.
Dr Wortle’s decision whether or not to support the Peacockes becomes a moral battleground, so Wortle is the hero here. Wortle faces his own ruin in the face of the Peacocke debacle. One subplot is a growing romance involving Wortle’s daughter, a romance that may very well be ruined by the Peacocke scandal. Another subplot follows Peacocke into the wilds of America. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the scandal involving the Peacockes has become ammunition for Wortle’s enemies, and Mrs Stantiloup wastes no time as she tries to engineer the collapse of the school. Throughout the story, Wortle listens to (does not necessarily take) the advice of one man–another clergyman, Mr. Puddicombe. Dr Wortle’s School examines the idea of personal morality superseding religious doctrine and law. There are a few America bashing sections (“Perhaps they don’t care about those things over there as we do here,”) which are quite funny. Dr Wortle’s School is one of Trollope’s Dramatic Novels.