The old man in the title of Anthony Trollope’s novel, An Old Man’s Love, is William Whittlestaff who is 50. This was a re-read for me, but the ‘old’ leaped out at me again. Apparently in 1885, 45 was the average life expectancy. Yikes! Trollope establishes immediately that William Whittlestaff, a country gentleman who leads a quiet life and is a creature of habit, was disappointed in love decades earlier when he was jilted by his fiancée. The emotional wounds are buried but not healed when Whittlestaff decides to take in Mary, a young woman, the daughter of a friend who is left without means. Whittlestaff’s housekeeper, the indominable, opinionated Mrs. Baggett sniffs trouble on the horizon and she is right.
In time, Whittlestaff falls in love with Mary and eventually proposes. Mary takes a “full disclosure” stance and tells Whittlestaff that she was once in love with John Gordon, a young penniless man. He was dismissed by Mary’s stepmother and although words of love never were spoken between John and Mary, she continues to think of him and loves him still years later. Whittlestaff is concerned about the news that Mary loved another but presses his suit anyway. Mary is penniless and feels grateful and obligated to Whittlestaff, but does gratitude and obligation justify a trip to the altar? The fact that Whittlestaff even proposed has created a monumental dilemma; Mary can accept the offer of marriage and stay or refuse and then, due to the awkwardness of the situation combined with propriety, Mary would find it impossible to remain. Mary’s eventual acceptance is fraught and tainted with pressure from both the housekeeper and Mr. Whittlestaff. Mrs Baggett is an old family servant. She doesn’t want to be replaced by Whittlestaff’s young wife, but she also takes umbrage at the idea that Mary may refuse the offer of marriage:
“Here’s a gentleman as you owe everything to. If he wanted your head from your shoulders, you shouldn’t make any scruple. What are you, that you shouldn’t let a gentleman like him have his own way?”
So Mary accepts Whittlestaff’s offer of marriage, and the day after Whittlestaff proposes who should return from the diamond mines… but John Gordon and so the drama commences.
An Old Man’s Love centres on the subsequent behavior of Whittlestaff and Mary. The novel isn’t one of Trollope’s best, and for this reader Whittlestaff is the most interesting character since his belief that Mary must/should keep her promise to him drives the action. The attitudes in the novel to the diamond mines are interesting. Trollope doesn’t detail conditions there but we get the idea that it is hellish and a den of vice. The idea that Gordon has spent time in the mines is to Whittlestaff distasteful. On one hand he sees Gordon as a moneygrubber but also as depraved. Gordon’s idiotic friend, The Rev. Montagu Blake, a man who about to get married, stirs the pot with his gossip and insensitivity. We get glimpses of Blake’s fiancée Kattie Forrester, and she seems quite aware that she is marrying an idiot. While Blake looks forward to married bliss, it’s clear to the reader that Kattie will rule the roost. But considering how stupid Montagu Blake is, perhaps that’s just as well.
Marriage isn’t exactly portrayed positively here. Mrs Baggett rues the day she married her sailor husband, who is now a one-legged drunk. If Montagu Blake maintains his level of idiocy he may continue to think he’s a lucky man snagging Kattie Forrester for a bride, but there’s the implicit idea that life in the Blake household won’t be much fun.
Trollope gently juxtaposes two possible worlds here: the safe world of the ‘elderly’ bridegroom and the potent brawn and sexuality of adventurer John Gordon. Once Gordon appears on the scene, Whittlestaff creates a number of moral arguments for keeping Mary to her promise of becoming his wife even stating that Mary can be “a young man’s slave” versus “an old man’s darling.” Whittlestaff takes a patriarchal approach towards Mary and declares that he is the safer, better choice. According to the Trollope Society, An Old Man’s Love is categorized as one of his Comic novels, and I can’t see that at all. I suppose Montagu Blake and Mrs. Baggett’s reprobate husband provide some comic relief but IMO not enough to make this a comic novel.