Back from my short break in the city of my alma mater, Bristol – maybe more on that another time. For now, I’d like to look at another early chapter – ch.2 – of Barchester Towers. Last time it was the ironically ambivalent portrayal of Dr Grantly I examined; Trollope was careful in The Warden to establish him as not exactly a villain, but in pressurising the saintly warden Harding not to follow his conscience and resign from his lucrative post he was shown to be more adherent to the reputation of the institution of the church than to the moral rectitude of his father-in-law. But as we saw, he is not the villain of this novel; he is still to come.
In Ch. 2 we learn that Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor Bold, has become a widow. Three times he exclaims ‘Poor Eleanor!’, building up a typically sonorous, not over-subtle head of rhetorical steam on her character and her position as a representative of the female sex, in the voice of his garrulous, opinionated and not entirely reliable narrator. This is the third iteration:
Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. But in her estimation he was most worthy. Hers was one of those feminine hearts which cling to a husband, not with idolatry, for worship can admit no defect in its idol, but with the perfect tenacity of ivy.
So she’s a ‘parasite plant’ that follows the defects of its host; she clung to her husband, faults and all. Once she had declared such ‘allegiance’ to her father; she then transferred that allegiance to her husband, ‘ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master’.
It’s not hard to see why Trollope is such a favourite with conservatives (famously, for example, with John Major, former Prime Minister of Britain): this is hardly a radically feminist portrayal. Eleanor is a typically dependent woman, according to this account, one without agency or independence of her own, deriving all her energy, sustenance and raison d’être from that ‘lord and master’. As always there’s a hint of irony in this voice, but the imagery of parasitic ivy is repeated near the novel’s end when she transfers that total allegiance to her dead husband’s successor. She is not a heroine, in other words – either in general terms, or in this novel. And there’s more:
Could she even have admitted that he had a fault, his early death would have blotted out the memory of it. She wept as for the loss of the most perfect treasure with which mortal woman had ever been endowed…consolation, as it is called, was insupportable, and tears and sleep were her only relief.
Our narrator does not hold her in very high esteem, then. There’s an element of sarcastic mockery here that’s maybe not to every reader’s taste. She’s portrayed as irrational, over-emotional, needy and useless without the support of her more sturdy (though deeply flawed) spouse. More to the point, Trollope is lining up his characters for what’s to come; we expect in a social-pastoral comedy like this to have a love interest at the heart of things, but Trollope obliges caustically.
He’s ensuring that we have little trust in Eleanor’s judgement or moral rigour so that when several potential husbands appear on the scene, he’s able to tease out the plot as a consequence of that poor judgement. She leans, in other words, to the wrong man…twice.
But this narrator isn’t too interested in the romantic element; he even warns us at an early stage when the rival suitors are established which ones she won’t end up marrying. Romantic suspense is not his priority.
So what is? More on that next time. It involves a lot of military metaphors.