Yesterday I looked at Anthony Trollope’s unheroic heroes in Framley Parsonage. By this the fourth Chronicle of Barsetshire he’s starting to get the hang of women, too. So far the romantic heroines have tended to be typically demure Victorian angels in the house, with maybe a hint of feistiness. There were some dragons among the older women, and some bourgeois and aristocratic snobs. But then in Doctor Thorne he introduced Miss Martha Dunstable and several other strong, clever women, and upped his game.
There she served as a recipient of innumerable unwanted marriage proposals from gold-digging men anxious to get their hands on her fortune. It was Frank Gresham’s honest half-heartedness in this task, put up to it by his mother, who was anxious to save the mortgaged family estate, that endeared him to that wealthy heiress, and showed she had more depth and class than the landed gentry among whom she moved with amused scorn.
In Framley Parsonage she’s mysteriously aged a decade, for she’s now said to be in her forties. This time it’s the irresponsible gambler and cadger Sowerby who’s interested in marrying her money, but it’s the resourceful Mrs Harold Smith (née Harriet Sowerby) who shows more mettle and spirit than her reckless, irresponsible brother. She loves him, and is his true ‘ally’ in seeking to save him from destitution, and again Trollope shows how well he can do a morally murky character and make her attractive:
He was probably the only human being that she did love. Children she had none, and as for her husband, it had never occurred to her to love him. She had married him for a position; and being a clever woman, with a good digestion and command of her temper, had managed to get through the world without much of that unhappiness which usually follows ill-assorted marriages. At home she managed to keep the upper hand, but she did so in an easy, good-humoured way that made her rule bearable.
So she’s clever, ruthless and scheming, but has a sense of humour and fierce loyalty to that undeserving, extravagant scoundrel Sowerby (though even he is shown to be not all bad). She’s befriended Miss Dunstable with a view to helping him. She’s quick-eyed enough to realise that this heiress:
was to be won, not by indulgence of caprices, but by free and easy intercourse, with a dash of fun, and, at any rate, a dash of honesty…[She] was not, perhaps, herself very honest by disposition; but in these latter days she had taken up a theory of honesty for the sake of Miss Dunstable…
This astuteness had enabled her to become ‘intimate’ with Martha. She advises Sowerby to ‘tell her the truth’- not hide the fact that his ‘first object is her money’. When he chickens out of doing this ungallant act himself, she does it for him. Enterprising and bold, too. She’s discerned that those countless other suitors annoyed Martha by pretending to love her; she’s far too perceptive to fall for that, and simply despises their duplicity and transparent greed.
Ch. 24 is called ‘Magna est veritas’ – the truth is mighty – a Latin tag that Miss Dunstable cites when Harriet makes her pitch on behalf of her brother. She’d been taught it, she says with typical irony, by the Bishop of Barchester, who’d added some more, ‘but there was a long word, and I forgot it.’ She too has a wicked sense of humour, and her interlocutors often have trouble figuring out her true meaning – which is what she intends.
Miss Dunstable urges her on, but Harriet falters at this obviously deceptive pose of self-deprecation:
There was a hardness about Miss Dunstable when matters of business were concerned on which it seemed almost impossible to make any impression.
These two are well matched. Even though she does what she’d intended, saying her brother isn’t dying for love of Miss Dunstable, but harbours ‘as true a regard’ for her ‘as any man of his age does have’ (he’s 50)…’For any woman of mine’, returns the heiress – ruthlessly honest and tough. ‘They are very hard to manage,’ says Harriet to herself, ‘thinking of her own sex’.
It’s not going well, she knows. When she says Sowerby intended coming himself to make his proposal but thought she’d speak more ‘openly and freely’, Miss Dunstable sees through this, too. His intentions were ‘honourable’ she’s sure, she says: ‘He does not want to deceive me in that way.’ Implying, of course, that his deception is of another order:
It was impossible to help laughing, and Mrs Harold Smith did laugh. ‘Upon my word you would provoke a saint,’ said she.
This is arguably a funnier, more subtly done scene than anything in the previous three Barsetshire novels (though I’ve probably forgotten some already), and the humour arises naturally out of the characters and the carefully observed situation that’s been created for them. Both women are shown as resourceful, quick-thinking, shrewd and sharp (a word much used hereafter in the novel about Miss Dunstable) – and able to laugh at themselves and at the absurdity of life. There’s not much laughter of that rich quality among the men, that I recall.
Miss Dunstable refuses this ungracious (if unflatteringly honest) proposal: she explains bluntly to Harriet:
…he wants to marry me because I have got that which he wants. But, my dear, I do not want that which he has got, and therefore the bargain would not be a fair one.
She pays Harriet the dubious compliment of using the language of commerce, for the proposal was presented as a commercial transaction – one in which Miss Dunstable, with admirable frankness, acknowledges she has nothing to gain.
There are other finely portrayed women characters in this novel, but that’s perhaps enough on them for now. I need to read something very different to clear the mind from rural Barsetshire before the fifth Chronicle.