My second piece on Trollope’s Barchester Towers elicited a comment from Karen that suggested she now felt less inclined to read it; maybe it was the way I indicated Trollope is uncharitable in his depiction of the vapid non-heroine, Eleanor Bold. I do hope she isn’t ultimately deterred from reading it, for it provides many pleasures – and Trollope has some more rounded, spirited women characters to enjoy.
Mrs Proudie, the wife of the new bishop, it has to be said, is also not very flatteringly portrayed. She ‘rules’ her husband, is ‘despotic’, a ‘virago’, even prompting one of those quasi-ironic metafictional narrative intrusions that are a feature of Trollope’s technique:
Mrs Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour. It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.
That last role is allotted to her – but, he adds, ‘she was not all devil’:
There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.
She shows compassion in this scene with a desperate petitioner for her assistance. Trollope seems to have learnt some lessons from The Warden, where he tended to castigate just about every character’s moral position except the eponym, Harding, thus weakening the effect of the novel. Here he shows more lassitude towards his villains, as we saw in my discussion of his portrait of Dr Grantly.
These narrative intrusions serve to dilute the venom of his narrative, and to pull aside the curtain on his drama (there’s a lot of theatrical imagery in the novel) to show how it all works – or at least to pretend to. In fact he’s drawing our attention to features of the average novel which he disdains. He does this in ch. 15 when he refuses to create ‘mystery’ in the drama of Eleanor’s love interest, telling us at this early stage exactly which of her various suitors she will not marry. He claims to abhor such ‘delightful horrors’ as the revelation with a flourish in the final chapter of the solution to the mystery – this kind of trick is just ‘deceit’. Instead:
Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.
He doesn’t want to make his readers ‘dupes’ of such teasing plots in which all depends on the big reveal in the denouement, leaving the ‘story’ with little ‘interest’, for ‘the part of a dupe is never dignified.’
As always in these metafictional asides, this is wittily ambivalent. While Trollope does aspire to create a novel that’s more than just ‘sensation’ or suspense-filled, he’s really referring to the love interest that comedies are generically required to dramatise. He’s much more interested in another aspect of the social scheme he’s anatomising in these chronicles. Power. Mrs Proudie wants to dominate her husband and his diocese.
But it’s the male ‘devil’ that’s the best part of the novel: Slope.
Obadiah Slope is the oleaginous chaplain to the new bishop, a protégé of the formidable Mrs Proudie. He’s another Uriah Heep, even down to the slimy handshake and ‘greasy’ manners. She sees in him a useful tool for converting what she sees as the high church idolatry of Barchester into their own austere low church mode – a struggle that was very much a feature of contemporary ecclesiastical life.
Neither of them is particularly devout. The narrator once again makes Slope’s real motivation perfectly clear:
He wanted a wife, and he wanted money, but he wanted power more than either. He had fully realised the fact that he must come to blows with Mrs Proudie.
He’s ambitious, and has no intention of simply playing ‘factotum’ to a ‘woman-prelate’. Theirs becomes one of the major power struggles in a novel full of them: ‘Either he or Mrs Proudie must go to the wall.’ This is the kind of conflict that is Trollope’s true zone of interest, highlighted by the prevalent military or pugilistic imagery.
Let’s end with another attempt to persuade Karen that this is a novel well worth reading. Not all of Trollope’s women characters are shallow, lacking in judgement or excessively masculine. Madeline Neroni, née Stanhope, second child of the cathedral prebendary, is a woman of ‘surpassing beauty’ and a wickedly gifted sexual predator. In Italy she’d chosen a husband badly, ending up crippled, possibly by him, and leaving him to return to her family.
She had become famous for adventures in which her character was just not lost, and had destroyed the hearts of a dozen cavaliers without once being touched in her own.
Duels fought over her cause her ‘pleasurable excitement’. In a wonderful scene at a fête champêtre at a country house she ensnares not just the drooling Slope, but also the squire of the estate, Mr Thorne, and the intellectual but emotionally myopic cleric Arabin. She has that ‘incomprehensible’ instinct of such women to perceive how women are perceived by men, and vice versa. Consequently she detects where Arabin’s affections truly lie – and takes pity on him and the lady whom he would otherwise be too romantically inept to win:
Though heartless, the Stanhopes were not selfish.
So she engages her ‘peculiar female propensities’ to ‘entrap’ Arabin ‘into her net.’ She had not taken much pleasure in the ‘chase’ for Mr Thorne: he was, like pheasants, too easy to pick off, and ‘not…worth the shooting’; he’s just worth ‘bagging for family uses.’ This is not the malicious characterisation that we saw with Mrs Proudie or Eleanor – there’s wit and animated narrative interest and investment in these scenes; this woman is attractive because she’s formidable and beautiful. She snares men because she can, because they’re generally weak, and because she enjoys it as her favourite pastime – ‘she has little else to amuse her’. But she has, like Mrs Proudie, a vestige of a heart.
This engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a strong but selfish character is seen beautifully in the earlier scene when she routs the bullying local aristocrat, Lady de Courcy. When this harridan stares rudely through her lorgnette at the beautiful Signora on her sofa, surrounded by fawning men,
The occupant in return stared hard at the countess.
The countess isn’t used to this: only royals, dukes and the ‘marquesal’ usually dare hold her gaze like that:
But she had now to do with one who cared little for countesses. It was, one may say, impossible for mortal man or woman to abash Madeline Neroni. She opened her large bright lustrous eyes wider and wider, till she seemed to be all eyes. She gazed up into the lady’s face, not as though she did it with an effort, but as if she delighted in doing it. She used no glass to assist her effrontery, and needed none. The faintest possible smile of derision played around her mouth, and her nostrils were slightly dilated, as if in sure anticipation of her triumph.
That ‘one may say’ is priceless. The countess ‘had not a chance with her.’ She makes a humiliated, enraged retreat.
This novel is worth reading for the gloriously selfish character of Madeline alone – she makes Becky Sharp look like a nun. She makes mincemeat of the odious Slope, too, so she can’t be all bad.