Trollope, pubs and gin

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Post number 2

As this disturbing period of enforced social isolation intensifies, I find myself able again to engage with the online literary blogging world, and to offer my own attempt at keeping our spirits up.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her cover

The cover image is from the painting ‘Yes’ by Millais – a young woman shown replying to her lover’s proposal of marriage – such a prominent theme in Trollope novels

Last time I wrote about the key sequence in Trollope’s 1865 novel Can You Forgive Her? in which the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald sees a mirror image of himself in the teenage beggar girl who accosts him in the street to solicit money with which to buy drink. For perhaps the first time in his life he shows compassion and generosity towards a person in distress, and takes her to a pub to buy her a meal.

I was interested in H.K. Browne’s illustration of this scene in the first edition of 1864 (vol. 1, for which Browne did all twenty illustrations; vol. 2 came out the following year, illustrated by a Miss Stevens). Browne, aka Phiz, is best known as one of the main illustrators of ten of Dickens’ novels. In this image he reins in a little his tendency to crude caricature, and shows rare sympathy for Trollope’s more restrained mode of novel-writing than Dickens’.

He depicts Burgo, whom the girl had ingenuously gasped was too ‘beautiful’ to be as poor as her when she confronted him in Oxford Street, in a sleazy working-class pub, the centre of admiring attention.

Here’s how the scene is narrated:

He took her to a public-house and gave her bread and meat and beer, and stood by her while she ate it. She was shy with him then, and would fain have taken it to a corner by herself, had he allowed her. He perceived this, and turned his back to her, but still spoke to her a word or two as she ate.

It seems odd that she’s standing to eat, but this is presumably a feature of such a low pub: the only seat depicted is a barrel on which sits one of the male customers. The passage continues to describe the striking effect Burgo has on the others in the pub, not just the women:

HK Browne's illustration to ch. 29 of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The woman at the bar who served him looked at him wonderingly, staring into his face; and the pot-boy woke himself thoroughly that he might look at Burgo; and the watermen from the cab-stand stared at him; and women who came in for gin looked almost lovingly up into his eyes. He regarded them all not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler.

Browne conveys all this skilfully, marking the social status of each figure with his usual eye for telling detail: the unkempt clothes, hirsute faces and scruffy hats and clay pipes of the water-cabmen; the shabby-chic hats, bonnets and hints of alcohol-flushed cheeks and addled eyes of the gin-drinking women; the young girl’s clothing, described in the earlier street scene, quoted in my previous post, is suitably impoverished.

Her attempt to shrink away into invisibility as she eats is poignantly drawn, and hints at the similar attempts of the two main romantically conflicted female characters, Alice and Lady Glencora, to do the same in their struggle with the competing courtship of their ‘wild men’ and dour, upstanding and insensitive rivals. Women of all ranks, this scene shows, have no possibility of independence or freedom of choice. The only options open to them lead to self-effacement, entrapment and nothingness.

Browne does give an indication of Burgo’s arrogance and selfishness in the exaggeratedly weak chin, the arch expression, and the louche, lazy pose as he leans complacently on the bar, clearly relishing the undisguised adoration, even as he ostensibly disregards it. He’s clearly used to it:

He regarded them not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler [slang for arrogant swaggerer].

Burgos morally ambiguous behaviour here, and the portrayal of the darker aspects of Victorian society, is narrated (and drawn by Browne) with deft irony – a very different tone from the bucolic comedy in the Barsetshire novels. After paying for her meal, Burgo gives the young woman enough money to pay for a bed for the night, provided she promises not to spend it on gin. If only he showed as much fellow-feeling in his dealings with other people in his life. He could be a decent man, as the start of the final paragraph of this chapter suggests:

Poor Burgo! All who had seen him since life had begun  with him had loved him and striven to cherish him. And with it all, to what a state had he come! Poor Burgo! had his eyes been less brightly blue, and his face less godlike in form, it may be that things would have gone better with him…

I was interested in the two barrels on a shelf high up behind the bar. I assumed they held beer or wine, but one of them has the words ‘Old Tom’ painted on it (I’m afraid the detail isn’t very sharp as reproduced here). After a bit of online digging I discovered this was a make of cheap and potent gin, hence its popularity with the urban poor.

This seems to be one of Browne’s signature details: he habitually inserted an emblematic feature or two into his illustrations to give the reader visual hints at how to interpret the action that the narrative may or may not have made clear.

Back to Old Tom. In researching this online I came across this fascinating essay at the Victorian London website: ‘A Night with Old Tom’, by James Greenwood (1881, first published 1875). It’s too long to quote from here, but if you’re interested in sketches of Victorian London’s seamier side, and a footnote to this scene in Trollope, I’d recommend it.

I’d also recommend exploring the Victorian Web site. It has readable academic studies of Trollope, and the Pallisers in particular, as well as a great selection of useful material on social history; in the context of the penniless girl who Burgo takes pity on, see the sections related to gender matters and prostitution (although it’s not explicit in Trollope’s narrative that she is a sex worker). See also there the links to the prolific and hugely popular Victorian author George WM Reynolds, and in particular his 1845 novel The Mysteries of London. V Web has a chilling extract in which girls as young as eleven or twelve are trafficked by a sort of female Fagin; she then uses them as entrapment tools for blackmailing the ‘elderly voluptuar[ies]’ who were their unwitting customers. Sinister stuff.

Meanwhile, try to stay safe.