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.

 

Can you forgive Anthony Trollope?

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Oxford World’s Classics, 1991. First published 1864-65

Here I am, back again after another long silence. Work again kept me away from reading and posting. The work project is now finished, and there’s a slight pause before the next one begins, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to catch up. Particularly while the world is going crazy; here in the UK we’re fast approaching lockdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her coverI don’t want to summarise the plot, as that’s not the most exciting or original feature of this first in the series of Palliser novels. Its interest lies mainly in Trollope’s dealing with the theme of women’s powerlessness, especially in their marital position (pretty much the only kind of social relation open to them at the time). In brief, there are three linked marriage stories, all of them involving women making potentially unforgivable choices. Alice Vavasor breaks off two engagements, first to an amoral swine, her cousin George, who betrays her in every conceivable way, and then to upstanding but dry John Grey.

More interesting is the story of Lady Glencora, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with the emotionally arid Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the dukedom of Omnium, who first appeared in the Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, about which I posted here. She’s still attracted to another caddish swine, the admirably named Burgo Fitzgerald, with whom she had a love affair before her marriage. He’s a beautiful, reckless parasite: ‘Every man to himself’ is his motto. Like George with Alice, he’s desperate to get his hands on this woman’s money.

Third is Alice’s lively middle-aged aunt, courted by, yes, another contrasting pair, a dull braggart miserly landowner-farmer and a dashing, amoral waster. You can see how these women’s dilemmas in choices of men produce the title of the novel; each choice they make is largely determined by the contrasting impulses of heart and head, in that context of their subservient positions socially.

Alice muses what a woman should do with her life; women lacked power and agency in an English world still decades away from universal suffrage, and everyone lacked political agency in a Parliamentary system that’s skewed to favour the wealthy males of the landowning and aristocratic classes. Trollope shows some interest in the plight of women in the sexual politics of the era, but like Gissing in The Odd Women, his sympathy for them in their desire for independence and autonomy is limited. But he’s not entirely incapable of sympathy for the disadvantaged, as we shall see.

What I want to focus on here is perhaps the best scene in this very long, prolix novel (the fox-hunting scene is too tedious for words). In ch. 29, the mercenary cad Burgo has been thwarted in his attempt at a party to lure Glencora into eloping with him. As he walks home his thoughts centre as usual on himself. He feels sorry for himself, as he sees his chances of netting the wealthy prize slip away. But he also starts to feel something resembling remorse: ‘He thoroughly despised himself.’ Could there possibly be, even for him,

…some hope of a redemption…some mode of extrication from his misery? 

He even realises that despite the allure of her money, he’d learned to love Glencora. His misery is almost real. He even strives to justify his attempt to persuade her to commit adultery with him by framing it as saving her from a miserable life with a man she doesn’t love. He persuades himself that her husband has less right to her love than he does, who truly loves her (insofar as he’s capable).

As he walks home from the party, he crosses into Oxford Street, in central London, where:

A poor wretched girl, lightly clad in thin raiment, into whose bones the sharp freezing air was penetrating, asked him for money. Would he give her something to get drink, so that for a moment she might feel the warmth of her life renewed?

Burgo is about to pass her by without a thought, well used to such a ‘petition’,

But she was urgent, and took hold of him. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘if it’s only a penny to get a glass of gin! Feel my hand – how cold it is.’ And she strove to put it up against his face.

He sees that she is very young, perhaps sixteen at most, and had been ‘very lately…exquisitely pretty.’ A look of the ‘pure innocency’ and faith that she must have had until just a year ago still lingers in her eyes.

And now, at midnight, in the middle of the streets, she was praying for a pennyworth of gin, as the only comfort she knew, or could expect!

Even though that exclamation mark probably reflects Burgo’s point of view, as he’s the focalisation at this point, I think that this is the bluff clubman narrator’s voice, the one that’s usually so urbane and aloof. Can Trollope possibly be expressing some compassion here for the urban poor – and a girl who’s probably soliciting men who look rich for money in return for sexual favours – in a manner we tend to associate more with Dickens? It seems so.

For Burgo stops to talk to her:

‘You are cold!’ said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.

‘Cold!’ said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer, in her rags, as she shivered.

I don’t read this gesture of hers as seductive, but more an instinctive attempt to gain some animal warmth (and kindness) from the well-wrapped gentleman.

‘Oh God! If you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world – not one penny, not a hole to lie in!’

‘We are alike then,’ said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. ‘I also have nothing. ‘You cannot be poorer than I am.’

‘You poor!’ she said. And then she looked up into his face. ‘Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.’

He laughs again, but in a different tone – surely one less cynical, self-pitying and callous. He says he will give her money provided it’s for something to eat. And he takes her to a pub for something to eat and drink.

I hope you agree that this is a touching scene, and better crafted than Trollope’s usual dashed-off narrative technique. Burgo is shown as a more complex, sympathetic character. By that I mean in his sympathy for the girl (the etymology of ‘sympathy’: sharing her suffering, unselfishly for once), and my feeling a touch of fleeting sympathy for him (it doesn’t last). He redeems himself for a short time in this scene.

And it seems to me achieved by Trollope in a less melodramatic, sentimental way than Dickens, usually Trollope’s superior as a novelist in every way, would have done it (and they do have radically different novelistic intentions and styles). Trollope rarely depicts the poor with any kind of profound understanding, sincerity or fellow-feeling, but he manages it here.

Next time I want to say a little more about that pub, and gin.

 

Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.

Photo of Guy de Maupassant

Photo by Nadar, from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b53155773n, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w /index.php?curid=1250918

Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.

Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.

Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’

This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.

The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.

The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.

Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.

‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.

Maupassant Fifi and Henry James lit crit coverOne of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.

So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.

Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.

‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:

His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.

Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).

Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel is the second novella or long short story in the trilogy by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) published by Oxford World’s Classics; I posted yesterday on the first one, Miss or Mrs? 

Collins Miss Mrs cover

The rather handsome image on the cover of the OWC paperback is a detail from a watercolour by James Holland, ‘The Steps of the Palazzo Foscari'(1844)

The Haunted Hotel was first published in six monthly instalments, June-November, 1878, in Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. This was a popular journal initially edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of the best-selling sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (serialised in 1861; first book form 1862) and established by her lover, the publisher John Maxwell, to provide an outlet for her copious fictional production. It was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1876, when its huge sales had already started to dwindle.

Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native appeared in serial form in the same magazine in the same year as The Haunted Hotel. That’s where the connection ends. Collins’s novella is nowhere near in the same class as Hardy’s sixth published novel.

Like Miss or Mrs? it is highly melodramatic and plot-driven. It differs in that it is has more in common with the gothic romance wing of sensation fiction, as its title suggests. Its first major player is the mysterious Countess Narona – whose very name resembles that of the equally demonic (and dangerously foreign) Count Murano in Radcliffe’s seminal gothic romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The eponymous Venetian hotel, like the castles in that predecessor, is decaying, putrid and full of dark, spectral secrets – including a lab-workshop in the cellar that would have pleased Victor Frankenstein.

Although once again Collins keeps his plot rattling along at a good pace, ending every few chapters (presumably these were the final pages of each monthly instalment) with a cliffhanger. But these aren’t sufficient to hold the modern reader’s attention. The narrative only fully arrives in Venice at ch. 17, almost half-way through the story. Collins attempts to build suspense leading up to this point with a variety of familiar gothic-sensational devices, from letters and legal reports to oral narratives delivered by marginal characters.

The single unifying principle, on which the author stakes his whole supposedly terrifying mystery, is the probability that the room in which a character died under suspicious circumstances has lingered in ghost form and appears to his family members when they come to stay in the rambling, ruinous palazzo he’d rented during his stay in Venice, and which has subsequently converted by developers into a fashionable hotel.

Unfortunately, although there is a certain frisson when the ghastly truth arrives, it has taken far too long to arrive, and the  clichéd plot, full of stereotypical characters and implausible coincidences and developments, once again weaken the story. Collins tweaks that ending to leave a slight possibility of doubt whether the supernatural element really does have a more mundane explanation – but that’s not enough to rescue the novella from mediocrity.

Interest perks up slightly when it takes a surprising metafictional turn in the Venice section: the evil Countess suggests to a theatrical entrepreneur that he produce a play she’ll write called ‘The Haunted Hotel’, involving, guess what, a Venetian palazzo with a terrifying ghost, a plot contrasting credulous superstition with more rational villainy, and some twisty secrets. This too soon palls and becomes yet another creaky implausibility. As in Miss or Mrs? there’s some nasty casual racism and sexism.

Nevertheless I also found this second dose of sensational Collins – this time with a gothic flavour – entertaining enough for the post-Christmas torpor. It was this novella in the OWC volume that was recommended to me by the literary folk on Twitter when I put out a request for Venice-set literature to prepare me for a planned short break there with Mrs TD next spring.

Collins had visited the city several times, including one stay with his collaborator-friend Dickens and their mutual friend, the genre artist Augustus Egg, and most recently in 1877 while on a tour to alleviate the symptoms of gout in the eyes – for which he also turned to opium for relief. This first-hand knowledge doesn’t show itself in the story, however. I thought the detail about the setting could have been arrived at by any half-decent writer of potboilers armed with a tourist guide and a few poems by Byron.

Wilkie Collins, Miss or Mrs?

Not much time for reading over the Christmas period, but visitors have now gone, and I can at least post about the first of three long short stories by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) in one OWC volume (2008). The first, Miss or Mrs? (1871) is 80-odd pages long. The middle one, The Haunted House, about which more next time, is probably better described as a novella at 160 pp. The Guilty River is 110 pp.

Collins Miss Mrs coverNorman Page and Toru Sasaki point out in their Introduction that these shorter-form works of fiction were well favoured by many Victorian novelists, from Dickens (a friend of and collaborator with Collins) to Stevenson, Henry James to Conrad, and of course with later writers like Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence. Although he wrote more than twenty novels between 1850 and 1890 (Blind Love was published posthumously), and produced his most popular work in the 1860s –The Woman in White (1860) to The Moonstone (1868) – Collins was happy to meet the demand from publishers and the reading public for shorter fiction, mostly published originally in magazine form. Two of them were later republished in book form, thus reaching a new market, and generating a new income stream for author and publisher.

Miss or Mrs? first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Graphic, an ‘illustrated London newspaper’, which sold 200,000 copies. Its typically lurid and melodramatic plot reflects Collins’ knowledge of the law (he’d been intended for a legal career by his father, and was called to the bar in 1851, but soon turned to writing as a profession).

I have a soft spot for these Victorian ‘sensational’ works of fiction. They rely on intricacy of plot and outlandish developments, larger-than-life characters, implausible coincidences and murky secrets to drive the narrative at a cracking pace. Not so much energy or interest is invested in characterisation or psychological verisimilitude.

Readers today might not find it so easy to warm to the two central romantic figures. Natalie Graybrooke is only fifteen. Her weak-willed, money-loving father is easily persuaded by his shady middle-aged and clearly villainous friend Turlington (with some nasty secrets in his history) to consent to their marrying, unaware that the shady ‘Levant trader’ has got seriously into debt and needs the money that her father has promised as a dowry to get him out of his difficulties.

Her secret lover has the implausibly Tennysonian name Launcelot Linzie. He’s not so much older than Natalie, but her cousin – neither her age nor their familial connection seem to cause much of a problem in Victorian times.

The convoluted plot involves a heartless abandonment of a man at sea (in the past), a dastardly murder plot that nearly succeeds (in the present), a blackmail plot, and the lovers’ secret wedding in a dodgy part of London (to avoid the gentry who know her family from finding out about Natalie and Launcelot’s marriage). Because she’s underage – presumably this is why the author makes his heroine so young, otherwise the plot collapses – they can’t elope, as under Victorian law of the time this would open the groom to the charge of abduction (if she’d been sixteen she’s described by him as being ‘ripe for elopement’! – some of the social and gender attitudes are pretty grim). So she has to remain, secretly wed, in her father’s household, subjected to the creepy advances of her would-be husband, Turlington.

It might be a plot device to make Natalie only fifteen, but Collins repeatedly describes her as sexually mature, alluring and nubile. Her physical and emotional precocity is accounted for in further dubious plotting – she’s another of those Victorian plot staples, an outsider: her mother had been born in the West Indies, and it’s thought she has ‘a mixture of Negro blood and French blood’. Both would have been considered sufficient to explain her sexually advanced development (Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre belongs in this category; Heathcliff, too, in his own way, perhaps). This racial and gender stereotyping is difficult to countenance now, and the love scenes between Natalie and Launcelot are a little disturbing.

It’s good fun finding out how all these tangled threads of plot are tied up by the end, but it’s far from a work of high literary seriousness. Entertaining reading for the holidays, though.

Maybe the plot owes something to Collins’ well-known unconventional personal views on marital relations. From 1858 he lived with a lower-class widow and her daughter. Although she wanted to marry him, he disapproved of the institution of marriage. She left him for a time in the early 1860s and even married someone else, but returned to him and they continued their ménage. In 1868 he met Martha Rudd, then 19, and they began a separate household together and they had three children. He divided his time between the two families. He’d also become an opium addict, having taken the drug initially to treat the painful symptoms of gout.

It’s not surprising really that his stories have such outlandish and sensational plots.

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington again

I hadn’t intended returning to Anthony Trollope’s fifth Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, after my post about it last time. But I felt I needed to indicate some of its strengths I didn’t have space for there.

Trollope is after all a writer of romantic comedies (though his interest in power struggles is more to his liking), and he can be pretty funny. In this scene the ghastly Lady de Courcy, whose snobbish cynicism has been portrayed in several of the earlier novels in the series, is visited by her daughter Lady Alexandrina, who’s come to complain about her ‘sufferings’ with her new husband. This is Crosbie, who’d jilted ‘dear Lily’ in favour of what he thought to be a more desirably glittering member of an aristocratic family, better suited to his ambitions as a ‘swell’ in fashionable London society – then quickly regrets his decision when his bride’s brittle coldness becomes apparent. (Their mutual contempt is shown with delightful dryness by Trollope even as they leave for their honeymoon and they each take out reading matter in the train to avoid having to converse.)

“Oh, mamma! you would not believe it; but he hardly ever speaks to me.”

“My dear, there are worse faults in a man than that.”

 

Lady de Courcy tells Alexandrina that she is to go to Baden-Baden indefinitely in order to escape from her increasingly boorish, goutish, abusive husband, the earl. She announces melodramatically to her unsympathetic daughter:

“Another year of it [life with the earl] will kill me. His language has become worse and worse, and I fear every day that he is going to strike me with his crutch.”

She hadn’t intended taking the daughter with her, and clearly resents the implicit request to join her in her escape:

She had endured for years, and now Alexandrina was unable to endure for six months. Her chief grievance, moreover, was this, – that her husband was silent. The mother felt that no woman had a right to complain of any such sorrow as that. If her earl had sinned only in that way, she would have been content to have remained by him till the last!

Great stuff.

In an earlier scene Johnny Eames, the annoyingly earnest, ingenuous young man who’d loved Lily since they were children together, has to do some enduring of his own. Lily’s engagement to Crosbie had been announced, and the dashing intruder ‘swell’ from London, his hated and now more successful rival, is on a visit to his mother’s humble home from the grander surroundings of the ‘big house’ at Allington where he was staying.

Crosbie reveals an early sign of his capacity for unpleasantness beneath the Apollonian surface: he haughtily refuses all of the flustered, awe-struck Mrs Eames’s offered refreshments, partly from snobbishness at the humble simplicity of this country cottage and hostess, and also because he knows of the son’s hopeless love for his fiancée, and ‘despises’ him for it.

Mrs Eames implores him with her eyes to accept a piece of cake ‘to do her so much honour.’ Understanding that the poor woman would be ‘broken-hearted’ if they all behaved so high-handedly, Lily and her sister Bell take some of the ‘delicacies’. And here Trollope shows his hand:

The little sacrifices of society are all made by women, as are all the great sacrifices of life. A man who is good for anything is always ready for his duty, and so is a good woman always ready for a sacrifice.

True, it’s hardly a great sacrifice, and there’s some irony here; but it’s a telling act of kindness by the Dale sisters, showing compassion for an honest, anxious woman who is suffering at the treatment of a callous cad who is supposed to be a gentleman – one who knows his ‘duty’, and is displaying here and about to show in his treatment of Lily his contempt for all that being a gentleman entails.

I hadn’t thought of Trollope as a humourist before starting these Barsetshire novels, even less as a proto-feminist. Although he does rather disappointingly often portray women characters as stereotypical ‘angels’, in these later novels he’s showing his ability to create complex, interesting ones, too (Amelia Roper is one of several in this novel), and narrative sympathy for their not always happy lot in Victorian society. And he can be very funny.

We get to meet Plantagenet Palliser here, too, who is to feature in the next series of novels, to which I hope to turn fairly soon. Kindly old Septimus Harding pops up unexpectedly, too (along with several others from the earlier novels), tellingly in the company of the treacherous Crosbie. The handsome young cad doesn’t show up well in this saintly company either.

Trollope’s Framley Parsonage – 2

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.