Magazine article The Spectator

Torn between Fear and Admiration

Magazine article The Spectator

Torn between Fear and Admiration

Article excerpt

TROLLOPE AND WOMEN by Margaret Marwick Hambledon, 21, pp. 218

Television dramas have accustomed us to seeing naked couples writhing about in bed. Love making, as a gymnastic workout, becomes a public performance. For Victorians, who turned death into a public celebration, love-making was a private affair. To expect any explicit descriptions of love-making in Trollope's novels is absurd. Yet they contain strong sensual and erotic undertones as the demands of human nature rub against the conventions of society.

The conventions with which Margaret Marwick is concerned are those that governed the place and expected behaviour of women in Victorian society. Most books that are based on university D Phil. theses, as hers is, turn out to be duds, the despair of reviewers who seek to reconcile respect for industry with the demands of readability. But Dr Marwick is a sensitive and perceptive writer as she examines Trollope's attitude to the accepted conventions of the place of women in society. They were based on the doctrine of `the two spheres' which condemned women to the `domestic sphere', leaving them with marriage as their destiny. Once married, in early Victorian Britain, a wife had no legal existence as a person, with no control over her own property or her children. She was considered sexually inert. According to Dr William Acton's 1857 treatise on the reproductive organs, `the majority of women (happily for our society) are not much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind'. For those unfortunates so troubled, clitoridectomy was recommended as a cure for masturbation.

The social fate of women, their subjection to men and their struggle to achieve freedom, has become a growth industry in the hands of today's feminist historians. The `women question' was much debated in the 1860s, and was the subject of novels by women writers. Trollope was well informed about this debate: he refers directly to it in his novels. In He Knew He was Right (1869) a wife finds that her children can be legally torn away by her pathologically jealous, mad husband. He saw the suffering involved - of all his novels it is the most painful to read - yet he was hostile to women's rights, even to a better education for women. Rather than 'subversive', as Dr Marwick writes, his attitude is ambiguous. It is the ambiguities that create the tensions in his novels. It is almost as if he is playing games with his readers.

Trollope was a conventional man, a devoted member of the Garrick, a mild anti-Semite, a fox-hunter and a conservative liberal who regarded radicals with distaste. He never abandoned his belief that a 'good' marriage was the only truly satisfactory life for a woman, and that a duty as an `angel in the house' was to minister to her husband's domestic needs as Trollope's own wife ministered to his. What Mrs Trollope may have felt about his love for the American feminist Kate Fields, an intellectual's femme fatale who could reduce ageing poets to drivelling imbecility, we shall never know. My own guess is that she realised that Kate was no threat. Anthony's passion was not returned, otherwise he might have drifted into a secret affair, as Dickens did with Ellen Ternan.

Trollope's life, like his novels, is full of ambiguities: excessively boisterous and loud-mouthed in public, he was subject to black depressions in private. A. O. Cockshut suggests that his compulsion to write was a device to ward off melancholia. While he recognised women's sexual needs in marriage, he seems to have believed that if their appetites were not restrained by convention, they would end up as harlots. …

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