The companion Commentary volume to The Duke’s Children contains helpful guides for the modern reader to orientate themselves in Trollope’s made up world of Barsetshire during the 1870s.
It is a salutary exercise to consider that what we now read as historical, nay classic, literature was, to its Victorian readership contemporary fiction. This was set in the present. When Trollope did write historical fiction – with the exception of the early novel La Vendee, which was set at the end of the previous century in post-revolutionary France – it was set in the recent past. Lady Anna, for example, set during the times of the first Reform Act in the UK, is set only a few decades earlier than it was written. But for the most part, Trollope was writing contemporary fiction. He might have been Nick Hornby writing About A Boy at the end of the 1990s about life as it was experienced by many of that author’s readers during that decade.
So the modern reader needs help to read Trollope as its original readers would have done. When Trollope mentions that a woman is wearing a bustle, the modern reader needs to be aware that this is a mention of a trend-setting new fashion. Wearing a bustle marks the woman is being go-ahead rather than backward-looking (that would have been wearing crinoline). The modern reader will miss such signals because the bustle is a Victorian (as in all-purpose “Victorian”, any and all times between 1830 and 1900) item of apparel.
Michael Williamson’s Contextual Notes essay is packed with these types of pointers. He also identifies how these issues can mark out the social class of a person and the agonies suffered by the genteel poor of being unable to afford to conform to social requirements – such as a lady being expected to change dresses up to five times in the course of a day (morning dress while at home, walking dress when going out – with all the necessary accoutrements, hat, gloves etc, afternoon dress on returning home, dress for dinner and ball gown if partying later). This, of course, makes sense of the many instances in Trollope of the daughter of the poor branch of the family despairing over what she might pack from her (to her contemporary Victorian mindset) meagre stock of dresses to take for even the briefest of visits to wealthy relations.
It is axiomatic amongst Trollopians that the author was a superb portrayer of women. His ability to convey the difficulties they faced where the only game in town for them was matrimony, with their future happiness, and almost more importantly, financial security, depended on the outcome. The stakes were indeed high. In his essay, Williamson provides an outline of the legal constraints that applied and how these evolved during the course of Trollope’s lifetime with legislation such as the Divorce Act (1857) and The Married Women’s Property Act (1870) which made the first tentative steps on the road to the sex equality that we take for granted should apply today.
The Duke’s Children features an election for the vacant seat at Silverbridge and for the modern reader this, like other elections depicted by Trollope in the Palliser/Political series and elsewhere, is a very different affair than we would expect nowadays. Indeed, the Duke of Omnium is quite forward thinking in his internal debate about not only how – but indeed whether he can justifiably continue to – exercise the type of intervention that his uncle, the previous Duke, would have exercised without a second thought to influence the voting process. While not precisely a “rotten borough”, there is a definite feeling amongst the limited number of men only who have the power to vote in that election that they would please the Duke by voting for his son.
Williamson’s essay clarifies these issues and shows how they apply to the fictional world of Barsetshire with a neat summary of the constituencies and the MPs they have returned over the sequence of 12 novels (both Barsetshire and Palliser series) culminating in The Duke’s Children. This delightful exercise reminds me inevitably of the way in which real life and the fictional world become hopelessly entangled when discussing Trollope. (The only contemporary equivalent I can find is in the discussions of Archers Addicts about the fictional goings on in Ambridge where the real lives (and deaths) of the actors somehow become jumbled in.) Indeed, in this essay, Williamson cheerfully jumps from mentioning the (real life) Quorn and Cottesmore hunts to Trollope’s fictional Ufford and Rufford United Hunt and the Runnymede Hunt.
Such is the power of Trollope’s imaginary world to draw the reader in that we think nothing of the resulting emulsion – such as that strange mix of Disreali/Daubeny and Gladstone/Gresham found in the political novels, even though Disreali himself is mentioned in the non-series book Ralph The Heir and there is a fictional town in another non-series novel The Fixed Period called Gladstonopolis. It seems, therefore, wholly appropriate that having followed this practice himself in the Contextual Notes, Williamson goes on to provide a selected list of Characters and Place Names to help the readers navigate their way through this fictional world without foundering on the rocks of the real one for which it provides a more picturesque – one might even say a better – overlay.