A former colleague, in the days before airport blockbusters were sold by weight rather than quality, and before I had ever read a Trollope novel, told me that she preferred Victorian novels to modern books because they were painted on a larger canvas which gave the author room to breathe more life into his or her characters. If ever there were to be need for a concrete example of this truth then it is to be found in the newly restored, full-length version of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.
I have been inhabiting this Trollopian parallel universe for the past four months and, truth to tell, I am now very reluctant to leave it. I feel, like the author himself, that the characters with whom I have spent that time are now dear friends whose idiosyncracies and foibles I have come to understand and love. This, I am convinced, is made all the more real by the wealth of minute, sometimes apparently inconsequential details which Trollope found room to include on his larger canvas with its extra 65,000 words. For it is through the accretion of these small details, not by the bold broad brushstrokes that Trollope excels in creating the most intimate portraits to populate his grand design. His is the art of the pointillist to create the overall impression.
In The Duke’s Children Trollope focuses almost to the exclusion of other considerations on the Palliser nuclear family and its immediate circle in a way that he did not do previously in the political novels that are frequently referred to as the Palliser series. And though the title suggests that the children are to main protagonists, the figure of the Duke himself is the towering mainspring of the action against whose control the children react.
The additional details in the enlarged edition make the character of the Duke so much clearer and more nuanced. His almost glacial calm and detached authority might almost have placed him a little way on the scale of autism, so aloof is he from the common ebb and flow of the society through which he moves and so focused is he – to the point of near monomania – on politics and his pipe-dream of decimalisation of the currency (truly a man ahead of his time). But the details now restored in this edition show a wealth of light and shade in his character which is scarcely hinted at in the curtailed versions seen hitherto.
We see how deep is his grief for his wife Glencora. Not just mourning her loss but also the missed opportunities when she was alive. “In those former days many a long evening he had passed all alone in his library, satisfied with blue-books, newspapers, and speculations on political economy, and had never crossed the threshold of his wife’s drawing-room; but now, when there was no longer a threshold he could cross, he felt himself deserted.”
It is an interesting insight into the Duke’s character that he should blame Glencora for “deserting him” as he in a similarly self-pitying vein at the end of the novel is found “reminding himself of all he had suffered, and reflecting how seldom it had happened that he to whom so many good things had been given had been allowed to have his own way in the affairs of life.”
Yet his suffering is genuine. When his daughter is pining for Tregear during the prolonged enforced separation imposed by the Duke, when discussing what to do about this with Mrs Finn “put his hand up to his brow and trembled with agony.” He loves his children greatly and suffers through their decisions to go against what he perceives to be the course of action duty requires of them.
But we also see another side of the Duke. He is caught “chuckling” in a playful verbal exchange with his elder son and later teases him, “laughing” about his “republican bride-elect”. This lighter aspect of his character has rarely surfaced in any of the preceding novels or the shortened version of this one.
It is interesting to compare the subtle differences in the Duke as perceived by others with his own self-perception. Even when trying to avoid doing so, he finds he inspires awe in others. Even Trollope’s most fully realised woman, Mrs Finn, whose self-assurance is a match for just about anyone, finds herself a little intimidated by the Duke in her interviews with him but even so, relies on his essential honesty and fairness to enable her to say the un-sayable to him without bringing his wrath down on her head (even though she fears, just a little, that this might indeed be his response). In contrast, we see Silverbridge both fearing and avoiding direct confrontations with his father – mainly because he feels he has let his father down and cannot bear the pain he will see his father suffer when he learns the full extent of his failings. Yet Silverbridge and his younger brother Gerald both regard “the governor” as being a generous and unfailing safety net for their rash escapades.
I cannot help but think that the most telling little detail about the Duke is his feeling so embarrassed when he realises that he has done Mrs Finn an injustice and, worse than that, and directly contrary to his experience with everyone else in his life, it is he who is beholden to her for favours she has done for him and his family rather than the reverse. This is unique in his experience and is compounded by the fact that she positively refuses to accept the bequest of jewels from the old Duke leaving the current Duke as the unwilling custodian of them – an embarrassing permanent reminder of how she has been irreproachable in her behaviour towards him when he has been less than that in his behaviour to her. How he feels this.
It is not only the monumental character of the Duke though who appears in clearer light and sharper perspective in the extended version but his children from whom the novel takes its title.
Silverbridge journeys from a callow youth to manhood. At the end, “Silverbridge since his marriage seemed even to his father to be much more of a man than he had before.” I must question whether the immature Silverbridge would command the love of a woman such as Isabel Boncasson, who is so much smarter than him. Perhaps it is a heady mix of pure sex appeal and his being unconscious of his attractiveness which lends him a certain air of uncertainty. He is also, like his father, scrupulously honest. He even inherits mannerisms from his father such as a way of fiddling with objects (particularly on chimney-pieces) as a distraction technique when engaged in stressful discussions.
Trollope charts his growth as a man through the course of the novel. It is not always a straight-line progression. He makes progress but then lapses – as when he “plunges”, betting on the horse race while drunk after having forsworn such behaviour only a few pages previously.
His politics is more personal than principled. A series of short restorations chart his conversion from Conservative opposition against his father’s politics to his eventual return to the Liberal fold. His motivations for this are often personal expediency – the prospect of offering up his political allegiance as a make-weight against his inappropriate marriage choice to soften the blow to his father (who characteristically is appalled later by his son’s being swayed by the personal rather than the principle after Silverbridge can no longer abide being in the same party as the arch-political manoeuvrer Sir Timothy Beeswax). Sometimes the son seems hopelessly naive in his thinking but at others, particularly in reading his father’s mind towards the end of the novel, he shows growing insight into human nature.
Indeed, Silverbridge is closer to his father’s thinking in the matter of his sister’s falling for Tregear than the Duke might have expected. Both take the paternalistic line that she should obey her father in this, as in all things. It is the woman she has replaced in Tregear’s affections, Lady Mabel, who tells Silverbridge that she could “see what sort of a girl she was. Of course she will marry him. Cart-ropes won’t keep them apart.” Indeed, this seems to have been every woman’s opinion on the matter from the outset, even Lady Cantrip, the Duke’s most active co-conspirator in the Popplecourt plot to supplant Tregear in her affections with a more suitable (that is, more aristocratic) partner.
Of the key protagonists, perhaps Lady Mary is the one whose character was the least affected by the cuts Trollope made. Her constancy and stubborn refusal to countenance any possibility of changing her mind is her key feature and this is little developed by the restorations. However, Trollope, in one critical aside that is now restored does make a point of addressing his readers who, if they are the typical Victorians Trollope takes them to be, and were to find themselves in the situation in which the Duke finds himself, then they would do the same as him. He tells them that they might well want to believe otherwise but they may in that case be deluding themselves.
We do see evidence that Lady Mary can be almost like a petulant child in her responses to being separated from Tregear, especially when he has suffered the accident while hunting. But we must also recognise that during the separation even mention of Tregear has been forbidden – probably by tacit observation that it will displease the Duke rather than by his express command – so that she has undergone almost prolonged mental torture at the hands of her father through being practically isolated. It is no wonder that she attaches herself so fervently to Mrs Finn (at first perhaps because she too has suffered at the hands of the Duke, unjustly as the girl sees it) and holds a grudge against Lady Cantrip – whom she specifically excludes from the list of invitees to her marriage when the Duke proposes she is asked to attend.
I have to say that I do rather side with Duke on the question of Tregear’s failure to find a way to make a living for himself. A man who can inspire such devotion from not one but two women really ought to have more get up and go about him. It is all very well for him to feel that he has never been brought up to set about earning money rather than living a life of ease and becoming an M.P. at that time did not provide the multiple potential sources of income that it does now so cannot be counted even though the Duke finds it a worthy occupation. It is only when he finally triumphs and receives confirmation from the Duke that he may marry Lady Mary that he eventually concedes that he feels “the disgrace of being a pauper”.
The restorations often do no favours to Tregear – showing him in a more argumentative and almost deliberately provocative light than he appears in the shorter version. There are various points also where it appears that he is not only seeking to separate the daughter from the Duke but also the son – arguing against Silverbridge’s gradual return to his father’s Liberal side.
The character who, after the Duke, benefits, if that is the correct word, most from the restorations, in terms of increased depth of the readers’ understanding of her situation, is Lady Mabel. I have rarely read a more insightful revelation of the bitterness of lost love than is seen in the restored version of this novel. That a Victorian man could see so deeply into the heart of a woman and understand the depth of hurt and how this comes out in the bitter, spiteful things she says in the conversations she has with first Silverbridge and then Tregear is quite remarkable. The two chapters in which these discussions take place are amongst the most difficult to read in this, or any, novel. Mabel’s pain is so close to the surface that it must come out in her attempts to wound both men who have, in their different ways, abandoned her. That they have done so, both of them, at her instigation, or as a result of her actions, must make it all the harder for her to come to terms with. Like the Duke, she has a self-pitying element to her character, which, if we are honest with ourselves, we can all recognise. But this does not detract from her position as the tragic victim, in the end, of both of The Duke’s Children in their determination to have the love they have set their hearts upon.
In contrast, Isabel Boncasson emerges in the full length novel as an even more self-assured woman though she too is seen to have a temper, as when her father’s party is cut short by the rain. A nice, human touch. She is no Dickensian angel. She is also shown teasing Silverbridge. This is Trollope at his most playful, accurately depicting the games that young lovers play when words must, perforce, take the place of actions that would be unseemly in this society. And, from those exchanges, we see that she has his measure intellectually. However, we also see in restorations that flesh out (I use the term advisedly) her meetings with Silverbridge, giving them an erotic charge, clear evidence that this is a woman who has a physical presence and desires.
The full length novel also gives room for some lesser characters to blossom. Major Tifto, for example, is seen to be less of a rogue than we are led to believe in the shortened version with redeeming features that have been retrieved from the cutting room floor to paint a more rounded picture of him as an individual.
More importantly, Mrs Finn is given greater room, particularly in the earlier chapters, to act as a foil to the Duke in the matter of his daughter’s romance. Here, as in earlier novels, she is used by Trollope almost as a bellwether. She invariably sees things with a clear-eyed and perceptive view. Her opinion that he must ultimately give way to his daughter, later echoed by Lady Cantrip, is our signal, if we needed one, that this is how things will turn out. It must have pained Trollope greatly, given she is such a favourite recurring character throughout the political novels, to have so greatly reduced her presence in the book to make the necessary cut in word count. Now we see in full detail the extent to which she suffered in silence, even shielding her impetuous husband from the story of the Duke’s injustice to her so as to ensure he does nothing rash which might have unfortunate political repercussions. Of course we also see, through her eyes, how the Duke lives up to her faith in his innate sense of fair-play and so her increased presence in the longer novel gives an enhanced view of the Duke himself.
Robert Wiseman in his essay on the cuts to the book which appears in the accompanying Commentary volume observes that the political scenes of the novel were amongst those which sustained the most cuts – certainly in terms of length, with whole paragraphs and even pages disappearing. The implication is that this removes the political content to a greater or lesser extent from the book. However, I would argue that the purpose of the political scenes was not to provide a secondary, politics-based storyline, nor was it to provide a backdrop or colour to the novel. Rather, I see the political scenes as a means to increase the readers’ understanding of the characters.
Silverbridge and Tregear are engaged in the politics of the day – both are elected as Members of Parliament during the narrative – and their responses to the political developments do more to shed light on them and their different motivations than any fulfill any plot requirements. Tregear is apparently the more principle driven politician, though his political arguments for the Conservative side seem to lack much actual depth or conviction (maybe Trollope, a lifelong Liberal, found it difficult to present the case for the other side). Silverbridge, on the other hand, seems to be more motivated by personal relationships and quits the Conservative side on these grounds.
Neither young man though is as steeped in politics as the Duke. And I think it is for the light that the political scenes shed on the Duke’s character that the restoration of the political scenes is to be most welcomed. The constant political manoeuvrings of the Conservative Sir Timothy Beeswax, as he seeks to hold onto the reins of power at whatever cost, provide the perfect contrast to the disinterested approach of the Duke who, as he explains to his son, sees the exercise of political power to be an obligation which falls on him through his position in society and is to be exercised by him for the good of the population. He is unconcerned with personal aggrandisement.
Indeed, it is only really in the scenes of political discussion that the Duke truly unbends and reveals his most relaxed side. He is at his most likeable in such scenes and, for this reason alone, they merit inclusion to give this warmer side to his character a proper airing.
In the end, I see this book as primarily a story about the Duke. It is his decisions which drive the book and every other character is acting, to a greater or lesser extent, in response to those decisions. The full length version magnifies the vision of the man who walked as a character through the six Palliser novels (with earlier cameo appearances in the Barchester series) and so was a constant companion to Trollope through the better part of two decades of writing. He is now seen at his most complete and the grandeur of his creation is to my mind the masterpiece of Trollope’s canon.