Pamela Widmerpool is Mrs Proudie.
The resemblance of Powell’s promiscuous character, the only truly significant female main character across several of the books in his Dance to the Music of Time series, and Trollope’s straight-laced Victorian character from his Barchester novels may not be at first obvious. To study the parallels between them it is necessary to consider each in the context of the series of books in which they appear.
That Powell was aware of the possible points of comparison between the twelve novel sequence of his Dance and Trollope’s twelve novel Barchester and Palliser series is clear. In this eleventh volume, at a reunion of old army colleagues, the narrator Jenkins notes that his “former Divisional Commander, General Liddament (by then promoted to the Army Council) turned up as guest of honour, making a lively speech…ending with a recommendation that everyone present should read Trollope.” This reappearance of the Trollope enthusiast General, like references to Jenkins reading Proust while visiting locations from A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu on Army duty is an explicit invitation to the reader to draw comparisons with these earlier novelists’ works.
Powell’s fictional world is the exclusive realm of literary intelligentsia and publishing, notably focussing on fine art and politics, especially politics of the left with its pre-occupation with “fellow travellers”, members of the Communist party. This world, with its restricted entry but links to the wider (real) world in which politicians operate, might be seen as a twentieth century equivalent of the Victorian clergy, with their insular concerns but also outward facing responsibilities to the communities in which they lived, especially when the Barsetshire clergy are taken in conjunction with the politicians of the Palliser novels. What each might consider sacred – art or God – and profane may differ but that there are objects of worship is true in both cases.
More than half this eleventh volume of Powell’s sequence is set at a conference of the literary intelligentsia in Venice. This gathering is reminiscent of the gathering of the clergy at Barchester in conclave to debate what is to be done about Mr Slope early in Barchester Towers. The internecine struggles of Powell’s Party members echo the feud between advocates of low and high church practices in Trollope’s Church of England.
In this context, Mrs Proudie, the new Bishop of Barchester’s domineering wife, occupies a position very similar to Pamela Widmerpool, wife of the now Lord Widmerpool. Both are married to men with seats in the House of Lords. Both are aggressive and bullying towards their husband’s and to others in their social sphere. While in Mrs Proudie’s case the consistent logic of her low church position is the clear driving force for her repeated haranguing of her husband and others, the impetus for Pamela’s behaviour is more obscure. She seems driven by internal demons with no clear objective beyond shocking for its own sake – since she seems to derive only grim satisfaction from the results of her at times outrageous behaviour. Although promiscuous, she is described by various former lovers as frigid. One is reminded of the apocryphal remark attributed to Tony Curtis on having to kiss Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, that “it was like kissing Hitler”.
It is clear from various carefully worded phrases from Trollope in describing rows between Bishop Proudie and his wife that she uses the withdrawal of her favours as a weapon in her on going subjugation of her husband to her will. The flip side of this, implicitly, is that when he goes along with her, for example in banishing Mr Slope, then he will enjoy his rewards in the bedroom. Thus, I would suggest, Mrs Proudie, unlike Pamela Widmerpool, enjoys a fulfilling sex life and does so on her own (rigourous) terms.
There is a parallel between Pamela’s ruin of X. Trapnel and Mrs Proudie’s frustration of Mr Slope’s career-aspirations. However, Pamela subsequently talks of Trapnel’s novel, which she threw into the canal, as “being destroyed”. This use by her of the passive voice rather than acknowledging it was by her action, that she in fact destroyed it, implies a sense that she was in a sense driven to the act of destruction rather than willed it herself. Indeed, Pamela respectively adds “Poor X.” when talking of him in this context.
Both women die in the novels,Trollope notoriously killing off his creation after overhearing a conversation disparaging her in his club. Both on a bed. But Mrs Proudie dies of a heart attack seated on the marriage bed in her room whereas Pamela dies, we are led to understand, though it is less than explicitly described, of a drug overdose, naked in the bed of the man who has beaten her at her own game. He was more indifferent to her and therefore impenetrable to her usual modus operandi than she was to him. Ultimately she was left chasing after him rather than the reverse as was usually the case.
Both ends are sad, though in their different ways. Yet both characters are strong women who make their way in their very different worlds on their own terms. Of the two, I find Mrs Proudie the more rounded character. Trollope understood her and created some empathy for her in his readers by exposing the workings of her mind and showing that at heart she was doing what she truly thought was for the best, however misguided that might be to the reader with their wider knowledge of all the facts. Pamela, despite being a pivotal character in the series, is never more clearly explained by Powell than when she meets Mrs Erdleigh, the clairvoyant, who foretells her doom as an inevitable outcome of her internal compulsions, telling her: “‘Court at your peril those spirits that dabble lascivious with primeval matter…’ Then Pamela began to scream with laughter again, shriller than before. ‘You know, you know, you know. You’re a wonderful old girl. You don’t have to be told…You know already…'”.
As is so often the case, Trollope is by far the more insightful writer of female characters, giving his harridan a convincing three dimensionality which humanists her, to which Powell is unable to rise.