“He seldom talked of marriage though he said enough of love.” Feemy Macdermot with Captain Myles Ussher. Illustration by Eliza Trimby from Folio Society edition ©1991.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, amongst Trollopians at least, that Trollope writes great women characters. Frequently he is compared favourably with Dickens on the basis that Trollope’s women are three dimensional, living, breathing women rather than the simpering, “angels of the hearth”, two dimensional caricatures of Dickens’s “good” women or the over the top comic harridans of his wicked women of the lower orders. While not wholly subscribing to that over-simplification of Dickens’s female characters, I do go along with the generalisation that Trollope writes better women characters; not just better than Dickens, but better than almost any author, male or female, so in this category I am including such hugely talented female authors as George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), writing about women generally and Victorian middle-class women in particular.
In this series of articles I plan to explore Trollope’s most prominent or significant female characters. In doing so I realise that I will be asking readers to engage in the kind of doublethink required of subscribers to Archers Addicts, the fanzine devoted to the BBC radio serial The Archers, who are accustomed to reading articles about the actors and their lives outside the serial alongside articles about the characters they portray as if they too are real people and interchangeable with the actors who play them. I will write about Trollope’s women as if they are real people, discussing their life stories and their characteristics, and their foibles, as if they were real people while at the same time commenting on how Trollope set about portraying them and their lives in his fiction. For readers of Trollope, accustomed to his authorial interventions in the text of his novels, I trust that this hopping to and from such a “meta-level” discussion will prove no challenge.
Many of Trollope’s women, and the dilemmas they faced, were English and of the genteel middle class. He wrote about what he knew. But I propose to start with Trollope’s first female heroine, taken from his very first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, who is neither English nor genteel middle-class. She is Euphemia (‘Feemy’) Macdermot, the young daughter of Lawrence Macdermot, an Irish landowner whose family fortunes had gone steadily downhill, leaving them scarcely better off than their own tenant farmers. This being Trollope’s first novel, written before he had found his natural voice as a writer, Feemy is quite atypical of Trollope’s later central female characters, being in effect the tragic heroine of a gothic romance.
The novel is set in the early 1830s, at which time Feemy is about 20 years old. Her mother is long dead and she lives with her father and older brother, Thaddeus (‘Thady’), in the house built for their grandfather at Ballycloran near the village of Drumsna some 70 miles from Dublin, in County Leitrim. She has no suitable female company of her own class with whom she can socialise and, being thus isolated and lacking an older female guiding hand – she has responsibility to oversee the work of the family’s two domestic servants but they cannot provide any much needed guidance – she has plunged into the romantic, fanciful world of the novels “from the dirty circulating library at Mohill” to which she was “addicted”.
Like many young women of her class, she had been brought up to play her late mother’s old spinnet and she was “passionately fond of dancing, which was her chief accomplishment”. Indeed, she was generally graceful and “walked as if all the blood of the old Irish princes was in her veins”.
Trollope observes this with a young man’s eye (he was scarcely 30 when he wrote the novel) commenting:”Why can no woman walk like an Irish woman? All nations have different female graces but an Irish woman alone can walk.” He is clearly speaking from appreciative experience. His job at the time took him around the Irish countryside and brought him into contact with many young Irishwomen. No doubt there would have been some mild flirtation on both Trollope’s part and the young women he met which might well have included some sashaying off with hips swinging and coy backward glances over the shoulder on the part of the women.
Indeed, English gentlemen such as Trollope, were considered fair game in the marriage stakes by the young women of Irish society so that his marriage to Rose Heseltine, daughter of a visiting English bank manager, must have been a sore disappointment to them but perhaps not one that terminated their flirtatious behaviour with the newly confident, former hobbledehoy, Trollope.
Indeed the Roman Catholic Feemy falls for just such an eligible member of the Protestant ruling classes, Captain Myles Ussher (though he is actually from the northern County Antrim and less of a gentleman in upbringing or demeanour than the beau ideal). Her romantic sensibilities, based on the characters she read about, found Ussher “had all the chief ornaments of her novel heroes – he was handsome, he carried arms, was a man of danger, and talked of deeds of courage; he wore a uniform; he rode more gracefully, talked more fluently, and seemed a more mighty personage, than any other one whom Feemy usually met. Besides, he gloried in the title of Captain, and would not that be sufficient to engage the heart of any girl in Feemy’s position?”
Of course the reader is informed by the admittedly biased source, Pat (a tenant of the Macdermots with an interest in the illegal whiskey distilling trade which Ussher is employed to stamp out), that “they do be sayin’ in Ballinamore, that the Captain doesn’t spake that dacently of Miss Feemy, as if they wor to be man and wife”. And there lies the spring from which Feemy’s tragedy will arise. She, in her naivety and innocence, falls for the sweet nothings which Myles Ussher pours in her ear and believes he intends to marry her when he has no such intention.
Her brother, recognises all this and “could not but see that his sister was attached to Ussher; but he knew that she could not do better than marry him, and if he considered much about it, he thought that she was only taking her fun out of it, as other girls did, and that it would all come right.” Sadly, for all concerned, Thady’s hopes that Feemy would either grow out of an innocent flirtation or it would develop further and lead to a suitable marriage are to be dashed. Pat’s downbeat interpretation of Ussher’s intentions proves accurate.
Trollope’s description of Feemy’s appearance prepares us for this. Given the Victorian’s belief in the pseudo-science of physiognomy, that a person’s character may be read from their physical appearance, notably the face, we can infer much from how Trollope describes her looks: “Feemy…had large, bright brown eyes, and long, soft, shining dark hair, which was divided behind, and fell over her shoulders, or was tied with ribands; and she had a well-formed nose, as all coming of old families have; and a bright olive complexion, only the olive was a little too brown, the skin a little too coarse; and then Feemy’s mouth was, oh! an inch too long; but her teeth were white and good, and her chin was well turned and short, with a dimple on it large enough for any finger Venus might put there.”
Any regular reader of Trollope will recognise that last feature as a coded indication that the woman in question is sensual and is likely to be sexually adventurous. In the context of a nice English girl being courted by a young gentlemen this promises that later there will be a mutually satisfying physical side to a happy marriage. But in conjunction with the coarseness of skin and a tan which indicates too long in the sun and an outdoor life, in contrast to the pale and interesting look of the ideal woman who remains closeted indoors engaged in demure, womanly pursuits: sewing, reading and playing the piano, preferred in both fictional heroines and society, it bodes ill. This woman may be up for pre-marital sex and all the consequences that entails.
“In all, Feemy was a fine girl in the eyes of a man not too much accustomed to refinement. Her hands were too large and too red, but if Feemy got gloves sufficient to go to mass with, it was all she could do; and though Feemy had as fine a leg as ever bore a pretty girl, she was never bien chausse – her shoes were seldom clean, often slipshod, usually in holes; and her stockings – but no! I will not violate the mysteries if Feemy’s wardrobe further. But if the beautiful girls of this poor country knew but half the charms which neatness has they would not so often appear as poor Feemy too usually did.”
This further description once again condemns Feemy for falling short of the ideal standards expected of a virginal heroine. Her slatternly disregard for these fine points is a signal that she may also break other, more important, social rules and conventions and will suffer for it as female characters invariably (inevitably if the conventions are to be maintained and society protected from anarchy) must. That Trollope should end with a titillating glimpse of her stockings implies that Feemy will allow a man that privilege and more.
Trollope, as a novice writer, lacked the self-assurance to abandon the stereotypes of his chosen genre – a gothic romance/tragedy – and so Feemy is headstrong. Her priest, Father John, thinks her “the most stiff-necked young lady it had ever been his hard lot to meet.” When he tries to tackle her about her relationship with Ussher, “Feemy’s sharpness was too much for Father John” and he began “to wax wroth, partly because he was displeased with Feemy himself, and partly because Feemy answered him too knowingly.”
When confronted by her brother about local gossip surrounding her relationship with the disliked (indeed hated would not be too strong a word for the feelings of many) outsider, “this put Feemy’s back up” and she is “regularly roused” telling Thady, “l’m not to do what you tell me, nor will I, for I’m much more able to manage myself than you are for me. And for all you say about him, I’d attend more to one word from Myles, than to all you say, if you stood talking till night; and talk you may, but I’ll not stand to hear you!” She then “bounced out of the room, slamming the door”. Such vehemence, while it might be felt by a nice English girl could not be expressed by her. Thus Trollope is making full use if the licence which is given him by readers’ expectations of a more exotic, Irish heroine.
He does, however, have insight into the self-doubts which plague Feemy. In private “she was very unhappy at what her brother had said to her…she..could not but feel that there was something wrong. She never for a moment believed that her lover spoke loosely of her behind her back, for she never for a moment doubted his love; but she did feel that it would be more comfortable if Myles would speak, or let her speak to some of her family, if it were only her father.” She instinctively knows that her position would be more secure if it were publicly acknowledged. Later we find that “her spirit was stubborn and wouldn’t bend, but her reason and her conscience were touched by what the priest had said to her, and the bitter thought for the first time came over her, that her lover, perhaps, was not so true to her, as she to him. There she sat, sorrowfully musing; and though she did not repent of what she thought her own firmness, she was bitterly tormented by the doubts…which…had gradually disturbed her happiness.”
It is evident that Feemy’s relationship with Ussher is not one of two equals. “Feemy had so given herself up to her lover, that she was obedient to him in all things; to him even in opposition to her brother or her priest, and consequently she was to a degree humiliated even in his eyes. She did not feel the degradation herself, but there was still a feeling within, which she could not define, which usually destroyed her comfort.” This must be seen by modern readers in the context of Victorian social mores where, as Trollope says, “A girl should never obey her lover till she is married to him” with the clear implication that thereafter he was, as the law at that time had it, her lord and master in all things. There was a very literal interpretation of the words in the wedding ceremony by which the woman promised to “love, honour and obey” her husband thereby passing on marriage from the control of her father to that of her husband.
Nevertheless, the balance of power in Feemy’s relationship lies so far with Ussher that even he looks down on her. It should be remembered that this is before she elopes with him – when she truly went “Beyond the Pale” in everyone’s eyes in polite society. He is able to dangle gifts, with the power to give or withhold, even at the point in their relationship when she has yet to give him the one perceived great gift in her power to bestow – her virginity.
It is possible for the reader, particularly the modern reader, to read the relationship between the Catholic Feemy and Protestant Ussher as a metaphor for the exploitation of the Irish nation as a whole by the ruling British elite. To attribute such an intention to Trollope would be an extrapolation too far. He was himself a representative of that ruling elite in his day job and his views were sufficiently conventional to support, in broad terms, the status quo in Ireland at that time. However, there is also little doubt that his constant exposure to the plight of the Irish he met gave him deeper insight into them and the situation they faced which enabled him to portray them to his English audience with greater realism and an absence of resort to stereotypes and caricatures than other contemporary authors writing of the Irish primarily as comic figures of fun, transplanted from their homeland to an English setting. It is possible, therefore, that he might have unconsciously absorbed and reproduced on the page something of the injustice inherent in the treatment of the Irish by their overlords.
Even though he was very much a novice at the time he wrote The Macdermots of Ballycloran, Trollope still endows Feemy with characteristics which round out her personality on the page, making her a living, breathing young woman. She indulges in giggling girlie chats with her neighbour Mary on the eve of the latter’s wedding on the subject of double bed sheets which are to be part of her dowry – the two virgins speculating on what it will be like to share a bed, and all that implies, with a man. The conversation continues on the day of the wedding giving the women need “to hide the virgin blush” but Feemy then saucily teases the celibate priest who asks what they are talking about saying “Only just something Mary was to get ready for her husband, then, Father John – nothing particular. You’ll never be married yourself, you know, so you needn’t ask.”
Similarly, Trollope’s powers of observation excel in reproducing the light flirtatious side of Feemy, who, like any other girl, enjoys teasing banter with her lover with mock jealousy when in a good mood he brings her a present.
We also see her bravery when she steels herself to face Ussher and his “black frown” by raising the question of naming a date, which would, of course, be considered forward and immodest in a properly brought up young woman. In the great crisis in her life, when Ussher explains he has a promotion and posting to another district she asks, “An’t I to go with you, Myles, when you go?…an’t we to be married before you go?”
In confronting him directly she shows more courage than the men around her who have only sufficient nerve to plot against him behind his back. And when he prevaricates, she has the clearness of vision to realise he means her to go away with him as his mistress only and faces up to this future disgrace squarely and unflinchingly even recognising the meanness in his implied threat to jilt her if she does not.”It was not only for her own degradation, dreadful as that was, that she grieved, but Ussher himself…was this his truth, his love?…to swear he’d leave her, desert her for ever, unless she agreed to give up her family, her home, her principles, and follow him, a base low creature, without a name?”
Having made her decision, Feemy then shows a cool head and resourcefulness in carrying out Ussher’s plan for the elopement. She calmly ensures that the evening meal at home is served late so that darkness has fallen by the time she slips out of the house. She later shows similar calm calculation as she seizes her moment to escape ftom the protective care of Mrs McKeon where she has been placed to recover after her collapse on the night of the elopement.
Trollope then demonstrates both an empathy with his character in her anxious state at this crisis point and skill in conveying her fear and turmoil as she waits in the dark “for what seemed to her a cruelly long time;…so cold that she could hardly feel the ground beneath her feet; and her teeth shook in her head as she sat there alone in the cold night…listening for every sound – longing to catch the rattle of the wheels that were to carry her away – fancying every moment that she heard footsteps approaching, and dreading lest the awful creak of the house door opening should reach her ears.” Even when her worst fears are realised and Thady comes out at the moment Ussher drives up she still has the presence of mind to attempt to warn off her lover.
Inevitably, and for plot reasons, Trollope at this critical moment bows to the conventions of the gothic genre and has Feemy faint. It is necessary that Ussher should appear to Thady, when he confronts him on the dark road, to be half-dragging and half-carrying his sister to his gig and that Feemy be unconscious as Thady strikes Ussher the fatal blow, as he thinks, to protect her honour.
Feemy is, of course, pregnant by the time of the failed elopement. From clues in Trollope’s text – he could not be explicit for his Victorian readership but the adults would be well-used to deciphering such hints – it would appear that Feemy and Ussher made love on the afternoon he visited her and told her of his transfer. It is psychologically plausible. She was in a state of high emotion and, significantly, she had crossed her mental Rubicon by accepting the proposal to elope and so, once that principle had been sacrificed, there was now no bar to her sleeping with him. Furthermore, he was alone with her in the house from 2pm until 5pm and emerged to bump into Thady on the road who noted that “Ussher passed him with a slight unembarrassed nod…and…there was a look of satisfaction or rather gratified vanity in his face”.
Naturally, Feemy tried to conceal her pregnancy, which no doubt contributed to her state of mental collapse between October and December, “eating but very little – falling from one low fever into another – continually sobbing like a child, frequently hysterical – and sometimes almost delerious”. This melodrama is again acceptable in the context of the gothic genre however implausible it seems to modern readers. By March, however, it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the pretence and there rose “a dreadful suspicion in Mrs McKeon’s mind. She began to fear that Ussher, before his death, had accomplished the poor girl’s ruin, and that she was now in the family way.” Finally, after Feemy faints again, Mary “when she found that her mistress did not immediately come to herself,…began stripping her for the sake of unlacing her stays, and thus learnt to a certainty poor Feemy’s secret.” It seems more than likely that this prolonged effort of concealment using the artificial mechanical aid of her corsets was a contributory factor in the subsequent deaths of both mother and child when she suffered a catastrophic miscarriage under the stress of being called as a witness for her brother’s defence in his trial for the murder of her lover.
No doubt Feemy was desperate, but nevertheless she showed remarkable fortitude in carrying this terrible burden alone under such tragic circumstances for almost six months. That this effort took its dreadful toll can be deduced from Trollope’s description of her as she waits to be summoned to the court to give evidence. “There sat Feemy. Ah! how different from the girl described in the opening of this tale. Her cheek was pale and wan, and the flesh had gone, and the yellow skin fell in from her cheekbone to her mouth, giving her an almost ghastly appearance; her eyes appeared larger than ever, but they were quenched with weeping, and dull with grief; her hair was drawn back carelessly behind her ears, and her lips were thin and bloodless”.
That she should die was inevitable. No respectable writer of fiction in the Victorian era could allow a woman to so flagrantly breach the rigid moral code applied to women of the time and live. So Trollope followed the convention of the gothic romantic tragedy form and killed her off in a melodramatic climax to the novel, cruelly depriving her brother of the vital testimony to save him from the hangman. Thady’s subsequent execution is dealt with as a much more low key coda bring the novel to a quiet, almost restrained conclusion.
It is possible to read Feemy purely as a victim: a victim of circumstances, of her gender, of her race, of her religion, of the society in which she grew up, lived and died. But to do this is to deny her the control, the agency, she has in making her own destiny. That she lacked judgment and made unwise choices with tragic consequences for all concerned is no doubt true, but the young lack the necessary maturity and wisdom that comes with age, and often also the inclination, to do what is sensible. To my mind, she is without doubt the strongest of the Macdermots and, if she is the author of her own misfortune, then her tragedy is that she loved too well to be checked by the weak-willed men of her family in a time and place where she was ill-prepared for the upshot of her breaking free of the bounds that her family, church and community sought, without success, to impose upon her.