Eleanor Bold (nee Harding) – played by Janet Maw – with Obadiah Slope – played by Alan Rickman – in The Barchester Chronicles broadcast by the BBC in 1982.
In her thought-provoking and insightful book, Trollope and Women, Margaret Markwick cites Eleanor Harding as the first in an almost unbroken sequence of Angels in the House which continued through his novels from The Warden, published in 1855, to An Old Man’s Love, published posthumously in 1884. She is described by her father, the eponymous Warden, as, “Such a treasure in his house, such a jewel on his bosom, so sweet a flower in the choice garden of his heart.”(1). Markwick categorises Eleanor as an “immaculate” virgin of a type who “at the beginning of the novel …are presented as models of virgin decorum, continuing unchanged in this vein through the story.” Such women are invariably poor and, at the end of the story, are rewarded with marriage to a wealthy, and often handsome, bachelor. They are suitably submissive – Eleanor says that, “I shall always judge my father to be right and those who oppose him I shall judge to be wrong” (1). However, in spite of following this quotation with a similar expression of her love and enduring close relationship with her father taken from The Last Chronicle of Barset, Markwick fails to consider how Eleanor progresses from the 24 year old ingenue of the first novel in the Barsetshire series to the mature, confident, independent-minded woman in her mid-forties, with a keen (and deeply ironic) sense of humour, whom we meet in that sixth and final novel in the series. In the intervening 20 years she has been twice married and had three children and been unsuccessfully pursued by two further would-be lovers. She is, therefore, I suggest a far more complex character than first appearances might lead the reader to believe and the development of her character across the five Barsetshire novels in which she appears marks one of Trollope’s finest, yet most under-appreciated, achievements.
Eleanor was born about 1820 since Trollope observes that during the events described in The Last Chronicle of Barset, which take place some time during the 1860s, she “was at this time – if I were to say over forty I do not think I should be uncharitable”(6).
She is the younger daughter of the mild-mannered Reverend Septimus Harding, Warden of Hiram’s Hospital at the start of the Barchester series. Her sister Susan is ten years her senior and has been married to the Bishop of Barchester’s son, the Archdeacon Dr Theophilus Grantly, for some 12 years at the outset of the novels. The girls’ mother died while the girls were young but, unlike Feemy Macdermot, they benefited from a loving parent ensuring neither was likely to “go off the rails” as she did.
It is likely that Susan, as the elder daughter, may have taken on something of her mother’s mantle in the household and this may account for her no nonsense, down to earth attitude which stands her in good stead when dealing most successfully with her high-handed but emotional husband. Which leads me to ponder whether Trollope may not have been influenced by Jane Austen – he was a known fan of that earlier writer – and her novel Sense and Sensibility. It is tempting to see in the two Harding sisters a mirror of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with Susan in the role of the sensible older sister and Eleanor in the role of the younger Marianne, who, through the course of that novel, must do much growing up to recognise that her sensibilities must needs be tempered with some of her older sister’s good sense.
Certainly, Eleanor does much growing up through the events that fate – through the means of our author – throws at her. Little, however, of that process is seen in the first novel, The Warden, at the end of which she marries John Bold for, as we discover at the start of the next, Barchester Towers, having “once declared that whatever her father did should in her eyes be right…[s]he then transferred her allegiance and became ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master.”(2)
Eleanor is a naive 24 when we meet her at the start of The Warden. Her role in the book is to be the female romantic interest for Trollope was convinced that every book, whatever the ostensible core subject – here the alleged abuse of privileges granted to the church under an ancient trust established by the will of John Hiram for the benefit of the poor men of Barchester – should nevertheless include a romance within its pages. Such romantic heroines are conventionally, and in accordance with the social expectations of the time, essentially passive in the development of their romance. Though marriage is effectively the only career option open to young ladies of the middle class, they must on no account be seen to pursue it. The man must do the chasing and, apparently, surprise the woman with his offer of marriage, whereupon she suddenly realises that she is in love with him. Of course there must be obstacles for the path of true love can never run smooth in a romantic novel but Trollope creates an apparently insuperable obstacle in the form of Eleanor’s would be lover John Bold’s conscience. Rather than having to overcome parental opposition – in fact there is none, Mr Harding being the man he is never opposes the match in spite of all Bold does – Bold faces the dilemma that his conscience requires him to seek the removal of Mr Harding’s comfortable sinecure as Warden of the Hospital while at the same time seeking his daughter’s hand in marriage.
However, contrary to convention, Eleanor actively engages in the matter and when she meets Bold argues her father’s cause, telling him, “If those who do not know him oppose him, I shall have charity enough to believe that they are wrong, through error of judgment; but should I see him attacked by those who ought to know him and to love him, and revere him, of such I shall be constrained to form a different opinion.”(1)
This is not the last time that Eleanor will best a man in a face to face argument and it shows that she has inherited from her father a rather stronger backbone than appearances might suggest (he will go on to reject the advice of his friends, fellow clergymen and his argumentative son-in-law, the Archdeacon, and resign his post once convinced by Bold’s arguments that his position is, for him at least, untenable).
Of course winning the argument with the man whom she wishes to marry leaves her deeply unhappy. “Though Eleanor Harding rode off from John Bold on a high horse, it must not be supposed that her heart was so elate as her demeanour. In the first place, she had a natural repugnance to losing her lover; and in the next, she was not quite so sure that she was in the right as she pretended to be.”(1) Even so, she still goes through with it indicating an intellectual strength of mind necessary both to do this and to recognise there may be flaws in her own arguments while she does so.
All, of course, is resolved by the end of the first novel, and we are assured that Eleanor will marry Bold. Yet when we meet her again in the next novel, Barchester Towers, we learn that life has gone anything but smoothly for Eleanor in the intervening five years. She has indeed married Bold but, while she was pregnant with their child, he has died leaving her widow before she is 30.
This is not the only time that Trollope ruthlessly dispatches an inconvenient character between novels in order to suit the plot requirements of the next book – think Mary Flood Jones, who marries Phineas Finn then expires between Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, leaving the way clear for Phineas to continue his political and amorous career, or even Lady Glencora Palliser, who is killed off in the first sentence of The Duke’s Children, in order to set up the struggle of Plantagenet Palliser to manage his children as a widower without the perhaps dubious benefit of her support.
In Eleanor’s case though, it places her in the unusual position for a Victorian woman of being in charge of her own destiny. At that time – prior to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882 – an unmarried woman was under the charge of her father and, on her marriage, was passed into the charge of her husband. She had no control of herself or her finances. But, if she were to be widowed, then she was no longer under anyone’s charge and was free to take personal control of her finances and those of her late husband. In many cases this control was forestalled by provisions in a husband’s will so that, should he die first, the assets would be placed in trusts (controlled by male relatives) and typically the woman had only lifetime interests in the income with the capital reverting to the children on her death.
Bold, who was a rich man with an income of “nearly a thousand a year” (2), made no such provision however. “He had bequeathed to her all that he possessed…and when she reflected on its extent, her dearest hope was to hand it over, not only unimpaired but increased, to her husband’s son, to her own darling, to the little man who now lay sleeping on her knee”(2). This shows that she had impressed him already in their short marriage with her financial acumen so that he had come to trust her even in the areas of business finance, which would typically have been a closed book to woman in that time, to manage his ongoing affairs after his death on her own without any of the usual constraints or safeguards. As we shall see, she rises to this challenge successfully.
Hard though it is to lose her husband, and Eleanor “wept as for the loss of the most perfect treasure with which mortal woman had ever been endowed; for weeks after he was gone the idea of future happiness in this world was hateful to her; consolation, as it is called, was insupportable, and tears and sleep were her only relief”(2), this early bereavement enabled her to grow and mature, so that she is an altogether more formidable woman than her relatives give her credit for as she faces the challenges of being a young and very wealthy widow having to fend off would be suitors in Barchester Towers, wherein she is, for a second time, the principal female love interest.
In fact, in this second novel, she enjoys, though that hardly describes her response to the situation, the attentions of not one but three different suitors. Two of these, it is true, have mercenary motives: Bertie Stanhope is the indigent, spendthrift son of a clergyman of Barchester who himself was forced to flee to Italy to escape the attentions of creditors and the Reverend Obadiah Slope who “thought, moreover, that Eleanor’s fortune would excellently repair any dilapidations and curtailments in the dean’s stipend”(2) that he hoped to earn on his expected promotion. Perhaps, of all Trollope’s females, only Martha Dunstable, the heiress of the “Ointment of Lebanon” patent medicine business empire, has more pursuers who are more interested in her money than herself.
Indeed, Eleanor’s elder sister describes her looks with damningly faint praise, saying that, “though Eleanor is well enough, she has not at all a taking style of beauty.”(1) But are siblings the best judge of their younger sister’s looks? Her first husband, during their courtship, troubled as it was by the issue of her father’s position at the Hospital and Bold’s own efforts to change that, observed “How beautiful Eleanor appeared to him as she slowly walked into the room!”(1) As a rich man, his perspective could not have been coloured by money – for at that time she was merely a clergyman’s daughter, it was to be his money that she inherited on his death which might have inspired the less worthy candidates for her hand once she was a wealthy widow.
Trollope describes Eleanor as having “long, glossy, dark brown locks, and…she looked very beautiful…There was a quiet, enduring, grateful sweetness about her face, which grew so strongly upon those who knew her, as to make the great praise of her beauty which came from her old friends, appear marvellously exaggerated to those who were only slightly acquainted with her. Her loveliness was like that of many landscapes, which require to be often seen to be fully enjoyed. There was a depth of dark clear brightness in her eyes which was lost upon a quick observer, a character about her mouth which only showed itself to those with whom she familiarly conversed, a glorious form of head the perfect symmetry of which required the eye of an artist for its appreciation.”(2) Furthermore, Mr Slope, even though seduced by the “dazzling brilliancy”(2) of Madeline Neroni, whom he pursued simultaneously, calls Eleanor a “Beautiful woman”(2). Slope’s betrayal of Eleanor (if such it may be called, though she never considered him to ever be in a position in respect of her that would cause such duplicitous behaviour to be regarded as a betrayal) is, therefore, more evidence of the man’s hypocrisy than of any shortcomings in Eleanor’s physical attractiveness.
Naturally the family opposes the prospective match with Slope, which they mistakenly believe Eleanor is planning, and her pompous brother-in-law attempts to take her to task in chapter which Trollope entitles, with heavy irony, “A serious Interview”(2) in which, to great comic effect, Eleanor bursts his self-righteous bubble. “[H]e was not quite sure that he would get the best of it. His wife had told him that decidedly he would not…Eleanor’s face as she entered the room was not such as to reassure him…and now, when he saw her quiet easy step…he almost wished that he had taken his wife’s advice…”(2) He begins by attempting to offer wise counsel as a brother but Eleanor parries by saying that “I never had a brother…but I have hadly felt the want. Papa has been to me both a father and brother.”(2) The archdeacon “wanted her to understand that he tendered his assistance because her father was a soft good-natured gentleman, not sufficiently knowing in the ways of the world; but he could not say this to her. So he had to rush into the subject matter of his proffered counsel without any acknowledgment on her part that she could need it or would be grateful for it.”(2) Eleanor continues to run rings round him as he attempts to lead her, like the good classics scholar that he is, by Socratic lines of argument – and she fails to be led by his questions into the conclusions he wishes. She in truth loses her temper with him and matches him blow for blow with intemperate verbal broadsides concluding “It’s a pity that we differ as we do. But as we do differ, we had probably better not talk about it.”(2)
The comedy in this exchange lies in the different premises on which the archdeacon and Eleanor are arguing over the same ground. He believes he is debating with her over whether Slope is unfit to marry her whereas she believes they are arguing about whether Slope’s low-church religious views mean that his apparent offers of assistance for her father to gain a new post in the church should be spurned. When, at the climax of the argument, the archdeacon outrages Eleanor by suggesting that she might be called Mrs Slope, she believes him to be deliberately insulting her, never realising that he seriously perceives this to be possible. Indeed, when she later comes to understand that her family actually believed this was her intention and failed to recognise that she would be equally appalled by that idea when she is finally confronted with it, she is deeply hurt at this failure on their part, particularly on the part of her father to whom she is closest, telling him, “‘How could you believe it?’ Poor Eleanor, as she thought of her father’s defalcation, could resist her tears no longer, and was forced to cover her face with her handkerchief.”(2)
During the exchange with the archdeacon she has surprised him by handing him the letter from Mr Slope to read. She does so in all innocence – whereas the archdeacon interprets this as brazen behaviour- each reading the words with their different perspectives. When she asks him to return it, “[h]e took it in his hand and held it up, but made no immediate overture to return it.” but she persists, repeating her request, “‘Give me that letter, if you please’; and she stretched out her hand and took it from him.”(2)
What is important to note in the confrontation with the archdeacon is not only that she gets the better of him intellectually in the argument but also that she has moved on from the fearful awe in which she held her brother-in-law five years earlier when her father had finally decided to go against the wishes of his son-in-law and resign the Wardenship of the hospital. Then Eleanor had exclaimed “But the archdeacon, Papa?”(1) Now she is not only willing to cross swords with him verbally but to match deeds to words and forcibly take back her property from out of his hands as he tantalisingly endeavours to hold on to it in front of her.
Trollope exploits the comic potential of Eleanor and her three rival suitors by having each attempt to propose to her in quick succession as they engineer moments alone with her at a garden fete at Ullathorne, describing each as “Ullathorne Sports – Acts I, II and III”(2). Mr Arabin, who will eventually succeed, fails to even get his moment alone with her, Bertie Stanhope is rejected, quite kindly since he is so transparent that his motive is her money that she cannot find it in her to be angry with him for his impertinence, but Mr Slope fares worst for his insinuating (I am tempted to use the word slimey) approach. As he tries to embrace her in a secluded part of the garden, “She sprang from him as she would have jumped from an adder, but she did not spring far; not, indeed, beyond arm’s length; and then, quick as thought, she raised her little hand and dealt him a box on the ear with such right goodwill, that it sounded among the trees like a miniature thunder-lap.”(2) Trollope, of course, immediately interjects in his narrator’s authorial voice to say how appalling it is for a lady to behave so but this is a feint to ensure that the reader is not pouring their scorn on Eleanor’s head for this outrageous breach of etiquette but is cheering her on as she does what they have longed to do for the preceding 350 pages. Nevertheless, it speaks much of her character that she is willing, when sufficiently provoked, to ignore the rules of good behaviour. She is in far less need of a man to protect her honour than those around her think.
Having thus extracted the maximum comic effect from this trio of would-be lovers and allowed true love, once again, in the shape of Mr Arabin to overcome the self-imposed hurdles of his own ineptitude at the business of wooing a woman who is his intellectual equal, Trollope gives Eleanor a second shot at marital happiness, of which she, characteristically, makes good use.
Barchester Towers, therefore ends with Eleanor marrying the new dean, Francis Arabin. Eleanor then, after having taken the principal female romantic role in both the opening two books in the series, joins the cast of characters who fill the background of the novels, all appearing and re-appearing, as Trollope finds it convenient, to move along the plots and populate the stories’ minor roles. Even in this less prominent position, though, we continue to learn more about Eleanor.
Though she makes only a fleeting appearance in the next novel in the series, Doctor Thorne, when she attends the wedding of Mary Throne and Frank Gresham, mixing with the great and the good of the county up to and including the old Duke of Omnium, it is noted that she does so while her new husband is away at Oxford, indicating a growing confidence in her status as a respected member of the community in her own right. She is no mere distaff appendage to her husband.
She then accompanies her husband at the start of Framley Parsonage to the wedding of Mark Robarts and Fanny Monsell at Framley, “though the distance from Barchester to Framley is long, and the roads deep, and no railway lends its assistance”(4) , suggesting that she takes her position in society seriously enough to endure the discomfort of such journeys to maintain it. That position certainly gives Eleanor sufficient influence with Lady Lufton to cause her to “trim her lamps, so that they should shed a wider light and pour forth some of their influence on that forlorn household”(4) of the Reverend Josiah Crawley in Hogglestock.
Eleanor’s relationship with her older sister also evolves as the series progresses and the ten year age gap between them diminishes in relative terms as they both grow older. By the time of the wedding of her niece Griselda Grantly to Lord Dumbello, Eleanor is comfortable raising doubts about the match in a conversation with her sister, observing that “she is going up into a station so much above her own in the eyes of the world that one cannot but feel anxious for her.”(4) When her sister responds that she would be more worried herself if Griselda were marrying a poor man and that “I do not think there is any danger that her head will be turned”(4) Eleanor says that “I was thinking rather of her heart.”(4) Susan, somewhat piqued at her younger sister’s evident insight into the essential coldness and self-centred calculation of her daughter, urges Eleanor not to frighten Griselda with such concerns to which Eleanor replies, “I think it would be almost difficult to frighten Griselda.”(4)
Given Griselda’s subsequent flirtation after her marriage with the young Plantagenet Palliser, recorded in The Small House at Allington, it is evident from the above conversation that Eleanor has become a much better judge of character than she was a few years previously when she was taken in by Charlotte Stanhope’s friendship and kindness to her, which was purposed primarily with a view to securing Eleanor as a rich bride for her impecunious brother Bertie with the result for Eleanor that when “she saw the cause of all this kindness…her mind was opened to a new phase of human life.”(2) Experience has taught Eleanor to be more worldly-wise than her father, her greatest influence as she grew up, whose ability to see the best in everyone borders on the saintly.
Having made only passing appearances in Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage and no appearance at all in The Small House at Allington, Eleanor returns to a significant role in The Last Chronicle of Barset, though she is, crucially for the purposes of the plot, absent from Barsetshire for much of the book. During the intervening dozen of so years since she featured in Barchester Towers, Eleanor and her husband have had two daughters: Ellie and Susan. The latter, known affectionately as ‘Posy’ is aged five at the time of the final novel and plays a precocious role as her grandfather’s playmate and occasional commentator on events, observing that “‘Mrs Proudie dead!’ said Posy, with a solemnity that was all her own. ‘Then she won’t scold the poor bishop any more.'”(6) Out of the mouths of children! But this vignette does also indicate that Eleanor may be a good mother with quite modern ideas about bringing up children. Posy has clearly heard her parents discussing Mrs Proudie, so they must talk freely in front of her on all manner of topics, and she has the confidence to speak her mind, which would surely only be the case if her parents had encouraged her by paying attention to what she said and treating it with appropriate respect.
Indeed, Eleanor is afforded the rare privilege in Trollope’s oeuvre of being allowed a scene with her first child, John, devoted to the mother’s intimate, loving relationship with her new baby. “‘H’m’m’m’m’m,’ simmered the mamma, burying her lips also in his fat round short legs. ‘He’s a dawty little bold darling, so he is; and he has the nicest little pink legs in all the world, so he has’; and the simmering and the kissing went on over again, and as though the ladies were very hungry, and determined to eat him.”(2) This scene will no doubt be very familiar and bring a smile of happy recollections to anyone who has played with their own new baby. Trollope is masterly in conveying such natural domestic happiness in a chapter he entitles “Baby Worship”(2).
Eleanor is absent from Barsetshire for much of The Last Chronicle of Barset because she is travelling with her now teenage son John around Europe. Her clergyman husband has journeyed to the Holy Land but, while he does this, she has elected to visit Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome without him. She is evidently independent and unworried at the prospect of taking a mini-“Grand Tour” touching on key sites of classical and renaissance art without her husband or the protection of a trusted, responsible male relative. No doubt the touring is intended in part to be an educational experience for her son but the very fact that she is taking him suggests that she has the necessary interest in and appreciation of the fine arts to act as his guide for this tour without recourse to a professional for that purpose.
Her absence is crucial for the purposes of Trollope’s plot because it delays the elucidation of how the Reverend Crawley came to have in his possession a cheque apparently stolen from Lord Lufton’s agent Mr Soames. In fact, it is revealed that the cheque had been given to him by Eleanor when Crawley had swallowed his pride so far as to turn to his long time friend from Oxford University, and fellow clergyman of Barsetshire, Dean Arabin. In truth the Arabin’s money was largely Eleanor’s, inherited from her first husband. So when the couple decided to give Mr Crawley money to tide him over and pay bills owing to creditors such as the local butcher, it was Eleanor who put the money (£50 in banknotes), her money, into an envelope for her husband to pass to his old friend. On the spur of the moment, Eleanor, in her generosity, also slipped into the envelope the cheque for £20 which was the subject of so much speculation and the criminal proceedings against Crawley when he was found to be in possession of it.
Eleanor, with typically feminine humility, apologises for having been the unwitting cause of Mr Crawley’s troubles and even protects her husband’s ego by diplomatically accepting fault when discussing the circumstances of the gift. “The dean acknowledged to his wife at last that he had some recollection of her having told him that she had made the sum up to seventy pounds. ‘I don’t feel certain of it now; but I think you may have done so.’ ‘I am sure I could not have done it without telling you’, she replied. ‘At any rate you said nothing of the cheque,’ pleaded the dean. ‘I don’t suppose I did,’ said Mrs Arabin. ‘I thought that cheques were like any other money; but I shall know better for the future.'”(6)
But, of course, Eleanor is absolutely correct in both her recollection of the facts and her belief that a cheque is just like any other money. In the nineteenth century, uncrossed cheques were effectively bills of exchange and could be passed from person to person as equivalents to cash until the final recipient chose to present them at a bank for encashment or payment into their bank account. Indeed, this is precisely what Josiah Crawley had endeavoured to do when passing the cheque on to pay the butcher, Fletcher, in settlement of his debt to that man. And it was precisely in this way that Eleanor had received the cheque, as payment of rent arrears owed to her as his landlord by the tenant publican of the The Dragon of Wantly public house. She had even questioned his agent, Dan Stringer, who brought the cheque to her, as to why he had not cashed the cheque and brought her the money; to which he had responded that they owed money at the bank and so wished to avoid this course of action. Her business acumen was such that she could see the sense of this and know that it was therefore better for her to accept it as good settlement of part of the arrears owing to her. In short, what she says to her husband, contritely taking the blame for an error on herself, is in fact a sop to him and, as she knows, factually incorrect. Her understanding had been right all along.
Perhaps by her mid-40s she has reached an age where she prefers to massage her husband’s ego rather than confront him head on with his error as her more argumentative younger self might have done with her suitor John Bold at the age of 24.
She also observes with amused irony that “I have got to show now that I did not steal it – have I not? Mr Soames will indict me now.”(6) She knows full well that this will not prove in the slightest bit difficult and, when confronted by the prospect of having to testify in court as a witness in Mr Crawley’s defence she is equally unperturbed. She has indeed come a long way from the naive “immaculate” virgin described by Margaret Markwick in her analysis of Eleanor in Trollope and Women.
Eleanor’s relationship with her father is a constant throughout the Barchester series. We see her emerge from his care and take a significant part in the public life of Barchester. As he grows increasingly frail she has him move in with her and her husband and cares for him with tender solicitude. He in turn sees in his great grand-daughter Edith a resemblance to her great aunt. “No-one else saw the special likeness, but no-one else remembered, as Mr Harding did, what Eleanor had been when she was three years old.”(6) Eleanor was his favourite child and had she “thoroughly understood the difference in her father’s feelings towards herself and her sister, I think she would hardly have gone forth upon any tour while he remained with her at the deanery. It is very hard sometimes to know how intensely we are loved, and of what value or presence is to those who love us!”(6) When he dies, Mr Arabin says that his death “will make an old woman of Eleanor, I fear.” In this, as in so many other ways, I believe he and we, if we believe him, would be mistaken about her. Trollope has already depicted her at her lowest ebb, when her first husband died leaving her a widow in her twenties, and movingly describing her grief. Yet from this point she faced the future with determination to do what was best for her child. Such a woman, who survived this loss and learned to love again, must surely have the strength to carry on following what was the not unexpected loss of her aged father, fortified by happy memories of him and his love, and continue to be the loving wife and mother she had always been.
Of all Trollope’s female characters, we see Eleanor undergo the travails of everyday life, big and small, serious and comic, over the longest period in a sustained commentary across five volumes. We learn almost as much of her from the passing references when she is “off-screen” as we do from direct observation of her actions when she is “centre stage”. It is a portrait crafted over time by an author who truly lived with his characters and knew them intimately so that he might describe them, and her, to us with such clarity.
Numbered references in the text indicate the source of the quotation among the novels of the Barsetshire series.
(1) The Warden, published in 1855 by Longmans.
(2) Barchester Towers, published in 1857 by Longmans.
(3) Doctor Thorne, published in 1858 by Chapman and Hall.
(4) Framley Parsonage, published in 1860-61 in Cornhill Magazine
(6) The Last Chronicle of Barset, published in 1867 by Smith Elder.
Eleanor doesn’t appear in The Small House at Allington there are therefore no numbered references to this fifth book in the series.