Trollope’s Women: Mrs Proudie

Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Proudie with Clive Swift as her husband, Bishop Thomas Proudie, from the 1982 BBC production The Barchester Chronicles.

Perhaps of all Trollope’s creations, none suffers more in the minds of his readers through our tendency to reduce their characters to mere caricatures displaying only their most obvious characteristics and devoid of the depth and subtleties which give them their three dimensional form, than Mrs Proudie. She is the virago, the kill-joy, whose domineering attitude reduces her poor hen-pecked husband, the Bishop of Barchester, to a mere cat’s paw as she seeks to control the spiritual life of the county. She merges somehow in our thoughts with that other dour matron of the nineteenth century, the aged widow Queen Victoria, who was “not amused”. And, in this selective attention to the available data we do a great dissevice both to Trollope, who created a far more nuanced and, ultimately, much more interesting character, and to Mrs Proudie herself because, like Victoria, she was so much more than the caricature we foist upon her.

Mrs Proudie – and it needs must be “Mrs” Proudie for we never learn her Christian name; not even her husband, to whom she speaks as “Tom” in the intimacy of private conversations, is heard to use her first name – bursts forth upon the Barchester scene fully formed, aged about 45, with “seven or eight”(2) children. The three eldest are girls: Olivia, Augusta and Netta and are described as being “now all grown up and fit for fashionable life”(2), while the remainder are boys and at that time, let us surmise about 1850, “are still at school”(2). Indeed the boys scarcely merit a second mention after their initial introduction and are not named, nor do they make a physical appearance in any of the novels, so insignificant are they. We must, therefore, infer much about her early, formative years from comments made en passante in the course of the five Barsetshire novels in which she appears. Indeed, we can learn much about her from her fleeting appearances among the background cast of thousands Trollope employed in Doctor Thorne and The Small House at Allington as well as her more substantial, though still minor role in Framley Parsonage, in which she plays the typical matriarchal role of seeking a suitable husband for Olivia, the eldest daughter, before we need refer to her major roles, in the character of the bishop’s wife engaged in the internecine struggles of the Barsetshire clergy, in Barchester Towers and The Last Chronicle of Barset.

We may deduce from the inclusion of the bishop and Mrs Proudie in a collection of “young men and women of fifty or thereabouts”(4) gathered at Chaldicotes during Framley Parsonage, which takes place in the mid-1850s, that Mrs Proudie was born in the first decade of the 19th century. She was “the niece of a Scotch earl”(2) and therefore spent her girlhood and teenage years in the rather less constrained atmosphere of the Regency period which preceded the rather more staid Victorian era. She would no doubt have seen older female relatives preparing for balls and and other evening entertainments wearing the somewhat softer and more revealing dresses of that period. She retains a taste for “dissipation and low dresses during the week”(2).

As a member of a junior branch of the family, it is likely that the rules of primogeniture would result in her family having somewhat less money than the Earl, but nevertheless she has some personal money for we learn that “‘As for brass,’ said Mr Supplehouse, ‘she would never stop at anything for want of that. It is well that she has enough, for the poor bishop is but badly provided.'”(4) Trollope here puns extravagantly for the context of this remark is a discussion of Mrs Proudie’s outspokenness or “brass-neck” as it is colloquially termed.

Her husband, being “the nephew of an Irish baron by his mother’s side”(2) was even more strapped for cash and depended on his earnings from his career, so it must be surmised that the couple, who married relatively young (if they were to produce all those children in time for them to arrive as adults in Barchester around about 1850) must have been in love rather than this being one of the marriages arranged by mothers with half an eye on bringing together titles and money to perpetuate the family name. Indeed, “[i]t was well known in Barsetshire that no married pair consorted more closely or more tenderly together; and the example of such conjugal affection among persons in the upper classes is worth mentioning, as it is believed by those below them, and too often with truth, that the sweet bliss of connubial reciprocity is not so common as it should be among the magnates of the earth.”(3).

They must have made an odd looking couple. He is “somewhat below middle height, being about five feet four”(2) while she is “tall and robust…[with] high cheek-bones, and -, we may say auburn hair”(2). In the Victorian context, where the waif-like looks of the 21st century model would have been likely to engender pity at a probable victim of consumption (tuberculosis), we should interpret “robust” as indicating a fashionable (bearing in mind her daughters are said to take after her and be “fine engaging young ladies”(2)) if perhaps slightly fuller figure than average. It by no means has the negative connotations that such an adjective might carry for a woman today.

Nevertheless, they evidently enjoy a fulfilling sexual relationship to produce those “seven or eight” children.

Indeed, when the bishop initially refuses to follow his wife’s wishes in respect of the appointment of Mr Quiverful as the new Warden of Hiram’s Hospital and the argument concludes with her storming out, “slamming her husband’s door”(2) there is, we discover, an implied threat to deprive him of her sexual favours, and this is a decisive blow.

After a frosty dinner, the bishops sits alone in his study. “The clock on the chimney piece warned him that the stilly hours of night were drawing on, as he looked at his chamber candlestick and he knew that he must use it, his heart sank within him again. He was as a ghost…or rather he was the opposite of a ghost, for till cock-crow he must again be a serf.”(2) Meanwhile Mrs Proudie has taken herself off to their bedroom where “[t]he air of that sacred enclosure somewhat restored her courage, and gave her more heart, [and] Mrs Proudie looked forward to fresh laurels, as her eye fell on her husband’s pillow.”(2)

The implication is that once she gets him alone in bed, she is confident that she will be able to win him round whether by giving him the cold shoulder if he is obdurate or the reverse if he returns to conformity with her views. Coming from a middle-aged woman this is eloquent testimony to how significant a part their sex life still has in a marriage in its third decade. It also indicates that she is still attractive and, not to put too fine a point on it, good in bed.

For Trollope, the family author, to even allude to this possibility in a roundabout way is indicative of an author who understands and appreciates the subtle, or not so subtle, negotiations that take place in a marriage and the potential pleasures of such a physical relationship, and is willing to bring them into his novels in a way that adds to the realism of his portrayal of mature, adult relationships.

Indeed, Mrs Proudie’s combination of looks and power enables her to exercise into her fifties a fascinating effect over younger men than her husband. She employs a “six-foot hero who escorts [her] to her pew in red plush breeches”(2) and there is “a young minor canon who attended much to the ecclesiastical injunctions of the lady of the diocese, and was deservedly held in high favour”(4). Such “favour” suggests that she is both aware of this and enjoys it. Her relationship with her husband’s chaplain Mr Slope, notwithstanding the latter’s flirtations with her daughter Olivia (he was always promiscuous in his affections), followed a similar pattern until they fell out over who would exercise ultimate control over the weak-willed bishop.

She enjoys a degree of physical self-assurance unusual in a woman. She is unconcerned that a relative stranger, the Reverend Mark Robarts, when an overnight guest and at the family breakfast should find that she “was not dressed with her usual punctilious attention to the proprieties of her high situation.  It was evident that there was to be further toilet before she sailed up the middle of the cathedral choir. She had on a large loose cap with no other strings than those which were wanted for tying it beneath her chin, a cap with which the household and chaplain were well acquainted, but which seemed ungracious in the the eyes of Mr Robarts…She wore also a large, loose, dark wrapper, which came well up round her neck, and was not bouyed out, as were her dresses in general, with an under mechanism of petticoats. It clung to her closely, and added to the general inflexibility of her general appearance. And then she had encased her feet in large carpet slippers, which no doubt were comfortable, but which stuck the visitor as being strange and unsightly.”(4) She was, to all intents and purposes, happy to be seen by her guest in the Victorian equivalent of her dressing gown and slippers which left rather less to the imagination than the young clergyman might have expected.

Not only was she physically self-confident but, when she relaxed, she had a sense of fun. During an evening with friends, when everyone began to joke at host Mr Harold Smith’s expense, she and her husband joined in. “Nor did the Proudie family set themselves against these little sarcastic quips with any overwhelming severity. It is sweet to unbend oneself at the proper opportunity, and this was the proper opportunity for Mrs Proudie’s unbending…[as they] joke and flirt and poke their fun about, laughing and holding their sides, dealing in little innuendoes and rejoicing in nicknames”(4).

Even while she might uphold the principle that a clergyman should not hunt – we learn in the non-series novel, The Claverings, that she caused Reverend Henry Clavering to give up hunting  when he tells his son, “Limits may be very broad…and yet exclude hunting. Bishop Proudie was vulgar and intrusive, such being the nature of his wife, who instructs him; but if you were in orders I should be very sorry to see you take up hunting.”(7) – she was not personally averse to spectating. Miss Dunstable observes that she has no guilty conscience about hunting while at Chaldicotes because “Why shouldn’t I go out hunting? I’ll tell you what, Mrs Proudie was out hunting, too.” (4) This is not hypocrisy on Mrs Proudie’s part; it is simply adherence to the code of behavior of the upper-middle and upper classes with which she has grown up.

In fact, Mrs Proudie, in a very human way, enjoys nothing better than a good gossip. She delights in regaling Miss Dunstable with the details of Mr Slope’s improprieties. “[I]n telling her story, she sometimes had to whisper to Miss Dunstable, for there were one or two fie-fie little anecdotes about a married lady, not altogether fit for young Mr Robart’s ears. But Mrs Harold Smith insisted on having them out loud , and Miss Dunstable would gratify that lady in spite of Mrs Proudie’s winks.”(4)

It must be acknowledged that there is sometimes a malicious undertone to Mrs Proudie’s gossiping, as when in Framley Parsonage she spreads rumours that Lord Dumbello has fled to the continent in an effort to evade his engagement to Griselda Grantly (daughter of Mrs Proudie’s arch-rival Susan Grantly – wife of Archdeacon Grantly who heads the “High Church” contingent in Barchester in opposition to the “Low Church” faction of the Proudies). Doubtless there is an element of schadenfreude in Mrs Proudie repeating such a story but, perhaps it is important to remember, it is, as she points out to the Archdeacon when he attempts to challenge her on the point, also true.  Mrs Proudie is usually well-informed.

Of course, at that time, Mrs Proudie was also in the middle of attempts to marry off her eldest daughter Olivia which no doubt coloured her views of the matter in a very human sort of a way. Her social aspirations made her wish that Olivia might have been in the running to win the hand of the eligible young Lord Dumbello but when she was not and was content with the middle aged widower Reverend Tobias Tickler who already had three children, she made a speech at the wedding breakfast in which she said “‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’ By which she intended, no doubt, to signify that whereas Mr Tickler had been given to her Olivia, Lord Dumbello had been taken away from the archdeacon’s Griselda.”(4)  No doubt saying this gave satisfaction to Mrs Proudie who, in a very human way, could hold a grudge and did so against her arch-rival, Susan Grantly – in particular as a result of crossing swords with her in one of those pointed verbal duels carried out with the utmost of politeness and even more venom over the impact each one’s daughter’s beauty had made on society that year in which the archdeacons wife had bested her.

Indeed, as members of junior branches of the aristocracy, and with Bishop Proudie enjoying a seat in the House of Lords as a result of his position, the Proudies were able to realise their social ambitions and would be included on the guest-list for gatherings of the great and the good (and the not so good) at Courcy Castle, home of the Earl De Courcy and his family, at Gatherum Castle, home of the Duke of Omnium, and at Miss Dunstable’s fashionable “at home” event. Mrs Proudie was somewhat chagrined to find that the latter’s evening rather overshadowed her own “conversazione” along the same lines which preceded it. At Miss Dunstable’s Cranbourn House, “The world was pressing on and passing through to the four or five large reception rooms – the noble suite, which was already piercing poor Mrs Proudie’s heart with envy to the very core.”(4)

For all her envy, Mrs Proudie had no qualms about dissembling and “feted her as much as did the others.”(4) It is easy to cast this in the light of hypocrisy but it might just as easily be treated as the usual observance of social niceties in which we all indulge from time to time to ensure the continued smooth running of the social world we inhabit.

However, a certain blindness to the social conventions torpedoed Mrs Proudie’s efforts to achieve her hoped for social prominence. “In these days Mrs Proudie considered herself by no means the least among bishop’s wives…[but] for some time Mrs Proudie was much at a loss to know by what sort of party or entertainment she would make herself famous. Balls and suppers were of course out of the question…But a conversazione would give play to no sensual propensity, nor occasion that intolerable expense which the gratification of sensual propensities too often produces.”(4) But her attempt was doomed to enjoy but limited success by skimping on cost and by her overlooking, unlike Miss Dunstable, that both the appropriate celebrity (the Duke of Omnium) and the press to report the fact (in the shape of Tom Towers of The Jupiter (hooray!)) should be invited to attend.

Nevertheless, Mrs Proudie was acutely conscious of her own sense of dignity which should be afforded to her by dint of her position as the bishop’s wife. Such self-importance lays her wide open to use by Trollope for comic effect, never more so than in the reception she holds shortly after coming to Barchester. “Mrs Proudie was standing with Mr Slope in front of the signora, and had been trying to be condescending and sociable; but she was not in the very best of tempers; for she found that , whenever she spoke to the lady, the lady replied by speaking to Mr Slope.  Mr Slope was a favourite no doubt; but Mrs Proudie had no idea of being less thought of than a chaplain. She was beginning to be stately, stiff, and offended, when unfortunately the castor of the sofa caught itself in her lace train, and carried away there is no saying how much of her garniture. Gathers were heard to go, stitches to crack, plaits to open, flounces were seen to fall, and breadths to expose themselves – a long ruin of rent lace disfigured the carpet, and still clung to the vile wheel on which the sofa moved.” The scene descends into one of almost camp farce and Mrs Proudie is forced to beat a hasty retreat in partial deshabille with as much dignity as she can muster. Trollope must have known his readers would be laughing out loud at the poor woman’s expense at this point.

However, Mrs Proudie was not always fully aware of the social impact she might be making. There were times when her behaviour raised eyebrows. When she heckled Mr Harold Smith during his lecture on bringing civilisation to the islands of the south seas, she appeared oblivious to the effect she might be having. “‘It is to civilisation that we must look,’ continued Mr Harold Smith,…’for any material progress in these islands; and-‘ ‘And to Christianity,’ shouted Mrs Proudie, to the great amazement of the assembled people…’Christianity and Sabbath-day observance'”. Afterwards this interruption is much discussed, “‘I never knew a lady do such a brazen-faced thing before,’ said Miss Kerrigy…’Nor I – never; in a public place, too,’ said Dr Easyman”(4). We also learn that Miss Dunstable “was willing enough to laugh at that lady.”(4)

Which brings us, finally, to consider Mrs Proudie’s monomania – Sabbatarianism – and the strict low-church views she held on religious matters generally.

There is no doubt of that her religious convictions are genuine and her influence spread wide. Lady Rosina De Courcy’s “eyes had been opened by the wife of a great church dignitary in the neighbourhood, and she had undergone regeneration”(5) leading her to cause almost as much  grief to those under her dominion as Mrs Proudie did to those under her rule.

As a woman, Mrs Proudie would be barred from holding any official position in the church. The church of England did not ordain its first priest until 1994 and the first bishop was only concecrated in 2015. Her only outlet for her religious calling was within her own home where she would often conduct prayers for the gathered household rather than the bishop. “These [prayers] were read by the chaplain, as it was proper and decent that they should be; but I cannot but think that Mrs Proudie a little exceeded her office in taking upon herself to pronounce the blessing when the prayers were over. She did it, however, in a clear, sonorous voice, and, perhaps with more personal dignity than was within the chaplain’s compass.”(4) Trollope clearly disapproves of the practice and expects his readers to do the same but nevertheless acknowledges that she does it well.

Therefore, in the absence of an outlet for her to personally exercise what, I think, is a genuine calling on her part, Mrs Proudie exercised her spiritual authority through her husband. Was part of his attraction to her the very fact that he was so easy going and willing to take the line of least resistance that he would be willing to follow her bidding in this area?

When he does so, as he does in the interval between the events described in Barchester Towers and those described in The Last Chronicle of Barset (let us say the fifteen or so years between 1850 and about 1865) she certainly makes his life very pleasant. “He in all things now supported his wife’s rule; in all things now, I say; for their had been a moment, when in the first flush and pride of his episcopacy other ideas had filled his mind. Now, however, he gave no opposition to that good woman with whom Providence had blessed him; and in return for such conduct that good woman administered in all things to his little personal comforts. With what surprise did the bishop now look back on that unholy war which he had once been tempted to wage against the wife of his bosom?”(4)

This earlier struggle, described in Barchester Towers, was largely the result of the ambitious intervention of the bishop’s then chaplain, Obadiah Slope, who sought to gain control of the religious life of Barchester himself. However, while Slope was duplicitous and had a hidden agenda (he switched his backing from Mr Quiverful to Mr Harding for the position of Warden of Hiram’s Hospital largely to curry favour with the rich widow Eleanor Bold (Harding’s younger daughter) upon whose fortune he hoped to lay his hands by marrying her), Mrs Proudie’s position was driven by purer motives. Certainly she did not wish to see control of her husband slip from her into another’s hands, but she was also convinced that her spiritual leadership was correct. There was also an underlying element of compassion in her championing the Quiverful cause.

Trollope observes in one of his authorial asides, “Mrs Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or an amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour…But…there was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and cetainly not easily accessible. Mrs Quiverful, however, did gain access, and Mrs Proudie proved herself a woman. Whether it was the fourteen children with their probable bare bread and their possible bare backs, or the respectability of the father’s work, or the mingled dust and tears on the mother’s face, we will not pretend to say. But Mrs Proudie was touched. She did not show it as other women might have done..Instead of this, Mrs Proudie slapped one hand upon the other and declared – not with an oath; for as a lady and a Sabbatarian and a she-bishop, she could not swear – but with an abjuration, that ‘she wouldn’t have it done’.”(2) This conclusion is utterly consistent with Mrs Proudie’s character. Her sympathy does not take the form of hand-wringing and pious platitudes but in decisive action to support the needy cause she is championing with the full force of her muscular Christianity.

Trollope is sufficiently conventional that he expects his readers to take comic amusement in Mrs Proudie’s would be “she-bishop” behaviour but equally he is humane enough and insightful enough to see her basic decency and humanity and to ensure it is underlined for his readers.

As has been foreshadowed, Mrs Proudie ultimately triumphs over the odious Mr Slope and retains control over the bishop to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned.

Bishop Proudie’s second great rebellion, some fifteen years later, ends tragically.

It is crucial to remember when considering Mrs Proudie’s apparent persecution of Mr Crawley that she believes him to be guilty of theft and therefore a danger to the spiritual well-being of his flock, the parishioners of Hogglestock. Her grasp of the finer legal points is poor. That he is innocent at law until proven guilty is lost on her. She is following a grander narrative in which there is no smoke without fire. “‘I think we must find out, first of all, whether he is really to be shut up in prison,’ said the bishop. ‘And suppose he is not to be shut up…suppose they have let him out, is he to go about like a roaring lion – among the souls of the people?’ The bishop shook in his shoes. When Mrs Proudie began to talk of the souls of the people he always shook in his shoes. She had an eloquent way of raising her voice over the word souls that was qualified to make any ordinary man shake in his shoes.”(6) She has absolute certainty in her convictions and this religious fervour will brook no argument. To her husband, the bishop, who is pragmatic and inclined to seek compromise, this is an anathema.

The couple are at loggerheads and as the events unfold, Mrs Proudie becomes ever more high-handed in the attempt to have her own way until at last she so exceeds her authority, by interfering in what should have been a private interview between the bishop and Dr Tempest, whom he has appointed to oversee an ecclesiastical commission to investigate whether Mr Crawley should be removed from his post, that the bishop, whose temporising Mrs Proudie regards as dithering,  finally turns on her and tells her she has disgraced him by her attempts to overrule him on church matters in front of a fellow clergyman.

Forced by her husband’s persistent silence to confront her own culpability for the state into which their marriage has at last fallen, Trollope finds extraordinary depths in Mrs Proudie’s character. When she confronted the bishop, he told her “‘It was you that brought me to it…You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head. You have ruined me. I wish I were dead; and it is all through you that I am driven to wish it.’ Of all that she had suffered in her life this was the worst.”(6)

We are shown a rare moment of introspection. “She had loved him dearly, and she loved him still; but she knew now – at this moment felt absolutely sure – that by him she was hated! In spite of all her roughness and temper, Mrs Proudie was in this like other women – that she would fain have been loved had it been possible. She had always meant to serve him. She was conscious of that; conscious also in a way that, although she had been industrious, although she had been faithful, although she was clever, yet she had failed. At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife. And yet she had meant to be a pattern wife! She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided! She had sufficient insight to the minds and feelings of those around her to be aware of this.”(6)

What a terrible realisation to come upon this woman, now in her early sixties and ill with heart disease in the minutes before her death. Trollope in these final scenes invests Mrs Proudie with a humanity and dignity in facing full on, without shrinking from it, the consequences of her actions which raises her dying to the level of true tragedy. He knows, as an author, the power in leaving these conflicts unresolved thereby increasing the impact which would have been dissipated by a deathbed reconciliation. So she dies truly alone.

Trollope’s relates a story in An Autobiography of how at his club the Athanaeum he oveheard two clergymen complaining that he constantly re-used the same old characters rather than invent new ones citing the archdeacon, the old Duke of Omnium and Mrs Proudie as the worst examples. Trollope tells it that “I got up and standing between them I acknowledged myself to be the culprit ‘As to Mrs Proudie,’ I said, ‘I will go home and kill her before the week is over.’ And so I did.”(8) If there is any truth in this tale then we owe those two club members a vote of thanks for in writing of her death, Trollope achieved a heartbreaking greatness in his prose which is comparable with the very best of the Victorian novelists.

Her end provides Mrs Proudie with a fitting conclusion. She is no monster, a caricature which casual readers might ascribe to her, but a particularly fine example of Trollope’s ability, if we pay close attention to the little details he drops in across the hundreds of pages in which she features, of a fully developed and rounded character. She is not nice, not by any means, but she is real and believable. She is a physical, sexually confidant woman, a snob, a gossip, a bearer of grudges, capable of joking and having fun when she does let her hair down, self-righteous, opinionated, often wrong but supremely confident that she is right, at times oblivious to those around her yet acutely sensitive to any possible slights or absence of the deference to which she believes her position entitles her. All these characteristics fuel her drive and ambition, lived vicariously through the success of her husband’s career in the church from which she is barred by her gender. And yet she also has compassion, if rarely seen, and, ultimately, sufficient self-awareness to see her own shortcomings unflinchingly.

In his own assessment of Mrs Proudie, Trollope writes in An Autobiography, that “It was not only that she was a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her; but at the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors. And as her tyranny increased so did the bitterness of the moments of her repentance increase, in that she knew herself to be a tyrant – till that bitterness killed her.”(8)

 

Numbered references in the text indicate the source of the quotation among the novels of the Barsetshire series.

(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
(5) The Small House at Allington, published in 1862-64 in Cornhill Magazine
(6) The Last Chronicle of Barset, published in 1867 by Smith Elder.

Also cited are the non-series books, which I have numbered for ease of reference:
(7) The Claverings, published in 1866-67 in Cornhill Magazine
(8) An Autobiography, published posthumously in 1883 by William Blackwood and Sons.

As Mrs Proudie doesn’t appear in The Warden there are therefore no numbered references to the first book in the series.

 

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