Alison Brie as Martha Dunstable in the recent TV production of Doctor Thorne
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” How Martha Dunstable must have laughed out loud when she read the opening line of Jane Austen’s novel, published in 1813, shortly before she herself was born. Martha was intelligent and cultured enough read Austen and to appreciate the irony of that opening line as equally applicable to herself but she would laugh loudly because, as Trollope shows her initially, to emphasise her origins were not those of a true lady, she was coarse or vulgar enough to be loud in company when the feminine ideal was quiet and demure. Her very first words are spoken “in a voice rather loud, but very good humoured, and not altogether unpleasing”(3) and shortly afterwards, in a private conversation, “her voice was not low, nor particularly confidential.”(3) It is as though Trollope is setting her up to be almost a figure of fun, a comic leavening of his tale but, it transpires, he gives hidden depths to her character which belie that initial appearance, revealing it to be a facade she has constructed with which to face the world.
The irony, for Martha, in Austen’s opening, would be that no-one in Trollope’s canon, not even her contemporary Eleanor Harding, is more assiduously pursued by a veritable posse of would be suitors than she is. Or more accurately, as she is fully aware, is her fortune pursued.
Her fortune was derived from her late father’s business, built upon the patent “Ointment of Lebanon” medicine, which that entrepreneurial “apothecary”(4) marketed so skillfully. When we first meet her, in Doctor Thorne, Martha has inherited the business which is worth some £200,000 (approximately £25 million in today’s money) a little over a year previously.
At that time she has by her own reckoning left behind “three or four”(3) would-be lovers, as she tells Frank Gresham who has been instructed by his mother to propose to her so as to marry her money to the impoverished family estate of Greshambury. Notwithstanding the failure of these previous suitors, Frank still does not have the field to himself and must contend with his cousin the Honourable George de Courcy, whose motives were similar to his own, and the would be Member of Parliament Mr Moffatt who is also in need of money.
In the next novel, Framley Parsonage, describing events a year or so later, she is now besieged by Mr Nathaniel Sowerby, another man of good lineage but up to his ears in debt to moneylenders and bill-discounters in London and to the Duke of Omnium in Barsetshire, to whom he has mortgaged his family home, Chaldicotes.
It truth, “she had seen so much of the blacker side of human nature that blackness no longer startled her as it should do. She had been the prize at which so many ruined spendthrifts had aimed; so many pirates had endeavoured to run her down while sailing in the open waters of life, that she had ceased to regard such attempts on her money-bags as unmanly or over-covetous. She was content to fight her own battle with her own weapons, feeling secure in her own strength of purpose and strength of wit.”(4)
It is this protective facade which she has constructed which we, as readers see first.
In her early conversations with Frank she shows a worldliness of the thirty-something year old which quite shocks the young man of scarcely twenty. In a string of double entendres she bemoans that urgent business forced her to return to London from Italy and that she “might have remained and had another roll in the snow”; claims of her lovers that “I change them sometimes…it would be very dull if I were always to keep the same” and declares that “One good lance in the olden days was always worth more than a score of ordinary men-at arms…but then you see, Mr Gresham, I have never yet found the one good lance – at least, not good enough to suit my ideas of true prowess.”(3) Trollope, no doubt, hoped to amuse his adult readers with the coded phallic references buried within what his family audience would understand to be allusions to mediaeval chivalry.
Miss Dunstable is quite aware that she is welcomed into the homes of the aristocracy solely on account of her money and that they look down on her low birth. She would not have been surprised had she been privy to the conversation, to hear Countess de Courcey say of her, “‘We did think of Miss Dunstable for Porlock once’, she said naively; ‘but when we found that it wasn’t much over two hundred thousand, why then the idea fell to the ground.'”(3) She therefore played up to this arrogant snobbish condescension by visiting them complete with the entourage that they would expect of a philistine with her “new money”: a parrot, a poodle, a personal physician, Dr Easyman, whose hypochondria provided her with endless opportunities to avoid invitations she wished to turn down without giving offence (“I was going down to your neighbourhood – to your friend the duke’s at least. But I am prevented by my poor doctor, who is so weak I must take him to Malvern. It is a great bore; but I have the satisfaction that I do my duty by him!”(3)), and one or two companion ladies for her amusement.
Like some Victorian forerunner of the modern heiress, Paris Hilton, without the sex-tapes, Miss Dunstable even indulged in a B.F.F. (“Best Friend Forever”), a Mrs Harold Smith who, “whatever the view taken of her general character as a wife and a member of society, it must be admitted that as a sister she had virtues.”(4) Indeed, Miss Dunstable remained on good terms with her even after she had effectively proposed to Miss Dunstable on behalf of her brother, Mr Sowerby, when he lacked the courage to do so personally because it required an admission that the sole motivation was to get his hands on her money to pay off his debts. Mrs Smith rightly recognised that the hypocricy of the aristocracy who tolerated her presence on account of her money was what Miss Dunstable despised so that the direct, albeit unpalatable, truthfulness of her business-like proposal would be more likely to meet with success.
However, Trollope goes on to show us that maintaining this front came at a price for Martha. In an unguarded moment, she reveals her inner self-doubts to Mary Gresham, one of her few true friends – all of whom she trusts because they accept her for herself rather than the fortune she represents. “If a sheep have two heads, is not the fact of the two heads the first and, indeed, only thing which the world regards in that sheep? Must it not be so as a matter of course? I am a sheep with two heads. All this money which my father put together and which has been growing since like grass under May showers, has turned me into an abortion. I am not the giantess eight feet high, or the dwarf that stands in the man’s hand -…But I am the unmarried woman with – half a dozen millions of money – as I believe some people think. Under such circumstances have I a fair chance of getting my own sweet bit of grass to nibble, like any ordinary animal with one head? I never was very beautiful, and I am not more so now than I was fifteen years ago.”(4)
There is a degree of self-loathing in the terms she chooses to use when describing herself which betray a deep unhappiness at her situation. She is also painfully aware that in the absence of money, society then, as now, valued beauty in a woman more than it valued intelligence and that while she was well-endowed with the latter, she knew she lacked the former. In this, her realistic assessment of her shortcomings is borne out by independent testimony. “Lady de Courcy had declared that [Miss Dunstable] was looking extremely well, and had particularly alluded to her distingue appearance. Frank at once felt that he could not altogether go along with his aunt in this opinion. Miss Dunstable might be very well; but her style of beauty was one which did not quite meet with his warmest admiration. In age she was about thirty; but Frank, who was no great judge in these matters …at once put her down as being ten years older. She had very high colour, very red cheeks, a large mouth, big white teeth, a broad nose, and bright, small, black eyes. Her hair was also black and bright, but very crisp and strong, and was combed close round her face in small crisp black ringlets. Since she had been brought out into the fashionable world some one of her instructors in fashion had given her to understand that curls were not the thing. ‘They’ll always pass muster,’ Miss Dunstable had replied, ‘when they are done up with bank-notes.'”(3) The note of defiance in this riposte fails to conceal some sensitivity on her part that she should be valued for her money alone.
Indeed, she is acutely conscious that her current mode of life is one of pursuit of superficial amusement and she confesses to Doctor Thorne, “‘It is all vanity in your estimation…vanity and vexation of spirit. Well; there is a good deal of the latter, certainly…and yet I meant to do good’ ‘Pray do not suppose that I am condemning you, Miss Dunstable.'” He demurs, but she goes on, “But I do suppose it. Not only you, but another also, whose judgment I care for perhaps more than yours, and that, let me tell you, is saying a great deal. You do condemn me, Dr Thorne, and I also condemn myself. It is not that I hgave done wrong but the game is not worth the candle.”(4)
This is a crucial revelation from Trollope in this conversation for not only does it make clear that Martha respects and values the doctor’s opinion of her, but also that she values her own opinion even higher. To portray such self-reliance in a Victorian woman with sensitivity and accuracy is a remarkable feat for a male author of the time.
This self-sufficiency is the clue to unlocking her character for the reader. It is necessary for her to resolve the inner conflict she has been experiencing up to this point. She, more than anyone, is deeply dissatisfied with her present conduct in society and must change if she is to become content within her own skin. And the doctor’s indifference to her wealth has made her respect his judgment above anyone else’s apart from herself. This undoubtedly forms the bedrock of the attachment she forms towards him which culminates in her decision to marry him when he makes her an offer.
Having observed Martha’s superficial side, as presented to fashionable society, we must also take note of her finer characteristics, both private and public. First and foremost amongst these is a deep loyalty to those whom she allows into the close circle of true friends. Thus she sides with Frank Gresham in the matter of the Chase of Chaldicotes, paying over the odds to secure it from under the nose of her social acquaintance the Duke of Omnium. She also willingly opens up her London home to Lily Dale, whom she does not know nearly so well, in order to help in Lily’s recovery from the heartbreak of her desertion by Adolphus Crosbie.
Martha is also a strong advocate of constancy for the young lovers in whom she takes an almost maternal interest, as when “Frank, in the meantime, had told Miss Dunstable all his love for Mary Thorne, and Miss Dunstable had enjoined him to be true to his vows. To her eyes there was something of heavenly beauty in young, true love – of beauty that was heavenly because it had been unknown to her.”(4)
In fact, she is revealed in this as a great romantic as well as a source of good advice to whom the younger generation instinctively turns. “Then Major Grantly did get into the carriage, and, before he got out again, he had told Mrs Thorne the whole story of his love. She listened to him with close attention; only interrupting him now and then with little words, intended to signify her approval. He, as he told his tale, did not look her in the face, but sat with his eyes fixed upon her muff. ‘And now,’ he said, glancing up at her almost for the first time as he finished his speech, ‘and now, Mrs Thorne, what am I to do?’ ‘Marry her , of course,’ said she, raising her hand aloft and bringing it down heavily upon his knee as she gave her decisive reply.”(6)
This romantic streak may even at times over-ride her cool business head. She is sometimes inclined to throw her not inconsiderable financial resources behind endeavours which may be little more than tilting at windmills, as when she supports Sowerby in his candidacy for the West Barsetshire seat in the teeth of opposition from the Duke of Omnium. Sadly for her, in spite of her best efforts on his behalf, “Mr Sowerby could not be induced to fight it as became a man.”(4).
Not that she was anything less than business-like even when being generous to Sowerby in extricating him from his debts to the Duke. As Mrs Harold Smith, Sowerby’s sister explains, “When I first proposed the matter she took it up quite as a lawyer might, and seemed to have quite forgotten about that other matter [of her proposing Miss Dunstable should marry her brother for his financial benefit]…When I was obliged to make some allusion to it…she merely laughed – a great loud laugh as she always does, and then went on about the business. However, she was clear about this, that all the expenses of the election should be added to the amount advanced by her, and that the house should be left to you without any rent. If you choose to take the land round the house you must pay for it, by the acre, as the tenants do. She was as clear about it all as though she had passed her life in a lawyer’s office.”(4)
We do not see much of Miss Dunstable actually running the business. It is not directly relevant to the plotlines of the novels but we are told that she spends about half her time in London attending to the needs of the business and half with her husband Doctor Thorne in Barsetshire where he continues his medical practice. It is interesting to speculate to what extent Matha Dunstable, or for that matter Madame Max Goesler that other great businesswoman of his later political novels, are partial portraits of Trollope’s mother, who kept the family finances afloat through her industry when his father had proved inadequate for the task. Certainly, Trollope has no equivalent male businessmen feature prominently at a time when the business and commercial world were almost exclusively male domains. Only the great swindler Melmotte features as a male business leader and the depiction is far from flattering.
We do know that her father built the business through successful promotion of his main product: the Ointment of Lebanon. Mr Gresham (senior) commented that “He used to cover all the walls in London.”(3) Mr Dunstable clearly understand the power of advertising and marketing since there is no intimation that the patent medicine is of any practical use. Martha seems to have inherited this flair for publicity. She understands the power of the press and is particularly anxious that her London society soiree should be attended by Tom Towers of The Jupiter. When he arrives she tells him, “I am delighted to have this opportunity of seeing you in my own house.”(4) His attendance ensures the soiree will be a publicly acknowledged success. “Mr Towers stood there chatting for about twenty minutes, and then took his departure without making his way into the room. He had answeredthe purpose for which he had been invited, and left Miss Dunstabke in a happy frame of mind.”(4)
While she may have tried to sell the business when her father first died, there is no doubt she makes an ongoing success of it since she us still heavily involved in it during The Last Chronicle of Barset, the events of which take place in the mid-1860s, more than a decade after she took control by which time she must have been in her late forties.
It is perhaps well at this point to mention that Trollope seems to have suffered somewhat of a temporal lapse in respect of Martha. She is clearly stated to be about thirty in Doctor Thorne, which is set in the early 1850s, and is considered as a potential match for Frank Gresham who at that stage was still at university. Frank estimates her age as a decade older but we are told clearly that his judgment in this is faulty. Yet in Framley Parsonage, which takes place with a year or two of the preceding novel, she is explicitly said to be forty.
I am inclined to think that she may have been in her early to mid-thirties at the time of the earlier novel and therefore in her mid- to late thirties at the time of the second when she marries Doctor Thorne, who is 55 at the time. This age gap of a little over fifteen years is eminently plausible. The marriage of an older man to a younger woman was barely comment-worthy at that time and especially so where the gap relates to two people who might be regarded as middle aged in the Victorian era. However, I cannot believe that the de Courcy family would have seriously considered a marriage for their 20 year old son to a middle-aged spinster of approaching forty however much money she had. However acceptable we might now find a woman of 40 with a toyboy half her age, and it would still provoke comment if she were in the public eye, in the nineteenth century it would have been viewed as either laughable or obscene.
Finally, it is impossible to leave Martha Dunstable without returning to her laughter – her sense of fun. She is very ready to laugh at herself, which is an immensely likeable characteristic. When she buys the mansion Cranbourn House in London, “the world at large very generally called it Ointment Hall, and Miss Dunstable herself as frequently used that name for it as any other. It was impossible to quiz Miss Dunstable with any success, because she always joined in the joke herself.”(4) And when that laughter is directed at another, it is not done so maliciously. Even Mrs Proudie, whom few would pass the opportunity to deride behind her back, is only gently sent up – as when “the rumour spread abroad of [Miss Dunstable] having made a speech to the electors from the top of her porch over the hotel door at Courcy”(4) ,Miss Dunstable declares, “‘They must have mistaken me for Mrs Proudie'”.
Indeed, her amiability enables her to get along with all parts of society. She avoids giving offence, even when provoked. Her letter in response to George de Courcy’s crass written proposal, sparing his feelings, is a model of tact and diplomacy that would not have been expected by those who condescended to allow her into their august presence where blood is valued and new money despised but coveted. Thus she is also able to maintain friendly relationships with opposing factions such as the Gresham/Grantly/Lufton contingent and the Proudie/Sowerby/Duke of Omnium contingent in the struggles for dominion over the soul of Barsetshire.
This willingness to accept the people around her for what they are without judgment makes her a remarkable character and one of Trollope’s most interesting even though she does not ever take a lead role. She is, therefore, one of the great creations of Trollope’s oeuvre who is not only credible as a character in her own right but also enables Trollope, through her, to expose to ridicule some of the hypocrisies of English society as it was in his time.
Numbered references in the text indicate the source of the quotation among the novels of the Barsetshire series.
(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.
As Martha Dunstable doesn’t appear in The Warden, Barchester Towers or The Small House at Allington there are therefore no numbered references to these books in the series.