Monthly Archives: October 2017

Exotic Trollope: Mid-Victorian fiction between displacement and dominion

Dr Luca Caddia, assistant curator of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome gave the Trollope Society’s 30th annual lecture.

He began by conceding that when we think ofTrollope, “exotic” is not the term which immediately springs to mind.Trollope enjoys an almost unparalleled reputation as a chronicler of the English middle class society of the Victorian age but it is only with recent works by academics such as John McCourt and Simon Grennan (focussing on Trollope’s Irish and Australian novels respectively) that this narrow view has been challenged in literary criticism.

Dr Caddia divided his talk into two sections: the first considering Trollope’s treatment of tourist themes with particular reference to stories set in the middle east; the second considering colonial themes with an emphasis on Australian settings. The former tend to be earlier in Trollope’s career and draw humour from the unpreparedness of the British traveller abroad. The latter are generally from later in his career and feature better prepared settlers.

Previous criticism of Trollope’s fiction with foreign settings tended to emohadise his oerceived patronising view of the foreign “other” contrasting it with a British model.

However, in Trollope’s time, Britain was building enormous wealth through global trade and, in the aftermath of the upheavals in Europe in the post-Napoleonic era, the growing affluent middlevkasses were venturing further afield. Experience of the near and middle east was no longer confined to the business and merchant classes.

Trollope travelled extensively himself and wrote from experience. He may well have shared the sense that the exotic scenes of the imagination were preferable to the often squalid and mundane realities. Thisus evident in stories such as The Unprotected Female at the Pyramids and the novel The Bertrams. The latter deals with the disappointments of the unsuccessful and mediocre, personifued in George Bertram. He goes to the Holy Land in search of inspiration to reach a decision on his future course in life and finds the experience dails to live up to expectations. In a very modern take on the traveller’s outlook, his timein Jerusalem is reduced to almost a checklist of sites to visit none of which inspires him till he visits the Mount of Olives outside the city and is suddenly struck by the oerspective this gives him, not only of the distant city, but also on his own life.

Dr Caddia went on to explain that the critical views of Trollope’s writing fsiled to acvord adequate respect to his ability to convey accurately local customs and that Trollope would sometimes compare these favourably with English customs. He observed that bith Christian and Muslim faiths as practised in the middle east showed greater self-sacrifice and devotion than found in England. Yet the inhibited Brits abroad are unable to ket go and participate even when they recognise this.

Frequently Trollope portrays his middle aged male protagonists ending the tale in a state of acute embarrassment -as when the man in The Banks of the Jordan belatedly discovers his young companion is not the boy he thought but a woman. The intimacy of the conversations and experiences he could share with a boy are impossible to share with a female companion.

Trollope, it seems, is highlighting the inability of the British to cope with the “other”.

In the later novels, men go abroad to seek their fortune. John Caldigate sees the eponymous hero go to Australia and make his fortune. Trollope observes that on board ship, normal society rules are relaxed but the outsider, which is what Caldigate is on his return to the UK, must conform to English expectations once more. In fact, Trollope somewhat ducks this issue, allowing Caldigate to fade out of the story for some 18 chapters after he is found guilty of bigamy and imprisoned. This contrasts sharply with the earlier portrait of the suffering of Phineas Finn when imprisoned during his trial in Phineas Redux.

Yet in Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, Trollope actually creates a new type of hero for this novel. Although a gentleman by birth, he does not act as an English gentleman ought to act. He is impulsive and quick to anger. He is essentially a man of action.

In this way Trollope treats the “colonist” who transforms the foreign land he settles to his own vision very differently from the passive “tourist”.

By the time Trollope wrote his dystopian sci-fi novel The Fixed Period, set in a late twentieth century British Pacific island colony, he is writing of liberty from conventional rules which is largely a mental state rather than a physical state.

In this, Dr Caddia concluded, Trollope’s exitic fiction moves beyond the treatment of the “other” as a tourist encounter in a short holiday, beyond a state of colonial exile from the homeland, to a state which the protagonist can face and change so that it ceases to be so completely “other”.


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Wilkie Collins: The Lighthouse

Wilkie Collins wrote The Lighthouse, his two act play, in 1855, about the same time that Anthony Trollope published his third novel, The Warden. The play is itself based on Collins’s own short story Gabriel’s Morning, which he wrote in response to seeing the Eddystone lighthouse while in Cornwall. The story revolves around the reactions of three lighthouse keepers, trapped in the lighthouse for weeks by bad weather which has delayed the arrival of their supply vessel, to the involvement of one of their number in a crime some years previously which he reveals inadvertantly as his mind wanders in the delerium brought on by their desparate starvation.

The play was first performed by Charles Dickens and his friends in an amateur production at Dickens’s home, Tavistock House. The cast was Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Augustus Egg (the famous painter and regular companion of Dickens and Collins on their hiking -and other less salubrious – expeditions), Mark Lemon (founding editor of Punch satirical magazine), Georgine Hogarth (Dickens’s sister-in-law), Naomi Dickens (Charles’s eldest daughter) and John Foster, with Dickens’s son Charlie responsible for special effects such as the noises off for the storm. Although technically an amateur company, through Dickens’s connections they drew on west end theatre expertise to support the production. The painted backdrop, measuring some 3 metres by 4 metres, was by leading marine artist Clarkson Frederick Stanfield.

The play was performed on two nights, opening on 18th June 1855, plus a dress rehearsal in front of the family, and the 25 seats were over-subscribed. It is not clear precisely who was in the audience on these two nights but regular attendees at such amateur theatricals put on by Dickens included Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Cavendish – Duke of Devonshire  and reformer Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. Anthony Trollope was also sometimes in the audience for these amateur productions in later years but is unlikely to have been in the charmed circle who received invitations in 1855 as he had yet to make his mark in London’s literary society. Reviews were favourable with Dickens and Lemon singled out for particular praise for their “display of passion”. Wilkie himself was thought to be somewhat less convincing.

The staged reading of the play on Saturday 14th October by the Speakeasy Players, preceded by an introduction by Jak Stringer, was the first public performance of the play for 146 years. The modern audience greeted this Victorian melodrama with enthusiasm, joining in with applause, laughter and gasps of horror at appropriate points. The dramatic climax of the first act, when the name of the ship foundering on the lighthouse rock is revealed to be the same as the victim of the crime all those years previously brought a genuine shiver down my spine.

Of course the world of theatrical drama has moved on from Wilkie’s gothic Victorian melodrama but this re-staging showed that there was a core of gripping psychological truth which he conveyed a century and a half ago that retains its power to grip an audience willing to enter into the spirit of its original production.

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Wilkie Collins in Penzance


I am looking forward to seeing the first full reading in 146 years of The Lighthouse by Trollope’s contemporary, Wilkie Collins, which is taking place tomorrow evening at The Acorn Theatre in Penzance.

Written in 1855, Wilkie Collins presented Charles Dickens with his first original drama, The Lighthouse, which was inspired by his sighting of the Eddystone Lighthouse, while on his travels in Cornwall. Collins created a tense, psychological drama employing elements of crime and the supernatural, familiar to readers of Collins’s fiction.

The plays opening night was the18th June at Tavistock House, with Collins and Dicken’s taking the lead parts and their family and friends making up the rest of the cast, it was a very hot ticket of its time.

The play will be preceded by what is billed as “a lively performance lecture” by Wilkie Collins expert Jak Stringer, followed by a reading of the play by the Speakeasy Players.
This event will be the first FULL reading of The Lighthouse for 146 years and aims to recreate its opening night in the nursery of Charles Dickens’s home, where the audience can immerse themselves in a very Victorian evening.

I understand that a few tickets remain so if you fancy a trip to Cornwall in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins then go to the theatre’s online box office: Acorn Theatre Penzance Box Office

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Trollope’s Women: Madeline Neroni

La Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni – nata Stanhope, played by Susan Hampshire in the 1982 BBC production The Barchester Chronicles.

Madeline Neroni’s role in Barchester Towers is rather like that of Clint Eastwood in a Spaghetti Western: the stranger with the mysterious past who rides into town and, when the gun-smoke clears, the bad guy lies vanquished at his feet, the good guy has got the girl, and law and order has been restored to the town. Then, with the job done, he rides out into the sunset, disappearing forever from the townsfolks’ lives.

So Madeline Neroni is brought into Barchester as part of her father’s household when he is summoned from the shores of Lake Como in Italy by Bishop Proudie to resume his clerical duties which he had abandoned some twelve years earlier on the pretext of requiring the sunnier climes for his health, though as we learn in Framley Parsonage this is mere diplomatic cover for financial difficulties which led to him fleeing creditors for a cheaper place to live. By the end of the novel, Madeline has exposed to the world the conniving Obadiah Slope for the hypocrite he is – effectively running him out of town as a result – and been instrumental in engineering the match between Eleanor Bold and the Reverend Francis Arabin. She then departs with her father and the Stanhope family once more to the distant shores of Lake Como.

In fulfilling this function, Madeline is also yin to Eleanor Bold’s yang; a complementary mirror image providing a shady, manipulative alter-ego to Eleanor’s open, transparent straightforwardness.

It can be no coincidence that they are much the same age – Madeline is 28 at the time when Barchester Towers is set in about 1850 and Eleanor is perhaps a couple of years older. The reader is invited to see parallels in the two characters. Indeed, Arabin is trapped by Madeline into making a direct comparison of the two of them. When he tells her that “Mrs Bold is a very beautiful woman, and as intelligent as beautiful.” She turns this upon him as a veiled slight to herself, “‘And you really have the effrontery to tell me this,’ she said, ‘to tell me, who, as you very well know, set up to be a beauty myself, and who am at this very moment taking such an interest in your affairs, you really have the effrontery to tell me that Mrs Bold is the most beautiful woman you know.’ ‘I did not say so,’ said Mr Arabin; ‘you are more beautiful -‘ ‘Ah, come now, that is something like. I thought you could not be so unfeeling.’ ‘You are more beautiful, perhaps more clever.’  Arabin is about to go on further about Eleanor but Madeline shuts him down and will not hear it. She has achieved her objective.

Kate Lawson, in her paper, Abject and Defiled: Signora Neroni’s Body and the Question of Domestic Violence in Barchester Towers, for the Victorian Review draws attention to the contrast between the past marriages of the two women. “Madeline Stanhope Neroni’s married life is represented as antithetical to Eleanor Bold’s lost domestic paradise.” The Neroni marriage is, by implication, the setting for domestic violence which is cut short by the husband’s attempts to desert the wife and, ultimately by her own subsequent fleeing from the husband to return to the shelter of her father’s house. The Bold marriage was happy and ended by his premature death. Both women are, therefore, in a post-married state albeit, when it suits her, Madeline invokes her continued married state to frustrate would be suitors who are in danger of getting too close to her (physically or psychologically).

An obvious similarity between the two women is that both are pursued by Mr Slope, though for very different reasons. Eleanor is still grieving for her first husband and is less worldly than Madeline, so remains blissfully unaware of Mr Slope’s intentions until late in the story, whereby hangs much of the plot’s tension and humour, whereas Madeline is very consciously seeking to entrap the clergyman whose double standards she has, with her finely tuned street-wise senses, quickly identified.

Madeline has acquired this worldly wisdom through a series of romantic escapades in Italy from the age of seventeen to twenty-one. In these she has “become famous for adventures in which her character was just not lost, and had destroyed the hearts of a dozen cavaliers without once being touched in her own. Blood had flowed in quarrels about her charms, and she heard of these encounters with pleasurable excitement. It had been told of her that on one occasion she had stood by in disguise of a page, and had seen her lover fall.” These thrill-seeking endeavours have left her cynical, particularly about the willingness of men to lie and flatter in pursuit of female conquests, and cold-hearted. So much so, that I would attribute this callousness to a fear of being hurt again, if she actually were to commit herself to a relationship, given that the last of these adventures was her relationship with the ne-er-do-well Paulo Neroni who bedded her, wed her when she was too obviously pregnant by him, then promptly abandoned her and his responsibilities to his child.

Trollope says that “she married the very worst of those who sought her hand…When the moment came for doing so she probably had no alternative.” Given that she turns up on her family’s doorstep with her daughter six months after the date of the marriage there is little doubt left in the reader’s mind that Madeline had flouted convention and indulged in pre-marital sex.

For this breach of acceptable norms of society, she suffers her punishment in the form of a physical disability. Melanie Moore in her article on Barchester Towers for 19th Century Disability Cultures and Contexts notes that “As with many nineteenth century novels, Madeline’s physical defect is linked to her transgressive sexuality – a physical manifestation of dubious morality… and the novel seems to frame the injury as due punishment for succumbing to pre-marital sex.”  Such divine retribution is frequently found in Victorian novels for women who sin against society’s rules in this way. Indeed, it is almost a convention of 19th century literature that they should (even though men suffer no such punishment for their indiscretions). No doubt this is partly to preserve the morals of the young, impressionable, female readers.

However, Madeline also, notably, displays contempt for society norms in her lack of respect for those who normally commanded respect from inferiors. She alone of all those present, laughs out loud at Mrs Proudie’s humiliation owing to the accident with her dress caused by Madeline’s brother Bertie moving the sofa on which Madeline is reclining. She also laughs audibly – specifically within the hearing of Lady de Courcy – when she gets the better of her in a confrontation at the Ullathorne Sports Day.

There is also a sense that Madeline’s malicious attempts to seduce all the men who come within her orbit is revenge for the treatment she received at the hands of her husband – a determination that in future no man shall ever get the better of her again.

Trollope refers to Madeline as both a “siren” and a “basilisk” – a mythical creature whose mere glance is sufficient to kill. Certainly, she is notable for her meaningful looks. When Lady de Courcy attempts to stare her down, “she stared hard at the occupant [of the couch]. The occupant in return stared hard at the countess. The countess who since her countess-ship had been accustomed to see all eyes, not royal, ducal or marquesal, fall before her own paused as she went on, raised her eyebrows , and stared even harder than before. But she had now to do with one who cared little for countesses. It was, one may say, impossible for mortal man to abash Madeline Neroni.  She opened her large bright lustrous eyes wider and wider, till she seemed to be all eyes. She gazed up into the lady’s face, not as though she did it with an effort, but as if she delighted in doing it…The faintest possible smile of derision played around her mouth, and her nostrils were slightly dilated, as if in sure anticipation of her triumph. And it was sure.” It is clear that Madeline is physically excited by the contest – Trollope’s description implies a state of arousal that is almost sexual in its intensity.

Madeline is, in fact, arguably Trollope’s most sexual character even though, conventionally, a “cripple” in Victorian literature is sexless (or reduced to that state for past sins of a sexual nature such as Madeline’s). They are, therefore, the objects of pity rather than lust. It is a master-stroke by Trollope to write against these expectations of his readership and to provide Madeline with her alluring “siren” quality.

Trollope introduces Madeline by saying she “had been a great beauty. We need not say had been, for she was never more beautiful than at the time of which we write, though her person had for many years been disfigured by an accident.” We then learn that “the beauty of her face was uninjured, and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeaux round her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were long and large, and marvellously bright…The eyelashes were long and perfect…Her nose and mouth and teeth and chin and neck and bust were perfect, much more so at twenth-eight than they had been at eighteen.”

She was perfectly well aware of the effect she had on men, in spite of her injuries, and exploited it to the full. She was, however, equally adept at playing the trump card of her disabilities to invoke pity where she felt this might be a more suitable approach, as when she turned her attentions to Mr Thorne, who had set his mind against her from the outset based on what he had heard of her history. “Mr Thorne had heard perhaps more of the antecedents of his guest than his sister had done, and had not as yet undergone the power of the signora’s charms…She had contrived to detain him, to get him near to her on the sofa, and at last to make him seat himself on a chair close to her beautiful arm. The fish took the bait, was hooked, and caught, and landed. Within that ten minutes he had heard the whole of the signora’s history in such strains as she chose to use in telling it. He learnt from the lady’s own lips the whole of the mysterious tale…He discovered that the beautiful creature lying before him had been more sinned against than sinning. She owned to him that she had been weak, confiding and indifferent to the world’s opinion, and that she had therefore been ill-used deceived and evil spoken of.  She had spoken to him of her mutilated limb, her youth destroyed in its fullest bloom, her beauty robbed of its every charm, her life blighted, her hopes withered; and as she did so, a tear dropped from her eye to her cheek. She had told him of these things and asked for his sympathy. What could a good-natured genial Anglo-Saxon Squire Thorne do but promise to sympathise with her?”

It is likely that for many men who approaached her the twin impediments of her being married and disabled made her a “safe” object for their flirtations – Victorian thinking, in public at least, having not encompassed the possibility that a disability is in fact no bar to sexual feelings and to the expression of these drives. If only they knew what they were taking on.

Indeed, far from hiding her disability, Madeline positively flaunts it – albeit doing so by creating a public spectacle whenever she appears in such a way that all attention is drawn to her as she is carried in – often by up to four supporters, usually including servants or her current “slave” – Mr Slope feels obliged to attend to her though he is not privileged to actually support her entrance to the Proudie gathering. Naturally Madeline enters late in the proceedings whenever possible so as to make her grand entrance. “At last a carriage dashed up to the hall steps with a very different manner of approach from that of any other vehicle that had been there that evening. A perfect commotion took place.” Madeline indeed made great efforts in preparing for such occasions to maximise the impact even down to arranging where she is to be seated beforehand and, which way she will be facing so that she might dress accordingly to show off her assets to their best advantage – including not least among those assets, her disabled limb. Exquisitely covered from sight and so left to the imaginations of those present who invariably exaggerated. “She has got no legs, papa.” “Nonsense, she has legs, but she can’t use them.” “She has only one leg.” “She had two. But that Signor Neroni beat her, I believe, till she was obliged to have one amputated. At any rate she has entirely lost the use of it.”

This last, rather acid – one might describe it as “bitchy” – comment from Mrs Proudie, made to Lady De Courcy, causes the latter to reflect, “‘Unfortunate creature!’ said the countess, who herself knew something of matrimonial trials.” In this brief exchange Trollope hints that behind the rather malicious gossip there is a recognition that there may be a common thread of domestic violence inflicted on wives by their husbands that is experienced in even the most socially distinguished households. It is explored no further – to do so would be impossible in a novel written as ostensibly family entertainment but its very mention, even in passing, would not have been overlooked by the more attentive reader. Trollope, even at this relatively early stage in his career, appears willing to reflect in his work sides of the middle class life that other authors did not – or only dealt with in more polemical works for a more restricted audience.

As Suzanne Rintoul points out in her article The Mysterious Woman and Her Legs: Scrutinizing the Disabled Body in Barchester Towers in the journal of Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, Madeline’s “conspicuous refusal to use her legs, and her careful arrangement of her dress, emphasise both her deformities and the fact that they cannot be seen. Madeline’s attempts to conceal her body thus complement her efforts to draw attention to it.” In this, Madeline consciously or sub-consciously (and I suspect she is smart enough for it to be the former) makes use of the power of the unknown to exercise a fascinating effect on an audience. Her very immobility on a sofa in the centre (note – not in some corner) of any gathering makes her the focal point and centre of attention – which she craves.

This pose of immobility is an assertion or assumption by Madeline of high status. She is carried by servants rather as earlier generations of the wealthy were carried about in sedan chairs. Jennifer Janechek in her article Dombey and Son for 19th Century Disability Cultures and Contexts points out that “Patronized primarily by the wealthier classes of society, the sedan chair received much negative attention from the public….in part because the public viewed the technology as demeaning to the chairmen [who carried them].” There is thus a subtext of resentment against a disabled person who conflates her need for physical assistance with an element of showmanship which Trollope taps into in his readership. He explains that “She had still frequented the opera at Milan; she had still been seen occasionally in the salons of the noblesse; she had caused herself to be carried  in and out from her carriage, and that in such a manner as in no wise to disturb her charms, disarrange her dress, or expose her deformities.” In spite of being comparatively poor (and wholly dependent on her family) she gives the impression of status through the trappings of conspicuous consumption (in its modern not its Victorian sense) and achieves this through imposing upon those of lower status. This showing off for effect and attention seeking clearly embarrassed her father who when she arrived at the Proudie’s soiree “retired into the furthest corner, where he might not see her entrance.”

I would go further and suggest that Madeline is Trollope’s response to Mrs Skewton in Dombey and Son, published less than a decade before Barchester Towers in 1848. Dickens describes his character noting that, “The discrepancy between Mrs Skewton’s fresh enthusiasm of words and forlornly faded manner, was hardly less observable than that between her age, which was about seventy, and her dress, which would have been youthful for twenty-seven. Her attitude in the wheeled chair (which she never varied) was one in which she had been taken in a barouche, some fifty years before, by a then fashionable artist who had appended to his published sketch the name of Cleopatra…Mrs Skewton was a beauty then, and bucks threw wine-glasses over their heads by the dozens in her honour.” It is not difficult to imagine Madeline as that posing Cleopatra. And when you add in the presence of Mrs Skewton’s constant companion, her unmarried daughter, it is possible to see in this young woman’s fate a foreshadowing of what may also befall Madeline’s own daughter – “the last of the blood of the emperors”. Was Trollope inspired by the Dickens characters to re-imagine them in the guise of their younger selves transplanted into contemporary society?

Having described Madeline’s egoism, it cannot be ignored that by some caprice of her own she chooses to act against her own best financial interests and champion the cause of Francis Arabin as a rival to her own, worthless brother Bertie Stanhope, as potential suitor for the hand of the wealthy widow, Eleanor Bold.

Her motivation for this apparent altruism seems to stem from her response to his reaction when she turns her attentions to him after having “had almost enough of Mr Slope, though she could not quite resist the fun of driving a very sanctimonious clergyman to madness by a desperate and ruinous passion. Mr Thorne had fallen too easily to give much pleasure in the chase. His position as a man of wealth might make his alliance of value, but as a lover he was very second-rate…But Mr Arabin was game of another sort.” Her clear insight into the workings of his mind reveals to her an innocence about him which she is little accustomed to finding in men of the world. She toys with him and “She expected a compliment from her admirer, but she was rather grateful than otherwise by finding that he did not pay it.” He is incapable of the empty flirting that she normally received from men and so he interests her as a person. So much so that she determines to assist him in his rather diffident attempts to woo Eleanor. No doubt he would have refused her assistance had she offered it directly, though she does advise him to pursue Eleanor and points out to him that Eleanor is clearly interested in him (with insightful reading of Eleanor’s body language). Nevertheless, by subterfuge, she ensures that Eleanor learns from her, in no uncertain terms, how strong Arabin’s feelings are for Eleanor. She ends by telling Eleanor, “What I tell you is God’s own truth; and it is for you to use it as may be best for your own happiness. But you must not betray me. He knows nothing of this. He knows nothing of my knowing his inmost heart. He is simple as a child in these matters. He told me his secret in a thousand ways because he could not dissemble”.  Ultimately, Madeline, whose whole life has been a web of dissembling – whether her own or that of others – comes to care for Arabin and Eleanor because they neither of them dissemble. She is a paradox.

I am now going to turn, belatedly you might suggest, to the most important sentence in Barchester Towers concerning Madeline. All that has gone before, and all of the academic and literary commentary on Madeline and her role in the novel is predicated on the statements it contains which are accepted at face value, unquestioningly. Even the notable reader against the grain, Professor John Sutherland, the Lord Norcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London, whose writings include Is Heathcliff a Murderer?  and Can Jane Eyre be Happy?, and whose careful trawlings through Victorian novels for quirks and anomalies which expose either carelessness on the part of the author or else hitherto overlooked and potentially subversive hidden meanings, has made no mention of the ramifications of this sentence in his own introduction to Barchester Towers for the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians series of articles.

“She had fallen, she said, in ascending a ruin, and had fatally injured the sinews of her knee; so fatally, that when she stood she lost eight inches of her accustomed height; so fatally, that when she essayed to move, she could only drag herself painfully along, with protruding hip and extended foot, in a manner less graceful than that of a hunchback.”

Now the Victorians in general, and Trollope in particular, did not go in for the concept of the unreliable narrator. So if Trollope says something is so, we, as readers, may take it as so. Provided, of course, that we are sufficiently in tune with his style to identify his extensive use of irony as a tool of his satire when writing of things of which he disapproved to any degree. He did not use the modern device of the inverted commas to flag his use of a word to mean its opposite – think of the irritating visual tic of drawing such inverted commas in the air in mid-conversation to emphasise when this is being done now. So when he refers to Madeline as “a cripple” (my inverted comes to indicate a quotation from the novel!) readers might be forgiven for taking him at his word.

But is that justified in this case? Sometimes Trollope highlights his use of irony by using such absurd exaggeration that it is nigh on impossible to overlook his intention for his readers to interpret what he means as the direct opposite of what he writes.

So I am going to take a leaf from Professor Sutherland’s book and examine that sentence closely.

Firstly, it begins with the words “she said”. Everything that comes after it is what Madeline has said. It could be argued that the later clauses, separated from the initial clause in which those words appear, could be regarded as separate sentences with full stops rather than semi-colons used for punctuation (though they would lack verbs and so would be unusual though not impossible as sentences). However, it would be a more reasonable interpretation to understand that all of those things said in that sentence were said, in more or less so many words, by Madeline.

From this, academics and literary critics have gone on to link this sentence with Madeline’s separation from her husband about which she refuses to give details and he is conveniently out of the way and can give no version of events himself and conclude that her claim that the injuries are the result of a fall is a lie to cover up the fact that she was beaten by her husband. Trollope gives further weight to this interpretation by citing precisely that possible cause amongst the many rumours and half-truths which float around Barchester society about Madeline.

This requires the reader to accept the first part of what she says as at best a euphemism (did her husband push her) or was it a downright lie (he did something worse and deliberately injuring her directly himself) but at the same time to accept as gospel truth the second part of the sentence, the precise nature of her injuries. It seems to me that such a reading is either selective or even a wilful mis-interpretation.

So what are we to make of a claim to have suffered soft tissue damage (sinews may be ligaments or tendons) in one knee (not both) which reduces her height by eight inches. In a woman of average height this represents a huge change. There is no mention of any skeletal damage (broken bones) which might account for such a loss in height. Indeed, it would require shattering of bones, followed by appalling post traumatic care – leaving the bones unset etc) in both legs to give rise to such a loss of height. Indeed, total amputation of one leg would give rise to no significant loss in height if she were to stand with the aid of a stick, for example, on her remaining leg.

Furthermore, any such catastrophic injury was sufficiently recovered for her to flee her husband and return to her family with her baby some six months after the couple went to Rome following their “prolonged honeymoon”.  It is difficult to conceive of her having sustained such injuries while pregnant and it not having put the baby’s life at risk so the timing of the “fall” would seem unlikely to have been at the very start of that six month period. She has therefore had to recover from her injuries, for which she has not received adequate care so that they remain permanent and disabling, sufficient to travel within a period of less than six months. This is stretching credulity.

Which begs the question: is Trollope stretching credulity here through carelessness or through deliberate choice to draw attention to the fact that Madeline’s testimony is unreliable (about either or both of the extent of her injuries and their consequences, or their cause)?

To me, it seems, if we are to accept that Madeline was not honest with her family about the cause of her injuries (and academics and literary critics universally do accept this) then we must also call into question how accurate is her description of those injuries. Otherwise, why did Trollope make them so incredible?

I can hear Professor Nick Shrimpton even as I write saying that such compressions of time are part of the writer of fictions art and quoting the dual timescales Shakespeare employs in Othello – events which would require weeks or months to pass if they were to unfold naturally are compressed into three days without any complaint from the audience which manages to hold both incompatible timescales in its head without suffering any cognitive dissonance. But Trollope had no need to require such mental juggling on the part of his readers. He could have inserted a longer, more credible time period for the events Madeline describes without any impact on the narrative of his novel. I must therefore conclude that he chose deliberately to describe an unfeasibly short period of six months so that Madeline’s testimony should be called into question.

Which leads us to wonder to what extent she exaggerated her injuries and why.

As we have seen no-one actually sees Madeline’s injured leg which is why there is so much ill-informed gossip and speculation about the extent of her injuries. However, Trollope does not qualify this by saying that no-one outside the family had seen her legs. In fact, it is not even clear whether Charlotte, Madeline’s older sister and the person in the family who takes care of all matters both practical and financial has seen Madeline’s injuries. Could Madeline have concealed her legs from everyone, including servants. It seems unlikely but we do not know from Trollope’s text.

However, we may speculate that there must be some form of physical abuse at the hands of her husband to have provoked her to leave him. This would be an admission of defeat in a contest of wills between the husband and wife. Madeline would be unlikely to tolerate being bested by a brute of a husband. If he were unfaithful then so too could she be unfaithful – and probably even more flagrantly (at least within the confines of their own knowledge of each other’s affairs) so as to put one over on him. So I conclude that she must have suffered intolerable physical abuse from her husband for Madeline to admit defeat and give up the fight. Therefore, it is probable that she had some injury though not, for the reasons outlined already, so great as she made out to her family.

Why then might she exaggerate the extent of her injuries?

Firstly, as the apparently injured party in a marital breakdown, who must throw herself upon the support of her family (even though we know with hindsight from Framley Parsonage that her father was struggling financially – and with three grown up children and a grand-daughter to support going forward this is understandable), it would help her cause to talk up the extent of the injuries done to her rather than talk them down.

Secondly, it would be consistent with her innate egoism to make much of her injuries so as to ensure that she is the centre of attention. At the age of twenty-two, as she would have then been, and with her thrill-seeking personality, it is to be expected that she would do so.

And once she set out on this line, what reason would she have for stopping or indeed even playing down her injuries later? Her family was too poor to re-launch her into the high society which she craved. She must therefore fall back on the use (abuse?) of people’s pity for her, as she did with Squire Thorne, to secure her comfort and needs.

There is also a third possible and very much contemporary reason, to which the desire to exaggerate her injuries might be attributed. Evidence of physical abuse might be necessary in support of any legal proceedings for divorce or custody of the child (see note 1). Although married in Italy, Madeline, as a British citizen, might have given consideration to the possibility of divorce under English law. In the 1840s, when the events of her marriage and separation took place, the law on divorce was very rigid and heavily biased in favour of the man. Marriage was regarded as a sacrament of the church and divorce was considered in the ecclesiastical courts rather than the main civil courts. For a man, the grounds for divorcing his wife could be based on her adultery alone, but for a wife, this was not of itself sufficient grounds. In order to obtain a divorce “a vinoulo matrimony” (what we would regard as a divorce permitting subsequent remarriage) rather than “a mensa et thoro” (which is more what we would call a legal separation and which did not allow for remarriage), required the woman to prove an “aggravated enormity” in addition to adultery on the part of the husband. Causing her permanent disability might satisfy this requirement and enable Madeline to obtain a divorce should she choose to seek one.

I am not suggesting that Madeline intended to seek a divorce, indeed she derived much room for manoeuvre with would-be admirers such as Mr Slope from her ambiguous position in this respect – living separately from her husband but still legally married to him. She would not, therefore, have need to incur the expense and potentially adverse public exposure that divorce proceedings (which at this time required an Act of Parliament to be concluded so that in 1857 for example there were only three divorces in the UK) would entail. Nevertheless, as a very intelligent and worldly woman, Madeline might, even at a young age, have seen the advantage of at least preparing the ground, just in case she might need to use it later. Such foresight on her part implies a high degree of Machiavellian planning ahead but it is not inconsistent with her behaviour in other aspects of her life and dealings with people.

 I am therefore of the view that Madeline’s injuries were not so catastrophic as she made out. I believe Trollope quite deliberately describes injuries so gross as to be incredible (in terms of their extent, their improbable nature, and impossible apparent recovery time) so that we are expected to understand that they cannot be as he explicitly states. Madeline, we are therefore supposed to understand, is exaggerating for her own ends and does so, with consummate expertise, to perfection throughout the events described.

She then, along with her daughter, disappears from Barsetshire at the end of the novel, never to return. We hear in Doctor Thorne that her father has died – which must have occurred not too long after the family removed itself once more to Italy. The surviving family members, Mrs Stanhope, Madeline and her older sister, the resourceful Charlotte, Madeline’s daughter and, if he is still sponging off his father as are the two grown up daughters, Madeline’s younger brother Bertie (whose artwork would never support him and whose attempts to woo the rich widow Eleanor Bold were ultimately undermined by Madeline), would then have been forced to survive on the small sum which Mrs Stanhope had independently of her husband. . This could not have sustained them in anything like the standard to which they would wish to be accustomed, even in Italy, so I suspect they would have been forced to live upon their wits.

In Madeline’s case, I do not think this would have proved too great a challenge. I am confident that it would not be long before she hooked another sucker like Squire Thorne who would provide for her and her daughter. Who knows, if he proved slightly more of a challenge than the old Squire, and maybe saw through her sufficiently to earn her respect, then she might even apply her wit and worldy wisdom so as to make both of them happy. For I am sure that she is acutely aware that her present state, as described in Barchester Towers, is not conducive to her self-respect and happiness. Her moral compass is not so far off kilter as that of her, on the surface, nicer, but actually more conniving, sister Charlotte. Why else would she have acted so apparently out of character, and against her own best financial interests and those of her family, by promoting Eleanor’s and Mr Arabin’s happiness over her brother Bertie’s self-serving needs?


Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son
Jennifer Janechek, Dombey and Son, 19th Century Disability Cultures and Contexts,(
Kate Lawson, Abject and Defiled: Signora Neroni’s Body and the Question of Domestic Violence in Barchester Towers, Victorian Review Vol 21 Issue 1 (Summer 1995) Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
Melina Moore, Barchester Towers, 19th Century Disability Cultures and Contexts, (
Suzanne Rintoul, The Mysterious Woman and Her Legs: Scrutininzing the Disabled Body in Barchester Towers, Nineteenth Century Gender Studies Issue 7.1 (Spring 2011) (
John Sutherland, Barchester Towers, Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians (
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage
The London Times, 23 May 1853 (

Note 1: The Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was set up in 1850 to look into the operation of the laws on divorce. Its findings were reported in 1853 (e.g. in The London Times of 23 May 1853) and led to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which, inter alia, altered marriage from a religious sacrament to a legal contract between the husband and wife and provided statutory grounds for divorce which, while still, favouring the man, enshrined a number of grounds for divorce for a wife including cruelty by the husband even where he was not also committing adultery! These developments would have provided a backdrop to the state of marriage while Trollope was writing Barchester Towers which was, as John Sutherland does point out in his introduction, an explicitly contemporary novel of the 1850s unlike the work of many of his fellow authors of the time. Discussions of such matters may well, therefore, have subtly influenced Trollope’s writing and, it is conceivable, that discussions along similar lines foreshadowing these legal changes, would have been taking place for some time before the setting up of the Royal Commission – political will to make changes always following on some time later than the rise of the issue to be addressed in public discourse – and so would quite possibly have within the knowledge of the educated middle classes, such as Madeline, during the mid-1840s when her marital troubles took place.



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