Monthly Archives: November 2017

Trollope’s Women: Emily Trevelyan

Laura Fraser as Emily Trevelyan and Bill Nighy as Colonel Osborne in the 2004 BBC production of He Knew He Was Right. 

If Louis Trevelyan was so convinced that He Knew He Was Right then he was equally convinced of its corollary and He Knew She Was Wrong. To modern readers the position is nowhere near as clear cut as Louis viewed it but Trollope knew his contemporary nineteenth century audience was still coming to terms with the legal changes that were taking place and would regard Emily’s actions at the start of the novel, which trigger the ensuing drama as being questionable and, for many, she would be in the wrong. It was necessary, therefore, for Trollope to build in an excuse for her failure to behave as a nice, middle-class English young lady might be expected to behave. This he did by giving her a background as the daughter of a diplomat whose postings had been overseas for the duration of her childhood thereby depriving her of the proper influences which would account for her behaviour. Early in the quarrel, Louis thinks to himself, “And then this poor wife of his, who knew so little of English life, who had lived in the Mandarin Islands almost since she was a child, who had lived in one colony or another almost since she had been born, who had had so few of those advantages for which he should have looked in marrying a wife, how was the poor girl to conduct herself properly when subjected to the arts and practised villainies of this viper? And yet the poor girl was of so stiff a temper, had picked up such a trick of obstinacy in those tropical regions, that Louis Trevelyan felt that he did not know how to manage her.” Having thus made his excuses for her in chapter two of the book, Trollope felt able to proceed with his tale confident that he had not alienated his audience from the sympathy for Emily which would be so necessary for them to go along with the plot he envisaged.

Emily Rowley was born in the mid-1840s. She is therefore, unlike the women of Barchester (with the exception of Lily Dale) whom we have considered thus far, a truly Victorian woman, having been born and grown up under Victoria’s reign rather than during the Regency/late-Georgian period. This may also be reflected in her more advanced views on the rights of women than Trollope’s own generation born at or about the time of Waterloo. Certainly her mother observes that, “Emily likes her way too”, when her husband says that Louis Trevelyan will be “a good guide for the girls!” This assertiveness on Emily’s part brings her closer to the modern era and to the sympathies of modern readers rather than the reverse as Trollope feared might be the case for his contemporary readership.

Emily is the oldest of eight daughters and no doubt this position gave her further cause to be assertive – she would no doubt have been expected to assist her mother in controlling her younger sisters as they grew up. It is no wonder then that she should know her mind and be prepared to speak it.

Emily, Trollope tells us, “was a very handsome young woman, tall, with a bust rather full for her age, with dark eyes – eyes that looked to be dark because her eyebrows and eyelashes were nearly black, but which were in truth so varying in colour, that you could not tell their hue. Her brown hair was very dark and very soft; and the tint of her cheeks was often so bright as to induce her enemies to say falsely of her that she painted them. And she was very strong, as are some girls from the tropics, and whom a tropical climate has suited. She could sit on her horse the whole day long, and would never be weary with dancing at the Government House balls.”

It is interesting that in this first description of her that Trollope should mention Emily having enemies – it is a warning shot across the reader’s bow that all will not be plain sailing for this character.

She is barely twenty-three when we first meet her in London. She has been married three years and has a son – named Louis after his father – who is just a toddler. It is here that she has been introduced to Colonel Osborne – or should I say, been re-introduced to him for Trollope relates that, “When Colonel Osborne was introduced to her as the baby whom he had known, he thought it would be very pleasant to be intimate with so pleasant a friend – meaning no harm indeed, as but few men do mean harm on such occasions – but still, not regarding the beautiful young woman, whom he had seen as one of a generation succeeding to that of his own, to whom it would be his duty to make himself useful on account of the old friendship which he bore to her father.”

Emily, no doubt, from her twenty-something perspective, regarded him as old enough to be her father (indeed, she points out to her sister that he is “A man older than my father, who has known me since I was a baby!”). She would naturally consider any suggestion of a romantic attachment to him as ludicrous, indeed laughable.

Had he been aware that such was her view of him, the Colonel’s ego would have been severely pricked because, while past fifty, he did not consider himself middle-aged in the way that a man with family responsibilities such as Emily’s father bore might regard himself. He was, though, in truth a lecherous older man whose pleasures in life were derived from flirting with younger women. In this respect, no doubt, Emily’s “bust rather full for her age” would no doubt feature highly in the list of her attractions for him. As Trollope makes clear, he does not see himself as too old for her at all even though he has no intentions of doing anything more than pass his time amusing himself by flirting with her.

Unfortunately, Emily’s husband Louis is by no means as aware of the age gap making any suggestion of romance as ridiculous as it appears to Emily and his jealousy becomes intensified into a monomania as the novel progresses.

Her legal position at this point is precarious. She is the property of her husband – a situation which would not change until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. So too is the child, little Louis. The Custody of Infants Act 1839 provided that a woman could petition the courts for custody of the child up to the age of seven but thereafter she could only seek a court order for access to the child. The later Infant Custody Act of 1873 would amend this to introduce the principle that the interests of the child would be considered paramount up to the age of sixteen.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 applied at the time the events of the novel take place. It was biased in favour of men, who had only to prove a single instance of adultery to obtain a divorce. This determines the course of action which Emily’s husband takes in employing the private detective Bozzle to seek the necessary evidence of adultery on her part. He would then be able to divorce her, should he wish, and, unless she went to court (and won, which would by no means be a foregone conclusion if she was held to have been the guilty party in the divorce), he would have custody of the child and could decide whether or not she had access.

Emily must face this crisis alone, since her parents are inaccessible in the distant Mandarins, at the age of only twenty-three. Not forgetting, of course, that she still loves her husband, as she repeats throughout the novel. It is this enduring love which is perhaps hardest for a modern reader to understand. A modern woman, treated as she is by her husband, would be forgiven – almost expected, in fact – to stop loving the man who so abused her. That she does not is, I think, necessary for Trollope because in this way she remains in the right in the eyes of his contemporary readership who were predisposed by society’s expectations of the time to regard her as breaching the norms of the time which expected obedience of the husband by the wife.

Indeed, Emily is at pains to point out during the early stages of the quarrel that if her husband were to give her a direct order to stop seeing Colonel Osborne she would obey him. As I have observed previously (Illustrating Trollope: He Knew He Was Right), Emily’s response is rather like that of the army private who responds to orders with which he does not agree by dumb insolence (though Emily is far from dumb, indeed, she is most eloquent in expressing her objections to her husband’s instructions). She makes clear that she would regard such an order as unreasonable but would obey. Louis never actually issues her a direct order but thinks that his expressions that he does not wish Emily to meet Osborne, should have the power of an order without requiring him to be explicit in making it an order. It is on this semantic point that the couple fall out.

Emily is contrasted with her younger, and more malleable, sister Nora. Nora waits patiently for her would be lover Hugh Stanbury to propose to her and is even willing to sacrifice her happiness to his good name by refusing to marry him while she is potentially tainted by association with her sister during the scandal of the breakdown of the Trevelyans’ marriage. This is a regular trick of Trollope’s to provide his readers with two women whose approaches to life are different so that each provides a commentary on and reference point for comparison with the other – Ayala and Lucy Dormer are another such example.

It may be argued that Emily is almost perverse in accepting Colonel Osborne’s transparently self-serving excuse for travelling to Devon on the pretext of visiting the church at Cockchaffington and following that with a slightly inconvenient detour to see her at Nuncombe Putney. She tells her sister, “He happens to have a friend in the neighbourhood whom he has long promised to visit; and as he must be in Leesboro’, he does not choose to go away without the compliment of a call. It will be as much to you as to me.” Emily is being disingenuous here. She must be aware that the Colonel is truly interested in her alone rather than both of them. It is, after all, to her alone that he writes.

However, since her grounds for quarrelling with Louis are that it is insulting to her to regard the relationship with the man old enough to be her father as in any way improper, she cannot refuse a visit from Colonel Osborne without conceding that there may indeed be something improper in the relationship even if it is a fault on his side which she should discourage. This unwillingness to concede the point is a rather masculine strength of purpose which might be seen as stubborn by readers who are not inherently sympathetic to Emily’s position. She tells Nora, “I will not be frightened by bugbears. And I will not be driven to confess to any man on earth that I am afraid to see him. Why should I be afraid of Colonel Osborne? I will not submit to acknowledge that there could be aby danger in Colonel Osborne. Were I to do so I should be repeating the insult against myself. If my husband wished to guide me in such matters, why did he not stay with me?”

Indeed, Trollope emphasises her strength when her husband subsequently writes to her in most unreasonable terms. “In her general mode of carrying herself, and of enduring the troubles of her life, Mrs Trevelyan was a strong woman; but now her grief was too much for her, and she burst into tears.” But she recovers herself and resolves to cease being financially dependent on her husband by transporting herself and her sister to live with relatives, Mr and Mrs Outhouse, where he was rector in the poor parish of St Diddulph’s-in-the-East in London’s East End until such time as their parents return to England. She realises this is only a short term solution to their difficulties but it is the only practical step to take under the circumstances. She does not collapse, as a middle-class lady of the period might conventionally have been expected to do, but remains pragmatic and active in trying to work out her own fate.

When the increasingly irrational Louis then contrives to kidnap her son – for this is how it must feel to her in spite of the prevailing legal view at the time that he was acting within his rights to take possession of little Louis as his father – and does so by a trick which surely betrays the moral uncertainty of that course of action, Emily still does not break.

In the immediate aftermath she is quite naturally distraught, “Mrs Trevelyan had staggered against the railings, and was soon screaming in her wretchedness…Mrs Trevelyan was hardly in possession of her senses when she reached her mother, and could not be induced to be tranquil even when she was assured by her father that her son would suffer no immediate evil by being transferred to his father’s hands. She in her frenzy declared that she would never see her little one again, and seemed to think that the father might not improbably destroy the child.” With these harrowing scenes, Trollope perfectly captures the response of the bereft young mother and, her imagination is not overrunning the possibilities of what an unbalanced father might do as any number of tragic cases in real life will confirm.

But after the initial shock, Emily recovers and becomes once more practical in seeking a resolution to the appalling situation in which she finds herself. When she is able to ascertain the whereabouts of her child she goes and negotiates with Louis to obtain access to him, albeit briefly. She refuses, however, to acknowledge that she has “sinned” as her husband accuses her and tells her “You must repent – repent – repent.” Trollope makes clear, and Emily must have sensed this to be true when talking to Louis, that “Who can say how long the tenderness of his heart would have saved him from further outbreak – and whether such prevailing on her part would have been of permanent service?” We, as readers, and she, now know that he can never be relied upon not to find some future cause for dissatisfaction with her behaviour, however much it is beyond reproach. She knows that, in the long run, it will be necessary to establish that her husband is unfit to care for the child by reason of his insanity.

When Louis goes to Italy, Emily, in a step which must have taken much self-belief to undertake, when women were not generally independent, moves herself to Italy too to be close to her child and persuades her father to support her in this. What seems most strange to the modern reader is that she persists in regarding him with love and telling her father when Louis continues to forward money to keep her that “though his mind is distracted on this horrible business, he is not a bad man. No one is more liberal or more just about money.”  This is an extremely rational perspective for a young woman in her mid-twenties to take of a husband who treats her as Louis does. Indeed, her own mental health, under such trying conditions, holds up remarkably well. As they travel over the Alps she joins her sister in rambles through the mountains  and “would for moments almost forget that she had been robbed of her child.” (How much nuance of meaning can Trollope pack into that single word “almost”?) She can still enjoy life and does not fall prey to depression as she so easily might in the circumstances.

When, with the help of her father and Mr Glascock, she tracks her husband down to the villa Casalunga outside Siena, she then very bravely agrees to visit him alone as he stipulates she must if she is to see her child. She, probably rightly, judges that he is not likely to be a threat to her but the risk of physical violence at the hands of a man when she is alone with him at such an isolated spot is nevertheless a possibility she must consider.

When she does finally meet her husband “she threw her arms round his neck, and before he could repulse her – before he could reflect whether it would be well that he should repulse her or not – she had covered his brow and cheeks and lips with kisses.”

She evidently, as she has insisted all along, continues to love the man and is solicitous for his welfare as well as that of her child. He still persists though with the view that it is for him to forgive and for her to repent her actions in order to merit that forgiveness while she speaks of forgiving and forgetting on her part the wrongs he has done to her. They remain poles apart but now Trollope is clear that the readers should side with the wife’s view of the matter. Trollope reveals her thoughts at this point. “That she could be happy again as other women are happy, she did not expect; but if it could be conceded between them that bygones should be bygones, she might live with him and do her duty, and, at least, have her child with her. Her father had told her that her husband was mad; but she was willing to put up with his madness on such terms as these. What could her husband do to her in his madness that he could not do also to the child.”

Trollope conveys her perspective so accurately. Her child is her hostage to fate. And she recognises that her only means of attaining even partial satisfaction in life is to care for her child and her husband who is, effectively, becoming a second child under her care – albeit with the legal powers of the tyrant such as no toddler might ever achieve. Her compassion for her husband is extraordinary to the modern reader.

In the end, Louis’s physical and mental decline is complete and he finally surrenders little Louis to Emily’s care. “It was open to her to go with [her family back to England], and to take her boy with her. But a few days since how happy she would have been could she have been made to believe that such a mode of returning would be within her power! But now she felt that she might not return and leave that poor, suffering wretch behind her. As she thought of him she tried to interrogate her feelings. Was it love, or duty, or compassion which stirred her? She had loved him as fondly as any bright young woman loves the man who is to take her away from everything else, and make her a part of his house and of himself…Emily Trevelyan was forced to tell herself that all that was over with her…that she could never know what his thoughts of her might be…though she could not dare to look forward to happiness in living with him, she could understand that no comfort would be possible to her were she to return to England and leave him to perish alone at Casalunga.” She therefore decides that she will remain in alone in Italy to care for the broken man as best she might after her family departs.

Finally, when he consents to return to England and is clearly dying, “she was down on her knees before him instantly. ‘Oh, Louis! Oh, Louis! say that you forgive me!’ What could a woman do more than that in her mercy to a man.”

Emily’s tremendous humanity, even to the extent of confessing to a fault that was no fault except in the eye of a man whose judgment is shown to be palpably wrong, which is so galling for the modern reader to endure, reflects that “Her mind towards him had changed altogether since she had been so indignant, because he had set a policeman to watch over her. All feeling of anger was over with her now. There is nothing a woman will not forgive a man, when he is weaker than she is herself.”

I still find this hard to stomach – even with the deathbed confirmation that Louis accepts she was not actually an adulteress. But she has sufficient self-respect to accept the blow to her own pride and grant him a final victory so that he might have the peace of mind at his death that he needed – the ultimate confirmation that He Knew He Was Right. When her sister Nora questions this, Emily with maturity beyond her years, tells her “Do none confess but the guilty? What is all that we have read about the Inquisition and the old tortures? I have had to learn that torturing has not gone out of the world – that is all.”

It is no wonder that Trollope, at the conclusion of the novel, when Emily passes out of our sight once more, confirms that though many widows remarry, it is expected that Emily will keep to her avowed intention not to remarry.

It would have been easy for Trollope to write a novel exploring the nervous breakdown of a man which focused solely on the man. One could imagine such a novel with a ministering angel of the hearth tending to him as he declined. But instead he gives us not one but two characters of depth and realism to hold our attention as their relationship collapses under the strain of the husband’s depression. Both are equally the subjects of his authorial gaze and deserve our attention in equal measure.

That Emily’s inner strength should be both her fatal flaw that precipitates the crisis and her means to overcome it and not succumb to despair is worthy of a Greek tragedy. She is indeed a flawed heroine but she is the more real for it. Her flaw, if it is a flaw, which in a woman might be labelled “stubbornness” or “obstinacy”, would in a man be called “strength of purpose”, “determination” or “self-assurance”. Yet Trollope does not label her in this way – even if many of his contemporary readers might have done. He shows greater understanding of her which leads him to avoid this trap. That he tries to have his cake and eat it with the ultimate reconciliation(s), vacillating between Emily’s confession and the final deathbed acknowledgment by Louis that she had not sinned, indicates his desire to bring his more conservative, conventional audience with him. Nevertheless, Emily Trevelyan stands out as a young woman with real emotions but a core strength and willingness to take the initiative in direct contrast to the passive, supporting roles expected of middle class women whose husbands are the ostensible principal subject of the novel.























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Online reading groups

The Anthony Trollope Society Facebook Group is currently reading Phineas Redux. We have reached Chapter 16 – reading a chapter a day – but the chapters are very short (sometimes only 5 pages) so anyone who wants to join in can easily catch up. The daily chapter discussion enables us to swap thoughts on what we have just read and I always find that I learn something new, or gain greater insights, from the input of everyone reading along.

For those for whom one Trollope is never enough, there will be another group read starting at the beginning of December which will run in parallel with the first. This will be of The Way We Live Now. This seems timely given its subject matter and the state current state of affairs in the world. Trollope’s satire has never been more relevant. This read will, by common consent, include more topical discussion than is normally found in a Trollope group read but in all other respects it will follow the same sort of approach.

To join the read of Phineas Redux you will need to join the Anthony Trollope Society Facebook group. You can contact the group at:

If you want to join the group read of The Way We Live Now please use the Contact Us link above and we will send you an invitation.


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How emancipated is Mrs Rowan?

The case is often made that James Joyce’s women, unlike those of Trollope, writing several decades earlier, are emancipated from social constraints. Molly Bloom, Leopold Bloom’s wife who cheats on him in the novel Ulysses, is held up as an example of this willingness by Joyce to write strong women characters who defy conventional barriers to their self-fulfilment and happiness. Richard Rowan’s partner, Bertha, in the play Exiles, is similarly held up as an example of a woman who is able to exercise freedoms, particularly sexual freedoms, in a liberated way that is ahead of its time.

Bertha, we learn, has gone off into exile from Ireland with Richard Rowan some nine years prior to the action of the play. They have lived abroad and had a son without being married. They have now returned to Dublin and have renewed their friendship with journalist Robert Hand. We see Robert and Bertha kiss. Later Rowan allows Bertha to go off alone to visit Hand and tells her “You have complete liberty to do as you wish”. Rowan’s willingness to allow her to be unfaithful to him is held out as evidence of the freedom she enjoys.

Does this interpretation of Exiles stand up to a close inspection of the text?

If we go back to the decision to leave Ireland and go into exile, this was Richard Rowan’s decision alone. He invites Bertha to accompany him in his exile but makes it clear that if she does so it will not be as his wife. She agrees to this. In effect, he gave her an ultimatum. If you love me and want to be with me then you must leave your home and family and friends and do so without the legal protections that a wife would enjoy under those circumstances. If you love me enough you will accept these terms. And she does. She is cut off from the network of support that she would otherwise have had and becomes absolutely dependent upon him. Looked at in this light, Rowan’s actions appear more like those of an abuser who isolates his victim and places her in a subjugated position, totally under his power.

Bertha points out to Richard that, “You try to turn everyone against me. All is to be for you. I am to appear false and cruel to everyone except to you.”

To which Richard responds with a withering put down, “And you have the courage to say that to me?”

Bertha shows how he has even tried to turn her son against her by making her the only one who disciplines the child so that he plays good cop to her bad cop. “You tried to turn my own child against me…Everyone saw it. Whenever I tried to correct him for the least thing you went on with your folly, speaking to him as if he were a grown-up man. Ruining the poor child, or trying to. Then, of course, I was the cruel mother and only you loved him.”

Richard, cleverly tries to deflect this point, saying, “You know I cannot be severe with a child.” He then goes on to admonish her, “Do not say things you will be sorry for.”

Being the cleverer of the two he is always able to turn her words around and use them against her. She rails at him that, “Because I am simple you think you can do what you like with me.”

We also learn that on the pretext of being open and honest, Rowan has told Bertha when he has been unfaithful to her, seemingly within hours of the event. This would be all very well if both parties were in positions of equal power in the relationship but that is not the case. She is dependent on him financially. It also assumes that they are both equally detached and intellectual about the relationship whereas all the evidence points to Bertha being more emotional and more committed to the relationship. Under those circumstances, to tell her of his infidelities is rather rubbing salt in her wounds.

Richard tells Robert that, “I remember the first time [that I was unfaithful to Bertha]. I came home. It was night. My house was silent. My little son was sleeping in his cot. She, too, was asleep. I wakened her from sleep and told her. I cried beside her bed; and I pierced her heart.”

Robert asks him why he told her and Richard replies. “She must know me as I am.”

Since he is aware that it is painful to her, Richard is, in fact, being yet more cruel. He is deliberately inflicting suffering on Bertha because he understands she wants a monogamous relationship and so forces her to confront the reality of what it is to be in the type of open relationship he wishes it to be. Again, it is his decision that the relationship will be open rather than exclusive, not hers. He cloaks this cruelty with the pretence that it is to be honest and that he does not mind her reciprocating and being unfaithful to him. But even this is adding to the cruelty. To her, who wishes that there should be fidelity in their relationship, his indifference to whether or not she is faithful to him diminishes her sense of self-worth. How can he place value on her if he does not want her to be faithful as she wishes him to be?

Indeed, the way in which he allows her to go about being unfaithful to him is in itself controlling.

First he requires her to reveal details of the first steps that she has allowed Robert to take towards a possible infidelity on her part. He extracts this information in a painful interview in which he grills her, “Well?…I saw it. What else went on?…Did you?…Well?…And then?…And then?…”

Bertha asks him, “Does all this disturb you?…I think you are only pretending you don’t mind.” She surely hopes this is so.

Richard responds, “I knew dear. But I want to find out what he means or feels…”

And therein perhaps lies a clue as to Richard’s motivation in putting Bertha through this painful scene. He wants to know what makes Robert tick. Is this so he can control him and manipulate him too, as he does Bertha? She is like his puppet. She may only be unfaithful when and if he wants her to be and on his terms, with him pulling the strings. It appears he wishes to exercise similar control over the other party, Robert. This accounts for his insisting that he goes to visit Robert at the proposed place for the assignation before Bertha goes. Surely nothing could be a greater passion-killer for a would-be seducer than for the husband to turn up on the doorstep just before the wife.

Richard wants Robert to know that he is found out. Richard confronts Robert at the house where he has arranged to meet Bertha and makes him feel an idiot – Richard immediately confesses, “I must have been mad.”

Richard, of course, has the moral high ground and exploits it ruthlessly to make Robert feel dreadful. Richard speaks loftily and with intellectual detachment saying that, “I wished you not to do anything false or secret against me – against our friendship…not to steal her from me craftily, secretly, meanly – in the dark, in the night – you, Robert, my friend.”

This, as it is calculated to do, makes Robert feel even more sordid than ever. Robert tells Richard, “It is noble of you, Richard, to forgive me like this.”

Having thus ensured that his would be rival feels so bad about what he was planning that it is almost impossible that he should actually go through with it, Richard then withdraws and sees what will happen.

At this point, Bertha and Robert, both aware that Richard is monitoring them, must feel like specimens in Richard’s laboratory taking part in some experiment in human relations with Richard as some sort of scientist exercising god-like control over the whole thing.

No wonder, it turns out that nothing happens.

Each feels impelled to tell Richard what happened – or more to the point – what did not happen between them, when they see him the next morning.

Robert tells Richard “I failed.” He means he failed to win Bertha away from Richard.

Bertha says to Richard, “Do you believe now that I have been true to you? Last night and always?”

Richard responds that, “I have a deep, deep wound of doubt in my soul…I can never know, never in this world.”

Thereby he keeps Bertha hanging on. She can never satisfy his doubts and so must constantly strive to do so. It is all about his ego to which she must be subservient.

Given the autobiographical nature of Joyce’s work, including Exiles, which parallels in many respects Joyce’s own decision to quit Dublin and make a life for himself on the continent, taking Nora Barnacle with him, in much the same way that his character Richard Rowan took Bertha, I wonder whether Joyce would have wished his audience to interpret the relationship between Richard and Bertha as I have done – that is one of emotional abuse by a domineering man over a dependent woman. Or would Joyce have believed the intellectual theorising/justifications which he puts in the mouth of Richard Rowan to explain away his behaviour as the reasonable actions of a man of principles at odds with the society in which he grew up. If it is the former then Joyce would be a remarkable artist willing to portray himself in so poor a light; which makes me suspect there is more than a little of the latter case here. Which in itself leads to the conclusion that Joyce is, like Trollope, a truly remarkable author in that he is able to portray accurately on the page human characters and emotions with psychological depth and accuracy that can only be properly appreciated with the hindsight we enjoy with the benefit of all the developments in understanding of human psychology that have taken place long after their deaths.















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Trollope’s Women: Lady Mason

Trust Me – painting by John Everett Millais, first exhibited in 1862, the year Orley Farm was published in book form having been serialised by Chapman and Hall from March 1861 to October 1862. The painting appears to have been a re-working of the engraving Millais produced for inclusion in the serial publication of the fateful interview between Lady Mason and Sir Peregrine Orme in which she confesses to forging the codicil to her husband’s will.

Mary Johnson was born around 1812. Her grandfather had been in the hardware business and her father had continued in that business but shifted from retail to wholesale – thereby beginning to distance himself from the sordid associations of “trade”. Unfortunately, the business became insolvent around the beginning of the 1830s. Her father died and her mother went to live with her brother, John, in Lancashire.

Sir Joseph Mason was involved in sorting out the financial problems and was attracted to Mary. She was at that time, “very fair – tall, slight, fair, and very quiet – not possessing that loveliness which is generally most attractive to men, because the beauty of which she might boast depended on form rather than the brightness of her eye, or the softness of her cheek and lips. Her face too, even at that age, seldom betrayed emotion, and never showed signs of either anger or of joy. Her forehead was high, and though somewhat narrow, nevertheless gave evidence of considerable mental faculties; nor was the evidence false, for those who came to know Lady Mason well, were always ready to acknowledge that she was a woman of no ordinary power. Her eyes were large and well formed, but somewhat cold. Her nose was long and regular. Her mouth was also very regular, and her teeth perfectly beautiful; but her lips were straight and thin. It would sometimes seem that she was all teeth, and yet it was certain that she never made an effort to show them. The great fault of her face was her chin, which was too small and sharp, thus giving on occasions something of meanness to her countenance.”

Sir Joseph was at that time a widower approaching seventy – forty-five years Mary’s senior – and had a grown up family: a son, also Joseph, then aged about forty and three daughters. Nevertheless, he married the young Mary, much to the disgust of his children, and set up home with her at Orley Farm. The children of his first wife were even more perturbed when the couple had a child, Lucius.

Within a only a couple of years, old Sir Joseph Mason died, leaving Mary a widow in her mid-twenties. In the main body of her husband’s will, all his lands went to his eldest son, while Mary was adequately provided for but no provision was made for Lucius. However, in a codicil, Orley Farm was left to Lucius – contrary to what the eldest son Joseph had understood from his father would happen – and part of the money which was to have gone to Mary was now left to Miriam Usbech (the daughter of his solicitor).

Joseph Mason contested the will at the time but lost the case. Mary proved to be convincing when called upon to testify and won the case in spite of one of the witnesses to the will’s codicil being unable to give a coherent account of its preparation, signing and witnessing.

Mary then retired to a life of quiet widowhood and raised her son to be the owner of the farm when he reached age 21.

It should be stated at this point that Lady Mason forged the codicil.

Trollope made this clear some half way through the novel and in his Autobiography famously said of novel’s plot that therefore “it has the fault of declaring itself, and thus coming to an end too early in the book”. However, in saying this, he omits to mention that the tension in the book arises not out of knowing whether or not Lady Mason committed the forgery but whether or not she will be found out through the efforts of Mr Dockwrath or shielded from justice by Sir Peregrine Orme and the barrister Mr Chaffanbrass. Not incidentally, the reader is as a result also treated to a study in the effects of guilt on the conscience and peace of mind of an otherwise decent person, as Lady Mason suffers remorse – not for having done what she has for the benefit of her son (not herself) but for having to commit a sin to that end.

Looked at objectively, it seems somewhat mean of the aged father to make only “certain moderate provision for the infant, as he had already made moderate provision for his young wife”. Mary’s decision to defraud the elder son, who had already enjoyed possession for some time of the major part of Sir Joseph Mason’s land – the estates of Groby Park – related to only the comparatively much smaller Orley Farm. In this she was perhaps being not only fair but also wise, in as much as this would not be too significant a loss to the elder son and so might be a reasonable thing for the father to have done. Not for Mary the grandiose plots of Lizzie Eustace to make off with the fabulous diamond necklace family heirloom.

In executing her forgery, Mary certainly justified the views of those who thought her clever. She wrote out the codicil as she had written the will itself. She laid the groundwork beforehand – asking her husband before witnesses that he bequeath the farm to her son. In fairness, she almost certainly made these requests in the hope that he would indeed make such a change but she made good use later of these overheard conversations to corroborate her evidence that the codicil was genuine. It was, in many ways, the perfect crime – modest in scope rather than over-ambitious and supported by evidence from at least one reliable, independent source.

Having brought off her crime she then kept a suitably low profile. “Lady Mason had earned the respect of all those around her by the way in which she bore herself in the painful days of the trial, and also in those of her success…she showed no feeling of triumph; she never abused her husband’s relatives…and although, as I have said, many of her neighbours visited her, she did not lay herself out for society. She accepted and returned their attention, but for the most part deemed to be willing that the matter should so rest. The people around by degrees came to know her ways; thy spoke to her when they met her, and occasionally went through the ceremony of a morning call; but did not ask her to their tea-parties, and did not expect to see her at picnic and archery meetings.” How much of this was deliberate and how much the result of her own conscience at having pulled off her fraud is difficult to determine. I suspect there was a mix of calculation and guilt in her chosen mode of life.

At the time of the original court case, towards the end of the 1830s, Mary sought the support of Sir Peregrine Orme,  leading figure in the area. When it appears that the case will be re-opened, she turns to him once more. She flatters him by seeking his advice, as indeed she has done during the intervening years on matters pertaining to Lucius’s education but, as with his advice on the earlier matters, “she did not, consciously, attach any weight to Sir Peregrine’s opinion.” Indeed, she had so arranged things in the past that when she had asked for his advice about the choice of school, she had talked him round to her way of thinking in favour of a less well known private school so that “Sir Peregrine was sure that he had been so sent at his own advice.” Now, twenty years later in the late 1850s, she manipulates him when “What she wanted from Sir Peregrine was countenance and absolute assistance in the day of trouble – not advice.”

Clearly Mary understands Sir Peregrine and like his employees knows how to work him for her own ends. She is certainly capable of identifying clearly her own best interests and seeking to have others act in those interests. She attempted to persuade Miriam Usbeck, whom she had sweetened with the bequest in the forged codicil to her husband’s will, to destroy the paper’s which her father, Sir Joseph Mason’s legal adviser, had left when he died. No doubt she feared that some of the contents might reveal her forgery for what it was. But she did not risk overplaying her hand by attempting to force the issue and as a result the papers were left undisturbed. They would, eventually, come back to haunt her when Miriam’s husband, the shyster lawyer Mr Dockwrath, who had no love for Mary who he knew had tried to persuade Miriam to marry someone else rather than him, was spurred to re-examine them after his supposed mistreatment at the hands of Lucius Mason, who terminated the lease on some fields attached to Orley Farm of which Dockwrath was the tenant.

Yet, in spite of Trollope making clear to the reader that Mary can be determined to act to protect her own and her son’s interests and to do so in the subtle, indirect ways open to a woman rather than by the direct and open means more generally available to a man, he manages to retain our sympathies for her. He does this by showing the stress she undergoes.

After Sir Peregrine leaves her, “As soon as the door was closed behind him Lady Mason seated herself in her accustomed chair, and all trace of the smile vanished from her face. She was alone now, and could allow her countenance to be a true index of her mind. If such was the case her heart surely was very sad. She sat there perfectly still for nearly an hour, and during the whole of that time there was a look of agony on her brow. Once or twice she rubbed her hands across her forehead, brushing back her hair, and showing, had there been anyone by to see it, that there was many a grey lock there mixed with the brown hairs. Had there been anyone by, she would, it may be surmised, have been more careful.” This observation of the great stress under which she is acting now the second crisis has come upon her (indeed under which she has been acting all these years) is telling. Trollope means us to feel for her in her distress.

She was carried through the first great crisis by her youthful energy and determination to act in the interests of her baby son. We are told that “Sir Peregrine could not but remember as he looked at her during all those law proceedings, when an attack was made, not only on her income but on her honesty, she had never seemed to tremble. She had always been constant to herself, even when things had appeared to be going against her. But years passing over her head since that time had perhaps told upon her courage.” Her fortitude in the original court case is made to sound wholly admirable even though we later learn it was all built on a lie. And so her weakening now is made to appear both natural and to invite our sympathy.

It is intriguing to consider Mary’s relationships with both her husband – forty-five years her senior – and Sir Peregrine Orme – twenty-five years her senior – who proposes marriage to her when she is 47 and he is in his seventies. She turns the latter down, even though it might save her from further legal issues.

When talking to Sir Peregrine Orme of her first marriage she tells him, “I have known but little love. He – Sir Joseph – was my master rather than my husband. He was a good master, and I served him truly – except in that one thing. But I never loved him.”

Is she looking for a father figure rather than a flesh and blood husband? Does her own father’s premature ruin and death leave her in need of such a man in her life to replace him (arguably with a more solid foundation that might make him more reliable when her father had, in effect, let her down and failed to support her as he would have been expected to do). Given their ages, it is unlikely that either Sir Joseph Mason or Sir Peregrine Orme (had she married him) would have been sexually demanding. Her physical “duties” as a wife would not have been onerous. I wonder whether she feared sex and this was in part why she remained an unattached widow even though, as a financially secure twenty-something year old woman, she would have been a good catch for men of her own age and why she deliberately attached herself to older men.

Indeed, it is an intriguing facet of Lady Mason’s character that she is able to inspire the loyalty of not only Sir Peregrine but also of another older man, her lawyer Mr Furnival – a family man of fifty-five, whose wife is convinced that his devotion to Lady Mason’s cause has it its root an amorous attraction to his client – when we are told that “[i]t is impossible to conceive that a lady so staid in her manner should be guilty of flirting”. Yet Mr Furnival after an interview with her “and seeing that she wept, and seeing that she was beautiful, and feeling that in her grief and in her beauty she had come to him for aid, his heart was softened towards her, and he put out his arms as though he would take her to his heart – as a daughter. ‘Dearest friend,’ he said, ‘trust me that no harm shall come to you.’ ‘I will trust you, she said, gently stopping the motion of his arm.”

In spite of the explicit caveat that the lawyer’s feelings were paternal, the desire to hold her is there and we must remember that though “[s]he was now forty seven years of age, and had a son who had reached a man’s estate; and yet she had more of a woman’s beauty at this present time than when she stood at the alter with Sir Joseph Mason. The quietness and repose of her manner suited her years and her position; age had given fullness to her tall form.” In short she is a desirable woman and recognises this in herself so that she is ready to fend off the attempt to hold her. It is unasked for and, perhaps, physically discomforting to her – whether on the grounds of her personal sensibilities or purely on the grounds of social propriety – but she is sufficiently worldly to recognise that if handled with delicacy and tact that attraction may be turned to her purposes.

Of the men in her life, only her son does not give way to her influence. But then he is young and, being her son, not subjected by her to “the soft meekness about her, an air of feminine dependence, a proneness to lean and almost to cling as she leaned, which might have been felt as irresistible by any man.” He is fresh out of the private education and German University which his mother had selected for him. As is to be expected in a man of his age, he is sure of the rightness of his opinions, but holds to scientific principles and sets out with much energy to make a go of the business of running Orley Farm. In this he is very different from the typical young men who feature in many of Trollope’s novels. He is not distracted by the entertainments of hunting or horse-racing at which so many of Trollope’s young men seem to lose their money and get into debt. He is, in fact, remarkably steady and constant. And his moral compass seems to be set right. When he discovers he has inherited the farm through his mother’s forgery he at first refuses to believe this of her but, when convinced, after being temporarily unmanned by the enormity of the blow to his ambitions, does what can only be regarded as the decent and honest thing – he makes over the farm to his step-brother whose rightful title he has no wish to dispute once he knows the truth. Some commentators have criticised Lucius as a prig – though, given his father and elder step-brother might be similarly charged it is at least arguable that any priggishness he gets is inherited on his father’s side – but to me his actions throughout seem to reflect on a good, sound up-bringing by his mother. Trollope concludes that Lucius “will be stern [to his mother]…But he will not desert her; he will do his duty by her…In that respect he us a good young man…He is one of those who seem by nature created to bear adversity. No trouble or sorrow would I think crush him.” Of how few men can this be said. He is a credit to his mother and, that, to me indicates that she has been a good mother to him notwithstanding her attempts on his behalf to defraud his older brother of his rightful inheritance.

It is in a similar vein that Lady Mason, having at first accepted Sir Peregrine Orme’s offer of marriage – recognising with self-interest that it provided her with greater protection against the effects of the renewed legal case against her, subsequently broke off the engagement. She could not allow her past conduct, when raked up, to besmirch the good name of an honourable man who had always been steadfast in her cause. She therefore went to him and, when she had no other means to force him to agree to the end of their engagement, she confessed her guilt to him.

If the civil case which the young Lady Mason underwent in the 1830s proved she was a woman with a backbone, then the public humiliation of facing a criminal trial in her late forties proved too much for her spirit. Her conscience had been gnawing away at her for years and she finally gave way. Although she spoke out clearly to plead “Not Guilty” at the beginning of her trial she would not have been capable of testifying with the firmness she had done as a young mother and was not called as a witness in her own defence. Even though the jury finds her Not Guilty, she is convicted in the court of her own conscience and can stand the strain no longer. She tells Sir Peregrine, “I sometimes wonder at my own calmness. I wonder that I can live. But, believe me, that never for a moment do I forget what I have done. I would have poured out for [Lucius] my blood like water, if it would have served him; but instead of that I have given him cause to curse me till the day of his death. Though I still live, and eat, and sleep, I think of that always. The remembrance is never away from me. They bid those who repent put on sackcloth, and cover themselves with ashes. That is my sackcloth, and it is very sore. Those thoughts are ashes to me, and they are very bitter between my teeth.” She is indeed wracked with guilt but, it is as much for the ruin she believes she has brought down upon her son, for whose benefit the crime was committed, as for the relatively insignificant financial harm she did to his step-brother. Her life has been brought down by the excess of motherly love which led her to act in a way that she knew to be wrong. As she takes herself into voluntary exile, “her thoughts ran back over the whole course of her life. Early in her days, when the world was yet beginning to her, she had done one evil deed, and from that time up to those days of her trial she had been the victim of one incessant struggle to appear before the world as though the deed had not been done – to appear innocent of it before the world, but, beyond all things, innocent of it before her son. For twenty years she had striven with a labour that had been all but unendurable; and now she had failed”.

Trollope is, as ever, a compassionate author, forgiving of his creation’s weaknesses. He writes, “For Lady Mason let us hope that the day will come in which she also may once again trick her beams in some modest, unassuming way, and that for her the morning may even yet be sweet with a glad warmth.” His verdict on her is kinder than her own.






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