Found, unfinished painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865).
When Trollope wrote The Vicar of Bullhampton in 1869, he felt constrained to write, for the only time in his career, a preface to the novel to justify the inclusion of the character Carry Brattle in which he explained that “There arises, of course, the question whether a novelist, who professes to write for the amusement of the young of both sexes, should allow himself to bring upon his stage such a character as that of Carry Brattle. It is not long since – it is well within the memory of the author – that the very existence of such a condition of life, as was hers, was supposed to be unknown to our sisters and daughters, and was, in truth, unknown to many of them. Whether that ignorance was good may be questioned; but that it exists no longer is beyond question.”
By including Carry in his novel, Trollope was joining a trend in literature and art, which gave rise, for example, to Rossetti’s unfinished painting Found of 1865, showing the scene when a countryman discovers his former sweetheart, now a degraded prostitute, in the city. These depictions reflected heightened concerns in society generally about the issue of prostitution and what might be done about it. In writing of her though, it seems that all his daring went into the very fact of her inclusion at all, leaving none for the creation of the type of rounded, three-dimensional female character which he gave to the respectable ladies of the middle and upper classes about whom he wrote with such insight. Carry, unfortunately, remains a thin caricature by comparison who conforms to conventional stereotypes of the “fallen woman” who is desperate in her anguish and repentance of that fall and we learn little of her time as a prostitute.
Carry is the youngest daughter (one of six children still living of the twelve or fourteen born) of the miller Jacob Brattle in the small town of Bullhampton in the middle of vast countryside of Wiltshire. “Of all the flock Carry had been her father’s darling. She had not been brown or hard-visaged [like her older sister Fanny, still living at home]. She was such a morsel of fruit as men do choose, when allowed to range and pick through the whole length of the garden wall. Fair she had been, with laughing eyes, and floating curls; strong in health, generous in temper, though now and again with something of her father’s humour. To her mother’s eye she had never been as sweet as Fanny; but to her father she had been as bright and beautiful as the harvest moon. Now she was a thing, somewhere, never to be mentioned! Any man who would have named her to her father’s ears would have encountered instantly the force of his wrath. This was so well known in Bullhampton that there was not one who would dare to suggest to him even that she might be saved. But her mother prayed for her daily, and her father thought of her always. It was a great lump upon him, which he must bear to his grave, and for which there could be no release.”
We learn that the old miller, who was at the time of the story, over age sixty five “had beaten a miscreant to death’s door – that he, with his old hands, had nearly torn the wretch limb from limb – that he had left him all but lifeless, and had walked off scatheless, nobody daring to put a finger on him[.] The man had been pieced up by some doctor, and was away in Asia, in Africa, in America – soldiering somewhere. He had been a lieutenant in those days, and was probably a lieutenant still.”
It is a conventional fall. Carry has been in love with a man who abandoned her after he lost interest – by implication, once she had lost her virginity with him. Her father has thrown her out because she was no longer decent or fit, by the double standards of the day, to remain in a respectable household.
Trollope scarcely mentions Carry’s time in London. He puts in the mouth of her sanctimonious sister-in-law, the wife of her older brother George Brattle, a conventional summary of the life of a “fallen woman” from the perspective of a respectable woman: “Such as her don’t starve. As long as it lasts, they’ve the best of eating and drinking – only too much of it. There’s prisons. Let ’em go there if they means repentance. But they never does – never, till there ain’t nobody to notice ’em any longer; and by that time they’re mostly thieves and pickpockets.”
It is perhaps germane, therefore, to refer to other sources* to give some indication of the type of life she might have led. It is estimated that there were in excess of 80,000 prostitutes working, whether full-time, part-time or occasionally, in London. Then, as now, there were gradations in the type of prostitution in which women might become involved. For the higher class prostitute with a rich clientele – or indeed a single client who supported her – it would be possible to maintain a lifestyle, when not working, not dissimilar to that of the middle class women of the time (albeit she would never be accepted into their company). Other women supplemented their incomes from other sources and operated independently, able to be more selective about their clients and when and where they worked – which may have been in their own apartments. It is unlikely, however, that Carry, a relatively uneducated country girl, would have been either of these. She would almost certainly have been in the lowest, most desperate class, who comprised the majority of prostitutes, working for a pimp, who would take half or more of her earnings, and sleeping with whoever the pimp required her to go with. She might have been working on the streets or in a brothel.
Trollope describes how this lifestyle affected her when the vicar, Frank Fenwick, tracks her down to the small cottage off the Devizes road (some twenty miles from her home in Bullhampton) to which she has returned in an effort to leave the life of prostitution behind.
“She was a poor, sickly-looking thing now, but there were the remains of great beauty in the face – or rather, the presence of beauty, but of beauty obscured by flushes of riotous living and periods of want, by ill-health, harsh usage, and, worst of all, by the sharp agonies of an intermittent conscience. It was a pale, gentle face, on which there were still streaks of pink – a soft, laughing face it had been once, and still there was a gleam of light in the eyes that told of past merriment, and almost promised of mirth to come, if only some great evil might be cured. Her long flaxen curls still hung down her face, but they were larger, and as Fenwick thought, more tawdry than of yore; and her cheeks were thin, and her eyes were hollow; and then there had come across her mouth that look of boldness which the use of bad, sharp words, half wicked and half witty, will always give. …And yet, though vice had laid its heavy hand upon her, the glory and the brightness had not altogether departed from her. Though her mouth was bold, her eyes were soft and womanly”.
Carry at this time regards herself in the terms that society regards “fallen women”. She says to the vicar when he meets her and attempts to shake her hand, “I ain’t fit for the likes of you to touch”. She then repeated says that she would be better dead. “I have just got one thing to do, and that’s all…To die and have done with it…I know I’d drown myself in the mill-stream. I wish I had. I wish it was done. I’ve seed an old poem in which they thought much of a poor girl after she was drowned, though nobody wouldn’t think nothing at all about her before.”
She is also understandably fearful of facing her father. “Father would kill me…I wouldn’t dare to stand before his eye for a minute. The sound of his voice would kill me straight.” This is perhaps more significant if taken in the context of the vicar also confessing to his wife, “he is the only person in the world of whom I believe myself afraid” and the miller’s wife who says of her husband, “He’s very good; to me he’s ever been good as gold. But…he is so hard.” When his wife summons up the courage to attempt to visit her daughter, she does so by subterfuge without her husband’s knowledge. This indicates to me that Jacob Brattle is a domineering husband and father, even by the standards of the time, which were admittedly very different from our own.
This is important because Brattle tells the vicar that he has marred the upbringing of his son by making him a favourite. “The lad’d have been well enough if other folks would have let him be…If nobody hadn’t a meddled with the lad, he’d a been a good lad. But they did, and he ain’t.” The vicar also took an interest in Carry, and when they meet he tells her, “Do you remember how we loved you when you were young, Carry? Do you remember my wife and how you used to come and play with the children on the lawn? Do you remember, Carry, where you sat in church, and the singing, and what trouble we had together with the chaunts?” The implication of Brattle’s argument is that, whatever his motives, good or bad, (and some readers have identified the relationship of the vicar with the teenage Sam Brattle as sexual grooming) the vicar’s interference has in effect turned the heads of his two youngest children and is the cause of their both going astray. However, while it must be admitted that the vicar’s position in nineteenth century rural England was of much greater influence than his equivalent now, this is a disingenuous and self-serving line of argument for their father to take. Effectively he is abdicating responsibility for how they have turned out. I think that for both of them, as relatively sensitive and cultured youngsters, especially in contrast to the old miller, their father’s baleful influence cannot be discounted in how they grew up, ultimately rebelling against his power and authority, each in the ways available to them. Surely their relationship with their father, the state of fear in which he kept his family by the prospect of his outbursts of wrath, would be more significant in their development than the vicar who only came into the parish six years previously when both were in their late teens.
When she meets the vicar at the cottage of Mrs Burrows, she has become accustomed to providing the police – authority figures like her father – with evasive answers when they ask her about her brother’s whereabouts. At first she is similarly evasive with the vicar until reassured that he believes her brother innocent and is not seeking to track him down. Then she reveals to the vicar the strain of maintaining this front to the police, telling him, “Ain’t the police coming here after me a’most every day? And when they hauls about the place, and me too, what can I say to ’em? I have got so low that a’most everybody can say what they please to me.”
In fact, Carry is able, through her position as an outsider to exercise a greater degree of self-determination than a woman subject to the normal boundaries of society. She decides that she should no longer stay at the home of Mrs Burrows, mother of John Burrows, known as “The Grinder”, having spent some time there apparently under the name of Mrs Burrows though when asked about this by the vicar she denies living in sin with him. In fact, she has previously been attached to Burrows’s companion in crime, Lawrence Acorn – they had been engaged, she said, but never married. She decides to return to London but not to the life of prostitution and so she finds herself short of money.
Persuaded by her brother Sam, she returns to the West Country, staying in Salisbury. The vicar supports her there. He contemplates sending her to a reformatory but knows these places are run along very harsh lines which will be a cruelty to the young woman.
However, the life in Salisbury is very oppressive for Carry and when she is summoned to appear in court to give evidence, she once again takes back control of her life and runs away. This time, however, she does not return to London – knowing that would be “going to the devil at once” – but decides to walk to Bullhampton to see her old home at the mill, perhaps, she thinks, for the last time. Trollope, with great insight, recognises that under the circumstances, the young woman is more likely to be concerned with her immediate wants than the longer term. “Carry Brattle had already become accustomed to misery, and as she walked she thought more of the wretchedness of the present hour, of her weary feet, of her hunger, and of the nature of the rest which she might purchase for herself at some poor wayside inn, than she did of her future life.”
However, when she reaches the mill after dark, almost on impulse, on seeing her mother and sister alone she makes herself known to them. This action, braving the risk of being seen by her father who, Carry persists in thinking will kill her, serves as the catalyst for action on the part of her sister, primarily, but also her mother, to have Carry back with her family in the mill house and to face down the wrath of her father. Thus, Carry inadvertently sets in train a sequence of events which shifts the balance of power within the family so that the father, while still the undisputed master of the household, is gradually brought round to the daughter Fanny and his wife’s point of view.
At first reluctantly he allows Carry to stay, treating her almost like a servant, but when confronted by the local constable who is seeking Carry to force her to attend the court as a witness against Burrows and Acorn, the old miller refuses him entry to protect his daughter. So we see him gradually coming round – although he continues to avoid speaking to Carry so that she despairs and again talks of throwing herself in the mill-stream to relieve the family of the burden she has become to them – while Carry rehabilitates herself step by step in the community, attending church with her sister Fanny albeit that she feels terribly exposed to the public gaze while doing so and wears a thick veil.
However, it is only when Carry attends the court in Salisbury that her father finally relents completely and talks to her as his daughter, telling her “Child, …I will forgive thee, and trust thou may’st be a better girl than thou hast been.” even addressing her by her name.
Carry finds the process of giving evidence at the trial an ordeal and can barely speak to answer the questions put to her as a witness. The defence counsel seeks to discredit her by referring to her bad character but the sympathy of the court is with her as she is so obviously distressed by this line of cross-examination. Describing it afterwards to her sister, Carry said, “They asked me if I was bad…and I thought I should a’ died, and I never answered them a word – and at last they let me go.” But the jury believed her evidence and Burrows, the Grinder, was convicted of the murder.
Once this is done, Trollope then allows Carry to pass into obscurity. We are told that she remains at the mill with her father, mother and sister Fanny and that neither of them marry. Evidently, Trollope did not feel it was politic to give Carry a happier ending, with marriage and children as the reward for her reform.
In his Autobiography, Trollope writes that the entire novel “was written chiefly with the object of exciting not only pity but sympathy for a fallen woman, and of raising a feeling of forgiveness for such in the minds of other women. I could not venture to make this female the heroine of my story. To have made her a heroine at all would have been directly opposed to my purpose. It was necessary therefore that she should be a second rate personage in the tale; but it was with reference to her life that the tale was written, and the hero and heroine with all their belongings are all subordinate.”
Another writer, in another genre, might have felt less constrained by the requirements of not stepping too far outside the expectations of his audience. Trollope’s contemporary Wilkie Collins wrote the more sensational, gothic melodrama The New Magdalen in 1873 (as has been noted already, it was a popular theme at the time) in which he not only allowed the fallen woman to be the central character but even allowed her to be so rehabilitated at the conclusion that she married the clergyman with whom she has fallen in love.
By this stage in his career, Trollope was very well established and successful. Financially he was secure. He had already begun to experiment with more difficult subjects in He Knew He Was Right and The Vicar of Bullhampton continues in this vein but by his decision to focus elsewhere for his heroine, and relegating the potentially more interesting character of Carry to a secondary story-line, he does not give himself space to develop her character fully. She has a constant refrain of wishing she were drowned that is not substantiated by supporting developments in her characterisation. She certainly does gain the sympathy of the reader, in this Trollope succeeds, but there is insufficient depth to sustain that interest in her as Trollope might have done had he gone about his task differently – perhaps with the courage of his convictions that Wilkie Collins displayed.
*William Acton M.R.C.S., Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects (second edition 1870)