In The American Senator, Trollope, as he often does, tells the story of two separate women’s fortunes in love and matrimony. The stories are intended to provide a commentary on each other through the contrasting fortunes of the two characters – think of the Dormer sisters in Ayala’s Angel or Emily Trevelyan and her sister Nora Rowley in He Knew He Was Right. Here, Trollope apparently pitches the tale of the virginal true love of Mary Masters, waiting patiently for Reginald Morton to recognise her true worth and realise he loves her, in contrast to the calculating manoeuvrings of Arabella Trefoil to secure the best possible match for herself in terms of title and wealth without regard to considerations of love.
Yet, Trollope cannot bring himself to write characters whose sole function is to serve as a plot device. Thus, almost the first thing we learn about Arabella when we meet her on her arrival with her mother at the ancestral home of her new fiancé, John Morton, is, “Now she was, after a certain fashion, engaged to marry John Morton and perhaps she was one of the most unhappy persons in England.” We quickly learn also the reason for this feeling. “She had had many lovers, and had been engaged to not a few, and perhaps liked John Morton as well as any of them – except one…There had been a young man, of immense wealth, and of great rank, whom at the time she really had fancied that she had loved; but just as she was landing her prey, the prey had been rescued from her by powerful friends, and she had been all but broken-hearted.”
As the novel progresses, it is easy for the reader to watch Arabella’s machinations and focus on the heartlessness of her behaviour but to do so is to forget its origin. She has loved and lost. In those circumstances is it so surprising that she should be so coldly matter of fact about the business of her life – to get a husband with a title and money – which she is bound to do because her father had squandered the money which his wife, Arabella’s mother had brought to their marriage. She is a victim of circumstances and, rather than roll over and submit to fate, she puts on a brave face and goes out into the world to obtain her fortune the only way that a woman of her social position is able, through contracting an advantageous marriage.
Trollope, of course, cannot allow her to enjoy unalloyed success in this endeavour. To do so would run counter to the over-riding expectations of his readership who demanded that true love should triumph in a romantic finale while mercenary seekers after gain and position should be condemned to fall short of their goals.
Being a keen rider to hounds himself, Trollope uses the hunting metaphor liberally for Arabella’s efforts to find a husband. “She had hunted him as a fox is hunted.” A prospective husband is her “prey” (as above) and he is portrayed as a victim. I will not pursue the line of thought that fox are hunted (ostensibly) as vermin to be exterminated.
Yet for Arabella it is not so much a sport as a business and she goes about it in a thoroughly business-like manner with the aid of her mother as a her manager or agent. “She had long known that it was her duty to marry, and especially her duty to marry well. Between her and her mother there had been no reticence on this subject. With worldly people in general, though the worldliness is manifest enough and is taught by plain lessons from parents to their children, yet there is generally some thin veil even among themselves, some transparent tissue of lies, which, though they never quite hope to deceive each other, does produce among them something of the comfort of deceit. But between Lady Augustus and her daughter there had for many years been nothing of the kind.” Arabella is too much of a realist to pretend to herself she is anything that she is not or that her motives are pure.
When her mother, who instigated the pursuit of John Morton has second thoughts (based on his relatively ill-maintained house (which Arabella attributes correctly to the fact that as a diplomat on foreign postings it would be a waste of money to maintain it to a standard that would have been necessary had he been permanently resident) and his reluctance to fall in with her negotiations for financial security for her daughter (Arabella believes, again probably rightly, that she will be able to manage him sufficiently well after any marriage to obtain that security for herself), they bicker over the way the mother interferes.
“‘Arabella, I think you’d better make up your mind that it won’t do.’
‘It must do,’ said Arabella.
‘You’re very fond of him, it seems.’
‘Mamma, how you do delight to torture me – as if my life weren’t bad enough without you making it worse.'”
Trollope has the worldly mother actually taunt her daughter about the possibility that she might care for a prospective husband and Arabella rises to the bait. She goes on to say:
“I’ve been at it till I’m nearly broken down. I must settle somewhere – or else die – or else run away. I can’t stand this any longer, and I won’t.”
Arabella is evidently reaching the end of her tether with little appetite to continue the endless pursuit of a suitable match for herself. She sees it as her job, one that has occupied her for more than a decade, and it is one that depresses her immeasurably.
“‘Talk of work – men’s work! What man ever has to work as I do?’ I wonder [interjects Trollope in authorial mode] which was the hardest part of the work, the hairdressing and painting and companionship of the lady’s maid, or the continual smiling upon unmarried men to whom she had nothing to say and for whom she did not in the least care! ‘I can’t do it any more, and I won’t.'”
Perhaps Trollope was being ironic in characterising what Arabella’s work consisted in as he did. But I feel for anyone who must keep up appearances in social settings, as Arabella must, when their heart is not in it. I suspect Trollope, as he outlined her life, became more sympathetic to her plight if he was not already so inclined at the outset.
Trollope seems to portray Arabella’s mother in a particularly unflattering light – she is the Machiavellian schemer after the prospective husbands behind her daughter’s actions – but pays scant regard to the true fault in this lying at the door of her father. (Spendthrift fathers abound in Trollope’s novels placing demands on both sons and daughters that they must marry money with little criticism in return for having caused the situation in the first place. One is tempted to see echoes of Trollope’s own father’s financial crises in these shadowy figures who are never truly held to account for their failings – the sins of the fathers invariably tending to fall on the younger generation.) However, he does allow Lady Augustus to tell her daughter “My dear, I had no mother to take care of me, or I shouldn’t have married your father.” This all too brief explanation is, to me ample justification for the actions of Arabella’s mother. Even if at times she is misguided in her beliefs as to the best course of action, she is always actuated by a desire that her daughter’s future should be secured.
Arabella is, however, enticed into the fray once more by the prospect of Lord Rufford, whose £40,000 a year (the equivalent of an income now of some £3.25 million a year) is nearly six times the income of £7,000 a year (still a more than respectable £565,000 p.a.)which John Morton earns. Indeed, Arabella does see this now as a battle. Yet she “was sick of the dust of battle and conscious of fading strength.” As Margaret Markwick observes in Trollope and Women, “This changes the nature of the story. Images about hunting have themes of pleasure, excitement, exhilaration, the thrill of the chase. Trollope’s battle images are about danger, personal survival, exhausting effort.”
This is a courageous decision because Arabella is by 1875/6, when the story is set, already thirty and, unusually for the time, is older than her fiancé, John Morton, who is 27. As Dr Bruce Rosen (Honorary Research Associate in the School of History and Classics at the University of Tasmania) points out in his 2009 essay Coming Out, “For a marriageable young woman, the season was often the most important event of the year, for she knew that she had, at best, only two or three seasons in which to confirm her future through marriage. The first season would be her coming out [at or about age eighteen], but if she was not successful in the marriage race, she knew she still had one, or at most two, more seasons in which to find a mate.” Arabella has already endured a dozen years of failed attempts yet, with commendably business-like decisiveness, she calculates that she should run the risk of ignoring Madeline Neroni’s maxim with which she instructed Obadiah Slope some twenty five years earlier in Barchester Towers that “It’s gude to be off with the old love – Mr Slope – Before you are on with the new”. Looked at from her purely business perspective she is right to make the attempt – selling herself to the highest bidder – but, even though the engagement to John Morton is not yet a “done deal”, in romance this is frowned upon. “This – this was the kind of thing for which she had been striving. As a girl of spirit was it not worth her while to make another effort even though there might be danger?”
It is interesting to note that Arabella goes to great lengths to avoid travelling to Lord Rufford’s home, Rufford Hall, alone in a carriage with John Morton, citing “there are convenances” – social rules which preclude such impropriety but, when she wishes to snare Lord Rufford, she does precisely this with him, travelling back from a hunt alone with him in his carriage, so that those self-same rules may be used to her advantage. Lord Rufford indeed does take advantage of the opportunity recognising that this is what Arabella intends him to do but, to her consternation, refuses then to follow up and do the only honourable thing and make her an offer of marriage after what has taken place.
In fairness to Arabella, John Morton’s own commitment to their putative engagement seems somewhat lacking in discernible passion. When he observes her first steps in the campaign to snare Lord Rufford, which perforce must be taken under his very nose, “He was very angry – though he hardly knew why or with whom. A girl when she is engaged is not supposed to talk to no one but her recognised lover in a mixed party of ladies and gentlemen, and she is especially absolved from such a duty when they chance to meet in the house of a comparative stranger…It was impossible to say that she flirted with the man – and yet Morton felt neglected…[but] He thought that he could put an end to the engagement without breaking his heart.” He is peeved at being ignored but can make no stronger claim to grounds for his anger although he, like others present, may sense that Arabella is doing rather more than merely keeping her options open while her mother and her mother’s lawyers conduct negotiations on her behalf.
Trollope, of course, takes a very conventional view of the proper behaviour of ladies under these circumstances and would classify Arabella as a serial jilt, by her own admission, which is, in his eyes, an unforgiveable crime – one that he spends the novel Can You Forgive Her? (and the play based on the same plot, The Noble Jilt) exploring with a view to forcing the reader’s hand and having them concede yes, under certain circumstances, such as occur in the case of Alice Vavasor, an apparent jilt may be forgiven.
But Morton seems to have half an eye on the prospects that she will be an asset to him in his diplomatic career. She has, through much practice, become used to behaving in a manner that charms the men with whom she mixes and is, he observes, “handsome” which is also valuable in a diplomat’s wife.
Trollope, who must distinguish her from the virginal, young heroine type such as Mary Masters, to whom she provides the contrast in the novel, describes her as “a big, fair girl, whose copious hair was managed after such a fashion that no one could guess what was her own and what was purchased. She certainly had fine eyes, though I could never imagine how anyone could look at them and think it possible that she should be in love. They were very large, beautifully blue but never bright; and the eyebrows over them were perfect. Her cheeks were somewhat too long and the distance from her well-formed nose to her upper lip too great. Her mouth was small and her teeth excellent. But the charm of which men spoke the most was the brilliance of her complexion. Id, as ladies said, it was all paint, she, or her maid, must have been a great artist. It never betrayed itself to be paint. But the beauty on which she prided herself was the grace of her motion. Though she was tall and big she never allowed an awkward movement to escape her.”
Trollope’s emphasis on the artificiality of her looks and the artifice that contrives them is an indictment when compared with the modest simplicity which the virginal ideal demands.
He also makes fun of her in a way he rarely does with the females involved in genuine romances. When she comes down to breakfast prepared for a day’s hunting he puns outrageously, making the most of the scope for the double entendre, when he has her tell Lady Chiltern, who is married to Lord Chiltern a Master of Hounds obsessed with hunting matters, that “I do ride a little when I am well mounted.”
However, Arabella’s focus on the way she walks indicates the importance to her of rank and status because, as Emma McClendon, curator of the current exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York devoted to the use of corsetry in moulding the female form to conform with contemporary societal expectations, observes of Victorian women, “Being ensconced in stays created a uniquely rigid carriage. By mastering an elegant gait whilst constrained in such an uncomfortable garment was a sign of breeding.”
Indeed, as an aside here for a moment, when Trollope says that “No young woman could…manage a train with more perfect ease” he demonstrates that he (or perhaps his wife Rose, who proof read his drafts and was asked by Anthony to ensure accuracy on such matters) was up to the minute with ladies’ fashions – the 1870s had seen bustles with their accompanying trains replace vast crinolines as the fashionable shape for skirts. (I will refrain from expanding on this parallel with the 21st century obsession with a “big booty” as an ideal woman’s body shape.)
Arabella successfully strings Morton along with evasive replies to his increasingly terse letters until she can engineer the compromising scene alone in the carriage with Lord Rufford on the way back to her uncle the Duke of Mayfair’s family seat at Mistletoe after a day’s hunting. She has already taken advantage of an unfortunate accident that she has witnessed with Lord Rufford which left her “half-fainting” so that the Lord “put his hand round her waist to support her” and arranged an assignation in the conservatory where he again “got his arm around her waist”.
These incidents and flirtatious conversations were, Arabella realised, “evidently a joke to him, a pleasant joke no doubt.” He privately “picture[d] himself on the cliff with his sister holding his coat tails” and doubtless Arabella sensed this in him.
Finally, in the privacy of the carriage she allowed him to kiss her. Then, as modesty required, she demanded, “‘Lord Rufford, what does this mean?’ ‘Don’t you know what it means?’ “Hardly.’ ‘It means that I think you the jolliest girl out.'”
This bantering tone continues as she says, “‘No – no. I will not have it. I have allowed too much to you already. Oh, I am so tired.’ Then she sank back almost into his arms – but recovered herself very quickly. ‘Lord Rufford, if you are a man of honour let there be an end of this. I am sure you do not wish to make me wretched.’ ‘I would do anything to make you happy.’ ‘Then tell me that you love me honestly, sincerely, with all your heart – and I shall be happy.’ ‘You know I do.’ ‘Do you? Do you?’ she said, and then she flung herself onto his shoulder, and for a while seemed to faint. For a few minutes she lay there, and as she was lying she calculated whether it would be better to try this moment to drive him to some clearer declaration, or to make use of what he had already said without giving him an opportunity of protesting that he had not meant to make her an offer of marriage…She was conscious, but hardly more than conscious, that he was kissing her – and yet her brain was at work. She felt that he would be startled, repelled, perhaps disgusted, were she absolutely to demand more from him now.”
Trollope is clearly of the view that Arabella is wrong to allow – nay encourage – Lord Rufford to take such liberties – viewing them as a snare to entrap him into an engagement. A 21st century reader might take the view that there is a significant power imbalance here – Arabella, as a woman, is ultimately dependent upon achieving marriage to some man and is effectively destitute if she fails to do so; whereas Lord Rufford is an unattached man with adequate means to indulge his every whim. Under such circumstances, to modern eyes, does Arabella have much choice in the matter? She must submit to the 19th century equivalent of the casting couch if she is to have a chance of securing her future career as a wife of a suitably rich and titled man. Trollope implies criticism of her because she can be kissed without passionate personal engagement in that kiss (as would be the case if she were properly in love with a man whom she allowed to kiss her). Her detachment indicates grounds for censure. To me it indicates she accepts this is an inevitable chore she must go through with a powerful man who feels entitled to take his pleasures from her compliant body (albeit there is no suggestion that he goes further than “petting” but to a prudish Victorian Society that is – to use the familiar baseball analogy – getting a long way past first base) with, she suspects, and we, the readers, from the insights we have been given into his state of mind, are certain, no intentions of doing the “decent thing” and marrying her unless she can absolutely force the issue by whatever means she is able to exploit afterwards.
Of course, Lord Rufford was trying to have his way without “paying the price”, as Arabella feared, and she has to resort to increasingly desperate measures to try to force him to marry her. To this end she galvanises the male members of her family into action on her behalf but to little avail. Lord Rufford stands firm and will not marry her.
During this period we are presented with another, hitherto unseen, facet of Arabella’s character. When John Morton is taken dangerously ill, he asks her to come to him, and, against her mother’s advice she does indeed go to Bragton. When her mother, who has previously told Arabella she is “the most ungrateful, hard-hearted creature that ever lived”, argues against this intention, Arabella responds, “I am heartless. I know that. But you are ten times worse. Think how I have treated him.” When she is there she reflects, “It was not the purport of her present visit to strengthen her position by making certain of the man’s hand should he live. When she said that she was not yet as hard-hearted as her mother, she spoke the truth. Something of regret, something of penitence, had at times crept over her in reference to her conduct to the man.” Faced with very real evidence of his (and by inference her own) mortality, she proves herself to have finer qualities. She admits the whole sorry tale to Morton, realising it will end any prospects of his being her safety net in the event that her tilt at Lord Rufford fails. Trollope, as ever, cannot bring himself to leave a character as a two dimensional caricature to suit a role required for his novel’s plot. He allows her to become a three dimensional character with light and shade, positive attributes as well as her failings. It is a remarkable episode in the novel. She tells her mother, “I do feel a little ashamed of myself when I am almost crying for him…I do own that it is foolish. Having listened to you on these subjects for a dozen years at least I ought to have got rid of all that.”
This insight she gains into herself then fuels her resolve when Lord Rufford, at the instigation of her mother, finally insults her by offering her £8,000 to buy her off. She responds to his lawyer’s offer saying, “I scorn your money. I cannot think where you found the audacity to make such a proposal, or how you have taught yourself to imagine I should listen to it.” She demands a face to face meeting and declares to Mounser Green who says, “I fear you are intending something rash” as she sets off to confront Lord Rufford, “Of course I am. How could it be otherwise with me? Don’t you think there are turns in a person’s life when she must do something rash.”
I sense it is at this point that Arabella, by throwing caution to the wind, becomes true to herself and, in so doing, becomes attractive to Mounser Green.
As she travels to Rufford she thinks, “Face to face she would tell him that he was a liar and a slanderer and no gentleman, though she should have to run round the world to catch him.” It is perhaps worth noting that although he is guilty of the third of these charges, and perhaps the second, he is, in truth, innocent of the first charge with which she mentally accuses him. When she does confront him with her scorn in his own grounds, “There was a moment in which he thought it was almost a pity that he had not married her. She was very beautiful in her present form – more beautiful, he thought, than ever.” Later he recalled her actions saying “She’s the pluckiest girl I ever came across in my life.”
The irony is not lost on the reader. Arabella has buried her true self under a façade which was designed to catch a mate, keeping her emotions in check in an effort to protect herself against hurt, when all along, had she revealed her natural passion she might have had one for the taking.
One, perhaps inevitable casualty of Arabella’s re-assessment of her values is her relationship with her mother which breaks down in acrimony. Arabella, of course, does not reflect, as her mother tells her, “I am willing to do everything for you, as I have always done – for so many years”, that her mother genuinely has Arabella’s best interests at heart but in guiding her she has been herself led to advise the courses of action she has by her own bitter experience at the hands of her husband. She had come to him with a decent fortune which he proceeded to squander and she wished to protect her daughter against this fate.
Another consequence is that she finds herself the object of attentions from Mounser Green, a civil servant who would have been beneath her contempt had she succeeded in her plans to secure Lord Rufford but who appears to be willing to take her as she is, even knowing her history (or at least the most recent parts). Indeed, he says nothing when she puts a somewhat biased spin on the events as she describes them though he knows it to be untrue. His view is that “it is not to be expected that a girl, before her marriage, should be exactly true about her old loves”, which is an exceedingly charitable interpretation. One thing which she does tell him truthfully is that Morton has left her £5,000 in his will. Mounser takes this as an indication that Morton cannot have regarded her treatment of him as too bad if he left her such a legacy, which encourages him in his intention to marry her.
Trollope also notes that the sum will handily pay off Mounser’s debts so that Arabella’s saviour is not an unalloyed saint. Indeed, he has the cheek to suggest that she ask her aunt and uncle if they may be married from their home at Mistletoe, recognising that this will show the couple in an advantageous light to society at large. Arabella who is used to more circuitous approaches is appalled at this effrontery but Mounser has his way and proves to be correct in his judgment that they will succeed. He is, it appears, more savvy than Arabella and there is no doubt who will wear the trousers in this relationship (contrary to the expectations the reader must have had for any other possible relationship into which Arabella would enter) – she even consults him about whether to accept a diamond ring from Lord Rufford as a wedding present. (For the record, Mounser says yes she should).
Mounser has taken up the appointment in Patagonia which had been destined for John Morton prior to his fatal illness and so, when she becomes engaged to him, Arabella is knowingly accepting that she will accompany him to this remote place which had seemed so dreadful and such a mark against Morton when he had been a prospective husband. Such is the change that has come over her.
After they were married and were about to embark for Patagonia, Mounser “preached her a sermon, expressing a hope, as he went on, that as she was leaving the pleasures of life behind her, she would learn to like the work of life. ‘I have found the pleasures very hard.’ she said…She, as she listened to him, was almost stunned by the change in the world around her. She need never again seem to be gay in order that men might be attracted. She made her promises and made them with the intention of keeping them; but it may, we fear, be doubted whether he was justified in expecting that he could get a wife fit for his purpose out of the school in which Arabella Trefoil had been educated.”
Trollope, evidently, felt unable to be optimistic about their prospects of happiness, but I am more sanguine. Arabella has ever been a realist. When realism demanded a heartless endeavour to snare a husband, that was what she did. Her realism, when presented with a requirement to be a good hostess and wife of a rising star in the diplomatic service of the Foreign Office, would prevail. I therefore see no reason to suppose that she would shirk the task – especially in her new found honesty and openness with a man who is strong-willed and worldly-wise enough to see that by making her his partner in life he might well bring out the best in her.
Arabella is one of Trollope’s complex characters. Her superficial insincerity would make her unattractive as a character with whom readers might struggle to sympathise but Trollope never leaves a character as a mere projection of a Type required for the form of the plot. He adds depth – he can’t help himself, his characters are too real to him and write their own back-stories and flesh themselves out almost of their own accord to satisfy his demands of himself to present the world and those who populate it as realistically as he can – and thereby creates another fully developed character with unexpected hidden resources that had not been tapped by her life hitherto.