Illustration of Euphemia Smith, “Have you observed that woman in the brown straw hat?”, by Francis Mosley in the Folio Society edition of John Caldigate.
Euphemia Smith is one of Trollope’s most problematic female characters. She appears in his 1879 novel John Caldigate but, in spite of being a key character in that novel, her actual appearances are restricted to a mere ten of the book’s 64 chapters. Indeed, her character, apparently, undergoes one of the most remarkable and complete changes of any of Trollope’s characters – even those who feature across several novels in the Barchester or political series – during the course of the novel, yet this development takes place largely “off-stage” and is only described in retrospect by those who have witnessed it: John Caldigate himself and his friend Dick Shand.
Trollope does not give us his usual insights into the thoughts and inner-life of Euphemia as he invariably does for the main characters of his novels. We are, therefore, kept very much at arm’s length from her. One possible explanation for this unique approach in her case might be that Trollope himself did not feel, as he normally did, that he knew Euphemia as he ordinarily knew his characters – inside out, almost as friends.
Euphemia, unlike most of Trollope’s other principal female characters is not obviously and demonstrably a nice, middle-class (or higher) lady. Indeed, she is arguably his only out and out criminal woman. Winifred Hurtle in The Way We Live Now might (or might not) have shot a husband in her murky past in the United States but, if she did so, we are led to suppose he might well have deserved it; and Lizzie Eustace, though she lies without hesitation, does put forward a claim, however dubious, to ownership of The Eustace Diamonds when she makes off with them.
We first meet Euphemia in the four chapters which describe the outward voyage to Australia, aboard the aptly named ship the Goldfinder, of the novel’s protagonist (I hesitate to call him the hero given his somewhat questionable behaviour) John Caldigate. She is described by Dick Shand as “a mystery, and mysteries are always worth unravelling.” She appears somewhat down on her luck. “She was a remarkable woman, and certainly looked to be better than her gown.” Caldigate had been intrigued by her so that “he had enquired, and a female fellow-passenger had informed him that she was a Mrs Smith – that she had seen better days, but had been married to a ne’er-do-well husband, who had drunk himself to death within a year of their marriage, and that she was now going out to the colony, probably – so the old woman said who was the informant – in search of a second husband. She was to some extent, the old lady said, in charge of a distant relative, who was then on board, with a respectable husband and children, and who was very much ashamed of her poor connection.” It would appear from this that Mrs Smith was from a lower middle class family but had married beneath her.
At this point, Euphemia is portrayed sensitively and the reader is encouraged to empathise with her. She has evidently suffered in her past life for she says, “‘I should like ship-life well enough,’ she had said, in answer to some ordinary question, ‘if it led to nothing else…There is plenty to eat, and a bed to sleep on, and no-one to be afraid of. And though nobody knows me, everybody knows enough of me not to think that I ought to be taken to a police officer because I have not gloves on my hands.'” This reply suggests that she has known a time when she has lacked sufficient to eat and has not known where she will be able to sleep and that she has had reason to be afraid of someone. It is never made clear but the possibility that this might be the drunken husband is evident.
Margerat Markwick in her book, Trollope and Women, suggests that the reference to failure to conform to society’s expectations by even so simple an omission as not wearing gloves, might lead to the conclusion that a woman is a prostitute with the consequent risk for a woman of being arrested by the police under the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. There is no suggestion at this point that Euphemia has worked as a prostitute but her comment indicates a familiarity with the lower class world where this was a possibility.
In fact, Euphemia is so unhappy that she goes on to say, “Everything is wearisome; but here I have the proud feeling of having paid my way. To have settled in advance for your dinner for six weeks to come is a magnificent thing. If I get too tired of it I can throw myself overboard. You can’t even do that in London without the police being down upon you. The only horror to me here is that there will so soon be an end to it.” This suggests that her despair has led her to the brink of suicide as an escape and to having encountered the police, something which a nice middle class lady would be most unlikely to have done, perhaps while loitering on a bridge over the Thames, contemplating throwing herself off into the river.
Evidently she has come down in the world, for Caldigate notes that she speaks very well. “It was a very pleasant voice, low, but distinct and silvery, infinitely better again than the gown; a voice so distinct and well-managed that it would have been noticed for its peculiar sweetness if coming from any high-bred lady.” Nevertheless, in the rigidly hierarchical structure of Victorian society, she is not of the same class as Caldigate and the Captain of the Goldfinder warns him against her, saying, “‘I wish, Mr Caldigate, I could invite you and your friends to come astern among us sometimes, but it would be contrary to the rule…You are doing a bit of roughing – no doubt for the sake of experience…You find yourself among some queer fellow-passengers, I dare say, Mr Caldigate…But one has to be careful. The women are the most dangerous.'” It is evident that while Caldigate and Shand are recognised as not being of the usual class of the second-class passengers they are not regarded with the same suspicion as a woman who is equally evidently a misfit among the same passengers. Indeed, later Trollope records that “On one or two occasions the stern law of the vessel had been broken; and he had been absolutely invited to sit on those august after-benches. He was known to be a gentleman”. In contrast, as Euphemia herself notes to Caldigate, “a woman of whom nobody knows anything is always held to be disreputable.”
The first class passengers regard with “horror” the possibility “that [Caldigate] should allow himself to be enticed into difficulties by such a creature as that Mrs Smith.” This reaction is contrasted with the insights Trollope gives us into the growing relationship between Euphemia and Caldigate where she behaves with complete propriety. We, as readers, are invited to consider whether she is genuinely as she purports to be when talking with Caldigate, or if this is some cunning ploy to entice him on by behaving so well. Is her’s an act of double bluff?
From the very outset we have been warned of her “woman’s wiles” and she tells Caldigate as little as possible of her background only “that she had gone on the stage in opposition to her friends – that she had married an actor, who had treated her with great cruelty – and that he had died of drink. And with each of these stories there had been an accompaniment of mystery. She had not told him her maiden name, nor what had been the condition of her parents, nor whether they were living, nor at what theatres she and her husband had acted, nor when he had died. She had expressed a hope that she might get an engagement in the colonies but she had not spoken of any recommendation or letters of introduction.” All of which are clear warning signals to any gentleman of the period but Caldigate persists. Whether he does so out of chivalry or to prolong an enjoyable dalliance is not clear. His motives are perhaps mixed.
If, however, she is out to entrap him, as the passengers in first class and the captain think, then she does indeed adopt a high risk strategy. She says to Caldigate at the end of the voyage, “‘What shall I be doing this time tomorrow?…I have not told you, because I would not have you bothered with me when I land. You have enough on your own hands; and if I were to burden you now it might be a serious trouble…I do think Dick Shand is dangerous [to Caldigate’s plans]…but I should be worse…What would I do? What could I do?’ Then there was a pause. ‘Perhaps I should want you to – marry me, which would be worse than Dick Shand’s drinking…I often wonder that any man is ever fool enough to marry…I think men only marry when they are caught. Women are prehensile things, which have to cling to something for nourishment and support. When I come across such a one as you I naturally put out my feelers.'” This last phrase will, of course, remind close readers of Trollope of his description of Eleanor Bold in Barchester Towers as one who would “cling to her husband…with the perfect tenacity of ivy. As the parasite plant…” It is a Trollopian warning, perhaps, but also a reflection of Trollope’s view, justified in the context of Victorian society, that the woman is perforce bound to share in the fortunes of her husband, for better or for worse.
This mix of candour and enticement may be calculated to entrap Caldigate whose situation Trollope describes as “It is like riding at a fence. When you have once set your horse at it you must go on, however impracticable it may appear as you draw close to it.” But it is equally an opening through which Caldigate may escape from the flirtation in which he has indulged with this woman who is beneath him in the social strata with his honour and self-esteem intact. However, perhaps as Euphemia has judged he would, he persists and asks her to marry him.
Thus we are set up for the unfolding of the plot of the remainder of the novel.
It is significant that, having apparently ensnared Caldigate, Euphemia makes no attempt to hold him to his promise when they disembark from the ship. As they say goodbye on the final night she tells him. “And now remember this; my address will be, Post Office, Melbourne. It will be for you to write to me. You will not hear from me unless you do.” The following day “There were still four hours before the ship lay at her moorings; but during all that time Mrs Smith was not seen by Caldigate.” If she is relying on the possibility of absence making the heart grow fonder then she is playing that hand to the hilt.
It is notable that Trollope throughout these chapters does not provide the detailed physical description of her that he normally provides of his female characters. I am led to speculate that this may be perhaps because he cannot himself picture her as clearly as he does usually and this may, in itself, give an indication that Trollope was himself troubled at how to portray the woman he needed her to be, or at least become, for the purposes of his plot.
She is described as “ill-dressed, untidy, almost unkempt on occasions, still, through it all, there was something attractive about her. There was a brightness in her eye, and a courage about her mouth…she was very comely. And this was the more remarkable because it seemed to him to be so evident that she made the worst rather than the best of herself.” This suggests that she is deliberately trying to fade into the background and avoid attention rather than the reverse, though this very stance seems to have been part of what actually draws the attention of Caldigate and Shand to her as well as “many young men round her”. Again we are called upon as readers to decide. Is this a deliberate strategy on her part, seeking attention by apparently shunning it, or is she wishing to avoid male attention having been abused in the past?
At this point in the novel, “She was quite a young woman – probably [Caldigate] thought, not more than three or four and twenty.” This makes her a little older than Caldigate – she was probably born around 1850 – and, given what little we can glean of her history, more worldly wise. But this is of itself no grounds to attribute ulterior motives to her behaviour during the voyage. Her past experiences could equally lead her to prefer to keep a low profile rather than risk further damage through being associated with a man to whom she is not married.
It would seem fair to give Euphemia the benefit of the doubt at this point as she does indeed make her own way in Australia. She undoubtedly has courage in doing so. She had already told Caldigate that when her distant relative told her to behave with greater propriety, “I told her to mind her own business. I had no alternative. A woman has to show a little spirit or she will be trodden absolutely into the dirt.” And she is sufficiently worldly to recognise that in putting on her one woman show under the name Mademoiselle Cettini, “If I called myself Mrs Smith nobody would come and see me. If I called myself Madame Cettini, not nearly so many would come. You have got to inculcate into the minds of the people an idea that a pure young girl is going to jump about for their diversion. They know it isn’t so. But there must be the flavour of the idea. It isn’t nice, but one has to live.” In her show, Euphemia would “Sing a certain number of songs, and dance a certain number of dances, and perform a certain number of tableaux”. These tableaux typically involved women posing – either nude or wearing very little – during which, to avoid the censoring wrath of the Lord Chamberlain (who was responsible for maintaining public decency in theatres), they must remain motionless. In Caldigate’s opinion, when he hears of it far away in the gold mines, “Nothing could be worse – unless it might be of service to him to know that she was earning her bread, and therefore not in distress, and earning it after a fashion of which he would be at liberty to express his disapproval.”
Nevertheless, he goes to Sydney to seek her out. It is notable that she has moved on from Melbourne without informing him thereby lending further weight to my contention that she had written Caldigate off at this point as having been simply amusing himself with her and considered him to be another example of a man who had used or abused her and left her when it no longer suited him to do so.
Euphemia, when she meets Caldigate in Sydney is unashamed of her way of making a living and invites him to watch her show. When they first meet she embraces him and Trollope observes that “If a lady may not call the man to whom she is engaged her love and her darling, what proper use can there be for such words? And into whose arms is she to jump, if not into his?” However, “there was not a word said the whole day as to their future combined prospects. Nor was there any more outspoken allusion to loves and darlings, or any repetition of that throwing herself into his arms. For once it was natural. If she were to be wanted thus again, the action must be his – not hers. She was clever enough to know that.”
Evidently Trollope now wishes to remind us that Euphemia is an actress and may, to some extent, be playing a role in these scenes with Caldigate. It is on this note that Trollope ends the part of his narrative that takes place in Australia. All else that takes place in Australia will be described in retrospect by the characters after a hiatus of some years during which Caldigate has thrived and, having sold out his business interests at significant profit, returned to England.
As a device for maintaining tension and to allow Trollope to reveal what took place piecemeal as needed to drive his plot this approach is unique in Trollope’s oeuvre. And it is during this period that Euphemia undergoes a dramatic transformation. Having been hitherto a sympathetically described character – one whose character we may feel has been unduly called into question by those who look down upon her, even while we are given hints that she may not be all that she says she is, her next appearance is deferred until a dozen chapters have passed and Caldigate is now married to another woman – one of the two women he left behind pining for him on his original departure. Now Euphemia returns with a vengeance – or more accurately a letter blackmailing him, threatening to expose him as a bigamist on the basis that he married Euphemia in Australia before his return to England.
As Markwick observes, “The hiatus caused by these 165 pages seems to me very significant, since she changes from a woman betrayed by her circumstances into a villain who gets her just deserts.”
It is hard for Trollope to sustain this new character, even after presenting so little of the original, more sympathetic character in the earlier part of the novel. She makes only five more appearances in the remaining forty chapters – all of them brief, often less than a paragraph: She is met in the lawyer’s office to make her formal accusation of Caldigate’s bigamy, she is present in the coffee house to receive the cheque from Caldigate, she gives evidence at his trial, she is seen attempting to flee the country and finally she is seen after being found guilty of perjury.
Of the crucial events of Euphemia’s life in Australia we hear only through the testimony of Caldigate and Shand, neither of whom is an impartial witness. Piecing their stories together it appears that following Caldigate’s visit to Sydney, Euphemia followed him back to the gold-mining area where they lived together as man and wife – though probably without the benefit of any marriage ceremony. By April 1873, when the supposed marriage was alleged by Euphemia to have taken place, the couple appear to have quarrelled. Shand relates that “they had not become man and wife up to June 1873, and that no-one at Ahalala or Nobble conceived them to be man and wife. Of course, they had lived together. But everybody knew all about it. Some time before June, early, I should say, in that Autumn – there had been a quarrel. I am sure they were at daggers drawn with each other all that April and May in respect to certain mining shares, as to which Euphemia Smith behaved very badly.” Dick also explained that “as soon as she had begun to finger the scrip, [she] thought of nothing but gold. She did not care much for marriage just then, because she fancied the stuff wouldn’t belong to herself. She became largely concerned in the “Old Stick-in-the-Mud”. That was Crinkett’s concern and there were times at which I thought she would marry him. Then Caldigate got rid of her altogether.”
Accepting Shand’s natural bias in describing the actions of his friend and a woman he disliked, this suggests that the street-wise Euphemia had taken a keen interest in the business side of mining and been successful in her dealings. Then, reflecting perhaps on what happened to her with her previous husband, she had no wish to lay herself open to the same risk again and so chose not to marry Caldigate to preserve her control of her own finances. In her day to day dealings she “had called herself sometimes Mrs Caldigate, sometimes Mrs Smith, but generally, in such documents as she had to sign in reference to her mining shares, Euphemia Cettini…it was now alleged on her behalf that she had bought and sold shares in that name under the idea that she would thus best secure to herself their separate and undisturbed possession. Proof was brought home that Caldigate himself had made over to her shares in that name”. So much is eminently sensible in the Victorian era when a man, before the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1881, assumed ownership of all his wife possessed on their marriage. Euphemia seems to have been guided in these dealings by an instinct for self-preservation. That Shand and Caldigate might view this behaviour in a poor light reflects perhaps their unenlightened outlook as gentlemen who disapproved of Euphemia flying in the face of what they might see as the natural order of things.
Caldigate says of her to his brother in law, “At that time the woman cared little for husbands or lovers. She had been bitten with the fury of gold-gambling, and, like so many of them, filled her mind with an idea of unlimited wealth. And she had a turn of luck. I suppose she was worth at one time eight or ten thousand pounds.” His implication is that Euphemia would have been better, more womanly, to have focused on “husbands or lovers” in keeping with his and society’s expectations.
When Caldigate decided to leave Australia, Euphemia and her business partner Crinkett bought his shares in the Polyeuka mine for £40,000. At the time it was prospering and it was generally held that Euphemia and Crinkett got it cheap, but the gold quickly ran out and the mine became valueless, leaving them broke. It was this turn of events which led to their decision to try to blackmail Caldigate into paying them back half of the sale price.
After Caldigate high-handedly (though with legal right on his side) rejects the request from Crinkett for the return of half the purchase price, Euphemia sends a letter threatening to expose Caldigate as a bigamist and claims to have a marriage certificate to back her threat. She offers to disappear from his life, marry Crinkett and return to Australia if he pays the £20,000.
When Caldigate refuses, Euphemia makes good her threat. They confront each other briefly at the mayor’s court in Cambridge. “The woman was closely veiled, so that [Caldigate] could not see a feature of her face; but he knew her figure well.” When asked if he wished to see her face, he replies, “No; I know her voice well. She is the woman in whose company I went out to the colony, and whom I knew while I was there.” The veil may be taken as an indication of some embarrassment on Euphemia’s part at being forced to face Caldigate with what may be supposed to be lies (based on Shand’s later testimony) but it might equally betoken the natural shame of a woman whose husband has abandoned her and bigamously married someone else. It is for the reader to judge whether, even in this role, Euphemia is in fact acting. Nevertheless, she stands her ground before him, and when he asks what she has said, she speaks out herself, “That I am your wife, John Caldigate.” She is certainly not cowed by his presence.
At their next confrontation, when he hands over the £20,000, Caldigate does demand that she removes her veil. “She removed her veil very slowly, and then stood looking him in the face – not full in the face, for she could not quite raise her eyes to meet his. And though she made an effort to brazen it out, she could not quite succeed. She attempted to raise her head, and carry herself with pride; but every now and again there was a slight quiver – slight, but still visible. The effort, too, was visible. But there she stood, looking at him, and to be looked at – but without a word. During the whole interview she never once opened her lips.” Evidently Trollope wishes by this stage to ensure that his readers know that Euphemia has been lying and feels the guilt of this when faced by Caldigate. Even so, she continues to display great fortitude in the face of her own sense of guilt and the attempts by Caldigate to stare her down.
Trollope then describes her. “She had lost her comeliness. It was now nearly seven years since they two had been on the Goldfinder together, and then he had found her very attractive. There was no attraction now. She was much aged; and her face was coarse, as though she had taken to drinking. But there was still about her something of that look of intellect which had captivated him more, perhaps, than her beauty. Since those days she had become a slave to gold – and such slavery is hardly compatible with good looks in a woman.” She is now thirty; not old, but the deterioration in her looks is clearly meant to signify the deterioration in her moral stature. We are no longer called upon as readers to sympathise with her. When Trollope describes her as coarse, he is implying a fall in the social scale. Trollope attributes these changes to avarice – but would he have been so condemnatory of a man who pursued gold? Perhaps so, in so far as such pursuit may be corrupting, as he described so eloquently in The Way We Live Now.
When called as a witness at Caldigate’s trial, “She gave her evidence very clearly, and with great composure…She did it well. She was very correct, and at the same time very determined…During her evidence in chief, which was necessarily long, she seemed to be quite at ease; but those around her observed that she never once turned her eyes upon him whom she claimed as her husband except when she was asked whether the man there before her was the man she had married at Ahalala. The, looking at him for a moment in silence, she replied, very steadily, ‘Yes; that is my husband, John Caldigate.'” Under cross-examination, she refused the offer of a chair. “She said that she was not at all tired and preferred to stand. As to the absolute fact of the marriage she did not hesitate at all… There was a great deal said about [subsequent] times and dates, which left an impression upon those around her in the court that she was less sure of her facts than a woman in such circumstances naturally would have been.” However she explained this away, saying, “‘I kept no journal.’ Then she was allowed to go , and though she had been under examination for three hours, it was thought she had escaped easily.”
For any woman of the Victorian era, giving evidence in court would have been an ordeal and one which few would have undergone willingly. Lady Mason, in Orley Farm, managed to fortify herself to get through a civil case when she was young and the fortunes of her young son were at stake but could not bring herself to face testifying in the later criminal case – she was guilty of the forgery but was found not guilty by the jury thanks to the work of her legal team. Euphemia, therefore, may be judged to have acquitted herself reasonably well in the witness box.
Similarly, she keeps her head when the tables are turned and she finds herself pursued for perjury in respect of the evidence she gave including the forged envelope she produced at Caldigate’s trial. Unlike her co-conspirator Crinkett, she manages her subsidiary Anna Young so that “While the women were in London together, and as they were starting, Euphemia Smith had been too strong for her companion. She had declared that she would not pay the money till they were afloat, and then that she would not pay it till they had left Plymouth. When the police came on board the Julius Vogel, Anna Young had as yet received nothing.”
Thereafter, when she realised she would herself come to trial , “The woman never yielded an inch. When she found how it was going with her, she made fast her money, and with infinite pluck resolved that she would endure with patience whatever might be in store for her, and wait for better times. When put into the dock she pleaded not guilty with a voice audible only to the jailer standing beside her, and after that did not open her mouth during the trial…When the woman heard that she was to be confined for three years with hard labour her spirit was almost broken. But she made no outward sign; and as she was led away out of the dock she looked around for Caldigate, to wither him with the last glance of her reproach. But Caldigate, who had not beheld her misery without some pang at his heart, had already left the court.”
It is interesting to note that Trollope refers to Euphemia here as “the woman” – thereby creating a distance between her and the reader, rendering her more impersonal. But even in doing this he records the blow to her spirit and her misery – he cannot harden his heart against her completely.
Markwick observes that in chapter 12, “Trollope mounts a stalwart defence of women who earn money from titillating dance routines, presenting their act as a permissible exploitation of foolish men not an outrage of female indiscretion, thus encouraging us to continue our support of her.” But by chapter 24, “From here on she moves from being a woman wronged, who deserves to rise again from misfortune, to being a criminal deserving her three years hard labour. We hear no more interpretation of her behaviour as being due to the force of circumstances. We hear of a woman driven by greed, who is said to have declined marriage because as a married woman she would own nothing in her own right; a woman who became as skilled in dealing in mining and mining shares as her male partners, and whose sole purpose in pressing the charge of bigamy was vindictiveness when her blackmail attempt failed. Her downfall is not that she had an extra-marital affair, but that she resorted to blackmail and extortion. For it seems to me that Trollope’s point is that these are the real sins. When Mrs Smith’s sins are sexual, the text justifies and vindicates her. When she turns to crime, the tenor of the text switches diametrically.”
Certainly Trollope seems to regard Euphemia’s behaviour both in Australia after following Caldigate back to the gold-fields to be inappropriate for a woman. She is competent in areas where it is not fitting for a woman to be competent. Indeed, she is unfailingly business-like from the very moment of her landing in Australia. And sin in a woman is always, somehow, less forgivable than in a man. Remember, Hester Caldigate treats her husband’s behaviour with Euphemia, whilst he claims to have been in love with Hester, as being like a childhood dose of “measles”. This should not be mistaken for a modern, relaxed attitude to past sexual partners, since this is a one way street only. Men are allowed the latitude for such behaviour without any stain attaching to their character but “nice” women are not.
It is tempting to draw comparisons between the virginal Hester and the sexually active Euphemia – the two “Mrs Caldigates”. Both are tested emotionally by events. Hester proves herself strong and resolute in the face of her family’s disapproval of Caldigate and persistent belief in his guilt on the charge of bigamy. In this she places faith in her man in spite of apparently damning evidence against him. She shows her mettle when forced into a showdown with her domineering mother. Euphemia, as we have seen, holds her own in the face of numerous challenges. One might even conclude that Caldigate, the proud but essentially feckless young man, even though he does prove capable of hard work when eventually called upon to do so, and who is so casually careless of the feelings of the women who are close to him, perhaps does not deserve either of them.
In the end, I am forced to conclude that Trollope uses Euphemia in a way that he rarely does with his characters, as a necessary plot device. As a result, he sacrifices his usual close and intimate portrayal of character that produces some of the finest, three dimensional women in literature. He needs Euphemia to behave in ways that drive the plot but cannot see sufficiently into her character to describe in detail the motivations which drive her to act as she does. He does not emphasise, as he might have done, how her early experiences might have affected her and made her the way she is. As a result, the change in her character has the appearance of revolution rather than an understandable evolution. The reader is left to fill in the gaps in a way that Trollope rarely calls upon us to do.
In spite of this, in Euphemia, Trollope has created a memorable character whose actions are understandable to the reader – who may be less censorious than Trollope with his mid-Victorian prejudices. Indeed, Trollope may have recognised his limitations and felt unable to convey those details of her character, which he glosses over, with sufficient realism to do otherwise than to skate over them quickly. And, making a virtue of necessity, this approach enables him to generate tension in the plot through not adopting his usual omniscient narrator relationship with the reader and drip-feeding crucial details in a very modern way.