Cheryl Campbell as Matilda Carbury, flanked by Matthew Macfadyen as her son, Sir Felix, and Paloma Baeza as her daughter Hetta, in the 2001 BBC production of The Way We Live Now.
When Trollope created the character of Matilda Carbury, the writer of potboilers of negligible literary merit necessary to make ends meet after having been left insufficient funds on the death of her husband so that she might continue supporting herself and her children in the lifestyle to which they had been accustomed, it is tempting to think that he had in mind his own mother, Fanny Trollope, who had died some twelve years prior to the publication of The Way We Live Now, as his model for her character. This, intriguingly, leads to speculation whether the profligate older son, Felix, to whom Lady Carbury is devoted and upon whom she squanders most of the little money she has, might be a proxy for Trollope’s own older brother Thomas and the long-suffering, neglected younger daughter, Henrietta, or Hetta as everyone calls her, is a proxy for Anthony himself.
Matilda was born at the beginning of the 1830s and while she was still a young child, “Her mother had run away from her father, and she had been tossed to and fro between this and that protector, sometimes being in danger of wanting anyone to care for her, till she had been made sharp, incredulous, and untrustworthy by the difficulties of her position. But she was clever, and had picked up an education and good manners amidst the difficulties of her childhood – and had been beautiful to look at.”(1)
At the age of eighteen she escaped her unhappy situation by marrying Sir Patrick Carbury, an older man – then aged forty-four – but it transpired that she had leapt from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Her husband was “imperious, and often cruel”. He had been a soldier in India and after three years of marriage had been promoted to another position abroad. Matilda accompanied him and he “had occasionally spoilt his darling and occasionally ill used her. In doing each he had done it abundantly.” For the next dozen or so years, “things had gone tolerably well with her – by which it is intended that the reader should understand that they had so gone that she had been able to tolerate them…She could smile within five minutes of violent ill-usage. Her husband would even strike her – and the first effort of her mind would be given to conceal the fact from all the world. In latter years he drank too much, and she struggled hard first to prevent the evil, and then to prevent and hide the ill effects of the evil. But in doing all this she schemed, and lied, and lived a life of manoeuvres.”(1)
When Matilda was in her early 30s, she began to socialise more widely without the company of her husband. Her social acquaintances included men and though “she never allowed herself to flirt”, her husband “became jealous, spoke words which even she could not endure, did things which drove even her beyond the calculations of her prudence – and she left him. But even this she did in so guarded a way that, as to every step she took, she could prove her innocence.”(1)
It is not difficult to imagine that the provocation for her leaving included repeated beatings of, perhaps, increasing severity and verbal abuse of a sort that would not be tolerated in any modern relationship.
Of course, this being the 1860s, in spite of her precautions, far from being regarded by society as a victim of an abusive husband forced out of the family home by his behaviour, Matilda was “slandered. For a month or two all hard words had been said against her by her husband’s friends, and even by Sir Patrick himself. But gradually the truth was known, and after a year’s separation they came again together and she remained the mistress of his house till he died. She brought him home to England, but…the scandal of her great misfortune had followed her, and some people were never tired of reminding others that in the course of her married life Lady Carbury had run away from her husband, and had been taken back again by that kind-hearted old gentleman.”(1) How this injustice coloured her judgment is a matter for speculation but it must have led her to mistrust public opinion and to be wary of any future attachment.
When her husband died, in about 1870, Matilda Carbury was 40. “Now at length had come to her a period of relaxation – her reward, her freedom, her chance of happiness. She thought much about herself, and resolved on one or two things. The time for love had gone by, and she would have nothing to do with it. Nor would she marry again for convenience. But she would have friends – real friends; friends who could help her – and whom possibly she might help. She would, too, make some career for herself, so that life might not be without an interest to her. She would live in London, and would become somebody at any rate in some circle.”(1)
After what she had endured, this seems to be a positive outlook for her to take. It indicates a degree of fortitude and resolve that must have been sorely tested during the years of her marriage.
Of course her late husband left Matilda with little to live on. He bequeathed £1000 a year to his son, Felix, and the same to Matilda for her lifetime, with which she was required to support Hetta. “Accident at first rather than choice had thrown her among literary people, but that accident had, during the last two years, been supported and corroborated by the desire which had fallen upon her of earning money.”(1) It is here that parallels with Trollope’s own mother, Fanny, become apparent.
In his Autobiography, Trollope says that his mother “produced 114 volumes of which the first was not written till she was fifty.”(2) He describes how when her first attempt to save the family fortunes from the disastrous state to which his father had reduced them, a bazaar she set up in Cincinnati, had failed, “she looked about her, at her American cousins, and resolved to write a book about them. This book she brought back with her in 1831 and published early in 1832…When doing this she was aware that unless she could succeed in making money, there was no money for any of the family. She had never before earned a shilling.”(2) Clearly, her motives for writing were financial and not artistic. He describes how “book followed book immediately”(2). The industry with which she worked was a model for Trollope’s own approach. “She was at her table at four in the morning and finished her work before the world had begun to be aroused.”(2) But Trollope was aware of her limitations as a writer, saying “she was endowed too with much creative power, with considerable humour, and a genuine feeling for romance. But she was neither clear-sighted nor accurate; and in her attempts to describe morals, manners, and even facts, was unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.”(2)
When we first meet Matilda, in the opening chapter of the novel, she is engaged not in actual writing but in what, in modern parlance, might be considered marketing. She writes to three potential publishers for her forthcoming book including Mr Broune who was “the editor of the Morning Breakfast Table, a daily newspaper of high character…Mr Broune was a man powerful in his profession – and he was fond of ladies.”(1) Matilda is not unaware of her own attractiveness to the opposite sex and is more than willing to use her feminine charms to achieve her ends with the male editors whose goodwill she needed. “She was forty-three, but carried her years well, and had received such gifts from nature, that it was impossible to deny that she was still a beautiful woman. And she used her beauty not only to increase her influence…but also with a well-considered calculation that she could obtain material assistance in the procuring of bread and cheese, which was very necessary to her, by a prudent adaptation to her purposes of the good things with which providence had endowed her. She did not fall in love, she did not wilfully flirt, she did not commit herself; but she smiled and whispered and made confidences, and looked out of her own eyes into men’s eyes as though there might be some mysterious bond between her and them – if only mysterious circumstances would permit it. But the end of all was to induce someone to do something which would cause a publisher to give her good payment for indifferent writing, or an editor to be lenient when, upon the merits of the case, he should have been severe.”(1)
When Matilda had recently tried these tactics with Mr Broune in an interview about articles she had sent to him for publication, “she had looked into his eyes, and had left her soft, plump hand for a moment in his. A man in such circumstances is so often awkward, not knowing with any accuracy when to do one thing and when another! Mr Broune, in a moment of enthusiasm, had put his arm around Lady Carbury’s waist and had kissed her.”(1)
In our 21st Century, “#Metoo” world, Mr Broune’s behaviour would be seen as an abuse of his powerful position and sexual harassment. However, in the Victorian era, as Trollope describes, the position was less clear cut. Matilda is knowingly sailing close to the wind. In other social contexts, her behaviour might have been seen as leading Mr Broune on with a view to perhaps entrapping him into a proposal of marriage. This perspective would have been most strongly felt by other women, who would wish to set the parameters of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour – one assumes so that the ground-rules were clear for their own daughters entry into the high stakes marriage game. Thus, although Mr Broune’s behaviour required Matilda to rebuke him, she does so mildly “Without a flutter, and without a blush” and asks for an apology even though she “did not quite expect it” but rather hoped for, and obtained, “a promise…that the articles should be printed – and with generous remuneration.”(1) Who is the victim of whom in this transaction – the Victorian opinion may differ from the 21st century’s verdict.
Mr Broune’s subsequent support Matilda, both in her dealings with her spendthrift son, and personally, suggests that, while he might have been willing to take advantage of what appeared to be on offer in this early encounter, his intentions were, in the long term, honourable.
In contrast, Trollope describes Matilda Carbury’s approach to making a living through her writing as “Detestably false…absolutely and abominably foul as was the entire system by which she was endeavouring to achieve success, far away from honour and honesty as she had been carried by her ready subserviency to the dirty things among which she had lately fallen”.(1) Since Trollope had no problem with the concept of writing for money, and indeed his posthumous reputation suffered from his candid revelation of this in An Autobiography, it must be understood that Trollope here is critical of her marketing technique when used to further sales of second rate goods. While there is no suggestion that his mother employed similar tactics, given the criticism he voiced of the shortcomings of his mother’s writings, it is not inconceivable that Matilda Carbury is in some respects a portrait of his mother.
And here we come to the parallels with Trollope’s own mother and her relationship towards her favourite son, Thomas Adolphus, and her other surviving son Anthony.
It appears that although during the early years of Matilda Carbury’s marriage there had been little distinction between the children, “to whom both father and mother had been over indulgent”(1), this had been continued by the mother only in respect of her son.
“She had known from the first that economy would be necessary to her – not chiefly, or perhaps not at all from a feeling that she and her daughter could not live comfortably on a thousand a year – but on behalf of her son. She wanted no luxury but a house so placed that people might conceive of her that she lived in a proper part of town. Of her daughter’s prudence she was as well convinced as her own. She could trust Henrietta in everything. But her son, Sir Felix, was not very trustworthy. And yet Sit Felix was the darling of her heart.”(1)
Given the insecurity of her upbringing, and the difficulties she encountered in her own marriage, it is perhaps not surprising that Matilda should wish to see her daughter married to the prudent, safe cousin Roger Carbury. He has money. He has position. He is as far removed from the turbulent character of her own husband as can be. She fails to recognise that he is, to the young woman, a dull, boring and unromantic prospect. “Lady Carbury was very eager on his side. Though the Carbury Manor House did not exactly suit her, it would do admirably for Henrietta. And as for age, to her thinking, she being then over forty, a man of thirty-six was young enough for any girl. But Henrietta had an opinion of her own. She liked her cousin but did not love him.”(1) This conflict, a classic Trollopian mother-daughter struggle, is similar to that of Lady Lovel and her daughter in Lady Anna published only the year before. The mother is past romance and thinks the daughter should be equally cold-blooded. When Hetta does not give in to her mother’s scheme she is treated as ungrateful and unreasonably stubborn. Is this controlling mother figure again a reflection of Trollope’s own mother?
So, in typical Trollopian fashion, Matilda Carbury sets about driving her daughter into Sir Roger’s arms. She arranges for her and Hetta to stay with Roger, hoping that keeping them in proximity will weaken Hetta’s resistance.
Naturally, Matilda is appalled by her daughter’s choice of Paul Montague as the object of her affections. From a Victorian matriarch’s point of view she is quite right. Paul has no apparent means of support and moves in questionable company through his business dealings with Augustus Melmotte. Roger on the other hand is utterly respectable and financially sound. Yet Trollope carefully ensures that the reader’s sympathies are with the daughter and makes the mother appear unreasonable in her attempts to thwart the path of true love. When Matilda comes upon the pair together, “As soon as the door was closed behind them Lady Carbury attacked her daughter. ‘What brought him here?’ ‘He brought himself, mamma.’ ‘Don’t answer me in that way, Hetta. Of course he brought himself. That is insolent.’ ‘Insolent, mamma! How can you say such hard words? I meant that he came of his own accord.’ ‘How long was he here?’ ‘Two minutes before you came in. Why do you cross-question me like this?'” As the quarrel goes on Hetta says to her mother, “I think you are very cruel to me. You say things so hard that I cannot bear them.”(1)
When, eventually, her daughter insists she will not marry Roger and will persist with Paul even though it appears he is ruined by the failure of the railway venture, Matilda Carbury harangues Hetta. “It is hard upon me. I did think that you would try to comfort me after all this trouble with Felix. But you are as bad as he is – or worse, for you have not been thrown into temptation like that poor boy! And you will break your cousin’s heart. Poor Roger! I feel for him – he that has been so true to us! But you think nothing of that.’ ‘I think very much of my cousin Roger.’ [Hetta replies] ‘And how do you show it – or your love for me? There would have been a home for us all. Now we must starve. Hetta, you have been worse to me even than Felix.'”(1)
This, of course, is not only unreasonable but inconsistent and hypocritical of Matilda. She has promoted the possibility of Felix marrying Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, believing her to be a wealthy heiress and now, after the collapse of the great financier’s railway scheme, berates Hetta for persisting in a relationship with Paul Montague because he is involved in that man’s business and is ruined thereby. In Trollope’s novels, it is often the lot of the sisters, wives and daughters to be called upon to sacrifice their wants to meet the monetary shortfalls caused by the impecunious behaviour of their brothers, husbands and fathers but the injustice of Matilda’s accusations on this occasion, however, do tend to alienate her from the reader’s sympathy.
Of course, Matilda Carbury’s best intentions for her daughter are not unalloyed. “If her daughter could be settled in the world, Lady Carbury said to herself, she could then devote herself to the interests of her son.”(1)
Whatever his failings, and Matilda is acutely aware of them and will even lie to cover them up – as when she hides the truth of his failed elopement with Marie from his sister Hetta – she will stop at nothing to support her wayward son, Felix.
It is in this unfairness and inequality of treatment between her two children by Matilda Carbury that I am tempted to speculate that Anthony, more than a decade after her death, works out through this novel the complex emotions and ambivalence he feels about his mother Fanny’s relationship with him and his older brother Thomas Adolphus.
I am also led to this by a description of the critical response to Matilda’s writing. When her book, Criminal Queens, is published, a reviewer had “set upon her book, and had pulled it to pieces with almost rabid malignity. One would have thought that so slight a thing could hardly have been worthy of such protracted attention. Error after error was laid bare with merciless prolixity. No doubt the writer of the article must have had all history at his finger ends, as in pointing out the various mistakes made he always spoke of the historical facts which had been misquoted, misdated, or misrepresented, as being familiar in all their bearings to every schoolboy of twelve years old.”(1)
This mention of schooldays will remind anyone familiar with Trollope’s own unhappy childhood of his description of his schooldays. “When I was twelve there came the vacancy at Winchester College that I was destined to fill…In accordance with the practice of the college, which submits, or did then submit, much of the tuition of the younger boys to the elder, [my brother, Thomas Adolphus] was my tutor; and in his capacity of teacher and ruler…as a part of his daily exercise, he thrashed me with a big stick.”(2) He recalls of his brother that “in those school-days he was of all my foes the worst.”(2)
Trollope prefaces this description of their boyhood relationship with the statement that, “Over a period of forty years, since I began my manhood at a desk in the Post Office, I and my brother, Thomas Adolphus, have been fast friends. There have been hot words between us, for a perfect friendship bears and allows hot words. Few brothers have had more of brotherhood.”(2)
I think that in this prefatory statement, Trollope protests too much. It would be quite understandable if there were a lingering resentment of the abuse received at the hands of his brother when Anthony was the defenceless younger boy. And what better place to work out that resentment than in a public work of fiction. I contend that Felix Carbury, portrayed as a dreadful, selfish character in contrast to the selfless, long-suffering younger sister, Hetta, is a fictional retaliation, albeit probably subconsciously so, aimed at his older brother for that treatment while they were at Winchester together.
In accordance with this reading, Hetta is to be seen as representing Anthony in this triangular relationship with the mother. The depredations suffered by Hetta, when her mother gives to Felix money that was to have supported Hetta, are a fictional parallel of the sufferings and humiliations Anthony suffered during his childhood when his mother abandoned him in the UK. Fanny took the family off to America where she was then joined by her husband and Thomas Adolphus leaving Antony alone of all the children, while still a schoolboy.
The psychological damage that Anthony suffered as a child is palpable through all he writes of that time in An Autobiography. It should come as no surprise that he should find an outlet for this pain in later life, even one that he might have been reluctant to recognise even to himself. A Victorian man would, I think, not be consciously so oblique as to use a female character as his surrogate, to suffer in his stead the tribulations and injustice that Hetta endures at the hands of her mother and brother. But subconsciously her passive acceptance of all that is heaped upon her, for me, has uncomfortable echoes of young Anthony’s suffering.
If this is the case, then it is all the more remarkable that Trollope is able to provide Matilda Carbury with an unlooked for happy ending. Mr Broune proves to be not only honourable but persistent in his attempts to make her his wife. Indeed, when he makes his first hesitant proposal to her, “She thought so badly of men and women generally, and of Mr Broune and herself as a man and woman individually, that she was unable to conceive the possibility of such a sacrifice”. As a result she tells him that “I did not think that you would take advantage of the confidence I have placed in you to annoy me in this way” believing him to be declaring what she thought of as “an improper passion [that] would be inconvenient, and therefore to be avoided.”(1)
When he explains this is not at all his intention but that he wishes to make her his wife, “The word ‘wife’ came upon her like a thunder-clap. It at once changed all her feelings towards him. She did not dream of loving him. She felt sure that she could never love him. Had it been on the cards for her to love any man as a lover, it would have been some handsome spendthrift who would have hung from her neck like a nether millstone.”(1) In her mind, Matilda sees love on the part of a woman as an act of sacrifice. She will be brought down by it. Indeed, the husband she married and the son she brought up were both millstones around her neck. To love is to be destroyed by the object of that love. We can all find, I am sure, examples from among our own friends, those who go from one disastrous relationship to the next, making and re-making the same mistakes, picking the same type of unsuitable partners. In making Matilda thus, Trollope is recognising and accurately portraying an all too human trait.
Her view of Mr Broune is “a friend to be used…That a man – such a man should offer to take half her burdens, and to confer upon her half his blessings! What an idiot! But what a god! …now she found that he not only had a human heart in his bosom, but a heart that she could touch. How wonderfully sweet! How infinitely small!”(1) She has spent so long in transactional relationships that she is overwhelmed by the capacity for unreciprocated generosity on the part of another person. The cold intellectual part of her is astonished at his foolishness while the warm human part of her is moved by his offer.
At first she refuses him, but as he steps in with practical aid which relieves her of the burden of her son, and he becomes more dominant, she eventually gives in to him. She knows her son and that he will never come to any good while he is indulged but needs Mr Broune to force her into facing this. So she marries him and allows him to pack her son off to the continent where he cannot any longer be a drain on her depleted finances.
In giving her the happy ending though, Trollope exposes to the reader her deep-seated insecurity. “Her opinion of herself was so poor, she had become so sick of her own vanities and littlenesses and pretences, that she could not understand that such a man as this should want to make her his wife. At this moment she thought less of herself and more of Mr Broune than either perhaps deserved…The long vista of her past life appeared before her eyes. The ambition of her youth which had been taught to look only to a handsome maintenance, the cruelty of her husband which had driven her to run from him, the further cruelty of his forgiveness when she returned to him; the calumny which had made her miserable, though she had never confessed her misery; then her attempts at life in London, her literary successes and failures, and the wretchedness of her son’s career – there had never been happiness, or even comfort in any of it. Even when her smiles had been sweetest her heart had been heaviest. Could it be that now at last peace should be within her reach, and that tranquillity which comes from an anchor holding to a firm bottom?” That Trollope can give such a flawed character the strength to see her through to this point shows a remarkable insight, empathy and compassion in the author.
(1) The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope, (1875) Chapman and Hall
(2) An Autobiography, Anthony Trollope, (1883) William Blackwood and Sons