Anthony Trollope. Safe, stodgy, hyper-Victorian Anthony Trollope, the comfort reading of the middle classes. As his rival and admirer Henry James said after his death ‘With Trollope we were always safe’. But was he really the most respectable of Victorian novelists?
His first readers didn’t always think so. The reader for his publisher Longman’s thought Barchester Towers a coarse and repulsive book, insisting on changes before allowing it into print. And what are we to make of his novel Miss Mackenzie in which a young woman is pursued by three men intent on matrimony called Handcock, Rubb and Ball? Or Mr Frigidy in the same novel, who as you might guess, he does not turn out to be a suitor for Miss Mackenzie?
But it’s not just a matter of names. When Lady Dumbello in The Small House at Allington smiles on the eminently respectable Plantagenet Palliser: ‘It seemed as though a new vein in his body had been brought into use, and that blood was running where blood had never run before.’ What was Trollope trying to suggest?
The raciness wasn’t just a matter of momentary blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments either. When Trollope sent the Cornhill magazine his story ‘The Banks of the Jordan’, the editor was ‘appalled’ and refused to publish the story. How else could it react to a story which describes a journey across Palestine of a chap in the company of another chap who, unbeknownst to him, is in fact a young woman. The narrator at various points takes hold of her leg to show her where a Turkish saddle rubs, offers to massage her saddle sores with brandy, and falls asleep with his head on her lap. When it finally appeared in the London Review one reader wrote to say:
“For my part I shall immediately destroy the supplements containing the tales …You must make your election whether you will adapt your paper to the taste of men of intelligence and high moral feeling or to that of persons of morbid imagination & a low tone of morals.”
Trollope is a braver and more dangerous novelist than he is often given credit for. Barchester Towers, for example, the novel which made his reputation, is a book of extreme emotions, full of people expressing anger, disgust, passion or joy; condemning others for being abominable, indecent or vulgar; of feeling despised, deceived or ashamed. Below the restrained and polite surfaces of the novel lie primal states of innocence and guilt, sin and forgiveness, hatred, violence, evil and deceit. Small-city Barchester in Trollope’s account is often a world of torture, degradation, humiliation and cruelty.
And sex too, of course. There is a good deal of sexual excitement in the book: when we are told, for example, that ‘high souled ecstatic young ladies of thirty-five’ find Mr Slope attractive, it is a clever, unkind phrase that invites us to think that spiritual and bodily ecstasy cannot easily be distinguished. Bishop Proudie, as bishops did in the period, wears an apron but Mrs Proudie wears the trousers. Gathering courage to attack her husband at one point, she goes to the bedroom and looks suggestively at the pillow; a little later, fearing what will happen to him, he looks at the bedroom candlestick, but the sheer exhaustion that he shows the following day makes us wonder what else may have happened overnight.
At one point, the bishop wishes that he could spend the night with Mr Slope, one of the most sexually dynamic, if repulsive, presences in the book, whose role in the Proudie family is a remarkably promiscuous one, as he attaches himself in turn – and sometimes simultaneously – to father, daughter and mother. He is defeated finally by the superbly naughty Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni whose erotic torment of him is captured by Trollope in a remarkable figure of speech:
“Mr. Slope was madly in love, but hardly knew it. The signora spitted him, as a boy does a cockchafer on a cork, that she might enjoy the energetic agony of his gyrations. And she knew very well what she was doing.”
A cockchafer is a sort of beetle, but to ‘chafe’ something is also to arouse it, and the word was used in a sexual sense as early as John Cleland’s celebrated erotic novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure a century before. Trollope read a good deal of renaissance drama, which relished this kind of linguistic play: the signora is both a cockteasing and cock-possessing woman and like a boy she sticks her spit into Slope and enjoys his energetic if painful gyrations. It’s a perverse moment and a perverse metaphor that beautifully mixes up both pain and pleasure and male and female roles, as Madeline ‘tortured and reviled him … while she allowed him to call her … her adorer, her slave and worshipper’. It is also very funny. Trollope is as inventively naughty as Madeline herself at this point, teasing his readers once more with erotic possibilities and dirty thoughts.
Heading image: Victorian Living Room by VinnyCiro. CC0 via Pixabay.