Thursday, July 25, 2013

Trollope's gentlemen

The Gentleman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope – this is a topic I have bounced against before.  Trollope is a man of his time, yet he is highly critical of gentlemanliness.  His most substantive doubts are about whether gentlemanliness is becoming obsolete because of social changes.  Anxiety is what I called it.

Trollope is just as interested in the role and behavior of women but seems less anxious.  I don’t know.

So in Doctor Thorne the son of an estate owner is threatened with working for a living, and in Framley Parsonage a clergyman falls in with a fast set and gets into financial trouble because he does not have enough to do at work.  Everything falls out so the men do not have to do anything too onerous.  The characters are granted happy endings, but Trollope plants doubts that encourage me to imagine more  satisfying alternatives.  Maybe that clergyman and estate owner should not just become better people (which they do, credibly) but should also do more.

The protagonist of The Last Chronicle of Barset, Reverend Crawley, does too much.  He manages his parish, comforts the sick, and spends his  day with the brickmakers.  And where those earlier characters faced the threat of becoming – not poor – no longer rich, Reverend Crawley is poor, “now, just as he was approaching his fiftieth year, a perpetual curate, with an income of one hundred and thirty pounds per annum – and a family” (Ch. 1)  Take that times forty for inflation to get £5,200 in today’s money, then double it to get $10,400, so poor for a gentleman, not for an agricultural laborer or brickmaker.  Trollope even takes the trouble to present a household budget: £40/year for meat, £25/year for bread, and at least “ten pounds a year a head” for “[c]lothes for five persons, of whom one must at any rate wear the raiment of a gentleman” (Ch. 4).

Crawley has one coat suitable for visiting his bishop, ragged, but sufficient to serve as a gentleman’s uniform.  His wife and daughters have no such clothes, so they cannot visit the homes of gentlefolk.  One of the daughters is actually the romantic heroine of the novel who needs to move from place to place.  Her friends give her the necessary clothes.  Much is also made of a gentleman’s access to a horse, which Crawley of course does not have.  When the bishop summons him to Barchester, he walks (mostly), and enters the palace with mud on his shoes.

The main plot of the novel is that Crawley is accused of stealing £20 (say $1,600).  Would a clergyman do such a thing – that is a common question, but just as common: would a gentleman?  Because by birth, position and education, Crawley is a gentleman.

These grooms, who had been telling each other that this parson, who was to be tried as a thief, had been constrained to walk from Hogglestock to Barchester and back, because he could not afford to travel in any other way, and that his boots were cracked and his clothes ragged, had still known him to be a gentleman!  Nobody doubted it; not even they who thought he had stolen the money.  Mr. Robarts himself was certain of it, and told himself that he knew it by evidences which his own education made him.  But how was it that the grooms knew it?  For my part I think that there are no better judges of the article than the grooms.  (Ch. 20)

The parallel plot is that the daughter cannot marry the man she loves (“She feels that, with this charge hanging over her father, she is not in a position to become the wife of any gentleman,” Ch. 33).  Or, really, should not, but these Barchester heroines always behave well (no anxiety), so the question is how the gentleman in question behaves.  It turns out that he also behaves well:  he proposes in spite of or perhaps even because of her disgrace, and in the face of a risk of being cut off by his family, moving from rich to not so rich (so Trollope is including that device, too); she refuses him, to spare him and his family the disgrace.  Both heroically sacrifice themselves.

What is supposed to be going on here?  Why is this interesting?  I believe I am almost to my one insight about this novel.


  1. "When the bishop summons him to Barchester, he walks (mostly), and enters the palace with mud on his shoes."

    But he leaves having trodden the Proudies into the dirt...

  2. Insightful points about Trollope's depiction of "Gentleman".

    Though his writings concentrate on a period about 70 to 100 years prior to the time that Trollope wrote, the historian Gordon Wood has written somewhat extensively on the sociology and psychology revolving around the concept of the "Gentleman". Indeed it was so very important that a Gentleman did not work or labor. As I recall Wood contends that in the eyes of society, true Gentleman should be so financially secure that they did not even need to lower themselves as to be involved in any money earning activity at all.

  3. I thought about writing about that chapter, Crawley's duel with Mrs. Proudie. That and the chapters around it may be the best constructed single piece of the novel. Really interesting how each step leads to the next. Really fine stuff.

    The concept og "gentleman" was changing fast. Trollope was by birth and education a gentleman, but he worked harder at two professions (simultaneously!) than most of us work at one. So he lived with this tension - how much is stature, how much is dress, how much is behavior, what are the limits of each.

    The ethos Wood describes was a fantasy even in the 18th century, but a powerful and influential fantasy. The survial of this medieval idea well past Trollope's time is extraordinary.

    That is where I am going today, by the way - a little preview there.

  4. In Is He Popenjoy? (Have you read it), the Marquis of Brotherton returns home after living in Italy for years. He brings in tow an Italian wife and a child. This follows on the coattails of his younger brother marrying the daughter of the local dean--a man whose money comes from (horror of horrors) trade! The Dean imagined that his daughter would one day become the marchioness as it seemed most unlikely that the current Marquis, a confirmed bachelor, would marry.

    There are several reasons to suspect the legitimacy of the brand new heir to the title, the son of the current marquis, who seems to have materialized too suddenly. The dean employs lawyers to sniff out the truth, but the younger brother of the Marquis is divided, and his ingrained sense of polite, gentlemanly behaviour dictates that he hush up the scandal rather than ask a few pertinent questions.

    There does seem to be an inherent sense that the younger brother is caught in a moral dilemma but that he is also ill equipped to deal with his brother's bad behaviour. The Dean, however, with the grubbiness of trade in his background, isn't ready to be robbed.

    Anyway, I think the book fits into your argument.

  5. I have not read Is He Popenjoy?, although I have laughed at the title every time I have seen it.

    Your description makes it sound really interesting. And, yes, exactly on target, and late enough compared to the Barchester books that Trollope may have revised or extended his views in various ways.

    Thanks for the pointer.

  6. For some reason I kept processing the name Popenjay instead of Popenjoy. No idea why, but I kept tripping up over it. The sickly Popenjoy is set to inherit the title and the Dean, normally a rational, well balanced individual, practically crows for joy when he learns the child is sickly. It's very tasteless but then it's balanced with the younger brother of the Marquis feeling ineffectual when it comes to challenging the legality of his brother's marriage. He's content to let the Dean do his dirty work ... until he isn't.

    Anyway... I am fascinated by the antisocial characters in Trollope--the ones that either drift in or drift out of society: The Claverings Sophie Gordeloup and Hugh Clavering & George Vavasour from Can You Forgive Her?

    Not that I'm obsessed or anything....

  7. Trollope's world seems so normal and stable - I am comparing him to Dickens, or even Thackeray - that the antisocial or fringe characters become even more interesting by contrast.

  8. True. They move in and shake everyone up.