Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Anthony Trollope! And thoughts of young brides

Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac and Today in Literature, I am reminded that Anthony Trollope would be 194 years old today, were he alive. With all due respect to Lord Peter Wimsey, Trollope is definitely someone who would make interesting conversation were he to drop into the Station Café. I quote from Today in Literature:
… Although Trollope’s fifty or so novels have retained their popularity for some, many others have relegated him to the Stuffy Victorian Fiction shelf, approachable only by way of a BBC miniseries. In her .. New Men in Trollope’s Novels (2007), scholar Margaret Markwick says that, in theme at least, the novels are more modern than they might at first appear. Subtitled Rewriting the Victorian Male … many excerpts .. show that Trollope had some challenging views about men, women, and marriage. The passage below is excerpted from the 1866 novel The Belton Estate, which a young Henry James — twenty-four, and still fifteen years away from his first novel — reviewed as "a stupid book, without a single thought or idea in it ... a sort of mental pabulum”:

The theory of man and wife — that special theory in accordance with which the wife is to bend herself in loving submission before her husband — is very beautiful, and would be good altogether if it could only be arranged that the husband should be the stronger and greater of the two. The theory is based upon that hypothesis, — and the hypothesis sometimes fails of confirmation. In ordinary marriage, the vessel rights itself, and the stronger and greater takes the lead, whether clothed in petticoats, or in a coat, waistcoat and trousers; but there sometimes comes a terrible shipwreck, when the woman before marriage has filled herself full with ideas of submissions, and then finds that the golden-headed god has got an iron body and feet of clay.

My old friend Eileen was married at 16 to an ex-Marine. Both subsequently accumulated many degrees, served in the Foreign Service in several different countries, and lived a life totally different from the one those first facts might suggest. But I recall Eileen reflecting on marriage at such a young age, saying, “We were married twelve years before I admitted that sometimes Bobby could be boring.”

I can’t think of young brides and boring husbands without thinking fondly of Lady Glencora, married off at 15 to Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the Duke of Omnium and with apparently no thought in his head more florid than the possibility of being Chancellor of the Exchequer someday. Lady Glencora’s main qualifications to be Planty Pal’s bride were these: a) she was heiress to the greatest fortune in England and b) she was an orphan, the ward of men whose idea about money was that its highest purpose was to be wed to more money, the tenderness of its young owner’s spirit be damned.

Lady Glencora’s own passion is for the ne’er-do-well Burgo Fitzgerald and at some point soon after her marriage she hopes to run off with him … but wait! She learns she is pregnant. At this point, my thinking switches from Trollope to John Galsworthy, damning Soames Forsyte forever with the line: “He raped your mother.” How did Lady Glencora get pregnant anyway? What was it like for her?

I have been the mother of a mid-teen girl more recently than I have been a girl in her mid-teens, but from either point of view it was a baffling time. When I was 15, I would go from giggling with girlfriends to being felt up by [male] family friends. I preferred the first reality but lived in a world where the second kept intruding.

Not only with aggressive men — fathers of children I babysat for — but with newspaper headlines about, e.g. Errol Flynn. Somehow, I didn’t think my parents would be like Beverly Aadland’s mom: “My baby was a virgin when she met Errol Flynn.” Fond though one can grow of Plantagenet Palliser over the course of the six Palliser novels, when it comes to debauching 15-year-olds, the old dear just wasn’t in the same class as Errol Flynn. Yet that’s what the heirs of great men did in those days.

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