I have a bit of an on-again-off-again love affair with Anthony Trollope. I recently completed what could only be called a Trollope marathon, smashing out a Palliser novel every 1-2 weeks. I’m not even sure if I enjoyed them, I just had to get through them. But they did make me think about women’s agency in a repressed world (I KNOW FUN RIGHT??!!).
The Palliser series is a collection of novels more or less centred on Plantagenet Palliser, who later becomes the Duke of Omnium and, later again, Prime Minister. He’s an interesting man who is great as a central device to the novels – but it is his wife Lady Glencora who steals the show. She is hands down one of Trollope’s best characters. She’s both capricious and steadfast, antagonistic and loyal and she almost always gets her own way. And despite being married, Lady Glen is very independent. (LADIES, LISTEN UP!)
Independence is a real problem, though. Obviously 19th century England is not the best place to try to be an independent woman. And, sure enough, every married woman, with the exception of Lady Glen, subjects herself entirely to her husband despite any initial pep she might have had. They all end up ‘doing their duty’ by their husbands.
I’m certainly not criticising Trollope for this. He could only write about his own times, and he did that – I think – very well. Indeed, he recognised that some women realised very quickly that they had ‘chosen’ the wrong man to do their duty by. With the help of friends, fathers and brothers, these women manage to separate themselves from their husbands – but are then left to live the rest of their lives in solitude and despair, regretting the awful decision that they made. Because a bad marriage was always the fault of the woman. The horrible husband who was impossible to live with and who may also have been a psychopath had nothing to do with it.
So, what’s my beef? He’s writing about independent women who make bad choices and suffer the consequences while men sail merrily on. That’s my beef.
The collision of agency that these women experience is infuriating. Before they’re married they are high-spirited, intelligent and relatively independent. But once they’ve chosen their husbands, they give up all their rights – even to a personality – and must live with the sometimes awful consequences of their decision forever. But it’s the only big decision they ever get to make! How can they make it well knowing that it’s the only one they’ll ever get? How can you repress a woman completely and then blame her utterly when the one decision she makes goes all wrong?
How can you repress a woman completely and then blame her utterly when the one decision she makes goes all wrong?
Let’s take the example of our old friend Lady Glencora. Married off by bossy relatives to a man she doesn’t love, she determines to run off with some hunky muffin with no money or prospects. And why not? She’s bloody miserable! He’s bloody boring! Hunky guy is hunky! She understands the sacrifice she is ready to make. ‘I am not such a fool,’ she says. ‘As to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress… But why have I been brought to such a pass as this?’ Why indeed? Because it’s a woman’s fault if she makes the wrong decision in love and/or marriage. Always has been, always will be.
I get it. That’s how society was. And dammit, it still bloody is.
It’s not Trollope’s fault – because we still live in the world he writes about. Men make many decisions that they bear no consequences for, but women are responsible for every action they take. Often they’re responsible for actions they didn’t take. “When a guy gets drunk,” says a photo on I Need Feminism Because “he’s not responsible for his actions. When a woman gets drunk she’s responsible for everyone else’s”.
Maybe my old friend Anthony Trollope isn’t so old-fashioned as he should be.