Free to be: Trollope’s American Woman

I first read Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) during the particularly cold and snowy winter of 2014. I picked his name from one of those lists of famous authors. The only thing I knew about him was from the trailers for the BBC adaptations of his novels that played on DVDs we owned. Since I’m not a Dickens or Thackeray fan, I didn’t expect much. It only took about four chapters of his late Victorian classic, The Way We Live Now (1875), for me to realize that this was going to be a life-changing book. He writes about the social issues of his time with more honesty and modernism that most of his contemporaries. The Way We Live Now isn’t another Vanity Fair or Bleak House. Trollope doesn’t just comment on social issues through his narration or story, but also through the actions and words of his characters. One of his most unique tropes is his “American Woman.” These boisterous, loud, free women run through his high society London, flaunting their feminist and democratic ideals.

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Frances Milton Trollope

Trollope’s own mother, Frances Trollope, moved to America in 1827 with his three younger siblings to be a part of the Nashoba Community, an experimental utopian community whose goal was to educate and train slaves to prepare them for emancipation. The community was heavily influenced by Robert Owen’s New Harmony utopia of Indiana, and both ultimately failed. Their ideals of free love and shared property were forward-thinking, even for our times. Frances moved back to England in 1831 after spending a few years in Cincinnati. She wrote a book upon her return titled Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) in which she criticized Americans for their lack of civility. Frances Trollope also spoke out strongly against slavery and wrote the first anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836) based on her experiences in Nashoba. This novel influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Trollope himself corresponded with Stowe during his life, and he took an interest in American politics throughout his life, especially during the Civil War. In his own novel The American Senator (1877) he explores the stuffy life of the English countryside through the eyes of Elias Gotobed, an American senator from the fictional state of Mikewa. His strong fascination with the United States can be found in several of his works, including two of his most famous, The Way We Live Now and Doctor Thorne.

Doctor Thorne (1858) has been made recently into a miniseries written and directed by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. Alison Brie (known for Community on NBC) plays Martha Dunstable, an heiress in her thirties with a rag-to-riches tale so crazy, it can only belong to an American. In the novel, young Frank Gresham is inheriting an estate that has run out of money. He’s in love with Mary, an orphan girl of “questionable birth” who lives with her respectable uncle, Doctor Thorne. Frank’s family tries to set him up with Miss Dunstable, who’s about fifteen years his senior but massively rich. Like, Mr Darcy times a thousand. American nouveau riche. Miss Dunstable claims she’s in England looking for a husband, but she’s turned down a dozen proposals. Long story short – she doesn’t marry Frank. In Doctor Thorne‘s sequel Framley Parsonage, Miss Dunstable continues to turn down marriage proposals right and left, until she ends up marrying Doctor Thorne himself. It’s not quite a romance, but they’re both happy.

Half of what makes Miss Dunstable such a hilarious character is how she’s written to fit all the American stereotypes. She’s allowed into High Society because of her incredible wealth, but she has no idea how to fit in and very little desire to. In Framley Parsonage Trollope writes, “Mark Robarts had now turned away, and his attention was suddenly arrested by the loud voice of Miss Dunstable, who had stumbled across some very dear friends in her passage through the rooms, and who by no means hid from the public her delight upon the occasion. (…) She took hold of the lady and kissed her enthusiastically, and after that grasped both gentleman’s hands, shaking them stoutly” (Framley Parsonage Ch 8). A little later he continues, “All this had been said in so loud a voice that it was, as a matter of course, overheard by Mark Robarts – that part of the conversation of course I mean which had come from Miss Dunstable” (Ch 8).

Of course not all Americans are loud. Still, it’s one of those enduring stereotypes of the American tourist which, from personal experience as an American tourist, I can vouch for. But it’s not just Miss Dunstable’s flippancy and loud mouth that makes her American – it’s what she represents. She represent freedom, namely the freedom to choose. Frank is forced to marry money to continue his family name and is bound to responsibilities he never asked for. Miss Dunstable has the money, but she has no background. Her own parents were nobodies before they struck gold. In Doctor Thorne when she arrives at the home of the ancient family, the de Courceys, the first words out of her mouth are how she traveled from Rome to Paris in a sledge, and didn’t sleep in a bed once, followed by explaining how she avoided catching malaria and never observed the Sabbath. She’s abrasive, strong, and enjoys getting a rise out of people – particularly men.  She laughs, “For myself, I would never listen to a man unless I’d known him for seven years at least. (…) Or perhaps seven hours; eh, Mr Gresham?” (Doctor Thorne Ch 16).

To some degree it’s a way of protecting herself from men trying to win her fortune. But it’s also just who she is – she is a loud American girl, raised on a farm somewhere out west. She is, as a woman, completely free and self-sufficient. She doesn’t need a man – though she enjoys baiting them. Miss Dunstable is free to never choose a husband, but when she eventually does it is truly her choice. I hesitate to use the word “feminist,” since the concept was just blooming during Trollope’s lifetime, but I believe he is one of the best writers of women in his time period. They are more diverse and realistic in both their good qualities and flaws than many of his contemporaries.

The Way We Live Now also features a brash American woman, though Winifred Hurtle isn’t anywhere near as respectable as Martha Dunstable. Mrs. Hurtle is an American woman from the west, who carries a gun around and is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon and dueled with her husband. Mrs. Hurtle is a completely different creature from Miss Dunstable. She is highly intelligent, but it is shown again and again that she couldn’t make anyone a decent wife. She has much of the same freedom as Miss Dunstable but none of the social status. She’s wilder (and poorer) and therefore less able to integrate herself into the society of her lover, Paul. Paul is involved in one of the novel’s more complicated subplots – a pyramid scheme funded by British society, to build a railway to connect the United States and Mexico. Paul, a well-off but titleless Englishman, got himself engaged to the widowed (Divorced? Separated? We never really know) Mrs Hurtle. He returns to England from the midwest to rebuild his life, but the scorned Mrs Hurtle follows him.

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Miss Dunstable.

What really separates Mrs. Hurtle from Miss Dunstable here is how they handle themselves romantically. Paul treats Mrs. Hurtle terribly, trying to break his engagement because he’s fallen for the English rose, Hetta. Mrs. Hurtle has all the freedom and brash recklessness of an American, but without the choice. Paul throws her over for a more sensible and traditional bride. What makes Trollope’s writing in The Way We Live Now so fascinating is that he never really tells us who to root for. Mrs. Hurtle would make a dreadful wife for an Englishman, but should we agree with Paul’s decision to just ignore her because once in England again he is ashamed of her? One of my favorite lines from the novel is, “Love is like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it” (The Way We Live Now Ch 84).

Trollope addresses the unfairness of the social divide in his era, but also the overt sexism. In a terribly uncomfortable scene, after Paul rejects Mrs. Hurtle once and for all, Paul thinks, “They had played a game against each other, and he, with all the inferiority of his intellect to weigh him down, had won, – because he was a man. She (Mrs. Hurtle) had much time for thinking, and she thought much about these things. He could change his love as often as he pleased and be as good a lover at the end as ever; – whereas she was ruined by his defection. He could look about for a fresh flower and boldly seek his honey; whereas she could only sit and mourn for the sweets of which she had been rifled” (Ch 97). Despite her sordid past, she is one of the softer and more vulnerable characters in the novel as she battles unrequited love. She cried to Paul, when she hears of his attachment to Hetta, “Oh Paul. I am pleading to you for my life. Oh, that I could make you feel that I am pleading for my life” (Ch 26).  Despite the pleading her foremost emotion is anger. “She had no plans of revenge yet formed. (..) Could it be possible that she, with all her intellectual gifts as well as those of her outward person, should be overthrown by a man whom well as she loved him, – and she did love him with all her heart, – she regarded as greatly inferior to herself!” (Ch 17). In the end Mrs. Hurtle goes to San Francisco with a few of the novel’s other characters, in search of a fresh start. Ultimately, America is where she belongs. She is too evolved as a woman to fit into the sexist society Paul wants to live in.

Mrs. Hurtle tells Paul, “A woman’s weapon is her tongue” (Ch 47). She fights for him using every trick in the book – bribery, threats, begging. But she will never be right for Paul and in the end he wins the traditionally English Hetta. Although it is Paul who is trying to be free of Mrs. Hurtle by breaking their engagement, she’s the one who the reader is relieved for in the end. It’s Mrs. Hurtle’s freedom which is really won. Marriage often feels like a prison in The Way We Live Now, and ultimately the wild western Winifred Hurtle isn’t cut out for the restraints of a Victorian marriage.

Anthony Trollope never actually lived in America. What he knew he must have learned second-hand from his mother or friends or newspapers, which shows in his works. His Americans are caricatures with their abrasive pioneer spirits. But that’s what makes them stand out so boldly in his works. The contrast they make with the British society is a pop of color against a homogeneous background. What makes them so special is that they’re so rare. Very few British authors wrote about Americans, so Trollope’s caricatures give modern Americans a little snapshot of what we looked like back then to those outside of the States. But what I appreciate most about Trollope’s representations is that they’re women and they’re free. If that’s what British society thought of Americans, then I’m proud of being a part of that tradition.

Citations:

  • The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Public Domain Kindle Edition.
  • Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope. Public Domain Kindle Edition.
  • Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope. Public Domain Kindle Edition

Sarah V Diehl

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