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I don’t know whether university English departments still fill up with earnest young women who hope that they’ll learn something about life and love from Victorian novels, but mine did. Make no mistake, we had inklings of how misguided we were. My friends and I engaged in long conversations about how our favorite 19th-century authors portrayed girls like us: So many of George Eliot’s heroines practice a form of ecstatic renunciation while the ordinarily shrewd Jane Eyre seems oblivious to what Mr. Rochester’s past behavior suggests about him as a future husband. Scrutinizing the way classic fiction depicts women has become one of the well-worn grooves of scholarship, but I often think, looking back, that we’d have been better served by a bit more critical attention to how those books portray men.
One reason I wish that Anthony Trollope’s books had been assigned to me as an undergraduate is the exceptional realism of his heroes, if they can even be called that. The author himself sometimes jokes about this, as in Framley Parsonage, the fourth of his Barsetshire series, when he admits:
I know it will be said of Lord Lufton himself that, putting aside his peerage and broad acres, and handsome, sonsy face, he was not worth a girl's care and love. That will be said because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for the world's common wear and tear. I may as well confess that of absolute, true heroism there was only a moderate admixture in Lord Lufton's composition; but what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were to be thought worthy of women's love? What would the men do?
(In Barchester Towers, he anticipates a similar critique of Eleanor Bold, whom “well-bred” readers will reject as “unworthy of sympathy” because she is a “hoyden”—the Victorian version of unlikable.)
Trollope’s comic fiction never drops this teasing debate with the sentimental novels of his day. The mock apologies he issues for not fulfilling his readers’ idealized expectations make it clear that he doesn’t consider the novel to be a sacred enterprise that must be approached with the utmost reverence. He regards it as something that the novel has in fact always been: a species of bourgeois entertainment.
But if Trollope actually believed that diverting readers was all a novelist ought to attempt, then he wouldn’t have written the books he did. He commits himself to describing the world as he sees it, not as his readers wish it were, and part of the ironic humor in his work comes from the contrast between the “world’s common wear and tear” and the exalted passions of popular fiction. Furthermore, when I finally got around to reading his books in middle age, I instantly recognized the brilliance of his portrayal of young men—far superior to that of his female Victorian counterparts and a good number of the male ones. No one writes a worthless young man better than Trollope, with the possible exception of the British novelist he most resembles, Jane Austen. But Trollope also understands that the line between a hero and a bounder can be very difficult to discern, and that learning to draw it is a skill essential to the emotional well-being of any decent young lady.
In Barchester Towers, Bertie Stanhope serves as the quintessential Trollope wastrel. He’s so used to getting by on his good looks and bogus easy charm that he almost thinks that Eleanor will agree to marry him simply to help him out financially. There’s something faintly tragic about the self-destructiveness of this young man—who, Trollope informs us, might readily have fallen in love with Eleanor if only his family and best interests hadn’t called for just that; he can only bring himself to make bad choices. But then, what of Mr. Arabin, the novel’s unlikely romantic lead? The author assures us that, by the second half of the book, this middle-age cleric is genuinely in love with Eleanor, yet he persists in “dangling about” the hypnotic Signora Neroni, paying court among her regular crowd of admirers. His behavior even becomes the subject of disapproving gossip. Mr. Arabin himself doesn’t quite understand why he does this, although the Signora, as always, understands all.
It’s this dithering that makes even the best of Trollope’s men so believable. The one quality shared by the romantic heroes of the great Victorian novels written by women is certainty. Mr. Darcy wouldn’t be caught dead mooning around in the entourage of a disreputable married lady, however alluring she might be. Mr. Rochester pretends to flirt with the glamorous Blanche Ingram, but only as an experiment to test the depth of Jane’s feelings for him. (Doesn’t that sound exactly like an excuse your most manipulative college boyfriend would offer up after you caught him hovering over a pretty freshman by the beer keg?) Heathcliff never so much as looks at any woman who isn’t Cathy.
While men of this romantic temperament do exist, the chances of any heterosexual woman running into one of them, especially when both parties are in their 20s, are vanishingly slim. The young men I knew in college were fickle creatures, sometimes capable of grand romantic gestures but short on perseverance when it came to anything but unrequited love. That doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of forming real emotional attachments and sticking to them, only that most of them weren’t ready yet and didn’t really know what they wanted.
In Doctor Thorne, the third Barsetshire novel and the follow-up to Barchester Towers, we meet Frank Gresham, the son of a squire, good-hearted but a bit spoiled and also a bit of a flirt, at his 21st birthday party. In a quiet corner of the grounds, he professes his love to the beautiful heiress, Patience Oriel. “Anyone looking at Frank's face as he said this,” Trollope writes, “might well have imagined that he was breaking his very heart for love of Miss Oriel.” She, astutely, refuses to take him seriously. Only a few days before, he made similar protestations to a childhood friend, Mary Thorne (niece of the title character), and sure enough, he proposes to Mary again later that night, meeting a resistance that, while a lot less sincere than Patience’s, is just as firm: “Though Frank was only a boy, it behoved Mary to be something more than a girl,” Trollope remarks. Mary, unlike Patience, is penniless and, furthermore, illegitimate, and she knows Frank’s family will forbid the match.
Frank’s determination in the face of this prohibition doesn’t just prove his love; it forms it. The above-mentioned Lord Lufton makes a similar choice, defying his mother in proposing to Lucy Robarts, a clergyman’s sister of humble birth. Again, Trollope confirms that Lufton loves Lucy, but “sometimes, for a minute or two, he was half inclined to think—or rather to say to himself—that Lucy was perhaps not worth the trouble which she threw in his way. He loved her very dearly, and would willingly make her his wife, he thought or said at such moments; but—” Fortunately, “such moments, however, were only moments.” And the moment, for Lufton, is ripe. His mother, although doting, is a forceful woman, and the young lord soon realizes that, at age 26, the time has come to demonstrate exactly who’s the boss of him. Is Lucy really the One, or is she just the best girl to come along at the point in his life that he’s decided to become a man?
“Young men in such matters are so often without any fixed thoughts!” Trollope exclaims in the same book, an observation that my bookish friends and I might have benefited from greatly. Still, that is no cause to throw in the towel. “It is my belief,” he goes on, “that few young men settle themselves down to the work of the world, to the begetting of children, and carving and paying and struggling and fretting for the same, without having first been in love with four or five possible mothers for them, and probably with two or three at the same time. And yet these men are, as a rule, worthy of the excellent wives that ultimately fall to their lot … a man may be very imperfect and yet worth a great deal.”