Frances Trollope has arrived -- once again. In a recent interview, Sylvia Nasar, author of the award-winning A Beautiful Mind (her biography of John Forbes Nash Jr.), stated that the last truly great book she read was Trollope's The Widow Barnaby and that she has two biographies of the author on her night stand. Though Trollope's reputation suffered after her death from the taint of commercialism, she has lately been re-assessed. Long after her daughter-in-law's memoir of 1895 and Michael Sadleir's lengthy account of her in his Anthony Trollope (1927), full-length biographies have come from Johanna Johnston (1978), Helen Heineman (1984), Teresa Ransom (1995) and Pamela Neville-Sington (1997). Brenda Ayres has supervised the publication of eight of Trollope's novels by Pickering & Chatto: The Social Problem Novels (2008) and The Widow and Wedlock Novels (2011). More and more of her works are available in print and on the internet and starting to interest both scholars and general readers.
Drawn from a special issue of the journal Women's Writing (18.2 : 153-303), this book moves well beyond the story of her life and the overwhelming popularity of her first book, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Its introduction and seven essays examine thirteen of her thirty-five novels and touch upon a few of her other works. But contributors often refer to the celebrated book she wrote about her time in America. Leaving her husband in England, Trollope came to settle at a utopian community near Memphis, Tennessee along with two of her children and her son's art teacher, Auguste Hervieu. Disappointed by the community, she launched a shopping mall in Cincinnati, known as Trollope's Folly, which proved a disaster. But when she returned to England broke and published Domestic Manners, it became an immediate best-seller that was loved in England and hated in the United States. Part travel book and part memoir, this remains the only work of Trollope that is widely read and taught, although seldom in its entirety; selections from it appear in anthologies of Victorian literature. Here it is often cited for its early hints of Trollope's later work.
While previewing the mixture of autobiography and fiction to be found in Trollope's novels, Tamara S. Wagner's introduction prompts us to consider how her writing both exemplified and capitalized on "intersections between different literary developments" (1). Contributors link her to many other female writers, including Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau, Susanna Moodie, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, and with less frequency to male Victorian writers. As Wagner states, this set of essays "seeks firmly to situate Trollope amidst the versatile literary developments of her time" (3). Provocative in her day and accused of being unfeminine, Trollope wrote on social problems such as illegitimacy, slavery, and evangelicalism. While experimenting with trends and conventions, she simultaneously parodied them and extended or questioned genre boundaries. Unlike the Victorian "angel in the house," Trollope's most popular heroine, Mrs. Barnaby, is "fair, fat, and forty," and manipulates the society around her for her own advantage.
Trollope is hard to classify. Although born in 1779, just four years after Jane Austen, she started writing long after Austen's death, when she was over fifty. Published during the Victorian era, her novels mix an eighteenth century sensibility with a reforming zeal common to the nineteenth century. Her work varies greatly in subject matter, genre, and merit; she quickly published novels that could often have benefitted from extensive editing. (Like Margaret Oliphant, she often wrote early in the morning before her children awoke.) Novels also came from three of her children, above all from Anthony.
Barbara Pauk's essay shows how Trollope mined her emigrant experience. In addition to spending her last decades in Florence, she wrote three travel books about the European continent and set a third of her novels in Europe, four of them in the United States, and sections of others in Australia. She also displayed her cosmopolitanism in novels and other works describing France. Although many British people xenophobically disdained both the French and Catholics, Trollope personally enjoyed the intellectual life of France and treated it with appreciative respect.
In her essay on the theme of failed migration in Trollope's American novels, Wagner shows how--through satire and self-parody--she explores "a variety of questions about the impact of transatlantic relationships in the nineteenth century" (1). In The Barnabys in America, Trollope's anti-heroine Mrs. Barnaby tells everyone that she is writing a book, but she tailors the subject to her audience so that in the south she appears to support slavery while in the north she favors abolitionism. Thus she is assured of interest in her work, places to stay, and even financial backing. Since Mrs. Barnaby makes the best of wherever she may be, neither she nor her characters suffer from nostalgia, and because travelling (according to her) is easy, her characters often visit back and forth between continents.
Trollope's novels have frequently been read beside those of her son Anthony. In the most engaging essay of this collection, Elsie B. Michie adds Jane Austen to the mix. Examining the marriages in Pride and Prejudice (1813), Frances Trollope's One Fault (1840), and Anthony Trollope's He Knew He was Right (1869), she finds that just as Frances rewrites Austen, Anthony rewrites his mother. All three novels portray men who marry beneath them, but each couple responds to this inequality in a different way--by accommodating each other or struggling over dominance. While Darcy and Elizabeth work out their differences before marriage, the husbands in the other two novels fret about the decline of their power over their wives. Unable to listen to his wife, whom he still considers socially beneath him, the husband in One Fault tells her, "It is not seemly that a lady's voice should be heard in such a manner as to render that of her husband inaudible beside her (qtd. 20). Both Trollopes expose the political structure of marriage by linking its conflicts over "tyranny, power, civil rights, and liberty" (21) to the Reform Acts of 1832 (Frances) and 1867 (Anthony). But Anthony's novel complicates our judgment of the unhappy marriages it represents. While the wife in Frances's novel seems a victim of her husband's bullying, it is hard to see whom to blame for the conjugal friction portrayed by Anthony. Michie conjectures that Frances Trollope has dropped out of the canon because she did not depict a happy marriage. "Her novel," Michie writes, "does not supply the reassurance such unions suggest" (26), the customary regulation of marriage within a changing society. Bu if Trollope had ended her novels on a note of such regulation, would they be valued more highly today? Comparing her fiction to that of Jane Austen as well as Anthony is one way of reconsidering her place within the canon.
One reason why Trollope is hard to assess is that she wrote in so many different genres--sometimes combining them in a single work. Examining her three crime novels as well as the crime-novel elements to be found in works mostly of other genres, Lucy Sussex explains what Trollope contributed to the history of the crime novel and in particular of the female sleuth. Christine Sutphin considers the mixture of genres in The Barnabys in America, which uses both comedy and tragedy to portray a successful slave revolt. Arguing that this mixture explains why Trollope's novel is excluded from discussions of fiction about U.S. slavery. Sutphin urges us to "recognize how her anti-slavery fiction contributes to our constructions of British/American rivalry, true womanhood, grateful negroes, and heroic slaves" (75). Since Trollope found Americans radically inconsistent-- "with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves" (Domestic Manners, qtd. 63) --Sutphin finds this inconsistency reflected in her mix of comedy and tragedy.
Turning to Trollope's novels of social protest, Brenda Ayres examines her critique of evangelical beliefs in The Vicar of Wrexhill (1837). Trollope found the emotionality of the evangelicals dangerous because, exploiting the social influence of the Anglican church in Britain, they used sensation to sway the mentally weak. Besides evangelicalism, she attacked not only slavery in the United States, as already noted, but also the mistreatment of workers in British factories--each a "volatile topic" (128). Especially volatile were the topics of social injustice and sexual abuse in factories, for Susan Walton argues that Victorians could not accept the views of any woman writing about them. Although credited with promoting reform in the factory acts, Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840) drew more venom than was provoked by other novels on similar topics. Trollope was thought to have stepped across a line of propriety because her language and the book's images acknowledge sexual attraction between the men and women working in the factories. Walton cites an illustration for the novel, August Herview's "Love conquered Fear" (1840).
"Instead of giving weight to [Trollope's] story," Walton writes, "the pictures created a sensationalism which detracted from her serious intent, and especially in a book authored by a woman" (133). The limits of what was acceptable is such a book are exemplified by the contrast between the stated subject of "Love Conquered Fear" and the suggestive stance of the ill-clothed woman at right, which Walton calls an "indecent image" (133).
In her introduction, Wagner declares that "reappraisal of [Trollope's] work has so far remained piecemeal" (1). It remains so even now because of the extent of Trollope's output and because this volume leaves a good deal more work to be done in the close reading of her novels, in assessing her works and their illustrations, and in studying the influence of other writers on her as well as her influence on others. While appraising the diversity of her work, the present volume provides little overview or summation of her accomplishment and worth--no small task with such an extensive oeuvre. While the introduction surveys the essays, the contributors do not refer to each other's work, and though the volume is indexed, it includes no chronology or general bibliography. Nevertheless, the publication of this volume is cause for approval. Although Frances Trollope will never regain the popularity and notoriety she achieved in her lifetime, it is good news that she is once again being studied and appreciated.
Abigail Burnham Bloom
teaches at Hunter College, CUNY.