Morse's Reforming Trollope stands out as scholarship and criticism wonderfully apt for the novelist's 2015 bicentennial. As its title promises, it reassesses his extraordinary achievement and continuing relevance. Making "Trollope" both subject and object, the double-edged word "reforming" sums up what Morse sees him doing as his vocation plays out (he's a reformer) and what she wants to do (reform critical opinion about him). It also conveys the desires of readers, driven by history and their own psychology, to find in Trollope a writer who makes new discoveries for them about life's possibilities. Morse means to show that his fiction is challenging, unconventional, and surprising in its modernity.
Specifically, here is what distinguishes this study and makes it important:
1) fresh, informative close readings of episodes, characters, and passages in six resonant and sometimes neglected Trollope novels: The Small House at Allington (1864), Lady Anna (1874), Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1870), Ayala's Angel (1881), He Was Knew Right (1869), and Dr. Wortle's School (1881);
2) skillful, balanced, and informative discussion of Trollope scholarship and criticism in the last half-century;
3) a feminist, broadly political project in Victorian literary studies, structured in three parts--" Reforming Genre," "Reforming Gender," and "Reforming Race"--arguing that Trollope is a more liberal, progressive, experimental, and complex writer than is generally recognized;
4) a Trollope living in a changing world whose wide professional, social, and international experience--combined with his modest ego, tolerance, brilliant imagination, and an obsession to keep on writing--opened him up to the reformist drives and concerns sweeping through the Victorian age;
5) a paradoxical, think-small way of getting at the full range of accomplishment in Trollope's planet of prose (47 novels, plus all those stories and non-fiction books) without oversimplifying him and missing the complexities and contradictions of his self-effacing genius: she focuses on particular subjects and themes, quirky episodes, a few transitional characters, unexpected commentary, and repressed areas of emotional life to show his evolving vision;
6) an engagement with the crucial critical issue of the autobiographical imperatives of both writers and their readers over time: the coding of allegorical meaning into literature (but whose allegory is it?) blurs the line between the coders and decoders of meaning--between artists and diverse audience members in the process of creative reading;
7) her argument, in what she calls the "most original" part of her book, that in He Knew He Was Right and Dr. Wortle's School, Trollope not only presents the issue and impact of black-slave- Anglo-American history in English life, but specifically makes it the core of this fiction;
8) explicit discourse on English national character and Trollope's sense of "Englishness," an influential but slippery, often divisive concept that became a fuse-setter in the coming age of identity politics and capital-D Diversity;
9) ample if implicit stress on one of the longest-lasting questions in art, criticism, and scholarship: in determining the worth of artists, how much weight should we give to their moral correctness and agreement with progressive developments of later history?
In Part 1, Morse bases her view of Trollope as a reformer of genre on his treatment of the pastoral tradition in The Small House (Chapter 1: "Broken English Pastoral: The Small House at Allington") and "the marriage plot" in Lady Anna (Chapter 2: "Sailing to Australia, Reading Othello, Transforming the Marriage Plot"). In The Small House, she argues, he transforms the pastoral, with its idyllic country-life roots, into a realistic story of sentimental love's doom, intrusive urban and economic pressures, and the clashing desires--both in self and society-- of accelerating modernity. The marriage plot of Lady Anna, she shows, reverses the Pamela/Elizabeth Bennett/ Jane Eyre formula of needy girl marrying rich and features a noble girl choosing a dark, working-class man rather than a Lord.
"The modern tragedy of The Small House at Allington," Morse writes, "is that of fallen urban man haunted by the pastoral ideal" (36). But here "the pastoral ideal" would have to be less fuzzy and more vital to the conscious mental life of Trollope and his characters to make it an enduring tragic ghost (as, arguably, it is in Sir Harry Hotspur). He seems insufficiently interested in some clear, unbroken pastoral tradition to make it a key peg on which to hang the concept of Trollope the genre reformer.
But Morse does indeed show him a genre reformer in The Small House because he comes across here as a leading reviser of the sap-happy-love-story and the idealization of the marriage plot. The best part of this chapter focuses on two tormented characters: the brainy, charming heroine Lily Dale and her lover, the clever, ambitious jilt Adolphus Crosbie. As Morse shows, the novel treats unsentimentally his choice to marry for status not love, and she stresses the volatile force of this failure of love and (as often in later Trollope) the unforeseen, ongoing neurotic life it brings and spreads. In these two figures' obsessive memories --saved in their internal hard drive--of intense, romantic moments, "Trollope's novel," says Morse, "imprints the schisms of modernity" (25) and a dark vision that leads him to detox the opium of romance.
In a new reading of Lady Anna on chapter 2, Morse highlights particular autobiographical imperatives driving the composition of this fine novel. Trollope wrote it in two months in a ship's cabin while sailing to Australia with his wife Rose to visit their son Fred; to his mother's evident chagrin, Fred was marrying a woman beneath the Trollopes' social class. During the trip, Anthony avidly reread Shakespeare's Othello, which he called "one of the grandest works of human genius" (qtd. 47). He was, after all, headed for a land of mixed population with both dark and light-skinned people, and Morse makes much of what she says are many conscious allusions to the play in the novel.
Class conflict roils in Lady Anna and brings out Trollope the reformer of class, which so often produces its own brands of sociopathic warfare. Morse aims to combine that Trollope with a racially conscious reformer, which is why she features Othello. Lady Anna's mother, the Countess Lovel, had nobody to stand up for her except the Tailor Thwaite and his working-class son Daniel, whose support made it possible for her to establish her noble rank. Noting that Trollope makes Daniel very dark, Morse adopts, revises, and pushes what Maurice Hunt has inferred from his complexion:
The English artisan Daniel Thwaite becomes a figurative black man presumably because Shakespeare's Othello exerted a pull on him in 1871, of such force that the play becomes a subtext in the novel ("Anthony Trollope's Lady Anna and Shakespeare's Othello", Victorian Newsletter [September 22, 2006] 19).
As Morse notes, Lady Anna sees Daniel as "swarthy, hard-handed, black-bearded--with a noble fire in his eyes, but with an innate coarseness about his mouth which betokened roughness as well as strength" (qtd. 59). Rather than the pretty, blond, blue-eyed Earl who proposes to her, Anna, like Desdemona, chooses to wed a dark man--but one who takes her away not to a tragic realm, but to the more egalitarian territory of (surprise, surprise!) Australia.
In Part 2, on gender reform in Trollope, Morse focuses on English patriarchal custom in Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and the dehumanizing mercenary marriage market in Ayala's Angel.
Sir Harry Hotspur features the quiet, disastrous fate of Sir Harry and his daughter Emily, two flawed but admirable characters who love each other. It is in this, his most tragic novel, that you can find what Morse calls Trollope's "broken" English pastoral. For the virtuous landowner Hotspur, preserving his country estate is a sacred trust; he must do his "part in maintaining that order . . . by which England had become . . .the proudest and the greatest and the justest of nations" (qtd. 72). When Hotspur's son dies, the ensuing crisis foregrounds both the problem of primogeniture and, more broadly, the disempowering plight of women living under a system that rigidly prescribes their functions:
The House of Hotspur, which had lived and prospered for so many years, was to live and prosper through her [Emily]; or rather mainly through the man whom she should choose to be her husband. The girl was all-important now, but once she should have disposed of herself her importance would be almost at an end (qtd. 81).
Morse shows Trollope invoking the full power of cultural history for his story of gender trouble.
Though Sir Harry has heard bad things about his kinsman George Hotspur, he introduces him to Emily because a match between them would "join the Hotspur title and lands" (qtd. 71). She falls deeply in love with George, but when her father learns how wicked this cousin really is, he prevents their marriage, breaking her heart. (George steals, cheats, lies and lives on the money of his mistress, Lucy Morton, a decent woman he treats like dirt.).
Trollope, says Morse, makes clear how terribly twisted male ideology can be when it tries to make women into icons of purity. Sir Harry learns to value and love his daughter deeply, but rather than let Emily marry and live with George, he would rather see her dead--and die himself:
Better [death] for them all than that she should be contaminated by the touch of a thing so vile as this cousin. She was pure as snow, clear as a star, lovely as an opening rosebud. As she was, let her go to her grave, --if need be so. For himself, he could die too" (qtd. 73).
In the shocking lines that follow, Sir Harry compares himself to legendary leaders who sacrificed their daughters to gods: "Other fathers, since Jephtha [The Bible, "Book of Judges"] and Agamemnon [Greek mythology] have recognized it as true that heaven has demanded from them their daughters" (qtd. 73). Such mythic mania in Trollope makes clear how female life can get turned into male metaphysics on behalf of some supernatural father principle.
As Morse recognizes, however, the human wreckage in this novel --as in Shakespeare's Lear-Cordelia tragedy--holds out possibilities of evolution, reform, and redemption in father-daughter relationships. "Do you think," says a changed Sir Harry to the girl, "that you are no more to me than the acres, or the house, or the empty title? They are nothing to my love for you" (qtd. 81).
Yet the leading hope for gender reform in the novel, Morse shows, is the actress Lucy Morton, who openly lives in sin with George. Though she has been all but ignored by previous critics, Trollope imagines her as a good woman--strong, not weak--talented, hard working, and self-reliant in very bad circumstances. As the lesser of evils, she eventually chooses to marry George, who depends on her to make their lives respectable. In her coping skills, will, and independent mind, this minor character reads as a sign of gender progress to come--as no one but Morse has quite said before.
In Chapter 4, Morse argues that Ayala's Angel offers a sharp, complex exposé of "the marriage market as truly sordid" (qtd. 91)--a poison-bearer for women's freedom. "Reforming gender" here means getting women to question both the idealization of love and the commercial interests that make marriages happen. Trollope is always imagining the tense relationship between love and money in matchmaking, but as Ayala's Angel shows, it is rarely a simple one. If women (and men too) find, willy-nilly, that they must live in a mutual marriage mart, they become both shoppers and robotic merchandise--customers and things of price (dear or cheap). The novel has been praised for its wit and unsentimental erotic faith, but Morse stresses its dark side, revealing the commodification of love and beauty.
When Ayala and her sister lose their parents, the poor girls get taken in by well-off relatives who objectify them. They are evaluated, traded back and forth, shown off, and set out as polished objects in society's Cupid Store. "Scintillating," beautiful, and a talented singer, Ayala becomes a status symbol and an "attraction"-- "at once an object of art and a performing artist." (95). Through Trollope, Morse takes on a subject often avoided: the complicated effects of a gorgeous woman's allure and value not just on others but on herself. Among her identities, a lovely girl cannot help seeing herself as a beautiful thing, and at first Ayala resents being a "pearl of great price" that some flawed man could buy and own. She wants no mate, she thinks, but a perfect one. This angel-of-light fantasy expresses a young woman's resistance to being objectified, but also, more subtly, it shows the beautiful self buying into a celestial-display-window version of commodification: if I'm a perfect piece, I deserve and must only have an ideal setting and an ideal being. Morse explains how Ayala must and does grow out of the unconscious pride in spiritual wealth expressed by her angel-of-light mind-set; she learns to feel real desire and love for plain Stubbs, who is not handsome, but (to Ayala) proves to be a very sexy, witty, nice, successful man of the world. Hence Morse's chapter title, "Legitimizing the Vulgar," which articulates the need to expose the commercial vulgarity of the marriage mart, but also to embrace honestly life's physical essence not as a commodity but as a sensual process of real joy.
Part 3, "Reforming Race," is the book's most problematic section. Intending, she says, "to shake up [the] view of Trollope" (114), Morse argues that He Knew He Was Right and Dr. Wortle's School prove him a conscious, adamant race reformer. But do the few exploratory, veiled allusions to race in these two masterful novels really support her repeated claim that race prejudice, black slavery and the issue of miscegenation pump the very heart of this fiction?
He Knew He Was Right features the tragic marriage of Louis Trevelyan, early on a "best and brightest" young Victorian, and the beautiful, self-confident Emily Rowley, eldest daughter of the Governor of the tropical Mandarin Islands. It seems at first an ideal match, but out of perverted sexual jealousy, bad luck, and a will to dominate his strong wife, Trevelyan gradually goes mad, tormenting her and separating her from their child. Finally his crazy behavior destroys and kills him, but not before his sado-masochistic mind brings agony to his wife and son and painful trouble to their family and friends.
Morse maintains that this marriage plot stands analogically for British imperial history, the enslavement and exploitation of blacks in Jamaica, and the bloody massacre of hundreds of ex-slaves ordered by Governor Eyre in 1865. "Trollope," she says, "was exploring these questions of race, gender and imperialism as he displaced them upon the Trevelyan marriage" (qtd. 121). Though Emily is upper-class, Morse argues, her black eyebrows and hair and her brown skin tanned under the Caribbean sun all combine to make her symbolize history's darker races: "Through the resistance of her rebellious spirit and the survival of her dark-haired 'brown'-skinned body," Morse writes, " . . .the dark Englishwoman is coded as the slave [note the passive phrasing) who rebels against her master and usurps his authority" (120).
That is a stretch, especially since Morse quickly adds: "And this is despite the obvious fact that Emily is the white daughter of the English colonial Governor of the Mandarins" (120). Morse thus claims that a symbolic "code" transforms Emily's race even while recognizing that the words of the text contradict the image of the oppressed young woman as a Negro slave. And the identity of the coder--writer, reader, and/or critic--surely gets blurred. Here Morse risks implying that an allegorical code must be there just because she says so.
The rhetorical strategy of making the oppression of women explicitly parallel with the social structures of racial exploitation, white superiority, and black inferiority is a tricky business. Such a tack can seem to ignore or downplay the very different consequences of racism and enslavement by color on the one hand, and male dominance of women on the other. Morse's notable, valuable insight here is not that Trollope is encoding a tight allegory equating collective racial subjugation with patriarchal custom and cruelty in marriage, but that in the daily English life of his changing world he finds the probability of increasing color consciousness about oppressive imperial history.
It is in that sense that I read Morse's provocative chapter on the "reform" novel, Dr. Wortle's School. Trollopians have admired the book mainly because it features the gutsy behavior of Dr. Jeffrey Wortle, a proud, kind schoolmaster and cleric in classic England (Bowick Parish). Despite the risk to his own material interests, his school's reputation, and the marriage prospects of his daughter, he has the courage to "do the right thing" and stand up against social pressure (even from his devoted Christian wife) and the lock-step dogma of his Church. The book centers on his decision to support and help vindicate the virtuous Henry and Ella Peacocke--victimized for their inadvertent bigamy. "The circumstances in this case," says Dr. Wortle, "are so strange, so peculiar, that they excuse a disregard even of the law of God and man" (qtd. 152).
Again aiming "to stir things up" (134), Morse reads Dr. Wortle's School in the dark light of race and what she calls Trollope's entry into continuing transatlantic discourse about "the legacy of slavery" (134). Using her racial "code" method, she asserts, "The bigamy plot is a mask that displaces racial fears" (134).
That plot features Dr. Wortle's best teacher, Henry Peacocke, a fellow Oxonian who has returned from America with his "darkly beautiful" American wife Ella, supposedly a widow. Why are they suspected of bigamy? Trollope summarily explains in a few paragraphs. At the end of the Civil War Ella Beauford, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a ruined Southern landowner, was married off to Ferdinand Lefroy, son of another Louisiana planter who lost his property and slaves. In St. Louis, Peacocke, a high college official, saw Ella scandalously abused by her husband--a drunken, disreputable ex-Confederate soldier and outlaw--and his brother Robert. After Henry stepped in to befriend and help Ella, they heard that her despicable husband was killed. Peacocke took pains to check the report, traveling all the way to the Tex-Mex borderlands where Robert verified Ferdinand's death. Henry and Ella fell deeply in love and soon joyously married. But a few months later the drunkard Ferdinand suddenly turned up alive, called on them, then disappeared again. Rather than end the happy marriage and leave Ella prey again to the Lefroy brothers, Peacocke gave up his professorship and took her to England, where they wound up at the school, living highly respected as man and wife.
But though they hear another report of Ferdinand's death, the rumor and charge of bigamy still haunts them: Robert shows up at the school to blackmail the couple, claiming his brother is still alive; Henry has to tell Dr. Wortle the whole of his would-be bigamous marriage and then return to the USA to find out whether Ella's "ex" is really is "ex." Wortle, defying his community and church, supports the morally admirable, vulnerable couple and refuses to ostracize Ella or fire Henry if it can be proven they are free to marry in a valid Christian ceremony.
Morse rides her own autobiographical imperative very hard. Firmly applying her allegorical code, she claims that the "bigamy" business here is a trope for miscegenation and interracial marriage: "Trollope," she declares, "writes a coded story about a beautiful brown Creole woman who 'passes' as white and is then recognized as 'Other,' as contaminated by black blood" (153). More accurately, Morse reads, sees, and writes down such a "coded" story. The gist of her argument that Trollope is a purposeful race reformer jumps out in these assertions:
Trollope is insisting that English identity must include a confrontation of England's history of . . . the slave trade that furnished the plantations of the American South (134-5, emphasis mine).
Trollope writes an abolitionist story of the emancipation of a slave woman by a worthy Englishman" (153).
The struggle for recognition of the Peacocke marriage is at bottom a racial struggle that is coded as a sin against the Church of England and a moral affront to the community (151)
And yet the novel barely mentions race. There is no direct discussion of racial issues and identity in Dr. Wortle's School--nothing that asserts Ella is not the legitimate daughter of a white Southerner, no words to indicate that it is race and racial prejudice that cause any characters in England or America to find her marriage to Peacocke improper; no sign that her facial features, complexion, and physical appearance seem either alien or off-putting to white people. Morse's allegorical projection of a Creole slave story onto Dr. Wortle to "shake things up" (114) might indeed seem for some a bit shaky.
Nevertheless, this chapter is truly eye-opening when she speculates about what the putative past of people like Ella and the Lefroys may have been, might mean and cause us to infer. Trollope's Americans here prompt Morse to write a fascinating, illuminating scholarly discourse about Creole history in Louisiana, the history of women with slave ancestry, their mating relationship with white men, and the broad social and international significance of the subject.
A real critical issue in this book is the value for literary study of the autobiographical imperative to find and argue for allegorical codes of meaning. Identifying allegorical imperatives can raise subjects and views that expand what a piece of art offers. In the hands of a gifted scholar like Morse the method--for me, at least--can enrich a novel and literature in general even when I disagree with a particular reading. I don't believe that Trollope puts race per se at the center of Dr. Wortle's School, but, as Morse shows, he imagines in it a setting and figures that indicate how race could and would impinge upon provincial life and create new global life. Her work therefore is immensely useful in helping us think about racial matters in the wide mutant world in which Trollope lived--and we do too.
With her insight and scholarship, Morse repeatedly makes it possible for us to find ourselves, as she finds herself, in the fictional worlds she analyzes. And with all those vital, change-you-can-believe-in novels of Trollope on shelves and e-readers, let's hope this excellent book is not her last chronicle of Trollope.
Robert M. Polhemus is Joseph S. Atha Professor in Humanities and Professor of English, Emeritus, Stanford University.