How much cruelty can you squeeze into a 150,000 word novel?
A huge amount, if that book is Lady Anna, written by Anthony Trollope at the astonishing rate of 16,500 words a week on a voyage from England to Australia between 25 May and 19 July 1871.
The plot (no spoilers follow) revolves around a conflict: should the eponymous heroine marry a low-born tailor; or a young earl, of her own class? She loves the tailor – or does she? Almost every other character in the book, especially her mother, believes she should marry the earl; and subject her to extraordinary pressure to bring about this result.
This is heavy stuff. As so often with Trollope, his female characters are often more attractive than his men, some of whom, like Anna’s father the earl, are vile:
It must be told that the Earl was a man who had never yet spared a woman in his lust. It had been the rule, almost the creed of his life, that woman was made to gratify the appetite of man, and that the man is but a poor creature who does not lay hold of the sweetness that is offered to him… The life which he had led no doubt had had its allurements, but it is one which hardly admits of a hale and happy evening. Men who make women a prey, prey also on themselves.
Traditionally the book is considered to be about class: are classes – the nobility, or the working class – intrinsically different? Can a member of one class marry a member of another? Can an individual move from one class to another? For example, where the tailor, Thomas Thwaite (speaking first), discusses with his son Daniel:
‘There must be earls and countesses.’
‘I see no must in it. There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, over-grown brutes roaming miserable and hungry through the undrained woods, – cold, comfortless, unwieldy things, which have perished in the general progress.’
Trollope’s socially advanced message fell on stony ground in 1871. It feels a bit passe 147 years later. Indeed, while Trollope was consciously adopting radical positions, many of his own convictions, as embodied by some sympathetic characters in the book (a “Lakeland poet” or the Solicitor-General) feel pretty conservative today.
Where Lady Anna remains entirely relevant is in its depiction of how the eponymous heroine comes under pressure from society to “do the right thing”; and how she responds. The pressure to conform does not apply only to women; but in a society where women have less power than men, the pressure on the former will always be greatest.
Nor does that pressure come only from men. Here is how Lady Anna’s mother, Lady Lovel, describes the prospect of her daughter marrying a tailor:
‘Of what good will her life be to herself, or to any one else, if she pollute herself and her family by this marriage? It would be better than she should be dead, – much better that she should be dead.’
Or later: ‘If her girl should do this thing, which would make her life a burden to her, – how good it would be for her to die!’
When Anna (speaking first) protests that she is pledged to Daniel Thwaite, Lady Lovel is unsympathetic:
‘Mamma, it cannot be. I am his, and I must not forget him or be ashamed of his name; – no, not for a day.’
‘Then go from me, ungrateful one, hard of heart, unnatural child, base, cruel and polluted. go from me, if it be possible, for ever!’
Daniel himself, meanwhile, although in theory a radical socialist, is depicted as having conservative views on relations between the sexes, as Trollope observes when Daniel describes potential financial arrangements for a future wife:
‘I don’t want my wife to have anything of her own before marriage,’ said he; ‘but she certainly shall have nothing after marriage, – independent of me.’ For a man with sound views of domestic power and marital rights always choose a radical!
I find admirable the sympathy with which Trollope treats Lady Anna as society lays siege to her. As I said in my blog Trollope: 11 reasons to read him, ‘Trollope writes perceptively about relationships and sexual politics. His novels boil with strong women, from the indomitable Lady Glencora to my favourite, Miss Dunstable (an heiress who will not be pushed around by any man – not even the all-powerful Duke of Omnium). Many Trollope women feel more emancipated, or tormented by their lack of emancipation, than their sisters in some contemporary novels.’
Trollope also lays into a number of other, still relevant targets in the novel. One is how media and public opinion focus on an issue, then forget about it – here in the attention to how Lady Anna and her mother have been abused:
No usage to which woman had ever been subjected, as has been said before, was more adapted to elicit compassion and energetic aid. But nineteen years had now passed by since the deed was done, and the facts were forgotten.
Another is the hypocrisy to which we all are prone in matters of the truth:
Who yet ever met a man who did not in his heart of hearts despise an attempt made by others to deceive – himself? They whom we have found to be gentler in their judgement towards attempts made in another direction [ie their own deceiving of others] have been more than one or two.
Finally, Trollope remarks wryly on weddings, in terms which I happened to read the day after watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle:
On such occasions the part of the bride is always easily played. It is her duty to look pretty if she can, and should she fail in that, – as brides usually do, – her failure is attributed to the natural emotions of the occasion. The part of the bridegroom is more difficult. He should be manly, pleasant, composed, never flippant, able to say a few words when called upon, and quietly triumphant. This is almost more than moral can achieve, and bridegrooms generally manifest some shortcomings at the awful moment.
For: fascinating and often fresh look at a series of contemporary issues, including women’s rights.
Against: a bit slow in parts, so only 7/10