This is an edited version of the lecture given on 27 October 2022 at the AGM of the Trollope Society in the Reform Club.
One hundred and forty years ago this December, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope died laughing over a novel.
The book that so amused him was Vice Versa, by F Anstey – a story about a father who magically becomes identical to his schoolboy son, and discovers that his sentimental memories of schooldays are mistaken. It’s not surprising that Trollope, who endured such misery at Winchester that when visitors to the school heard loud screams, they were told they came from the older Trollope beating the younger one, should have found the idea of an adult become a schoolboy again funny. But neither is it surprising that this novelist, whose great gift is for showing how characters change their minds, should have died laughing at also changing bodies. However, I want to begin with a brief outline of how Anthony Trollope changed my life, back in the 1980s.
Very briefly, the young man I had been in love with for two years ditched me for someone rich, whom he married. It was an excruciating experience, especially as I was given to understand that, even more than my inconvenient belief in fidelity, my being without a trust fund meant that I was disposable.
Soon after, in the middle of a deep recession and a freezing winter, I lost my job and my confidence. I spent over a year working as a cleaner in order to pay the rent on my damp, unheated room in Camden Town. Partly to keep warm, partly to find better employment, and partly not to sink into complete misery, I haunted my local library. One day, I picked up the best corrective in the world to my wounded feelings: The Eustace Diamonds.
It was not only the start of a lifelong passion for Trollope, it opened my eyes concerning the twin powers of money and love. At just twenty-two, I had not even begun to think about marriage. Much of what Trollope’s characters discussed struck me as shockingly venal, and yet, in the light of my recent experience, dreadfully honest.
The Eustace Diamonds seems an immensely worldly, and is very funny, novel. Its heroine Lizzie Eustace is a young woman whose beauty snags a rich and aristocratic husband, knowing him to be mortally ill, and though she becomes a wealthy widow when he dies, she refuses to give up the diamond necklace that may or may not belong to his family. Her acquisitiveness, her lies, her manipulations and self-deceptions as she attempts to enlist the support of various suitors amused me. Unlike Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe she isn’t an adulteress or a murderess, she simply likes jewels. What fascinated me more however, was the love triangle between Lizzie, her cousin Frank Greystock and the poor governess Lucy, whom Frank loves but feels he cannot afford to marry.
As is often the case when two characters have names beginning with the same letter, the two women are different faces of womanhood. Lizzie Eustace’s money, cleverness and charms give her agency, whereas Lucy suffers in dignified silence like Patient Griselda, waiting for her fiancé to make their engagement public. In contrast to Lizzie’s fabulous necklace, Lucy’s only diamonds are her eyes – yet her inner resources, moral scruples and spirit means that, eventually, she gets her man. He changes his mind; or rather, he realises his true feelings. Love triumphs over money, and though Frank knows he will be a “poor” as a mere barrister, he is the better for it.
Naturally, I found this story a balm. Most variants of Cinderella are, and it’s the reason why it remains the most popular fairy-tale in the world. Trollope was to recycle it many times, just as Jane Austen did before him. I had read Austen , but I had not really understood that the forces at work in her world were still to be found in mine. Reading The Eustace Diamonds, I began to understand how very naïve I had been.
I am not saying that, as a result of beginning to read Trollope, I myself became fixated on finding a rich husband – far from it. I had many more choices, in that thanks to education and emancipation, I could support myself through a job, and I am a feminist. What Trollope did show me, however, was that marriage was something that I wanted, and if I was to find a loving husband rather than a succession of disappointing partners, I had to think very hard about what qualities to look for, and how to change my luck. I had to stop wasting my youth and affections on men who simply didn’t deserve them and find – what?
In Trollope’s day, marriage was the only career that a respectable woman could have, and also the speediest way for an attractive but impecunious man to make his life easy. Money and love in his work are like the twin poles in a battery, whose attraction and repulsion create the charge that powers his fiction. He shows how people might be persuaded, or coerced, into decisions that run contrary to their deeper selves. Though his plots are conventional, and predictable, what is amazing about them is the depth of their psychology in pursuit of these twin goals, so often incompatible.
There are two times in your life, I believe, when Trollope is especially important. One is when you are middle aged, and are able to look back on the choices you have made in life. But the other, more crucial, time is in your twenties, when you are attempting to divine how the world works. Trollope’s great genius is to show how and why his characters vacillate between one choice and another, pushed and pulled by ambition, emotion, necessity and desire. They are, as it were, a hot-bed of cold feet. Above all, he understands how the right choice in marriage is critical to finding happiness, and that to go in quest of this is not sordid or demeaning but something that deserves sober consideration as well as passionate attraction.
Everyone in his novels is obsessed by money, even when they despise it. Trollope diminished his reputation for about a hundred years when he revealed in his Autobiography how much he made from his books, and yet any professional writer is both an artist and a labourer. Trollope himself, as the son of a failed barrister and best-selling, if scandalous mother, must always have been acutely aware of economics. His family’s flight to Belgium to avoid creditors during his boyhood, his interrupted education at Winchester and Harrow; his inability to go to Oxford like his father and elder brother, and his lowly clerk’s job in the Post Office were all driven by the lack of funds. The anguish of this kind of poverty, which is of course nothing like the terrible deprivations that Dickens and Hardy described, is still real, humiliating and the cause of misery.
The marriage market was indeed a market in which birth, virtue, accomplishments and looks were all given a pecuniary value. Elizabeth Bennet teases Mr Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice, when he complains that “Younger sons cannot marry where they like” by asking what the usual price of an earl’s younger son would be, adding, “Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds.” It’s a joke that has a sting to it, although Austen’s heroines all, as it were, buck the market by being loved and valued for their own qualities despite the baleful effect of having too little (or in Emma Wodehouse’s case, too much) money.
Readers of Jane Austen are still shocked by the way people discuss (and thanks to published information, did know) exactly how much money individual members of the gentry had to bring to a union, and where it comes from. However, she does not tell us what we now call their lifestyle costs. Trollope is the only Victorian novelist I can think of who repeatedly makes this explicit for different levels of genteel life. A couple cannot marry and live in England on £500 a year, according to Ayala’s uncle in Ayala’s Angel – but Frank Gresham’s father, a landowner, is “a poor man” on £14,000 a year. Trollope’s heroes frequently agonise on whether or not they can afford to marry on £600 a year, which is what as we know from his Autobiography, he did himself – because this meant that, according to Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, they could afford three servants. Being an MP was unpaid unless, like Phineas Finn, you became a junior minister. That yields what sounds like a modest income – but in real life, a junior minister was paid £1500 a year, worth approximately £222,000 today. No wonder ours complain about being ill-paid!
Some attitudes to money have not changed, however. Today, we can satisfy burning curiosity by looking up on Zoopla what our friends’ homes cost, and are worth now, but in Trollope’s day, actually revealing the sum was the height of ill-breeding. In Dr Thorne, the dismal Louis Scatcherd, who has inherited his father’s self-made fortune, insists on asking the company at the squire’s dinner party to guess what his late father’s house, built on the squire’s former land, cost. When they politely demur, the new baronet tells them triumphantly, “twenty-two thousand, four hundred and nineteen pounds, four shillings and eightpence.” It’s as funny and embarrassing to a modern audience, as it must have been to a Victorian one.
But becoming rich through actual labour, or trade, was considered to be a stain on pretensions of genteel birth – unless, that is, you were selling your children, or yourself, in marriage. This is the aspect of Victorian life that, like its racism, is the most alien and repugnant.
One of his most chilling openings comes in The Claverings, when Julia Brabazon asks her lover, “Why should I not marry a man with a large income? You are very handsome, Harry, and you too should go into the market and make the best of yourself.”
With an income of £200 and debts of £600, she is determined that, as she puts it, love should not be her master. Her lover can choose a different future, being educated, but Julia has “no choice but to be married well, or go out.” She marries a sickly, bald nobleman whom she does not love, and though she is a good and faithful wife to him Trollope still condemns Julia for not bringing to him what he calls “a virgin heart.” To the modern reader, this is hugely dismaying, and yet part of his genius is that, he can’t help but sympathise with his vulnerable heroines. He can see things from different points of view, and make us sympathise with each – up to a point. Trollope expresses “the depth of my scorn for women who run down husbands” like foxes in a hunt, but he can’t help showing us “all the patience, all the courage, all the self-abnegation – and all the failure” of ageing husband-hunters like Arabella Trefoil, in The American Senator.
Unlike his contemporaries, Trollope does not give us detailed description of landscapes or clothes or weather or food or even houses in his books, just his characters’ appearance, thoughts, conversations, feelings – and incomes. We feel their wants and their needs: the clean linen, the subscription to the circulating library, the ability to ride to hounds or stand for Parliament, and we have a fair estimation of what is needed to afford these.
In the fiction of today, money is the new sex: unmentionable. We must endure a good deal of detail about modern fictional couplings but know nothing about how characters manage to support themselves. A hundred and fifty years ago, it was the reverse. Novels told us nothing about Victorian characters’ sex lives (other than by suggestive responses to nature) but an enormous amount about their income and expectations. There is a practical reason for this change, as well as one to do with changing social mores. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital points out that, up to the First World War, novelists from Austen to EM Forster could describe specific sums of money belonging to their characters because for one hundred years, from 1814 to 1914, there was very slow inflation. An audience had a very good idea of what Mr Darcy’s £10,000 a year was worth.
Only after the First World War, when major European governments left the gold standard, did inflation gallop away and sums like £600 or £10,000 a year lose their practical significance.
One consequence of this was that money virtually disappeared from literature, not only in Europe but in America. It took until the 1990s for the level of wealth and disposable income to stabilise and return to levels equal to those observed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – and it is curious how, almost as soon as this happened, the mention of money reappeared, not just in commercial fiction but in new novels about the State of the Nation as writers on both sides of the Atlantic, from Tom Wolfe and Lionel Shriver, to John Lanchester and myself started naming the cost of living.
It still remains a sensitive topic however. It is one thing to read Fifty Shades of Grey and fantasise about the immense … wealth … of the billionaire hero, but readers of literary fiction also deserve to know what different life-styles currently cost. In my most recent novel, The Golden Rule, the upper-class mother-in-law of my impoverished heroine Hannah believes that the living wage is £80,000 a year. This is drawn from life.
Some of the lives Trollope describes, of country house parties and fox-hunting, seem so remote from our own as to constitute fantasy. However, what he describes of the young waiting to inherit some money from their relations in order for their lives to begin has become highly topical again, as Millennials find themselves unable to afford their own homes, unable to start families or even leave that of their baby boomer parents.
Dr Thorne is all about this scenario. His lovers admit their love for each other almost from the start, but cannot marry because young Frank Gresham’s patrimony has been wasted by his father. All his relations tell him he must marry money, and Mary Thorne, the illegitimate niece of a provincial doctor, has neither birth nor fortune. How can the young lovers remain true to each other in the face of pecuniary pressure, which only the eponymous doctor resists?
Frank is brave, and determined – so much so that he says he will actually find employment as a barrister or an engineer if Mary will have him – but it is Miss Dunstable, the heiress to the £200,000 fortune deriving from her father’s Ointment of Lebanon, who is most stern. When Frank pays half-hearted court to her, this is her response:
“Sell yourself for money! why, if I were a man I would not sell one jot of liberty for mountains of gold. What! tie myself in the heyday of my youth to a person I could never love, for a price! perjure myself, destroy myself—and not only myself, but her also, in order that I might live idly! Oh, heavens! Mr Gresham! can it be that the words of such a woman as your aunt have sunk so deeply in your heart; have blackened you so foully as to make you think of such vile folly as this? Have you forgotten your soul, your spirit, your man’s energy, the treasure of your heart? And you, so young! For shame, Mr Gresham! for shame—for shame.”
The key to Dr Thorne and Frank Gresham is that they cannot be bought. It is deeply satisfying that, in Framley Parsonage, it is the middle-aged Dr Thorne who wins the hand and heart and fortune of Miss Dunstable, precisely because he is “indifferent about money”. The novelist’s depiction of young women and men who seek partners who measure up to their aspirations for money and position is witheringly funny. Lady Amelia de Courcy makes clear that money is more important than rank when she says, of her own son,
“We did think of Miss Dunstable for Porlock once,..but when we found that it wasn’t much over two hundred thousand, why, that idea fell to the ground.”
Money is the magic that smooths all obstacles, even, as Mary Thorne discovers, illegitimacy or, as in Phineas Redux, being a Jew.
In this world, marrying for love or even allowing yourself to feel the emotion, is a luxury that can’t be afforded by the poor, and this adds an almost tragic poignancy to those who must marry for money. The barmaid Norah in The Three Clerks yearns for the personable, respectable but impecunious Charlie, but knows that “ it was not for her to indulge in the luxury of a heart, if circumstances actually forbade it. To eat and drink and clothe herself, and if possible to provide eating and drinking and clothes for future years, this was the business of life, the only real necessity.”
Although Trollope makes Norah a comic character, it is typical that he gives her the dignity of letting us see how limited her chances are, not of rank but of physical survival. Even higher up the social ladder, the fear is potent. “Love is all very well,” Ayala’s “bullionaire” banker uncle tells his niece in Ayala’s Angel, “but love should be regulated by good sense. It is a crime when two beggars think of marrying each other – two beggars who are not prepared to live as beggars do.” For every Griselda Grantly, trading her beauty to become Lady Dumbello in Framley Parsonage, there are potentially darker tales such as the mental breakdown of Lucinda Roanoake in The Eustace Diamonds, pushed into an engagement with a cruel man who repels her. Women’s situation, their limited agency, was a very real problem especially before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which could strip a wife even of her children.
In the Victorian era, the choice was binary. What a person has, rather than what they are distorts perceptions and dehumanises a union. The enchantment of Trollope’s novels is that, like Jane Austen before him, he makes us believe that passion, propriety and property can become happily intertwined in the best of all possible worlds. His lucky lovers are allowed to enter an Arcadia in which love and money will each make the other more blessed.
Trollope’s wise and kindly presence in his own novels ensures that, unlike so much contemporary fiction, we never close his books feeling worse than we did on opening them. At the same time, his shrewdly remarks on the difficulties of this. If love makes people behave in impulsive, unexpected ways, connecting us to a deeper understanding of who we truly are, money is coercive, pushing us into what we are not. It represents the world versus the spirit, and even after the right couples have come together, they have the rest of their lives in which to still make a mess of things.
Marriage in a Trollope novel is not about romance, and nor is it just a social or religious contract. It is the fulcrum of an individual life, the event that shows us what a character is really made of. Trollope does not have the sublime moral clarity of George Eliot, or the fulminating sense of social injustice with which Dickens sent lightning blasts into the murky underworld. What he has is a vivid sense of the gigantic conflict that he understood and even enjoyed in himself. It is this which gives such depth and animation to his best characters. His instinctive conservatism regarding class, sex, marriage, religion and even race is shot through with compassion and respect for human beings that, as Margaret Marwick’s excellent book Trollope and Women shows, means he is far more empathetic and less conventional than many have believed.
Henry James is often quoted as saying Trollope had “a complete appreciation of the usual”, and to the modern ear this tends to sound rather sneering. But the important adjective is, I believe, the word “complete”. His characters strike us as so real, and sympathetic, because they are complete, and dramatize how we, too, might react to those we know, under specific circumstances. For though love remains a constant force in the lives of men and women, so too does the need – or the greed- for money. When Frank Greystock finally takes the plunge with poor Lucy in The Eustace Diamonds he is treated by her affectionate friends the Fawns as a hero: “An unmarried man who is willing to sacrifice himself is in feminine eyes, always worthy of ribbons and a chaplet… All his sins were forgiven him. There he was, in the guise of a declared lover, and the fatted calf was killed.” And he is a hero. He isn’t going to starve, but he’s probably never going to be comfortable.
Trollope himself was not exactly a catch – though of good family, he was the son of a bankrupt, and knew he had to work very hard for his bread. He was not what he called a “curled darling” and even the lowly job he obtained in the Post office came through family connection, not obvious brilliance. He had almost everything against him, including his embarrassing surname. Yet he succeeded both as an energetic Post Office employee who invented the post-box – as crucial to social intercourse as the mobile phone is today – and as the highest paid novelist of his day. But he was never, I think, not conscious of his own absence of personal attractions. I find it touching how often, as a plain man, overweight, balding, short-sighted and covering up his rough manners with bluster, he describes the advantages of male beauty to impecunious heroes like Phineas Finn and Burgo Fitzgerald.
To me the most painful scene in Can You Forgive her is when Burgo is accosted in Oxford St by a prostitute of about sixteen.
‘“You are cold!” said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.
‘“Cold!” said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer in her rags, as she shivered – ‘“Oh God! if you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world, – not one penny, – not a hole to lie in!”
‘“We are alike then,” said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. “I also have nothing. You cannot be poorer than I am.”
“You poor!” she said. And then she looked up into his face. “Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.”’
Only in one of his last and loveliest novels, Ayala’s Angel, does Trollope make the hero ugly – though his ugliness mostly consists of having bright red hair and a wide mouth, which few today would consider defects. (He also has an unattractive surname.) All of these are sufficient for the heroine to reject her suitor. A reworking both of Sense and Sensibility and of Beauty and the Beast, Ayala’s Angel is deeply satisfying and, in its way, romantic. Ayala, the penniless but beautiful daughter of a spendthrift artist, is courted both by the spoilt son of her “billionaire” banker uncle, and by the ugly but charming Colonel Stubbs. The latter wins his idealistic bride’s heart by refusing to return the unprovoked blow given him by his rival in love, and by having a robust sense of humour. To act nobly, but discreetly, is the essence of the Trollopian hero, just as to endure an uncertain future with spirited dignity is that of the Trollopian heroine.
I have said that reading Trollope changed my life, and indeed he helped me to realise many things – not least that if you do wish to marry for love, it is best to start looking when young, and to accept that you will both be poor for a long time to come. It was thanks to him that I came to realise my broken heart was in fact a huge stroke of good luck, both for myself and for my former lover – whose two marriages, unlike my own, did not last. For the mark of true love is not, as romantics believe, to fall in love truly, madly and deeply but to fall in love truly, sanely and deeply – with someone worth having. I learnt what to look for – which is not money or status but courage, good sense, empathy, kindness, hard work, fidelity and a sense of humour. It is also, of course, best to find a partner who reads Trollope, because I have yet to meet anyone who loves this author who is deficient in these qualities.
Reader, I married him.
Amanda Craig is the author of eight novels, including A Vicious Circle, Hearts and Minds, The Lie of the Land and The Golden Rule (long-listed for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.) Her ninth, The Three Graces, will be published by Little,Brown in 2023.