In Victorian Britain married women were firmly under the control of men. They were obliged to be obedient to their husbands and could not own property independent of him. Okay it sounds great in theory, but how did it actually work?
What is it like to live in a patriarchal society?
I know that in many ways we still do, but there has been so much progress on gender equality that previous generations would find our modern society inexplicable. And we, looking back, have lost some awareness of how things really used to be. We no longer approve of attitudes that were once the norm. In fact I am old enough to find that I now disapprove of attitudes that I myself used to hold. This makes it hard to empathise with how it all worked before new ideas came along.
So it is fascinating to read a book by Trollope where many of the things we now take as read hadn’t yet seeped into everyday life. Trollope was a conservative by the standards of his own time. He pokes fun at the much more liberal minded Dickens. He calls him Mr Popular Sentiment and wonders what he will find to write about when all the world’s problems are solved.
Conservatives are often considered by their opponents to be lacking in compassion and to not really understand how the world actually works. I have never found the first of those to be true – though the second usually is. But it certainly isn’t true of this particular conservative. Trollope is both understanding of human nature, sympathetic to it and highly accurate in describing what people do, how they feel about it and what the implications are.
The thing that Trollope always handles well is money, and people’s reaction to it. At one point in the book a female character is proposed to by a fabulously rich and very eligible young man. This is the match that all Victorian women were looking for. She would become a member of the aristocracy and have the use of a country mansion and a fortune to live on. Needless to say the culture of the time would expect her to accept such an offer. And there is no particular downside to this man. He is a decent human being and although he is twenty years older than her, a woman of 20 marrying a man of 40 is not exactly outside the bounds of nature. Such things still happen sometimes today even if it does look a bit iffy to modern eyes.
But she turns him down.
The great thing is though that she starts out intending to say yes, and having said no is instantly thrown into despair at her own stupidity in giving up such a catch. The problem was the way he phrased the proposal. He asked in a way that she just didn’t feel comfortable about. Isn’t that just how real humans really behave? She is not and doesn’t consider herself to be a romantic hero spurning the riches she could have in the pursuit of true love. It just sort of happens.
The position of women in Victorian England really was wretched, even those from the comfortable classes. In fact given that they simply couldn’t go out to work it was in some ways even worse than those lower down the social ladder. The one role that was open to them was to marry the richest man they could lay their hands on. Only a handful of them could become novelists like Jane Austen. The rest of them were simply behoven to the men that they ended up with often for plainly economic reasons.
But the whole thrust of this book is that the social constraints don’t particularly work in favour of the men either. Separating from his wife is a social disaster for the main character, even though, as the title has it, he knows he is right. He might have most of the cards in his hand but the disapproval of his domestic failure discounts all that.
This isn’t a Trollope novel with a great plot – though it does hold your attention. There isn’t much in the way of humour, though I laughed out loud a few times. It hasn’t been made into many great tv or film adaptations – though there is a rather splendid BBC one which for my money is superb – it has a cracking cast all of whom do a splendid job especially David Tennant and Bill Nighy. But it is still a book that is well worth a read. The analysis of people’s motives and the way they behave gives you a better idea of Victorian society than you’ll get from most economic histories.
What it also has, in spades, is great characters – Aunt Stanbury shocked at thought of women being able to vote and become doctors while disinheriting her nephew for writing for a radical penny newspaper. Colonel Osbourne is the mildest of rogues, but we all know someone like him. And Louis Trevalyen, the man who knew he was right even though all of his friends and family ended up telling him he was wrong is simultaneously infuriating, believable and despite everything rather likeable.
So this book is a good read, and an educational read. It is also quite a good detailed explanation of why gender equality is something that really is equally beneficial to men as women. Patriarchy is in reality no fun for either sex.