Does the now rather tame eroticism of Victorian novels restrict their readership mostly to English majors, culture warriors invested in traditional moralities, and Masterpiece fans? Here’s an experiment for more jaded 21st-century readers: let’s take a quick tour of the love scenes of a famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who is more celebrated for his lengthy chronicles of Victorian society and politics than romance, to see if his writings still intrigue or even enflame. Such a tour might help readers decide whether they want to read through all of Trollope’s 47 novels or, say, to work through the 800-ish pages of Can You Forgive Her? to find the one embrace, where, exemplifying both her passion and her shame in that passion, Alice Vavasor still shrinks guiltily from her lover as she accepts him.
Erotic encounters in Trollope can now seem both anachronistic and unintentionally funny not only because the author was a rather standard-model Victorian moralist but also because his novels often are more invested in the social or the political than the romantic. As Trollope admitted in An Autobiography, he shrewdly wrote romance into his novels to attract readers to whom he could teach moral lessons: “dealing with love is advantageous” since “the passion is one which interests or has interested all.” Briefly assessing the lurching forms of hugging and kissing in Trollope, however, will show that his works aren’t just period pieces. Instead, our survey will reveal an intriguing clash between the author’s conventional social views and his impish literary impulses—and, more fascinatingly, between those same views and the quiet stirrings of a few proto-modern ideas. For concision, we’ll restrict ourselves to his two major novelistic series, the six Barchester novels and the six Palliser novels, starting with Trollope at his most literary and moving from there.
1. The Embarrassments of Attraction
In Phineas Finn, the eponymous hero, after unsuccessfully romancing three ladies above his station, conforms to garden-variety Victorian values by marrying his hometown sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones, who has pined for him from afar the whole novel. “’Mary,’ he said, ‘will you be my wife,—my own wife?’…When half an hour had passed, they were still together, and now she had found the use of her tongue. ‘Do whatever you like best,’ she said. . . . Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Oh, Phineas!’ she said, ‘I do love you so entirely!’” Presumably, Mary isn’t using that tongue to kiss him back; she is instead a morally suitable example of Victorian female subservience and restraint. Like many 19th-century writers, Trollope often associates physical attraction with danger and self-control with virtue: his heroines Lily Dale, Glencora Palliser (for a while), and Emily Wharton are all betrayed by their attachments to handsome men who appear to act like gentleman but instead jilt, drink and gamble, and ruinously speculate, respectively. But Trollope knew he was employing a literary cliché here in Phineas Finn. And Mary’s long silent treatment reads like an absurdist expansion of famous scenes like the moment when even 19th-century British literature’s most verbose pixie, Elizabeth Bennett, is briefly silenced and cannot even look at Mr. Darcy right after he proposes. By contrast, Mary is revealed here as a characterological bore, and, presumably admitting defeat, Trollope conveniently killed her off before the sequel Phineas Redux. He often had trouble fully committing to conventional romantic narratives.
2. Love by Proxy
Consider the following love passage from Framley Parsonage: ‘“Lucy, dearest Lucy, you must be very dear to me now.’ And then they were in each other’s arms, kissing each other.” And also one from The Last Chronicle of Barset: “No man in England knew better than the archdeacon the difference between beauty of one kind and beauty of another kind in a woman’s face,–the one beauty, which comes from health and youth and animal spirits, and which belongs to the miller’s daughter, and the other beauty, which shows itself in fine lines and a noble spirit,–the beauty which comes from breeding…Then he stooped over her and kissed her.” At first, these scenes seem generic—the latter with an extra helping of class snobbery—but they actually feature the parents of the prospective grooms and their sons’ lady loves. Being further down the social scale from the men they adore and fearing social opprobrium, Lucy Robarts and Grace Crawley have nobly refused to marry unless their lovers’ parents (Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly, respectively) agree to it. In fact, the previously skeptical Lady Lufton eventually makes the proposal that really counts: “He is the best of sons, and the best of men, and I am sure that he will be the best of husbands…And now I have come here, Lucy, to ask you to be his wife.” Then the kissing noted above starts in earnest. Because the parent/principled young thing scenes are so intense, wooing scenes featuring the actual lovers are superfluous. As Trollope acidly observes later on in Last Chronicle when eliding an actual proposal, “What little attempt Henry Grantly then made, thinking that he could not do better than follow closely the example of so excellent a father, need not be explained with minuteness.” So much for the passions of youthful romance: the real issue here is the ecstatic breaking of the class differences temporarily thwarting the lovers. These eroticized intergenerational conversations, however, also winkingly foreground the inherent creepiness of the ways in which the period’s novels framed romance as a form of class accommodation (and vice-versa).
3. Love as Comedy
The distance between the mock epic diction in some of Trollope’s copious authorial commentary and the bathetic reality also implies the author’s intermittent disinvestment in his own romantic narratives. From The Warden: “And so at last, all her defences demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.” To translate: John Bold now knows Eleanor Harding loves him, although she hasn’t said so explicitly. But a romantic scene in Doctor Thorne has a stranger, even more riveting, comic tone. The operative joke here is that Frank Gresham hasn’t been able to see his lover Mary Thorne alone—a common 19th-century problem Trollope often mines for comedy—and he must make the best of less-than-ideal circumstances:
‘Mary!’ said he, and as he spoke he put his hand on the donkey’s neck and looked tenderly into her face . . . . ‘Mary, Mary!’ said Frank, throwing his arms round her knees as she sat upon her steed, and pressing his face against her body. ‘Mary, you were always honest; be honest now. I love you with all my heart. Will you be my wife?’ . . . . She could only sit there shaking and crying and wishing she was on the ground. Frank, on the whole, rather liked the donkey. It enabled him to approach somewhat nearer to an embrace than he might have found practicable had they both been on their feet. The donkey himself was quite at his ease . . . .
Trollope was also presumably at his ease while writing this last sentence, and given his love of horses, fox hunting, and the many hunting scenes in his novels, it’s not surprising that large domestic animals play an occasional role in lovemaking scenes (e.g., Lord Lufton’s expressing his affection for Lucy Robarts by offering her a horse). That said, Frank’s actions here also presented Victorian readers with the illicit thrill of seeing a man touching a woman’s legs before marriage. And Mary’s confusion and shaking embody that now perplexing Victorian notion of female romantic fulfillment via humiliation. An author so willing to subvert the stereotypical conventions of the love scene—and implicitly acknowledge that his hero, and presumably some of his readers, are leg men—is catering to a large range of erotic feelings. It’s a peculiar, almost avant-garde, cornball love threesome.
4. Love as Coercion
Overall, however, Trollope is much more literarily than culturally subversive. The war of the sexes in The Warden and Doctor Thorne may be comedic literary fodder, but elsewhere in Trollope it is deadly serious—and illuminates the profound sexism undergirding mainstream Victorian social values. In Phineas Finn, the socially inept Lord Chiltern woos violently: “‘Violet, speak to me honestly. Will you be my wife?’ She did not answer him, and he stood for a moment looking at her. Then he rushed at her, and, seizing her in his arms, kissed her all over,–her forehead, her lips, her cheeks, then both her hands, and then her lips again. ‘By G___, she is my own!’ he said.” The narrator’s uneasy summary is telling. Violet indeed loves Chiltern and quietly accedes to his self-proclaimed ownership (“She had no negative to produce now in answer to the violent assertion which he had pronounced”), but she doesn’t know if she can trust him. They eventually forge a respectable alliance based on Violet’s ability to manage her husband socially and on the avocation that allows him to quench his troubling animal impulses: being the Master of the Hounds for the local fox hunt. Despite the caveats, Trollope’s semi-rehabilitation of the volatile Chiltern throughout the rest of the Palliser series implicitly licences the latter’s violence (including the unnecessary duel he fights with Phineas over Violet) and endorses the social regime that tolerated such violence.
Can You Forgive Her? features the coercive rhetoric of an otherwise more laudable hero. Alice Vavasor, a very Victorian combination of womanly depression and self-loathing, spurns her first lover, John Gray, and instead attaches herself and her inheritance to her unscrupulous cousin George Vavasor and his political ambitions. But Gray, patient and thoughtful with Alice throughout the novel after she abandons him, enacts his mid-Victorian male privilege to win her back:
‘If you love me, after what has passed, I have a right to demand your hand. My happiness requires it, and I have a right to expect your compliance. I do demand it. If you love me, Alice, I tell you that you dare not refuse me. If you do so, you will fail hereafter to reconcile it to your conscience before God.’…Then he stopped his speech, and waited for a reply; but Alice sat silent beneath his gaze, with her eyes turned upon the tombstones beneath her feet. Of course she had no choice but to yield. He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy.
Although he often chronicled the sad waste of women’s talents in his novels, Trollope was no supporter of contemporary women’s rights movements. The narrative here implicitly cheers on Gray’s all-too-Victorian moralization of gender roles, and his speech doubles as verbal punishment for Alice’s previous attempts to bend them. But after making such points, the passage quickly shifts to Alice’s point of view and her limited options: presumably, it’s marriage or death. She is eventually rewarded for conforming to the standard moral path for Victorian heroines, but throughout The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset Lily Dale is punished for what would otherwise seem to be a laudable characterological trait: her inability to stop loving the man whom she promised to marry. The problem is that Adolphus Crosbie has jilted her for a richer woman, and afterward Lily is unable to accept her only other suitor, John Eames. Her unhappy ending—involving her subsequent loneliness, despair, and disappearance from the narrative—has haunted readers ever since. So although Lily’s steadfast virtue officially generates a cautionary tale about feminine intransigence, both her and Alice’s stories quietly underscore the contradictions of—and collateral damages associated with—the social values Trollope’s novels overtly promote.
5. Equality and the Collective Unconscious
Notwithstanding Trollope’s personal views, his writings also portray some rather surprising forms of equality between the sexes. For instance, both Trollope’s men and women are often confronted with the challenge of marrying money—the author mercilessly catalogues in a variety of works how the Victorian classics-based educational system did not teach gentlemen marketable business skills—and his heroes are often at least as shy and virginal as the heroines. Even one of Trollope’s more mature heroes, Dr. Arabin from Barchester Towers, is teased for his many celibate years in academia: “he, bowing his face down over hers, pressed his lips upon her brow; his virgin lips, which since a beard first grew upon his chin, had never yet tasted the luxury of a woman’s cheek.” Despite having just declared himself, Arabin still at first can’t kiss Eleanor on the lips.
When Trollope’s desperate men and their anxious women finally acknowledge their love, however, the resulting wave of passion equally enfolds them both: “’Eleanor!’ [Arabin] again exclaimed; and in a moment he had her clasped to his bosom. How this was done, whether the doing was with him or her, whether she had flown thither conquered by the tenderness of his voice, or he with a violence not likely to give offence had drawn her to his breast, neither of them knew; nor can I declare.” (Barchester Towers). There’s lots of pressing together and bosom clasping in Trollopian love scenes, which indicates both the partners’ urgent mutual desires and their limited training in the erotic arts. But it’s not just the men who feel intensely: “But in a moment, before she could remember that she was in the room, he had seized her in his arms, and was showering kisses upon her forehead, her eyes, and her lips. When she thought of it afterwards, she could not call to mind a single word that he had spoken before he held her in his embrace” (The Eustace Diamonds). In other words, Lucy Morris is as transported here as Frank Greystock. These scenes are paradoxical, featuring out-of-body (and mind) experiences that are nonetheless some of the closest analogues to mutual orgasm that one gets in mainstream Victorian writing. Of course, Trollope cannily presents such passions as disassociated because he couldn’t explicitly portray either imaginative lusts or sexual acts. But what is surprisingly modern here is his portrayal of the sexes equally sharing both sexual desire and its overwhelming emotional fulfillment.
6. Women Gaining Control
In the final novel of the Palliser series, The Duke’s Children, the widowed Plantagenet Palliser, now a duke and a former prime minister, battles with his children over their romantic choices. His daughter Mary loves the less-affluent M.P. Frank Treagar, but she increasingly realizes that she can outlast her father’s opposition to the match and thus declares her forbidden love early and often:
‘She would not have come if she had expected [Treagar’s presence],’ said Silverbridge.
‘Certainly not,’ said Mary, speaking for the first time, ‘But now he is here___’ Then she stopped herself, rose from the sofa, sat down, and then rising again, stepped up to her lover, who rose at the same moment,–and threw herself into his arms and put up her lips to be kissed. . . .
‘Now go,’ said Mary through her sobs.
‘My own one,’ ejaculated Tregear.
This scene presumably shocked Victorian audiences—it even ends with an ejaculation (!)—but it is genuinely erotic even now. Eventually, a clearly humanized duke acknowledges that his children’s wishes should take precedence over his own dynastic concerns. Perhaps it was easier for Trollope to unwind a taut, moralizing Victorian father figure—a stock character in the period’s novels—later in his lucrative writing career when he had secured a consistently large audience. And Mary’s triumph may also register the multiplying possibilities for Victorian women’s agency (or at least for wealthy women) following various public agitations on “the Woman Question” in the late 1850s and beyond. Overall, though, the scene highlights the basic contradiction that structures much of Trollope’s romantic writings: he is a conventional social thinker whose novels nevertheless sympathetically present some of his female characters’ unconventional romantic choices and, over his career, increasingly chronicle the social changes that allowed those choices to emerge. Trollope can be all over the ideological map.
7. The Exhaustion of Love
A number of these love scenes come at the end of long novels with many narrative twists and turns, and the relief when the characters are finally coupled is often palpable. In the melodramatic Phineas Redux, our hero Phineas Finn is elected—and unelected—to Parliament, loves and loses three women, is falsely accused of murder, and barely avoids the hangman’s noose. At the end, he visits his longtime female friend who found the evidence that acquitted him at trial:
‘I know why you have come.’
‘I doubt that. I have come to tell you that I love you.’
‘Oh, Phineas;–at last, at last!’ And in a moment she was in his arms.
It seemed to him that from that moment all the explanations, and all the statements, and most of the assurances were made by her and not by him.
At last, too, for the exhausted reader, who closes the novel finally having seen the widow Madame Max get her man, and who understands that the final embrace may be as much about ending the story as the sex. But after Trollope’s men seize the romantic moment, the quotidian often quickly returns, along with women’s agency. And if many 19th-century novels end in a kiss and a marriage, Trollope’s two novelistic series detail several marriages over time (often over several novels), focusing on day-to-day domestic life where the women often efficiently manage their husbands. Some novels play this up for satiric effect (famously, the harridan Mrs. Proudie in the Barchester series), but others cheerfully acknowledge the innovative social engineering of women like Madame Max and Glencora Palliser. Indeed, Glencora’s increasingly lavish social gatherings in the Palliser series alter the public’s perception of her husband’s political agenda as prime minister. The series is an early vision of a more modern political sphere shaped as much by the powers of celebrity and wealth as by political manueverings and policy debates. Trollope is transfixed by both the politics of the domestic and the domestication of politics.
8. A Modern Woman?
Let’s end our brief survey with Marie “Madame Max” Goesler, the wealthy widow of a Vienna banker who shoehorns her way into the upper echelons of Trollope’s very English world over several novels in the Palliser series. On the one hand, she is a stereotypical female Victorian success story: she eventually marries the gentleman she loves and influences the people around her with her style, wit, and advice, even braving Plantagenet’s wrath to champion his daughter’s romantic choices. On the other hand, she refuses a traditional woman’s role by fending off various suitors other than Phineas (including Plantagenet’s father, the fabulously wealthy Duke of Omnium), by successfully managing her late husband’s wealth, and by doing heroic detective work on the continent to prove Phineas’s innocence. She’s thus both a successful lover and an action hero, and her ambiguously gendered moniker, “Madame Max,” implies both the origins of her power (her late husband’s money) and her ability to transcend the limitations of her gender. But if she looks, retrospectively, like a game-changing protomodern female role model, the character probably wasn’t a major cultural threat then: not all mid- to late-Victorian women readers would have identified with a foreign outsider with a mysterious backstory, which the author never fully explains other than to hint, employing the requisite period bigotry, that she is Jewish.
But Madame Max is nonetheless fascinating, and, ultimately, for current readers, it’s not Trollope’s dithering gentlemen but his vibrant women—such as the clever heiresses Madame Max and Miss Dunstable, the sharply intelligent but self-defeating Alice Vavasour, the lively yet sorrowful Lily Dale, and the emotionally unsatisfied but increasingly politicized socialite Glencora Palliser—whose raw, baffling, and even self-contradictory desires still make his novels compelling reading and his deep dives into Victorian social mores and political struggles more accessible. Trollope isn’t as acute a psychologist as George Eliot or quite as funny as Charles Dickens, but his characters, especially the women, do undergo fascinating emotional and moral swerves. And the incisive observations and pervasive ironies in Trollope’s famously copious authorial interventions vividly chronicle these swerves even when they implicitly put into question his own very Victorian views. As our brief tour of Trollopian love succinctly illustrates, there’s a complex, surprisingly engaging, and increasingly modern world inside the author’s literally and figuratively heavy Victorian novels.