Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Bertrams by Anthony Trollope

When Anthony Trollope was announced as the subject for this current Classics Circuit tour I could not resist signing up. I had read only small amounts of his work, and that well over a decade ago, but I knew the man was a devoted Janeite. Who better for me to digress from Miss Austen towards than one of her most sincere fans? From his youth he loved Austen's novels (what good taste!), and frequently lauded her as one of the most talented novelists England had produced. When selecting which Trollope novel to pursue, I chose a maddeningly obscure one (all three volumes of which are thankfully available on Google Books), but the title was too irresistible - The Bertrams. Can an Austen fan write a book called The Bertrams without making reference to Mansfield Park. Decidedly not.

Yet as this blog post is not designed merely to indulge those rabid Austen fans who typically read my blog, but to also tempt those who are solely interested in expanding their knowledge of Trollope, I will endeavor to review the book without constant reference to Austen (be warned that there will be some spoilers, though not too many). But fear not Janeites, for after completing that task I will point out precisely how this novel is an homage to the great authoress, just bear with me for a few.

The Bertrams is a story of survival in the quickly changing world of England in the 1840's. The main character is George Bertram, a promising young man torn between the worldy objectives society values and his own conscience. Raised by his wealthy and miserly uncle (his mother being dead, and his sire the Victorian version of an absentee father - and one of the novels great sources of comic relief), but as he was never taught to think of himself as the heir, he thinks he must choose between a career path of social triumph, which his friend Henry Harcourt pursues as a lawyer and politician, or the life of a clergyman, which his other friend and cousin, Arthur Wilkinson, is forced into. A trip to Jerusalem settles him on the latter course, but when there he meets Caroline Waddington, an extremely pretty girl and, it turns out, the ward of the miserly uncle, who would love him but for her own, seemingly pragmatic, financial considerations. As neither can depend on the generosity of the uncle, Mr. Bertram (referred to throughout the novel as "the old gentleman", with somewhat sarcastic but still slightly fitting reference to the devil), George returns to England determined to make his way as a lawyer, following Harcourt's example. Caroline excepts his proposal but insists on a delay of several years, until they can live comfortably. Though her reasoning is sound enough, Trollope clearly condemns such practicality when matters of the heart are at stake, and she is punished accordingly. George, a fickle character, abandons his rigorous studies, eventually removing himself from his declared profession to pursue an unprofitable career as an author of rather heretical pamphlets.  

There is another, secondary hero and heroine (whom Trollope calls his "donna prima", as opposed to Caroline, his "donna primissia") in this tale: the already mentioned Arthur Wilkinson and one Adela Gauntlet, the daughter of the neighboring rector. Arthur would himself have liked to have followed a dashing career in law and made a name for himself, but he does not do as well in school as his cousin George and when, upon his father's death, he is offered his living, he feels he must accept it in order to provide for his mother and several unmarried and dowerless sisters. The problem arises in that the living, 500 pounds, is only offered to him on the condition that he will make over 350 of it to his mother for the remainder of her life. Feeling that he does not have enough to support a wife and family, he explains to Adela that he cannot marry, consumed by those same worldly concerns that prohibit Caroline Waddington, if of a less ambitious nature, from immediately marrying George Bertram. Though Adela silently condemns him for his cowardice, she loves him still and suffers silently, a martyr to her love.

So we have two couples thwarted in their paths to happiness by base economical concerns. The strain of the delayed engagement eventually causes a rupture between Caroline and George which, though both love each other sincerely, cannot be overcome due to the seemingly insurmountable pride of both parties. Always ambitious, George's so-called friend Harcourt (now Sir Henry Harcourt), is conveniently standing by to scoop up the spoils - indeed, he might even be held responsible as the orchestrator of the broken engagement. He sees the power to be derived from having as beautiful a wife as Caroline and the potential benefits to be gained in her possible position as heir to the old gentleman's fortune (though Mr. Bertram repeatedly assures him this is not the case). He proposes, and Caroline, determined to sacrifice her heart to those economic considerations she tells herself are paramount, agrees.

This novel is both a tale of love and ambition and a condemnation of a Capitalist society's false worship of the latter. In some 1000 pages, Trollope successfully manages to demonstrate the folly of such behavior, rewarding those who listen to their hearts and punishing those who think of only gain. It is not his best book, hence its obscurity, but it is a very interesting read, full of apt observations of society's follies, as well as extensive sections travelogue that, while not fundamental to the plot, are rather fascinating, capturing as they do a long gone period of time that still, however, has resonances for the present. Some of his political observations I found to be particularly timeless, for example: "The Tories were in ... but from the fact of bring in, were always liable to be turned out." The Bertrams, too, is a thoroughly Victorian novels, with all the necessary references to changing landscape, railroads, self-descriptive character names (like Mr. Neversay Die), and great emphasis placed on the reading of a will. Those who love books of this nature will find much here to relish, but those who do not had best not attempt it. On the other hand, if you happen to be a Janeite, here lies a wealth of fascination, as I have to imagine you have already perceived. As Cardinal Newman observed of The Bertrams, "There is a touch of scepticism which I have never seen in [Trollope] before': it is an oddly moody and melancholic work." Cannot the same be said of Mansfield Park?

Not only are the themes of this novel very much the same as those Austen addresses, most particularly in Mansfield Park, but there are also similarities in the structure and the characters. Trollope begins his novel philosophically by invoking the topic that dominates the story, introducing the false import placed upon economic success in something of the manner of a great "universal truth", though granted not nearly as succinctly or wittily as Austen would have written it. Nevertheless, here can be found similarly astute observations on the cares and hypocrisies of society:
This is undoubtedly the age of humanity - as far, at least, as England is concerned. A man who beats his wife is shocking to us, and a colonel who cannot manage his soldiers without having them beaten is equally so. We are not very fond of hanging; and some of us go so far as to recoil under any circumstances from taking the blood of life. We perform our operations under chloroform; and it has even been suggested that those schoolmasters who insist on adhering in some sort to the doctrines of Solomon should perform their operations in the same guarded manner. If the disgrace be absolutely necessary, let it be inflicted; but not the bodily pain.

So far as regards the low externals of humanity, this is doubtless a humane age. Let men, women, and children have bread; let them have if possible no blows, or, at least, as few as may be; let them also be decently clothed; and let the pestilence be kept out of their way. In venturing to call these low, I have done so in no contemptuous spirit; they are comparatively low if the body be lower than the mind. The humanity of the age is doubtless suited to its material wants, and such wants are those which demand the promptest reply. But in the inner feelings of men to men, and of one man's mind to another man;s mind, is it no as age of extremest cruelty?

There is sympathy for the hungry man; but there is no sympathy for the unsuccessful man who is not hungry. If a fellow mortal be ragged, humanity will subscribe to mend his clothes, but humanity will subscribe nothing to mend his ragged hopes as long as his outside coat shall be whole and descent.
He also ends his novel in Austen's fashion, paying extraordinary attention to length constraints (which he mentions repeatedly in the last one hundred or so pages). This is most apparent in the first paragraph of the last chapter, which bears far more resemblance to Miss Austen's style than the begining of the book, as quoted above (but I had to include it, you know, in order to make my point!):
Methinks it is almost unnecessary to write this last chapter. The story , as I have had to tell it, is all told. The object has been made plain - or, if not, can certainly not be made plainer in these last six or seven pages. The result of weakness and folly - of such weakness and such folly as is too customary among us - have been declared. What further fortune fate had in store for those whose names have been familiar to us, might be guessed by all. But, nevertheless, custom, and the desire of making an end of the undertaken work, and in some sort completing it, compel me to this concluding chapter.
Again, Austen said it more succinctly, but this paragraph bears a remarkable resemblance to the way Austen ends all of her novels, in particular Mansfield Park, from which Trollope's hero derives his name:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
As for George Bertram, he is very much an amalgamation of Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford. His conscience is that of Edmund, especially when he finds himself parting from Caroline Waddington in a scene strikingly similar to Edmund's last interview with Mary Crawford. His personality, on the other hand, is Henry Crawford's. He has all of Henry's brilliance, lack of steadiness, and not terribly appealing looks, but lacks the rogue's baseness (that role is allotted to his father). Caroline, in her part, is composed of part Mary Crawford and part Maria Bertram, but with a great deal more moral fiber than either of those two ladies can boast. She suffers Maria's fate in the misery of a marriage based on greed, but her attitude is all Mary. Take for example this scene between the two in Jerusalem - Caroline's words are almost identical to Mary's regrading the choice of the clergy as a profession, as George's defense rings much like Edmund's:
"I do not know that I think so hihgly of the church as you do," said Caroline. "As far as I have seen them, I cannot find that clergymen are more holy than other men; and yet surely they ought to be so."

"At any rate, there is more scope for holiness if a man have it in him to be holy. The heart if a clergyman is more likely to be softened than that of a barrister or an attorney."
And moments later:
"I suppose nothing would induce you to marry a clergyman?" said he at last.

"Why should you suppose that, Mr. Bertram?"

"At any rate, not the parson of a country parish. I am led to suppose it by what you said to me yourself just now."

"I was speaking of you, and not of myself. I say that you have a noble career open to you, and I do not look on the ordinary life of a country parson as a noble career. For myself, I do not see any nobility in store. I do not know that there is any fate more probable for myself than that of becoming a respectable vicaress."

"And why may not a vicar's career be noble? Is it not as noble to have to deal with the souls as with the body?"

"I judge by what I see. They are generally fond of eating, very cautious about their money, untidy in their own houses, and apt to to sleep after dinner."
As for our secondary hero and heroine, they are direct replicas of Austen's.  Arthur Wilkinson is Edmund Bertram to a tee, and Trollope's portrait of him provides those, like me, who take issue with Edmund a wonderful critique of his character. I love this scene in particular:
He had made up his mind to give up Adela Gauntlet, but he had not made up his mind to discover that she did not care for him - that she was indifferent to his happiness, and unable to sympathize with his feelings. The fact was, that though he had resolved that duty and his circumstances required him to remain single, nevertheless, he had at the bottom of his heart a sort of wish that Adela should be in love with him. He had his wish; but he was not sharp enough to discover that he had it.
Now the circumstances are somewhat different but just like Edmund, who is too self-absorbed to acknowledge the love that Fanny has for him, Arthur cannot recognize the truth in front of his face.  Both are infuriatingly annoying, and, as Trollope recognizes, "He was not worthy of her," just as Edmund is not worthy of Fanny. Also gratifying is Adela as the Fanny character, for Trollope captures in her all that is marvelous in Austen's most derided heroine - the loyalty, firm sense of right, and ready recognition of wrong - but by not casting the entire tale from her perspective, he denies the reader the ability to become irritated with her moral authority, while still using her as the voice of conscience throughout the story. He even introduces her in the same manner that Austen uses for her heroines, not relying on physical descriptions (with which he provides everyone else), but letting her actions determine her quality:
Adela Gauntlet was - No; foe once I will venture to have a heroine without describing her. Let each reader make what he will of her; fancy her of any outward shape and colour that he please, and endow her with any amount of divine beauty. But for her inner character, let him take that from me as I go on, if so be that I can succeed in making clear to others that which is clear enough in my own mind's eye.
I could dissect this novel endlessly for such comparisons to Austen, as it abounds in them, as to do so would inevitably spoil the story for those who wish to read it. For not only are there references to Mansfield Park in the book, but to all of Austen's novels. The Austen fan will smile at critiques of Mrs. Radcliffe's conventions, laugh at loud at "Miss Todd's Picnic" (which lady, by the by, bears a remarkable resemblance to Mrs. Jennings) which echoes the one on Box Hill, and will hear Charlotte Lucas' pragmatic (and problematic) approach to marriage quoted by a succession of female tongues. So while I could only give a somewhat lukewarm recommendation of this book to the average reader, I think the Janeite will thoroughly enjoy it, as all of Trollope (as far as I know it) will delight those of such refined sensibilities. Perhaps this is one of his more melancholy books, but the Austen-like wit is still present, and I will leave you with one such example:
"What do you say, Lady Harcourt," asked the baron, "as to the management of a school with - how many millions of them, Mr. Stistick?"

"Five hundred and fifty-five thousand male children - "

"Suppose we say boys," said the judge.

"Boys?" asked Mr. Stictick, not quite understanding him, but rather disconcerted by the familiarity of the word.

"Well, I suppose they must be boys; - at least most of them."

"They are all from none to twelve, I say," continued Mr. Stistick, completely bewildered.

"Oh, that alters the question," said the judge.


  1. Great review! I've never read The Bertrams, but I am a big Anthony Trollope fan. I missed out on this tour, I need to keep a better eye out as I love The Classics Circuit!

  2. Thanks Laura! I'm really looking forward to the Classic Greek tour next month, though I have not the slightest notion of how to tie it into Austen! However, as I did major in the subject, I feel I must participate. Maybe parental dysfunction will be my theme ...

  3. How fascinating! I'm new to Trollope (with a post for the Circuit up tomorrow), but I've long loved Jane Austen. I had no idea T. loved A. Your post makes me assume Trollope was very deliberate in his allusions. I assume you'd agree? Do you know if he ever wrote anything about the connections? How interesting!

  4. So glad you enjoyed, LifetimeReader! I'll look for your post tomorrow. I have not read about Trollope extensively enough to answer your question in general, but I do know that Austen was one of his very favorite writers and, as such, I think it is safe to assume he recognized her as an influence. A far as The Bertrams goes, I'm pretty sure the references are deliberate. I do know that many academics have written about the Trollope/Austen connection, and have even heard it claimed that Trollope repeatedly rewrote Mansfield Park, but I can unfortunatly not find the source.

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  6. I see the Persuasions article from 1987; but Anthony Trollope died in 1882, so he clearly did not give a speech in 1987. Neither could he have been a member of the Jane Austen Society, which did not start until the 1940s. Must be someone else with the same name - or a masquerade? Joanna Trollope is a member of the same family, though not a direct descendant.

  7. Hi AprilFool! You know, I just assumed it was a reprint of a speech from the 19th century, as I know that he did lecture about Austen, but I cannot deny that there was no Jane Austen Society in existence at the time (let alone a JASNA). How sad! I was so excited by the prospect that I obviously did not think it through (might I plead pregnancy brain?). I'll take the line out of the post.

    Wouldn't it have been lovely if it were true?

  8. As a writer of a long thing I have to defend this other writer of long things: Trollope deserves much more attention. He grants more honor and independence to women's minds than some contemporary novelists do.

  9. Although I've enjoyed Austen, I haven't yet read Mansfield Park. What fun connections you've found. I have enjoyed the Trollope I've read, I'll have to get this at some point too.

  10. Hi Alexa:
    Could you remove one of my mostly identical posts - something weird happened when I was in the middle of posting. Yes - it would be lovely if it were true. I love Trollope and read through all I could find of his books back in the seventies. I loved the Palliser series and the Barchester series, but I think the best to read right now is The Way We Live Now (could be about the tech bubble). Fabulous miniseries with David Suchet. Also Compare with Dickens Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorritt - both have financiers who go smash and take down a lot of innocent people. Someone I read on a blog in the last day or two commented that Jane Austen was the first romantic novelist, ending with the wedding; but that she doesn't show many happy marriages. If you want to see inside real marriages that often don't turn out well, read Trollope; or George Eliot; or Elizabeth Gaskell.

  11. Thank you for the comments, Shelley and Rebecca! Rebecca - although many consider Mansfield Austen's least agreeable novel, I think it her most ambitious and consider it one of her best. I hope you enjoy it when you get to read it.

    AprilFool - It took me a few days, as I have been overwhelmed by lots of visiting family, but the extra comment has been removed. Austen, never having married herself, could only comment on the marriages she observed, and you are correct that, in general, the marriages she does portray (actually, all her human relationship) are difficult. However, there are a few exceptions, like the Morlands, the Westons, the Dashwoods (they may be disagreeable, but they seem happy together) and, I would argue, the Sir Thomas Bertrams. I will admit that between Trollope, Eliot, and Gaskell, I far prefer Eliot, who is one of my very favorite writers, and while she does spend a great deal of time describing how marriage based on poor decisions can be dreadful (very much like Austen, she also (like Austen) provides great hope that marriages based on a real foundation of love should prosper. I think that most writers can agree that while a bad marriage provides a great topic for exploration, a good match is only terribly interesting in its creation, becoming rather boring once "happily ever after" is achieved.

  12. I hadn't known that Trollope was such a great admirer of Austen! :) I've greatly admired his intricate storytelling as shown in the adapted BBC He Knew He was Right, The Way We Live Now, Pallisers etc.

    I planned to read him this coming year and perhaps will start with The Bertrams.