When I was an undergraduate with an interest in studying Victorian literature, a professor once asked me how much Trollope I had read. I scratched my head: Trollope? Never heard of him.
The professor explained that Anthony Trollope used to be the backbone of nineteenth-century literature courses, so I, of course, made Trollope the focus of my summer reading, the summer of 1999.
I began with the Barchester Towers series and eventually came around to one of my all time favorite Trollope novels, the very ambitious He Knew He Was Right. I could see why readers have long found his works so captivating and even why they have been — and remain — a reference point in Victorian studies.
My thirst for Trollope carried me to some of his lesser-known works, such as Lady Anna, which some critics have boasted rivals He Knew He Was Right in its display of insanity. Well, that would be a pretty huge undertaking and I couldn’t wait to read it.
Lady Anna (British, 1873) is a story about an ambitious but poor young woman — Josephine Murray — who is courted by a sleazy but very rich gentleman — Lord Lovel — whom she marries. When she becomes pregnant with her daughter Anna, Lovel insists that their marriage has been a hoax and goes abroad, leaving Murray to defend herself against the wagging tongues of England. For twenty years, Murray has only one aim and that is to reestablish herself among high society as a truthful yet victimized woman whose daughter deserves the title “Lady” and the monumental inheritance and distinction that comes with it.
During these twenty years of long suffering the Murrays are taken in by the liberal Twaites, a father and son duo hell-bent on helping to call out the aristocracy on their indecency. While the elder Twaite, a tailor, spares no expense to help Murray (despite his poverty), his son Daniel makes love behind the scenes to Anna, who promises him her hand.
Nothing seems very awry in the courtship between Daniel and Anna until the Murrays’ case in court — in which Murray pleads that she is the lawful wife of the late Lovel and that Anna deserves a proper title and Lovel’s money — actually becomes credible. The law increasingly is made to believe that Murray is entitled to her share, despite her rival’s claim. Her rival — the young Lord Lovel — is bankrupt and made to court Anna in order to secure the money if, in fact, the jury sides with her.
Murray is absolutely convinced that Anna should marry Lovel because then she will have the title that she deserves. When Anna visits the Lovels for an extended stay she even believes that Lovel is charming enough to earn her love (despite his pink silk gowns). But then, she is determined to remain true to her vows to the “foul, sweltering tailor” Daniel Thwaite. This decision propels the novel.
Murray sinks, incrementally, into a dark abyss of insanity as Anna continues to insist that she will, despite her new inheritance (which she eventually wins), marry Thwaite. The marriage is looked down upon by everyone because suddenly Thwaite is “below” the kind of man that a Lady should marry due to his working class status. Murray descends: “Then there came upon her a mad idea — and idea which was itself evidence of insanity — of the glory which would be hers if by any means she could prevent the marriage.”
Her strategy? Kill Thwaite.
In what are some of the most lukewarm descriptions of an insane woman on the verge of murder I have ever read in a Victorian novel, Trollope describes Murray’s descent into madness like a stroll through the park. Even when she does shoot a bullet through Daniel’s shoulder it seems like a domestic shot. She closes her eyes, mews like a kitten, and then, after the fact, becomes a shadow of her former self.
If Murray’s madness is anticlimactic, what is most compelling about Lady Anna is Trollope’s use of Daniel’s body wound from the shot. In many — even most — Victorian novels the female body functions as a site for redemption. It suffers, it wears the markings of that suffering for all to see. But here, Thwaite’s body must be sacrificed for happiness to ensue.
Really? This is so rare!
After Thwaite is shot by his fiance’s mother, he decides to…be silent about it. He explains: “It will be a lesson to her, and if so it may be good for us.” His body is made to absorb the anxieties of Murray, to be a walking articulation of her failed hopes and deepest fears, and he emerges on the other end wounded and silent. A classic feminine Victorian prototype, no?
Yet, Daniel is one of the more “manly” Victorian heroes: what Trollope describes as “a very man.” He is held as the opposite to Lord Lovel, who is a “butterfly.” Daniel insists that “a woman should not be a butterfly — not altogether a butterfly, but for a man it is surely a contemptible part.”
This manly man, then, has his body ravaged and uses his silence to attain the ends that he desires. A very Pamela to the end! During this period, Daniel “declared very often this this was the happiest period of his existence. Of all the good turns ever done to him, he said, the wound in his back had been the best.”
Amidst all the unnecessary recapitulation of a simple plot and the disappointing descent of Murry into “madness,” I was pleased to see that Trollope was still pushing boundaries by offering this twist to body politics. The best wound in Lady Anna is, surprisingly, the male wound, which makes it all possible…if not somewhat readable.