I’m currently enjoying something of a Trollope Fest. This is a rather indulgent activity, as really I should be focusing on some women novelists. In my defence, I was reliably informed that The Vicar of Bullhampton was inspired by Trollope’s interest in the Woman Question.
An unexpected dip in her friend’s pond brings Mary Lowther to her senses, and she realises she cannot marry a man she doesn’t love. Although she is adamant, those closest to her conspire to change her mind and they ultimately come to regret it. This is one strand to the novel and, in my opinion, the least successful. Trollope did a much better job in Miss Mackenzie and Can You Forgive Her?, where he considered whether a woman should marry out of a sense of duty. Rachel Ray also saw a far more nuanced examination of the Woman Question. The authorial voice, reflecting, I assume, the opinion of Trollope, decrees that marriage is a woman’s inexorable destiny and she should not fight it. If only they (and also men) came to accept the fact, then life would proceed more smoothly for everyone. The novel was published in 1870, by which time other writers were highlighting the plight of the “surplus” women, for whom marriage was an unlikely prospect. It’s odd that Trollope appears to have taken a retrograde step, unless it was a personal backlash against his own earlier liberalism.
Those grumbles aside, there are some truly wonderful moments, such as the deliciously venomous epistolary feud between the eponymous vicar, Mr Fenwick, and the supercilious Marquis of Trowbridge. The Marquis repeatedly makes himself look ridiculous, whilst his more worldly son and heir is the embodiment of what the aristocracy must become if it is to survive. There is also the exquisitely drawn portrait of the marriage between Mr and Mrs Fenwick. Trollope captures perfectly their astonishment that not all unions are as felicitous as their own.
Indeed, Mr Fenwick is in a permanent state of bewilderment at the complexities of “modern” life. Religious teaching and clerical authority seem unequal to the task of dealing with reality. Fenwick’s parishioners prejudge Sam Brattle when he is accused of murder, and refuse to show Christian forgiveness towards his sister, Carry, when she renounces her life of prostitution. He is obliged to deal with a number of seemingly inextricable issues, solving some of them, but exacerbating others through his own stubbornness. The Vicar of Bullhampton is a delightful character, and I’m hoping he makes a cameo appearance in some of the other novels.