[This post deals with minor spoilers that occur in the first chapter of The Claverings. These are mild spoilers, however, and I don’t reveal the end of the novel nor do I go into any detail at all about my favorite character, the improbably named Sophie Gordeloup. Other novels mentioned in this post:
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
The Way We Live Now
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
The Odd Women by George Gissing]
Sensing my lagging interest in Harry Clavering, hero of The Claverings, from one hundred and forty-three years in the past, Trollope sent a quick note to me in the future on page 98:
Harry Clavering, who is the hero of our story, will not, I fear have hitherto presented himself to the reader as having much of the heroic nature in his character. It will, perhaps, be complained of him that he is fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good. But it should be remembered that hitherto he has been rather hardly dealt with in these pages, and that his faults and weaknesses have been exposed almost unfairly. That he had such faults, and was subject to such weaknesses, may be believed of him; but there may be a question whether as much evil would not be known of most men, let them be heroes or not be heroes, if their characters were, so to say, turned inside out before our eyes. Harry Clavering, fellow of his college, six feet high, with handsome face and person, and with plenty to say for himself on all subjects, was esteemed highly and regarded much by those who knew him, in spite of those little foibles which marred his character; and I must beg the reader to take the world’s opinion about him, and not to estimate him too meanly thus early in this history of his adventures.
It…didn’t help. I still found myself struggling to muster up anything like caring or interest in Harry Clavering or the pickle he’s gotten himself into. To wit:
Harry Clavering, after having spent a summer making furious love to Julia Brabazon, finds that he’s actually not in the running at all for her hand in marriage. Julia’s a pragmatic girl who probably loved Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons as much as I did: “When it comes to marriage,” the Marquis de Merteuil explains to the convent-schooled Cécile (while wearing an amazing dress that appears to be made of all the fabric in France), “one man is as good as the next.” And with that being true, there’s then no need to marry the (essentially) penniless Harry for love when there’s a perfectly acceptable rich old guy who’s a lord to boot waiting to offer his own hand in marriage. Julia gives Harry the “it’s not you, it’s your wallet” speech, tells him he’s a great guy, hopes they’re able to stay super-close friends, and then skips off for what should have been a shopping montage if this were a Julia Roberts movie from 1990. I’m not made of stone, people: I love a shopping montage.
I also love Julia Brabazon – even when Trollope seems to try his hardest to convince me that I shouldn’t.
Trollope will use Julia and Harry to look at love and marriage from two jaundiced points of view. Julia sees them as mutually exclusive; Harry can’t tell them apart. And because both characters are mildly unlikeable at the start, it’s a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure: if you agree with Harry, turn to page 76. If you agree with Julia…
Actually, you should agree with Julia. She’s an amazing character in this odd little midpoint novel. In some ways I feel Trollope understands her fully, and then in other ways she seems to elude his grasp. His novels always have a woman like Julia: a little out of her time, and doomed to unhappiness because the rest of the world can’t catch up with her. Listening to her arguments against marrying Harry that she shares with him in the first chapter, it can be easy to get swept up in the emotional unfairness of it all, as Harry does. But what sounds like cold and grasping calculated ruthlessness on Julia’s part is actually carefully considered logic. She tells him:
“Look at me, such as I am, and at yourself, and then say whether anything but misery could come of a match between you and me. Our ages by the register are the same, but I am ten years older than you by the world. I have two hundred a year, and I owe at this moment six hundred pounds. You have, perhaps, double as much, and would lose half of that if you married. You are an usher at school.”
There’s an Austenian clear-headedness in Julia’s argument. The idea of marrying for love in the nineteenth century is a polite fiction that gets told to sell romances. Love is almost always imprudent in a Jane Austen novel (for instance, we learn what happens when Fanny Price’s mother gets carried away emotionally): Women of a certain class who can’t work and are dependent on the success of their husbands for not just their comfort, but for their lives, would be foolish to throw everything away on a man who looks great in tight breeches but who can’t scrape together income enough to support more than himself and his debts. Sticking with Austen for a second more, in Persuasion, the tragedy isn’t that Anne Elliott let Captain Wentworth go the first time. She was wisely counseled as to the imprudence of that match because at the time Wentworth was in no position to support a wife. Austen always wants her heroines to follow the money.
This is what makes Julia so interesting at the beginning of the novel, when she is so level-headed about what is necessary for her life. As she explains to Harry (who has wimpishly tried to guilt her into changing her mind by invoking his love for her), “Love is not to be our master. You can choose, as I say; but I have had no choice—no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle. I don’t like the snuff of a candle, and, therefore, I am going to be married well.” The roles are switched: usually we see a woman pining for the lost love of a man. Trollope, ahead of his time, swaps the roles and gives us Julia.
This is why I had such a hard time with Harry Clavering. He’s everything Trollope warns us about 98 pages into the novel: “fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good.” I can see why Julia isn’t interested in marrying him; what I can’t see is why she got wrapped up with him in the first place. But then I remember how difficult it was for women to meet men, and that many romances were more romance of opportunity (“Oh, you’re staying at the manor too? Want to watch me drop my glove?”) than they were romances of kindred spirits. (Though they’re often spun that way after the fact.) I think Trollope hopes we’ll feel some sympathy for Harry when chapter one comes to a close – and maybe better readers do. Instead I see this continuum of women who have to explain the ways of the world to men who should know better but pretend not to. (I’m thinking specifically of the similarities between Julia and Madame Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. After her lover tries to convince her that they can run away together, to another country perhaps, someplace where they can live out their love in peace and where no one will know who they are, she says, “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there? I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”)
Of course, this being a Trollope, Julia Brabazon will be punished for her independence. It’s the unfortunate lot of women in Trollope novels. While he can be very progressive in his treatment of women characters (for instance, the financially well-set Aunt Greenow in Can You Forgive Her?), he’s still a man of the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I tell you that [spoiler alert] Julia’s marriage doesn’t turn out to be as fabulously awesome as we may all have hoped it would be. And it would be very easy – but very wrong – to shoot an I-told-you-so in Julia’s direction for not sticking it out with Harry. That she picked the wrong guy is not the same wrong as picking the wealthier guy, which isn’t wrong at all. While Trollope may know that, it’s tougher for a modern audience.
Is The Claverings worth your time? I…’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who hadn’t read any Trollope in the hopes of getting him interested – mostly because there are better Trollope novels to be read, starting with Can You Forgive Her or my personal favorite, The Way We Live Now. But I think it is an underappreciated look at the moral conflicts the Victorians inflicted on themselves, so for those who are interested in the nineteenth century as a social experiment with corsets I’d probably still recommend several other novels first (possibly Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook or George Gissing’s The Odd Women), but would save The Claverings for those moments where I needed to come up with the Top Five Novels About the Perils of Romance.
I’ll take any questions either via email (mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com) or in the comments below. (Thanks to Rebecca for this opportunity, p.s.)