Anthony’s Trollope’s 1867 novel The Claverings picks up, thematically, where his 1864 novel The Small House at Allington leaves off. In the latter, Lily Dale falls head over teakettle for handsome London swell Adolphus Crosbie (whom she first mockingly, then lovingly, nicknames Apollo). They become engaged; he returns to the city; he suffers Great Temptation; he succumbs to this Temptation and jilts Lily in favour of the fashionable Lady Alexandrina; Lily remains in the country, heart-broken. It is a wonderful novel, and part of what makes it wonderful is Trollope’s refusal to allow either for any miraculous eleventh-hour repentance on Adolphus’s part, or an eventual turn to a man more worthy of her on Lily’s. Her Apollo’s marriage to another is an unmitigated disaster and Lily herself remains unmarried, unable to shed the part of herself that committed entirely to this miserable bastard, even after she realizes he is not even a tenth so noble, kind, brave, or humane as she believed him to be.
Sad stuff this, although completely without sentimental pity or, even, very harsh criticism of this degraded Apollo by the narrator. Trollope’s narrators do moralize, but carefully, lightly, with restraint; Trollope was more interested in following his characters through their particular paths as ruthlessly and faithfully as possible. Read a Trollope novel and you can be sure he will spare neither his characters, his readers–nor, presumably, himself–from the pain that the circumstances he evokes might cause.
The Claverings is no different. Just after finishing the novel, though, I found myself scratching my head. You see, the degraded Apollo in this novel doesn’t pay much price at all for his sins; and it’s not even that he doesn’t really pay–it’s that he seems to be positively rewarded by God, universe, and author for coming clear in the end! Never has a flighty young man had absolutely everything turn out so well for him as things do for young Harry Clavering.
I wondered, briefly, what had happened to my Anthony Trollope; you know, the one who scorned the sort of narrative compromise that makes nasty morsels palatable for readers with sensitive tummies. Trollope hated those kinds of readers! He despised writers (Dickens, sometimes) who catered to the kind of jellied, simpering consumers of novels who couldn’t bear anything but happy endings.
The Claverings is a do-over on the Small House plot with one important change: Apollo (in this case, Harry) jilts his lovely Lily (in this case, Florence Burton) for a Lady Alexandrina (in this case, Lady Ongar)–but before Harry can complete the full-fledged destruction of both his own character and his fiancee’s heart, he is coaxed back into the fold. He finds himself engaged to two women simultaneously; he lies to them both, and to his friends, and to theirs; he engages in all kinds of craven self-justification, obfuscation, and avoidance; but he is brought back into the fold and if he suffers the discomforts of his position while he’s in this mess, he pays absolutely no price for it once he’s been reclaimed. Florence idealizes her beau, but not in the same way Lily Dale idealizes hers; Lily is broken when her idol shatters his own image on the rocks of his filthy and selfish ambitions; Florence is able, on the other hand, not to reassemble her shattered idol, but to refuse to acknowledge that it ever suffered from even the barest of hairline cracks in the first place:
In the mean time Harry had written to Florence, to whom the tidings were as important as to any one concerned. She had left London very triumphant, quite confident that she had nothing now to fear from Lady Ongar or from any other living woman, having not only forgiven Harry his sins, but having succeeded also in persuading herself that there had been no sins to forgive–having quarrelled with her brother half a dozen times in that he would not accept her arguments on this matter. He too would forgive Harry–had forgiven him–was quite ready to omit all further remark on the matter–but could not bring himself, when urged by Florence, to admit that her Apollo had been altogether godlike.
This is very generous–or foolish–of her. But she gets what she wants, which is her Harry. And Harry gets part of what he wants–a little darling who adores him–even if he doesn’t get all–he wanted, as well, a beautiful, accomplished lady with a great deal of money. But the minute, the very (narrative) second that Harry does the right thing–breaks with Lady Ongar to honour his first engagement, to Florence–he is rewarded. Florence’s family are relieved when Harry is brought back into the fold, and barely have time to wonder how the couple will survive (and they do wonder because Harry has not been a convincing apprentice):
When the god first became a god again, there was still a cloud upon the minds of the elder Burtons as to the means by which the divinity was to be sustained. A god in truth, but a god with so very moderate an annual income…
They need not have worried, for Harry is immediately informed of the ridiculously convenient deaths of his dastardly cousin Sir Hugh and his weak, debased brother Archie (next in line for the family property). They die, and Harry becomes heir to a large country property and its abundance of monies and other nice things. He won’t ever have to work, and he will enjoy his life of leisure. He is rewarded for doing the right thing before that option was removed, and Florence is rewarded for without reservation forgiving him for compromising both himself and Lady Ongar. Lady Ongar pays and pays and pays–but that was bound to happen, given that she cynically married just for money and title instead of marrying Harry in their beautiful youth; she’ll take her 30 pieces of silver everywhere she goes, for the rest of her life.
It’s all so neat. And just–at least, from Harry’s point of view. Yet, I’m sure that Trollope’s purpose here was never to engage in the dubious narrative privilege of handing out either rewards or punishments to his characters according to how well they behave. While his narrators are mostly endearingly chatty, his focus remains on observation much more than on judgment–and what he observes in The Claverings is twofold: first, that life is not fair, for Harry certainly does not deserve, if we must even briefly think in such terms, to have life turn out so comfortably for him; second, while cads, reformed or otherwise, don’t necessarily pay for their sins, someone else inevitably does. In The Claverings, it’s the women that pay–for their own sins, and for men’s. Florence’s suffering is temporary but very real; Lady Ongar, however, is doomed to spend the rest of her life confronting the fact that she sold herself to a drunken lout she hated instead of marrying the poor man she loved, only to lose that poor man the second time she becomes engaged to him, and to see him become stinking rich later. Sir Hugh, the deceased baronet who so conveniently gets himself drowned in the chilly waters off Finland, is a domestic villain of the highest order and his widow suffers with him in life and then after he’s gone, for in spite of everything, she loves him and her heart breaks when he dies.
I wouldn’t call The Claverings a proto-feminist novel but Trollope doesn’t look away from the fact that women were, absolutely, in a much more difficult and vulnerable social position than men in Victorian England. He doesn’t ever suggest that women ought to refuse to engage–he was no George Gissing, oh no! But his work isn’t free of blandishment, and this novel is in part a mild rebuke, a quiet reminder to men to take their power and responsibilities more seriously, to be more cognizant of the harm they can do just because of their privileged position as men.
If this seems inadequate, that’s fair. But I think this is, in fact, a really cynical novel at bottom. Because Harry never pays for his sins with a miserable marriage the way Adolphus Crosbie does, he’s never forced to really consider any of this. Circumstances and his family coddle him tenderly out of reach of any truly uncomfortable considerations of the consequences of his behaviour. That Lady Ongar really suffers, and pays more than her fair share for her earlier choice via both a complete shunning by the respectable social world and not getting to marry the person she really loves AND discovering too late that she doesn’t care that much about money at bottom–registers with him not at all.
The Claverings is a look at Victorian women’s essentially disadvantaged position in the world of morality and its judges; but it’s also a look at an immature and selfish young man who could have become something much better than he does–but never has to, because the world he lives in is made to accommodate him as he is. If Trollope engages in any narrative judgment he expresses it just by ruthlessly showing what would likely happen if real people’s lives ran the courses he imagines for them. Those courses can be tough ones indeed; and those that aren’t, well, it’s not because of anything so pedestrian as divine retribution in The Claverings–it’s just that mystical matter of gender selection.