Beyond the common rules and back again: Anthony Trollope’s Dr Wortle’s School

Dr Wortles SchoolHe may have written something to this effect in his Autobiography, or I may just be incredibly perceptive, but I think Anthony Trollope reveals, near the end of Dr Wortle’s School, the scientific method underpinning all his novels:

It is not often that one comes across events like these, so altogether out of the ordinary course that the common rules of life seem to be insufficient for guidance.  To most of us it never happens; and it is better for us that it should not happen. But when it does, one is forced to go beyond the common rules.

“Here,” I hear his stentorian voice rumble towards me through the centuries, “is a very difficult, odd, generally impossible, and extremely painful situation indeed.” Smiling a strange mixture of concern and satisfaction, I imagine him continuing to talk himself through it,”These are the lovely and upright and excellent people who will have to deal with it. Let’s see how they do.”

Dr Wortle’s School (1881) is the most intense example I’ve yet read of his experimental approach to writing “real” people into and out of imagined situations. It is such an unlikely situation that I’m sure it happened/happens all the time. The story is of a very upright clergyman and schoolmaster, Dr. Wortle, who hires another very upright and extremely learned clergyman, Mr. Peacocke, to be his school’s Classics tutor. Mr. Peacocke brings his lovely and upright wife with him, from America, and she is also employed in the school. All is well; Dr. Wortle is very much satisfied with his new employees, and is becoming good friends with Mr. Peacocke–to a point. You see, the Peacockes will, under no circumstances, visit anyone’s home. They are always polite and welcoming and obliging but adamantly refuse to be anyone’s guests.

A mystery. A mystery that is soon solved as Trollope reveals everything almost immediately, for he’s not interested in drawing readers in to keep them hanging on for a Big Reveal. He wants everything known up front so that he can work out the really knotty issue he’s created for his benighted characters: BIGAMY.

Mrs. Peacocke does not really have the legal right to the name she goes by; you see, when she and Mr. Peacocke married, it was believed that her first husband was dead. Six months after she and her lord and master contracted to live in marital bonds forever and forever, her first husband showed up. Not dead. Not only very much not dead, but still also a total piece of work. He abused and neglected her when they were married, and threatens to haunt and ruin her life now that he’s back–and then he promptly disappears. The Peacockes (we’ll just call them that for simplicity’s sake) refuse to part, although that’s what’s required for Mr. Peacocke to keep his position at the college in St. Louis. He won’t leave her because he loves her; furthermore, he feels duty-bound to care for her, for she’d have nothing and would likely die without him.

They return to England and hope no one finds out. Everyone finds out, because Mrs. Peacocke’s (ex-)brother-in-law, Colonel Lefoy shows up in a bid to blackmail a great deal of money out of the Peacockes to protect their secret. They are both too upright to play that game and so all is revealed. The conundrum is Dr. Wortle’s: when he learns the whole story, he reveals himself to be as upright and manly as the brave and constant Mr. Peacocke himself:

“I could not send her from me.  Nor could I go and leave her.  Had we been separated then, because of the law or because of religion, the burden, the misery, the desolation, would all have been upon her.”

“I would have clung to her, let the law say what it might,” said the Doctor, rising from his chair.

“You would?”

“I would;–and I think that I could have reconciled it to my God.  But I might have been wrong,” he added; “I might have been wrong.  I only say what I should have done.”

“It was what I did.”

“Exactly; exactly.  We are both sinners.  Both might have been wrong. Then you brought her over here, and I suppose I know the rest?”

“You know everything now,” said Mr. Peacocke.

“And believe every word I have heard.  Let me say that, if that may be any consolation to you.  Of my friendship you may remain assured.  Whether you can remain here is another question.”

It’s a difficult question; the success of Dr. Wortle’s school relies upon its, and his, reputation for moral propriety indistinguishable from excellence in scholarship. But everyone knows of the Peacockes’ situation, and not everyone is as manly and strong and sensible and forgiving as Dr. Wortle is.

But this strength in compassion is not all that makes Dr. Wortle manly; indeed, he is the epitome of the benevolent patriarch, the man who is generally just, but also accustomed to being in charge; he is kindly but will take lip from no one. Not only does he “recommend…all those who gave him advice to mind their own business,” but he is also

a domineering husband.  As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant.  His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so.  They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.

This is good news, for he has a great deal of fighting to do when he decides both to help the Peacockes; he refuses to expel Mrs. Peacocke from his property when her husband goes off to America to discover if her first husband is dead now so that they might legitimately marry.

He learns, painfully, that running headlong against his enemies, indeed against the moral shock and indignation of “the world” isn’t necessarily going to work in this case. There are some difficulties for which there are simply no easy answers, or no way to tear down the opposition and remain unharmed; he learns that in most situations, but especially this one, “We are, all of us, joined together too closely to admit of isolation such as that.”

It’s a painful reckoning, but Dr. Wortle learns to consider the needs of his pride against the effects of his actions on his family; on his friends; on the success of his business; against his reputation; against his ability to function in society at all. All of a sudden, the Doctor’s gruff manner and staunch…staunchness begin to work against him. As the scandal widens and he doesn’t budge, his own bishop begins to turn against him, in part because he “begrudged the Doctor his manliness!”

Dr Wortle’s School should (or, at least, could easily) have been a novel about women’s morality–it is Mrs. Peacocke who is considered, by almost everyone, to have transgressed by not leaving Mr. Peacocke when her first husband walks in out of the wilderness to ruin their lives. But women and their problems aren’t Trollope’s focus at all, except when he notes that women are better able to behave properly if men are allowed to behave like real men.

Behaving like a real man is what’s being blocked at every turn by Victorian English propriety here; neither Trollope, nor Wortle, nor Peacocke accord Mrs. Peacocke one atom of the blame for this untenable situation–indeed, her obedience to the man she believes to be her husband, and who behaves like her husband, is celebrated with defiant and eloquent earnestness.

Trollope’s real life problem, as seen through a stranger than fiction situation of his invention, is how to remain a man in a world desperate to emasculate via religion, gossip, financial ruin, and social ostracizing. He sets it all up beautifully, gets going…and then stops.

In a moment of Dickensian weakness (what I imagine Trollope would see as weakness particularly likely to flow from Dickens’ pen; I think it’s simply narrative laziness on Trollope’s part), everything gets solves. Yes, the husband is dead; given what kind of man he was–a hopeless alcoholic with nothing to live for–that was expected. But Dr. Wortle’s problems are solved simply because one of his students, the young Lord Carstairs–also very stubborn and manly–takes it into his head to affiance himself to Mary Wortle. He cares nothing for class or money or gossip; he loves Mary and that’s that.

But it doesn’t seem as though he ever even knows of Mr. Peacocke’s problems; he certainly is never given the opportunity to address and dismiss them in a manly fashion (which he would, of course–he’s Lord Carstairs!). The Peacocke trials simply peter out in favour of a late onset marriage plot that not only goes off without even a quarter of a hitch, but which inspires the immediate return of all the students Dr. Wortle’s lost for standing by his Classics teacher.

I don’t know why Trollope changed course the way he did, but Dr. Wortle’s manliness is never given the full test Trollope promises. Shit, the minute the engagement between Carstairs and Mary threatens, all Trollope’s characters, pretty well fleshed out till then, either collapse into genre types or disappear altogether: the bashful maiden who would never, ever, ever consider loving a man until it seems clear he’s going to marry her; the proud fathers; the young man who knows what he wants, is in love, and therefore not as devoted to his studies as he should be; mothers cooing and dreaming of being mothers-in-law to lords. Oh, Anthony.

Maybe even Anthony Trollope needed the comforts of pure fantasy sometimes. If we’re proper manly, we’ll forgive him that and move on.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Guy Savage says:

    In spite of its shortcomings, I rather liked this one.

    1. Colleen says:

      Oh, I did too; but it was bemusing how the plot seemed to turn into something else at the end. I thought it was actually the best of all the short Trollope novels I’ve read; and I thought some of Mrs. Peacocke’s and Mr. Peacocke’s discussions of why they stayed together were really great.

  2. St. Louis, huh? Too bad Trollope did not actually set the novel in St. Louis.

    It is funny how much Trollope hates suspense. No hidden information. Although in how many novels is the secret actually the high point of suspense, compared to How the Secret Is Revealed or What Will She Do When She Learns the Terrible Secret? Not very many.

    1. Colleen says:

      Absolutely true; although I think he was lashing out at sensation fiction somewhat. Which is funny, because I can’t think of anything much more sensational than, not bigamy itself, but appearing to excuse bigamy.

      I wonder what mad adventures his characters would have got up to if they’d stayed in St. Louis!

    2. In Trollope’s travel book North America – not such an interesting book, but not bad – he was horrified by how yellow everyone was (from malaria) who lived along the Mississippi. That’s all I remember about Trollope’s St. Louis.

      1. Colleen says:

        He also didn’t seem to think much of American manliness. Have you read his mother’s book on the Americans and their manners? I got a copy recently…

      2. I have not. I understand it is full of Prejudices, which ought to be amusing at this distance,

      3. Colleen says:

        But then, 200 pages of a hate-filled screed…might not be all that amusing.

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