From The Millions:
Does the now rather tame eroticism of Victorian novels restrict their readership mostly to English majors, culture warriors invested in traditional moralities, and Masterpiece fans? Here’s an experiment for more jaded 21st-century readers: let’s take a quick tour of the love scenes of a famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who is more celebrated for his lengthy chronicles of Victorian society and politics than romance, to see if his writings still intrigue or even enflame. Such a tour might help readers decide whether they want to read through all of Trollope’s 47 novels or, say, to work through the 800-ish pages of Can You Forgive Her? to find the one embrace, where, exemplifying both her passion and her shame in that passion, Alice Vavasor still shrinks guiltily from her lover as she accepts him.
Erotic encounters in Trollope can now seem both anachronistic and unintentionally funny not only because the author was a rather standard-model Victorian moralist but also because his novels often are more invested in the social or the political than the romantic. As Trollope admitted in An Autobiography, he shrewdly wrote romance into his novels to attract readers to whom he could teach moral lessons: “dealing with love is advantageous” since “the passion is one which interests or has interested all.” Briefly assessing the lurching forms of hugging and kissing in Trollope, however, will show that his works aren’t just period pieces. Instead, our survey will reveal an intriguing clash between the author’s conventional social views and his impish literary impulses—and, more fascinatingly, between those same views and the quiet stirrings of a few proto-modern ideas. For concision, we’ll restrict ourselves to his two major novelistic series, the six Barchester novels and the six Palliser novels, starting with Trollope at his most literary and moving from there.
1. The Embarrassments of Attraction
In Phineas Finn, the eponymous hero, after unsuccessfully romancing three ladies above his station, conforms to garden-variety Victorian values by marrying his hometown sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones, who has pined for him from afar the whole novel. “’Mary,’ he said, ‘will you be my wife,—my own wife?’…When half an hour had passed, they were still together, and now she had found the use of her tongue. ‘Do whatever you like best,’ she said. . . . Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Oh, Phineas!’ she said, ‘I do love you so entirely!’” Presumably, Mary isn’t using that tongue to kiss him back; she is instead a morally suitable example of Victorian female subservience and restraint. Like many 19th-century writers, Trollope often associates physical attraction with danger and self-control with virtue: his heroines Lily Dale, Glencora Palliser (for a while), and Emily Wharton are all betrayed by their attachments to handsome men who appear to act like gentleman but instead jilt, drink and gamble, and ruinously speculate, respectively. But Trollope knew he was employing a literary cliché here in Phineas Finn. And Mary’s long silent treatment reads like an absurdist expansion of famous scenes like the moment when even 19th-century British literature’s most verbose pixie, Elizabeth Bennett, is briefly silenced and cannot even look at Mr. Darcy right after he proposes. By contrast, Mary is revealed here as a characterological bore, and, presumably admitting defeat, Trollope conveniently killed her off before the sequel Phineas Redux. He often had trouble fully committing to conventional romantic narratives.
Link to the rest at The Millions