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the vicar of bullhampton

10 june 2015

The Vicar of Bullhampton has the potential to be a murder mystery. Early on – in the 12th chapter of a Trollopean 73 – there's quite a brutal felony murder, complete with gory crime scene and terrified earwitnesses clutching each other in another room. And … then it all seems to evaporate in favor of the much more Trollopesque question of whether pretty, near-penniless Mary Lowther will marry her feckless cousin Captain Walter Marrable or longsuffering country squire Harry Gilmore.

That ought to be an easy call in some respects. Both men love her madly, but she loves Walter just as madly, and has no feelings for Harry. You might have guessed that the problem is money. Mary has a little, and Walter has an officer's pay, and officers do sometimes marry on their pay and go out to India; but to go out to India and keep house on an officer's salary is to move beyond the bounds of gentility – at least as defined by Trollope novels – and subside into that vast anonymous world of people who work for a living and keep house with their own hands.

But if Mary marries Harry, she'll consign herself to a loveless relationship, making herself miserable and spilling misery over onto Harry's life. Her friend Janet Fenwick, wife of the title vicar, tells her that's nonsense, you'll always love a man after you've been married to him for a while. Mary is reluctant to test the theory.

In counterpoint to Mary is Carry Brattle, daughter of the local miller, who has been "indiscreet" and is "one of the unfortunates" (500, 503). The word "prostitute" appears in the text, though the characters always stop themselves before saying "whore." "She is what she is," says Trollope in his preface (vi), sounding very 21st-century. Remote as they are in class identity and sexual habits, Mary and Carry are both held up as examples of shocking behavior at various points in the novel. The men who pursue them are never directly blamed; the entire moral responsibility for their condition falls squarely on them, and though both are eventually redeemed, their choices, made from a position of weakness, have the potential to scar them morally for life.

It won't really do to see The Vicar of Bullhampton as a feminist novel. At one point Trollope mansplains:

When a girl asks herself that question,—what shall she do with her life? it is so natural that she should answer it by saying that she will get married, and give her life to somebody else. It is a woman's one career—let women rebel against the edict as they may; and though there may be word-rebellion here and there, women learn the truth early in their lives. And women know it later in life when they think of their girls; and men know it, too, when they have to deal with their daughters. (259)
The novel's view of women's rights and women's conduct must therefore express itself in very narrow compass, the "one career" of the marriage plot. But within that compass, Trollope insists on women as protagonists with desires and goals. Carry's sin is venial, and the horror expressed by her culture an absurd over-reaction. And the assumption on everybody's part that Mary will do the sensible thing and marry the well-heeled Squire comes near to ruining her life before she takes the reins.

By contrast, title character Frank Fenwick is a waspish clergyman who tries to do some good here and there (especially for Carry Brattle, oblivious of appearances), but ends up more concerned about winning village ####ing matches than with improving the condition of his fellow men.

I love the little blue Oxford World's Classics editions of Trollope that used to be produced by the late "Vivian Ridler, Printer to the University." Vivian's eyesight must have been extraordinary, though, because the font in this one is microsopic. Thank God for iBooks, which allowed me to read most of The Vicar of Bullhampton with something approaching clarity.

Trollope, Anthony. The Vicar of Bullhampton. 1870. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. [The World's Classics]