Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mrs. Hurtle in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now

My general commentary on Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is here.

About half of Trollope’s important characters are women. He has created many imaginative and dynamic personas in the novels that I have read. His female characters have been varied. While most are virtuous, mentally and emotionally strong, a few notable ones have exhibited questionable integrity. Lizzie Eustace of The Palliser Books was thoroughly immoral. Mrs. Proudy of The Chronicles of Barchester was a force to be reckoned with and mostly malicious as she waged social war on a large  host of characters over the course of a series of books. Yet, in the thirteen other Trollope books that I have read, no female character showed physical prowess and aggression in the way that men do and as Mrs. Hurtle does.  Though some of his female characters participated in fox hunts, which are common in Trollope books, none engaged in aggressive action the way that Mrs. Hurtle does. 

Coming from the American West, Mrs. Hurtle is described as being comfortable with both guns and knives. It is eventually revealed that she shot and killed an attempted rapist in Oregon.  She describes English women as “dolls.” At one point, she writes to Paul, who has broken off an engagement with her. The following is like nothing else I have ever read in a Trollope novel, 

"You shall suffer retribution. I desire you to come to me,— according to your promise,— and you will find me with a horsewhip in my hand. I will whip you till I have not a breath in my body. And then I will see what you will dare to do;— whether you will drag me into a court of law for the assault. Yes; come. You shall come. And now you know the welcome you shall find. I will buy the whip while this is reaching you, and you shall find that I know how to choose such a weapon. I call upon you to come. But should you be afraid and break your promise, I will come to you. I will make London too hot to hold you"

Other Trollope heroines have lamented the loss of those who they loved, but no others threatened to attack their lovers with a horsewhip!

Mrs. Hurtle is not just capable of violence. In fact, she is a mostly sympathetic character. She is complex and shows many virtues. She exhibits real pain over Paul’s rejection of her but eventually more or less forgives him. In fact, she eventually does the right thing and chooses to be truthful in a moment where she could have ruined him. She also tries to help Ruby Rubbles, a young woman who is being terribly misused by the vile Felix Carbury. In addition, the above letter seems to be a bit of venting. While it is revealed that she has used physical force in the past, it was in self-defense against violent men. 

Mrs. Hurtle displays something else that is rare in a Trollope book, that is, she is a big thinker. Like Jane Austen, Trollope tends to fashion characters who are mostly concerned with everyday life. He tends not to write about philosophical people. When his characters do share observations about life in general, it tends to be in relation to a specific life situation that they are dealing with. Mrs. Hurtle is a little different. She thinks about life itself as well as its big issues. 

At one point, she is sharing her observations about the apparently successful businessman, Augustus  Melmotte, and how great men do not necessarily need to be bound by the same code of ethics as others, 

“commerce is not noble unless it rises to great heights. To live in plenty by sticking to your counter from nine in the morning to nine at night, is not a fine life. But this man with a scratch of his pen can send out or call in millions of dollars. Do they say here that he is not honest?…Of course such a man will be abused. People have said that Napoleon was a coward, and Washington a traitor. You must take me where I shall see Melmotte. He is a man whose hand I would kiss; but I would not condescend to speak even a word of reverence to any of your Emperors."

It is clear from the plot and text that Trollope does not share the sentiments expressed above. At the same time, Mrs. Hurtle is a mostly decent character who is flawed. My point here is that this philosophizing about the nature of greatness and ethics is a rare thing for a Trollope creation to engage in. The only other Trollope character that I can think of that philosophizes like this is John Neverbend of The Fixed Period. That work of dystopian fiction is a very different Trollope book from the start. 

It is of course significant that Mrs. Hurtle is American. It seems clear that Trollope would not portray an Englishwoman in this manner. This does seem to reflect some measure of reality. There is no doubt that some Englishwoman of the time passed physical prowess and could take care of themselves in violent situations, however, Mrs. Hurtle's style is distinctly American. As such she is  freer and much less inhibited then her British counterparts. The fact that Trollope does not view all American women like Mrs. Hurtle is apparent in The Duke's Children, where he portrayed several American woman in ways that were much closer to traditional gender roles. 

Like many Trollope works, this book is full of interesting characters. I could devote a post to all of them. One thing that struck me about Mrs. Hurtle is just how different she is from the typical Trollope female protagonist. In the end, The Way We Live Now is another Trollope novel filled with intriguing and compelling people.

32 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I haven't read the The Way We Live Now but I definitely get a sense of what Mrs. Hurdle is like from your excellent character study. Trollope paints Mrs. Hurdle as strong and direct coming as she does from the American West where rugged individualism was key. But as you demonstrate there is a vulnerability there too and an intellect. Characters make the novel. The novels that have been the most memorable to me are the ones where I fell for one of the characters in the book.

Mudpuddle said...

this must have been written after T toured America... he was a great traveller and wrote books about his experiences including one about the United States; probably he met a lady in the west...

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I now you enjoyed Anthony Trollope's work alot. I like that first quote you shared about Mrs. Hurtle to Paul. She sounds like a strong character, event though the whole horsewhip thing is kind of going overboard lol. From your posts about his books, it does seem Trollope wrote interesting characters. Happy reading and enjoy your week.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Trollope is one if the best crafters of character that I know. Here he tackles a type of woman that is atypical for him. Nevertheless, he rises to the challenge.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The horsewhip thing is so atypical for a Trollope novel. Mrs. Hurtle's character is so well done though.

Brian Joseph said...


Blogger Brian Joseph said...
Hi Muddpuddle - I never thought of that but it is likely true that he was influenced by who he met in America. If she was based on a real person or persons, a wonder who the real person was.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I'm glad you are enjoying this author's work so much. The horsewhip bit is puzzling, but I imagine it fits into the grand scheme of this novel. Mrs. Hurtle is certainly an interesting sounding character!
Excellent commentary, as usual!

JoAnn said...

What a fascinating character... certainly very unusual for Trollope. The Way We Live Now will be my first Trollope stand-alone novel... your two posts have convinced me. I plan to read The Duke's Children in December, finishing the Palliser series before the end of the year. It's been quite a ride.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The horsewhip thing fits Mrs. Hurtle’s character. She is a great character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn - This novel is a perfect follow up The Palliser Novels. Mrs. Hurtle is like no one in those books.

James said...

Thanks for the further commentary on this great novel. Your assessment of Mrs. Hurtle is insightful. I felt that in part she embodied the idea of America for Trollope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - You are making me think. That embodiement of an American probably included the admiration for Melmont and his ways..

Sharon Wilfong said...

This is a great character evaluation, Brian. I had not realized it, but now that you mention it, Trollope does tend to write from the female perspective. I wonder why? I should read a biography of him and see if there was some kind of fascination with female psychology.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon - I have heard women say, or at least write, that his portrayal of women is strangely accurate. With that, he also created a lot of compelling make characters.,

Whispering Gums said...

I enjoyed your analysis Brian. It is great to really dissect an aspect of a book like you have here. I don't know this book well enough - having only seen the miniseries, and that a long time ago - to comment on your assessment, but I was intrigued as soon as you mentioned it that Mrs Hurtle is American.

I think it's interesting to consider the role played by American characters in English novels (besides books written by Americans about Americans in England, like Henry James' Portrait of a lady or Edith Wharton's somewhat later The buccaneers.) I'm trying to think how may such characters there are in 19th century English fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks WP - I think that seeing Americans through the eyes of non American novelists is particularly enlightening. I think That Trollope is the only 19th Century non American novelist who I have read who has portrayed American characters.

I really must catch the mini series of this story.

Andrew Blackman said...

That's an interesting question! I think there must be more, but the only other instance I can think of is when Charles Dickens set part of Martin Chuzzlewit in America. It's been ages since I read it, but I seem to remember the American characters weren't very sympathetic (although Dickens liked to use his British characters as objects of satire too, of course!).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew- I must read Martin Chuzzlewit. I am now searching my brain for examples of American characters in these books.

Stefanie said...

A standalone Trollope book? I might have to read this one. Interesting analysis of Mrs. Hurtle. Was there any hint of parody in her portrayal? Or a sense Trollope thought American women vulgar? It doesn't seem like it from what you say but I am curious since so many British authors around this time made fun of American women.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie- Thiugh sometimes I think I miss irony, I do not think thaf there was parody or irony in Mrs. Hurtle’s depiction. She is portrayed very sympatheticly, but very different from British women.

thecuecard said...

Ohh those Americans with their horsewhips! Mrs. Hurtle seems to have some chutzpah about her. I like it. It seems she must have been quite surprising to find in this work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Indeed, Mrs. Hurtle is a very un - Trollope like female character.

HKatz said...

Interesting analysis, especially that he made her American :) The whip excerpt sounds like something you'd say from the doorway of a saloon.

It also reminds me of a memoir I read a while ago, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, about an Englishwoman who went traveling to the American West in the late 1800s, and while she didn't horsewhip anyone, she did climb a mountain with an outlaw, ride on horseback, etc. In the proper environment, an Englishwoman might discover quite a capacity for ruggedness and adventure in her, more than many of her American contemporaries.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains sounds like it is worth the read. No doubt that many Englishwomen would have resin to the challenge and done very well in the old American West.

I find The Horsewhip thing very amusing.

Maria Behar said...

LOVE your character analysis here, Brian!! OUTSTANDING!!

I can see, from your several reviews and posts about Trollope's novels, that this writer was quite complex. And I like your comparing him to Austen, because like her, he's a very acute, shrewd observer of human nature. Both of these writers have an innate talent for psychology, although, of course, they approach their characterizations differently.

Those two quotes you shared were very interesting. The first one is totally SHOCKING, too. But then, I do agree with you that Mrs. hurtle was most likely venting. However, this quote makes it very clear that she was a woman NOT to be messed with!

The second quote makes me wish that Trollope had included this philosophizing in more of his novels, especially with the female characters.

How interesting that Trollope saw a distinct difference between American and British women! I suppose that's why the novel "Jane Eyre" was such a sensation when it was first published. British women probably saw it as a very welcome respite from their usual expected, conventional behavior. Oh, this has given me an idea -- it would be very interesting, I think, to compare Mrs. Hurtle with Jane Eyre. What do you think?

Thanks for another fascinating post about a book character!! Hope you're having a nice Sunday!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Trollope really was good at portraying complex characters. He was very influenced by Jane Austen. It would have been interesting had Trollope written more philosophical characters. We do not know if he would have been good at it however. On the other hand, he wrote 54 novels and I have read only 14 of them. He may have experimented in some of the others.

Jane Eyre and Mrs. Hurtle would be an interesting comparison. In some ways Mrs. Hurtle is more like Rochester! Seriously, Mrs. Hurtle had a moral compass but she was less interested in propriety. I think that she might have stayed with Rochester without hesitation.

asad ali said...

Hi Brain !

thank you for fabulous review !
you just gave great start to my noon ahead :)

I think every woman must have little bit of ' Mrs Hurtle inside her

Loved the first paragraph specially which is monologue of her
i found it fantastically striking

i always criticized writers who portray typical women who only scream and ask for help in violent situations

i think God has made everybody with perfect ability to defend ourselves
all we need to TRY

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ali - Mrs. Hurtle was certainly not the typical fictional woman. In this genre women seldom are endangered but they tend to be not so physical or aggressive. That is a great quote. By the way - do you have a blog?

Carol said...

Loved reading this, Brian. She sounds like a very interesting woman!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol - Trollope creates such interesting characters.

Kat said...

Mrs. Hurtle is a fascinating character, coming back as she does to haunt Paul. How horriftying for him! One can only imagine. She is a bit bit of a carcicature of an American woman, but we do come to like her a bit. It's been a while since I've read the book, and I recently saw the miniseries, so now I have her mixed up with an actress with the phoniest American accent I've ever heard. But I even grew to like the actress...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kat - Despite the stereotypes I really like Mrs. Hurtle tooTrollope does transcend them a bit by humanizing her. I must see the miniseries.