Like all the previous novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Framley Parsonage is about the men and women who inhabit the fictional English county of Barsetshire. As I was reading this entry I began to think about how Trollope portrays gender in different ways. It seems that the author is attempting to show something distinctive concerning the way that men and women behave within their respective roles in society. Obviously the culture thatTrollope is portraying has very distinct and defined gender roles and cultural codes of conduct. However, it appears that Trollope is trying to go beyond those roles to convey something more meaningful.
Before one attempts to extract any messages from this book, I think it important to take a step back and examine how Trollope generally communicates ideas. An impression that one gets from all of the Trollope’s novels that I have read thus far, is that this author is the opposite of an ideologue. When characters are wedded too closely to any particular cause or ideology, such ardor is portrayed as a flaw. Trollope depicts these defects sometimes gently but at other times severely. The overzealous John Bold, a major character in The Warden comes to mind as a good example. In this regard Trollope tends not to take sides in terms of where the character falls on the political and social spectrum. Instead it is the character’s single-mindedness that becomes the issue.
The characters that seem the most balanced and stable are the moderates who posses a strong moral sense. Septimus Harding, hero of the The Warden and minor character in this novel, as well Miss Dunstable, a moderately important character in several of the books, are good examples. Thus I would be very cautious to tie Trollope too closely to any one movement or ideology.
Another point about Trollope is that he is almost never heavy handed. He does not hit the reader over the head with any message. What he does often do is show, rather then tell, what he perceives as truth, usually a moderate view of truth, about the world through his characters and plot. His messages are not overbearing or strident though he does make some keen observations.
With all this said, throughout Framley Parsonage it seems that the author is trying to say something about the plight of women in society. One thing that is characteristic of the plot is that the many of the males, even the fairly decent and honorable ones, expand most of their time and much of their assets on their own leisure and pleasure as well as political machinations that do not benefit society. Mark Robarts, the protagonist, is a clergyman who becomes more and more drawn into the local habits of hunting, equestrian pursuits and power politics to the point that he comes under the criticism of other characters. It seems that most of the other male characters partake in the same activities. While the men while away time and money, Robarts’s wife Fanny and his sister Lucy, not only take care of their own families and children, but they go to great sacrifice and risk caring for another family whose mother, Mrs. Crawley, is struck with a serious, seemingly infectious illness.
We also observe this duality within the Crawley family. Mrs. Crawley works and sacrifices enormously for the good of her children. Within this family however, we also see another male character behaving in a different kind of deleterious way. Mr. Crawley, a Clergyman of strident beliefs, is so frugal and severe, that he allows his wife and children to suffer terribly and denies them small pleasures because he is too prideful to accept charity or assistance from others.
At one point when Mrs. Crawley is lying terribly ill, Mr. Crawley attempts to refuse help for her and the family due to his unreasonable beliefs and what is ultimately egotistical pride. His actions and motivations, seem reprehensible as he comments,
“It is all that is left to me of my manliness. That poor broken reed who is lying there sick,— who has sacrificed all the world to her love for me,— who is the mother of my children, and the partner of my sorrows and the wife of my bosom,— even she cannot change me in this, though she pleads with the eloquence of all her wants. Not even for her can I hold out my hand for a dole.”
Lest one think that is too much of a monster, Mr. Crawley does show some decency later on, it is decency that is motivated after he observes the altruism shown by Lucy.
Trollope is a writer who never lets the reader forget that they are reading a book and are being addressed by an author. Thus, he uses meta - fiction and unusual points of view freely. My commentary on this tendency is here. The creative author leaves an interesting clue to his intentions in the narrative. At one point when describing Mark Robarts, Trollope seems to correct himself as if he recognizes that he is being too gender biased,
And then, too, he found that men liked him,— men and women also; men and women who were high in worldly standing.
What is the reader to make of all this? Is Trollope saying that the men in his society are all narcissistic and occupied with their own pleasure and ideology while the women sacrifice to help their families and community? As it fits Trollope's moderation, I think that his message is a bit more nuanced then this. At times the male characters certainly behave honorably and do a lot of good in Framley Parsonage as they do in other Trollope works. Conversely there are female characters spread throughout this series, such as Mrs. Proudie and Lady Arabella who are downright pernicious. Another female character, Griselda Grantly is vacuous and cold.
Trollope is neither raising women to pedestals nor is he demonizing men. Instead he is showing through observation that in general the women of his society all too often sacrifice and work for others, much more so then do men. Furthermore he is taking males to task for certain aspects of their behavior. He does all this while at portraying a complex and multifaceted world where there are all sorts of nuance and exceptions to general truths.
I have used the term “his society” several times when commenting upon the world that Trollope was describing. Obviously Trollope lived in a very different time then that of the modern reader. Any lessons that we can apply to our current circumstances need to take this into account. With that in mind, modern readers can attempt to evaluate Trollope’s message in the context of the modern world. My personal observation, at least in very general terms, of the society that I am mostly familiar with, American society, and for a segment of the population, some of these realities exist in the present day.
My commentary on the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden is here.
My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.
My commentary on the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Doctor Thorne is here.
My General Commentary on Framley Parsonage is here.
My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.