Sunday, July 27, 2014

Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage and Gender Rolls

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 that
Trollope 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.


Guy Savage said...

Do you think you'll ever read a Trollope biography?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Since he is quickly becomming one of my favorite writers I might do so. I know that you are a fan of his. Can you recamend one?

James said...

Do you think that Trollope is portraying typical "Victorian" society?
Your comments on his approach to writing by showing rather than telling raises his standing in my estimation.

Harvee said...

I'm glad that Trollope showed signs of awareness about women in those times!
Book Dilettante

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Trollope's tendency to show and not tell is admirable.

I suspect that Trollope was onto something I regards to women's roles in society. With that said this is an issue where my knowledge is sketchy at best.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Trollope seemed to have such a keen eye for many things in society I really love him as a writer.

JacquiWine said...

Fascinating commentary as ever, Brian. I haven't read Trollope, but I like the way you've analysed how he communicates ideas; showing rather than telling suggests an appealing lightness of touch to his writing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- Trollope is indeed no thrower of lightening bolts as some writers are. The term "lightness of touch" is a good one for him.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting to see how Trollope portrayed gender roles, of his time especially. Once can find much food for thought by "reading between the lines".
This post reminds me of Jane Austen and the way she portrayed gender roles of her time, when a woman's goal was to marry well. All of her heroines wanted to marry for love, not wealth and interestingly enough the author herself never married.
Great post as always!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Trollope also explores the marriage dynamic where wealth and status competed with love when it came to choosing one's spouse. When I think about Trollope also seems to have portrayed women as getting the worse end of that too.

I am currently reading Jane Austen! My comments are coming!

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, I will need to read something by Trollope as his work sounds wonderful to me in many ways, including his sensitivity to women. Thank you for your insightful commentary.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Gaskell too talks much of gender roles. I look forward to reading Trollope's books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I would love to read what you think if you read a Trollope book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I really want to read Gaskell myself. The victorian novelists all seemed to delve into some form of social commentary,

Caroline said...

You're not going to belive this - I'm reading The Warden now. I guess you've inspired me. I'm quite grateful as I think it's unique. I noticed these auctorial intrusions as well and found them quite amusing.
I didn't expct an emotional reaction but the book resonantes a lot with me.
I just saw Guy's question - I'm tempted to read Trollope's autobiography. In my Penguin edition there are so many quotes and I think it's a great book.
In any case - I have you and Guy to thank for discovering Trollope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Great that you are reading Trollope. I cannot wait to read your commentary on it. Septimus Harding, is a unique and endearing character.

I am seriously considering reading Trollope's biography.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Reading this it seems to me that Trollope was an author way ahead of his times when it comes to social awareness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I am a limitless fuzzy on what social thinking on these issues were at the time. Without a doubt however Trollope formed his own opinions on these things.

JaneGS said...

>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.

That's a good point--much as I liked John Bold, his blinders caused him to make mistake after mistake. HE was well-intentioned but ultimately naive.

I do think that Trollope treats his female characters more realistically than did Dickens, who really didn't create a single realistic female character, in my opinion.

Interesting, thoughtful, thought-provoking post, as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

HI Jane - John Bold was indeed an interesting character.

Dickens did have a problem with female characters in particular. But Dickens was not in my opinion a realistic writer anyway. Trollope may be the most realistic writer that I ever read.

Violet said...

Anthony Trollope's mother, Frances, was a wonderfully clever woman who was very interested in the Woman Question - the role of women in Victorian society - and no doubt her influence rubbed off on AT. You may want to read her 'Domestic Manners of the Americans', sometime. It created quite a stir in her day.

I think I will have to start reading this series. I've never been a huge AT fan, but maybe I'm ready for him now. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I did not know about Trollope's mother. It sounds as if she undoubtedly influenced him.

I have only read this series so I cannot judge it against the other books. I would love to read what you think of it.

Andrew Blackman said...

Nice commentary, Brian. You're in quite a Trollope phase, it seems! It's a good reminder for me - I tried one of his books when I was young, but it didn't leave much impression on me, and have always been meaning to go back and try him again.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew

One thing driving me is that once I begin a series if it is any good I am a bit driven to finish it.

With that said reading through this series is particularly enjoyable.

I really would not have liked Trollope when I was younger. Though he is often compared to Dickens I think that Jane Austen is a better comparison.

Guy Savage said...

The bio by Victoria Glendinning

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Guy. When I get through this series I will likely give it a go.

Maria Behar said...

This commentary on "Framley Parsonage" is not only very detailed, but also full of very astute observations on how Trollope presents and fleshes out his characters. I like how you point out that he balances character flaws with good points, even though it does seem that the men of the time were rather narcissistic, intent upon their own leisure and political pursuits, while the women were forced to deal with the realities of life.

You've also made an interesting point regarding Trollope's moderate tendencies in regards to ideology. As a moderate myself, I heartily concur; I detest fanaticism of either end of the philosophical/political spectrum.

I am totally appalled at Mr. Crawley's statements regarding the idea of accepting charity in the case of his wife, who was obviously very ill. That he should even DARE to think of his "manliness" as being more important at such a time as this is totally DISGUSTING, especially considering the fact that he's a clergyman! Unfortunately, it is frequently the case that self-righteous clergymen turn out to be very hypocritical. While strongly championing their beliefs, they actually do evil in other ways.

I think it's about time I took that little stroll I mentioned in my comment to your previous Trollope post. Lol.

Thanks for the great commentary!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for your kind words.

Though as we have discussed I am bit over to the political and social left these days, I do consider myself a moderate in most areas. Even as I do side with American Progressives, I try to do so moderately. Thus I really appreciate Trollope's moderation myself.

Mr. Crawley' can indeed be infuriating, that is why I quoted that passage. Trollope sees such complexity in people however and does endow him with some positive traits later on.