Nothing is more mischievous than the self-complacency of historians who treat the past as though it were an object lesson in why the present is more enlightened than the past. Yet precisely because these historians flatter the self-complacency of their readers, their misjudgments of the past often become axiomatic. This certainly occurred with regard to the view of the Victorians that still obtains in many quarters, thanks, in large part, to historians taking it into their heads to portray Victoria’s subjects as little more than epitomes of benightedness. Indeed, if we consult the Oxford English Dictionary, we can see the figurative sense of the word Victorian defined there as prudish, strict, old-fashioned, and outdated, the clear implication being that the successors to the Victorians are, by contrast, broadminded, liberal, au courant, and forward-looking. As if to drive home this invidious comparison, the dictionary’s editors turned to George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in 1950: He was helping the movement against Victorian prudery in a very practical way as a nudist. That says it all.
These distinctions occurred to me recently while reading Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now (1875). While unnecessary to go into all of the twists and turns of the plot, it is necessary for our purposes to relate that the downfall of the book’s hero, Augustus Melmotte, a thoroughly unscrupulous financier, affects a host of other characters intent on sharing in what they hope will be the dividends of his dishonest speculations. One of the subsidiary characters is a dissolute young baronet named Sir Felix Carbury, whose enterprising but impecunious mother tries to arrange for his marrying Melmotte’s daughter, Marie. Spending most of his time drinking and gambling at his club, the baronet only pursues Marie half-heartedly, preferring as he does the company of an exuberant young country woman named Ruby Ruggles. Ruby has been put out of her home by her grandfather, whom she calls the “Squire,” for refusing to marry an upright miller named John Crumb, who genuinely loves her. Consequently, as the story unfolds, Ruby is living with her Aunt Pipkin in Islington. Meanwhile, Felix has arranged to run away with Marie, convinced that her father will forgive her elopement and settle enough money on her to enable him to continue his life of dissipated extravagance. Before embarking for New York, however, he meets with Ruby one last time, even though her Aunt has told her that if she goes out again with Sir Felix the door will be locked when she returns home.
This is all the plot summary one needs in order to enter into the power of Trollope’s treatment of the culminating scene between Sir Felix and Ruby, which nicely proves that, when it comes to virginibus puerisque, the Victorians were nothing as benighted as they have been made out to be. “I’m pretty nigh ashamed of myself. Yes, I am,” Ruby admits at the beginning of the scene, with a moral clarity that does her credit.
And now Ruby burst out into tears. “Because I wouldn’t have John Crumb, I didn’t mean to be a bad girl. Nor yet I won’t. But what’ll I do, if everybody turns again me? Aunt won’t go on for ever in this way. She said last night that—”
“Bother what she says!” Felix was not at all anxious to hear what aunt Pipkin might have to say upon such an occasion.
“She’s right too. Of course she knows there’s somebody. She ain’t such a fool as to think that I’m out at these hours to sing psalms with a lot of young women. She says that whoever it is ought to speak out his mind. There;—that’s what she says. And she’s right. A girl has to mind herself, though she’s ever so fond of a young man.”
Sir Felix sucked his cigar and then took a long drink of brandy and water. Having emptied the beaker before him, he rapped for the waiter and called for another. He intended to avoid the necessity of making any direct reply to Ruby’s importunities. He was going to New York very shortly, and looked on his journey thither as an horizon in his future beyond which it was unnecessary to speculate as to any farther distance. He had not troubled himself to think how it might be with Ruby when he was gone. He had not even considered whether he would or would not tell her that he was going, before he started. It was not his fault that she had come up to London. She was an “awfully jolly girl,” and he liked the feeling of the intrigue better perhaps than the girl herself. But he assured himself that he wasn’t going to give himself any “d——d trouble.” The idea of John Crumb coming up to London in his wrath had never occurred to him,—or he would probably have hurried on his journey to New York instead of delaying it, as he was doing now. “Let’s go in and have a dance,” he said.
Ruby was very fond of dancing,—perhaps liked it better than anything in the world. It was heaven to her to be spinning round the big room with her lover’s arm tight round her waist, with one hand in his and her other hanging over his back. She loved the music, and loved the motion. Her ear was good, and her strength was great, and she never lacked breath. She could spin along and dance a whole room down, and feel at the time that the world could have nothing to give better worth having than that;—and such moments were too precious to be lost. She went and danced, resolving as she did so that she would have some answer to her question before she left her lover on that night.
Is this old-fashioned or outdated? Do young women no longer demand respect from the young men they see? Are they no longer apprehensive lest their fondness for an irresponsible young man betray their dignity, their honor? Should young men no longer feel ashamed when they use young women as though they were nothing more than kept concubines? These are matters of a perennial importance to the young, as they are to any culture reliant on the young for the perpetuation of civil society. In giving them such dramatic reality, Trollope can hardly be said to be “Victorian” in the sense in which the OED defines the word. On the contrary, his treatment of these deeply consequential matters could not be more ad rem. No one can read this riveting scene from The Way We Live Now without seeing that its moral preoccupations are our preoccupations. In showing such sympathy and admiration for his brave, incorruptible Ruby, Trollope shows sympathy for an understanding of female dignity without which no civilization can flourish. Indeed, if there is a kind of chivalry in Trollope’s sympathy, there is also a toughminded realism, a recognition that there are stakes attached to how we treat or mistreat women. But rather than gloss the scene, I should let my readers simply read it for themselves.
“And now I must go,” she said at last. “You’ll see me as far as the Angel, won’t you?” Of course he was ready to see her as far as the Angel. “What am I to say to the Squire?”
“And what am I to say to aunt?”
“Say to her? Just say what you have said all along.”
“I’ve said nothing all along,—just to oblige you, Felix. I must say something. A girl has got herself to mind. What have you got to say to me, Felix?”
He was silent for about a minute, meditating his answer. “If you bother me I shall cut it, you know.”
“Yes;—cut it. Can’t you wait till I am ready to say something?”
“Waiting will be the ruin o’ me, if I wait much longer. Where am I to go, if Mrs. Pipkin won’t have me no more?”
“I’ll find a place for you.”
“You find a place! No; that won’t do. I’ve told you all that before. I’d sooner go into service, or—”
“Go back to John Crumb.”
“John Crumb has more respect for me nor you. He’d make me his wife to-morrow, and only be too happy.”
“I didn’t tell you to come away from him,” said Sir Felix.
“Yes, you did. You told me as I was to come up to London when I saw you at Sheepstone Beeches;—didn’t you? And you told me you loved me;—didn’t you? And that if I wanted anything you’d get it done for me;—didn’t you?”
“So I will. What do you want? I can give you a couple of sovereigns, if that’s what it is.”
“No it isn’t;—and I won’t have your money. I’d sooner work my fingers off. I want you to say whether you mean to marry me. There!”
As to the additional lie which Sir Felix might now have told, that would have been nothing to him. He was going to New York, and would be out of the way of any trouble; and he thought that lies of that kind to young women never went for anything. Young women, he thought, didn’t believe them, but liked to be able to believe afterwards that they had been deceived. It wasn’t the lie that stuck in his throat, but the fact that he was a baronet. It was in his estimation “confounded impudence” on the part of Ruby Ruggles to ask to be his wife. He did not care for the lie, but he did not like to seem to lower himself by telling such a lie as that at her dictation. “Marry, Ruby! No, I don’t ever mean to marry. It’s the greatest bore out. I know a trick worth two of that.”
She stopped in the street and looked at him. This was a state of things of which she had never dreamed. She could imagine that a man should wish to put it off, but that he should have the face to declare to his young woman that he never meant to marry at all, was a thing that she could not understand. What business had such a man to go after any young woman? “And what do you mean that I’m to do, Sir Felix?” she said.
“Just go easy, and not make yourself a bother.”
“Not make myself a bother! Oh, but I will; I will. I’m to be carrying on with you, and nothing to come of it; but for you to tell me that you don’t mean to marry, never at all! Never?”
“Don’t you see lots of old bachelors about, Ruby?”
“Of course I does. There’s the Squire. But he don’t come asking girls to keep him company.”
“That’s more than you know, Ruby.”
“If he did he’d marry her out of hand,—because he’s a gentleman. That’s what he is, every inch of him. He never said a word to a girl,—not to do her any harm, I’m sure,” and Ruby began to cry. “You mustn’t come no further now, and I’ll never see you again— never! I think you’re the falsest young man, and the basest, and the lowest-minded that I ever heard tell of. I know there are them as don’t keep their words. Things turn up, and they can’t. Or they gets to like others better; or there ain’t nothing to live on. But for a young man to come after a young woman, and then say, right out, as he never means to marry at all, is the lowest-spirited fellow that ever was. I never read of such a one in none of the books. No, I won’t. You go your way, and I’ll go mine.” In her passion she was as good as her word, and escaped from him, running all the way to her aunt’s door. There was in her mind a feeling of anger against the man, which she did not herself understand, in that he would incur no risk on her behalf. He would not even make a lover’s easy promise, in order that the present hour might be made pleasant. Ruby let herself into her aunt’s house, and cried herself to sleep with a child on each side of her.
Read in the light of the sexual revolution that has undermined our social order by undermining our commitment to all the virtues and blessings of marriage, this could only be thought old-fashioned and outdated by those who imagine our need for love, our need for self-respect, our need for civil order old-fashioned and outdated. “For a young man to come after a young woman, and then say, right out, as he never means to marry at all, is the lowest-spirited fellow that ever was”—if we could only instill this now nearly forgotten truth in our own young men, we could begin to revitalize our civilization.
This might sound a grandiose claim, but I believe it true, and I base this belief, to some lively extent, on some observations that Trollope himself made about his satirical novel in his Autobiography (1883). There he revealed that it was “the commercial profligacy of the age” that inspired him to write the book. Of course, many commentators infer from this that what Trollope found most objectionable about this “profligacy” was its plutocratic excess. But this is not actually the case. What troubled Trollope was something more fundamental than mere greed, as he points out in the last chapter of his Autobiography.
Whether the world does or does not become more wicked as years go on, is a question which probably has disturbed the minds of thinkers since the world began to think. That men have become less cruel, less violent, less selfish, less brutal, there can be no doubt;—but have they become less honest? If so, can a world, retrograding from day to day in honesty, be considered to be in a state of progress? We know the opinion on this subject of our philosopher Mr. Carlyle. If he be right, we are all going straight away to darkness and the dogs. Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.
Certainly, such moral dishonesty vitiates our own culture at every level, though, as Trollope appreciates, the fact that it permeates the very highest levels of society inures us to its turpitude. “If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.” This, as Trollope relates, “instigated” him to write The Way We Live Now, “to take,” as he says, “the whip of the satirist” into his hand, and go “beyond the iniquities of the great speculator” to tackle “other vices” as well; one of which, as we have seen, was “the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single”—young men, that is to say, who, out of concupiscence and solipsism, reject the honesty that is at the very heart of sacramental marriage.
In this, curiously enough, Trollope thought he might have overstepped the bounds of warrantable satire. The very forbearance and generosity of the man led him to wonder whether he had been, after all, too harsh in his satirical zeal. “Who,” he asks, “when the lash of objurgation is in his hands, can so moderate his arm as never to strike harder than justice would require?” But certainly, we can see, confronted as we are by a culture of far more baleful dishonesty—a dishonesty which has robbed us not only of our respect for women but for our very humanity—that Trollope was more than merely just in his satire: He was prophetic.
Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and History, as well as Culture and Abortion, both of which are published by the good English Catholic publisher, Gracewing.