You know how last time, I was saying that I hadn’t ever run across a well-written fictional woman from the pen of a male Victorian writer? Well, now I have! The lady in question is Eleanor Harding Bold, from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.
Actually, I had alrady met her several years ago during a course in Victorian lit.; I just forgot. But then last week, I took the DVD of the miniseries out of the library because I wanted to watch Alan Rickman play the marvellously slimy Mr Slope (or marvellously play the slimy Mr Slope, either way. It was his breakout role, from 1982; he’s so young there! Actually, he is what he should have been as Snape; I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling envisioned Rickman when she was writing Snape, and I’m sure if that’s true, it was him as Obadiah Slope she had in mind. The name alone suggests it – Slope/Snape). Anyway, so I was watching The Barchester Chronicles, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the characters, especially Eleanor.
From what I remember of the books, the film adaptation is reasonably close to Trollope’s original, definitely in plot line – so this is not the case of a late-20th-century feminist rewriting of the character, but comes straight from Trollope’s own imagination, ca. 1853. In both the books that make up the plot of the miniseries, The Warden and Barchester Towers, Eleanor features prominently as a key character around whom much of the action revolves, but it is in Barchester Towers (episodes 3-7 of the series) that she really takes on depth.
Very briefly, Eleanor Harding is the 20-something daughter of Mr Septimus Harding, a clergyman around whom the action of The Warden and quite a lot of Barchester Towers revolves. At the end of TW she marries Dr John Bold, only to have him die on her in the space between TW and BT, thus freeing her up to be the motivating love interest in yet another book (Trollope can get away with that – it’s totally believeable that a doctor in Victorian times would catch a fever from one of his patients and die before he is even thirty). So there she is, dripping, as they say, black lace and bombazine, and looking oh-so-desirable in her charming widow’s cap (one I enjoy about the miniseries is the accuracy of the costuming – lovely. That cap clearly demonstrates where the term “widow’s peak” for a particular hairline comes from). Slimy Mr Slope is all over her, sucking up to her very oiliy – not only is she pretty, she’s got money. Then there is the very amusing but shallow Bertie Stanhope, who is also after her money (but at least admits it freely), and last but not at all least the serious, steady and studious Mr Arabin, another clergyman, who isn’t sucking up to Eleanor at all because he doesn’t think she could ever be interested in him “in that way”, pretty and charming as she is. Trollope being a comedic writer, not a tragedian, you can probably figure out how it ends.
One of the interesting things about Trollope is that in these stories, he writes several characters of great depth – and they come in either gender. Mr Harding, Eleanor’s father, is the key figure, and he is a thoroughly good man, caught up in trials and tribulations of circumstance – but also of his own making: it is his innate honesty and integrity that cause him the greatest difficulties. If he was only willing to take a bit, to exploit some people and enjoy a little ill-gotten gains, he would have no troubles at all, and The Warden would have no plot. In Barchester Towers, it is in part Eleanor’s character which causes some of her own problems. In her case, it’s not so much her integrity and unwillingness to compromise her principles which cause her troubles, but like her father, in her sweet and gentle way she is unwilling to let others boss her around, tell her what to think, and dictate her life to her.
Mr Slope, as I mentioned before, sucks up to Eleanor, but he is a man who is thoroughly disliked by her family, for good reasons. Eleanor can’t really stand Mr Slope herself, but she is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when her brother-in-law tries to interfere and tells her to stop associating with Mr Slope, she gets absolutely furious and refuses to promise any such thing – not because she has any intention of marrying Mr Slope (eew!) but because she hates being bossed around. She almost messes up her relationship with Mr Arabin because she thinks he’s on her brother-in-law’s side, telling him off in no uncertain terms for his supposed impertinence in trying to tell her what to do (which gives him an admirable opportunity to prove himself a good guy by admitting that she is right). However, when Mr Slope tries to propose to her and won’t take “no” for an answer (shades of Austen’s Mr Collins!) she resorts to a resounding “box on the ear” (slap across the face), which finally gets rid of him. Eleanor is capable of giggling with girlfriends over people’s silliness, of a deeply loving relationship with her father without falling into Dickens-style saccharine tones, and of being thoroughly conflicted about how to deal with what life throws at her (a conflict which, in fact, makes up a great lot of the plot of the story). Eleanor Harding Bold, in other words, comes across as real.
And that, folks, is my discovery of a well-written female character by a male Victorian writer’s hand. They do, apparently, exist – I’m glad.
Life, the Universe, and Cross-Gender Writing. Check out Eleanor Bold – I think you’d like her.