Very first shot of Madame Max Goesler (Barbara Murray) (Pallisers 3:6)
Dear friends and readers,
On the list-serv, Victoria an interesting query: could people cite widows in Victorian novels and what were some attitudes towards them and/or their remarrying? Someone right away mentioned Madame Max Goesler, cited a study in the recent collection Trollope and Gender, with the idea that Trollope’s widows are strong and sympathized-with figures.
That seemed to me (even for a posting) inadequate. Trollope’s fiction (and non-fiction too) abounds in widows using the type with many permutations. the fault-line, what separates the woman off from other women is her assumed sexual experience (knowingness); beyond that she is usually older than women who have never been married and may control property. Towards the type Trollope is ambivalent as he is ambivalent towards aggressive women, which in his fiction except for aging harridans (who usually dislike sex) means sexually pro-active, and women who function as individuals with power and movement outside a husband or family’s control.
The Widow Greenow (a pastoral name) alluring men at seashore picnic (Phiz illustration, Can You Forgive Her?
The Widow Greenow (an early comic example of a woman who knows how to make her “weeds” alluring
A brief suggestive survey (by no means complete). To begin with the most famous: When we first meet Madame Max in Trollope’s books (Can You Forgive Her?) it’s not clear she is a widow; it’s insinuated that she’s paying someone who she married to stay away (a remittance man). Later Trollope drops that when he wants to make her respectable and chaste so Phineas can marry her.
Mrs Hurtle (Miranda Otto) and Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) at Lowestoffe (they probably go to bed together in the novel, they certainly do in the film, from The Way We Live Now; on the illustration this is based on, see proposal)
Trollope uses this motif for other women whose reputation he wants to cast a slur or hint they are unchaste: Mrs Hurtle’s husband is probably still living (The Way We Live Now). In Miss Mackenzie the women in boarding houses who present themselves as widows are not to be trusted, especially (it seems) in Bath (the hint is they are for sale). Mrs Smith in John Caldigate a very suspicious figure (Trollope’s presentation makes her this way) whom the hero may have married: we are never quite sure, and thus it may actually be that Caldigate’s marriage to the heroine, Hester, may actually be bigamous, whence the title Trollope wanted for his novel, Mrs John Caldigate (to call attention to the reality that we don’t know which of the two is really entitled to be Mrs C).
When John Caldigate first comes upon Mrs Smith: a ship journey remance (Folio Society illustration)
It is true that if a woman is menopausal and remains physically attractive, she is usually presented as sympathetic as well as powerful (Lady Ludlow the best-known from Framley Parsonage), but if she actually exercises that power to thwart a young man of his sexual desires, she is stigmatized (Rachael Ray’s mother) or made a sort of monster (Lady Ball in Miss Mackenzie). If she openly breaks sexual taboos (married for money even though this is allowed men), like Lady Ongar (The Claverings), she is punished harshly.
Mary Ellen Edwards drew Lady Ongar as large — here she’s trying to re-engage the hero’s sympathies (Claverings illustrations)
If she remains attractive, she has ever to be on the watch for the suspicious and distrustful: Lady Mason (Orley Farm) is under her son’s thumb and is seen as a target (and she knows it) before her son’s inheritance is questioned (partly due to his tactlessness). There’s great sympathy for Lady Mason and we are to admire her for winning a case where she was is accused of forgery — when she actually did it. Millais’s illustrations curiously make her out to be even younger than Trollope’s text suggests.
Millais’s Lady Mason shrinks from her needed lawyer Mr Furnivall’s suspicious (jealous) wife (Orley Farm illustrations)
To me though the most interesting uses of this ambivalent type of women in Trollope is where the woman has used the title to cover up a period between one relationship (marriage) and another (a second man where she has not waited until the first one was dead to “protect” herself) and Trollope sympathizes with her: Mrs Mary Askerton (The Belton Estate) now respectably married again had a period where she wasn’t a widow; she became one when her alcoholic (and presumably abusive husband) at long last died; she seems to be a parish still, shunned; it’s not clear that she couldn’t break out in to society, but at any rate only the heroine. Clara Amedroz defies the worst minds and befriends Mrs Askerton. There’s much sympathy in Dr Wortle’s School for Mr and Mrs Peacock; he married her but it’s not clear the previous husband died, and again (as in the case of Lady Mason) personal animosity leads someone to attack them to get Dr Wortle (in whose school they teach). Madame Max can be related to these until Trollope conveniently forgets about her remittance man.
Showing either that Trollope’s particular configuration of sympathy for the transgressive woman is not share today, or his more devoted readers do not think about this aspect of his fiction enough, there were no original illustrations for these widows, nor have the novels they appear in been filmed or even adapted for radio. The Widow Greenow was cut from the filmed Pallisers. And by Phineas Finn Madame Max has been turned into a chaste type widow who refuses the Duke of Omnium’s proposition that she become his mistress.
After a violent scene where Lopez needles Emily (Sheila Ruskin) over how she enjoys sex with him, and flings her to the door, she shudders (Pallisers 11:23, from The Prime Minister)
Erasures or forgetting aspects of Trollope’s presentations of widows today sometimes work to reinforce his views. When in The Prime Minister Emily Lopez believes herself “polluted” from having married an amoral and (it’s more than hinted) sexually lascivious (and Jewish) man, Ferdinand Lopez, in the novels she at length refuses to remarry the Gallahad-figure Arthur Fletcher (who she loved first and we see again loved during her marriage, causing sexual rage in Lopez). Trollope seems to assume all women should be married. That is the be-all of their existence. The TV programs cut all this. Raven does not make her collapse into the other hero’s arms quickly either. Anticipating the end of Andrew Davies’s The Way We Live Now, Raven’s Emily (like Trollope’s Lily Dale) has been seriously disillusioned, abused, and we are given to understand will marry no more.
Marie Melmotte (Shirley Henderson) closes the door on everyone (TWWLN 4:12)
While at the Exeter conference (6 years ago now) and today again the question came up why Victorians seem to have a prejudice against widows remarrying. At the conference I remember participants saying widows were a threat to the chances of unmarried women. That’s certainly in Trollope. But he also likens the black widows wear (which he disapproves of when it is too heavy or goes on for too long as hypocritical) to Indian women undergoing suttee where he makes an explicit analogy between how the family of a widow’s husband do not want her children from a second marriage interfering with the inheritance of the first husband’s children. The impulse is to erase her future, not allow her any lest it get in others’ way. And he shares the strong prejudice against women having a pro-active sexual life too (an impulse not gone from our world today).
At the Exeter conference too some of the men showed they were allured by Trollope’s widows, especially Madame Max. I’ve noticed on list-servs that male viewers often have a crush on Barbara Murray who played the part splendidly. This even though in the novels she is given masculine roles and the words used to describe her by Trollope make her into more of a gentlemen than lady, and in the films she adds to the erotic sophisticated veneer Trollope gives her much comedy (she is given funny scenes rejecting Derek Jacobi as Lord Fawn) and much poignancy and dignity at the series’ close. Early in her career the actress was a powerful Anna Karenina; and in a Wednesday night play the mistress of a broken man played by Donal Mcann.
But rather than repeat what everyone notices, I’ll end on the Widow Bold who was acted equally well (the role quite different) by Janet Maw from Alan Pater’s wonderfully scripted mini-series, Barchester Chronicles:
Another Emily faithful to her father, Mrs Bold looks out anxiously at Mr Harding and the Rev Arabin (English, clergyman, upper class, an ethical ideal for Trollope), and is never taken in by either Mr Slope (the intensely ambitious outsider, Alan Rickman just behind her) or
Bertie Stanhope, the idle ne’er-do-well who wanted her money for his family and himself:
She is strongly sympathized with; she is pro-active on her own behalf, sexually passionate; she is liked because she breaks no taboos, loves her little boy and is loyal to her idealistic father
Women in black … The illustrations and stills tell us that for Trollope these are highly sexualized women. They don’t tell us what his narrator and book descriptions do: that Trollope’s taste was for thin women; he was allured by olive-skinned women, women had narrow wrists and small breasts (“narrow shoulders”). (The Victorian ideal is the fecund big blonde, the Juno type Trollope’s narrator calls her, does not attract him personally.)