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Book Report: The Vicar of Wrexhill

Between the general defunction of this Tohu Bohu and a shift in my reading patterns, Your Humble Blogger hasn’t written about a Victorian novel in a while. Hm… is it possible that the last Victorian novel I blogged was The Hidden Hand, six years ago? That’s a long time. I know I’ve read a few since then. It seems I didn’t write about Erewhon; maybe that would have been interesting, back when I could remember anything about it at all. Hm.

Anyway, I happened to discover, not long ago, that Trollope—that is, Anthony Trollope, the author of the Barsetshire books, which YHB doesn’t much like—had a mother who was a novelist of far greater, if far briefer, popularity. I picked up her 1837 novel The Vicar of Wrexhill as the most easily accessible book to load onto my phone, and decided to read the thing. Short version is that I enjoyed it a lot; the longer version, well, follows below. But for those who don’t want to read the whole thing, I’ll just say that it is unsurprising but sad how quickly bestselling novelists disappear not only from the popular culture but from history. I had been reading Victorian novels for years without having come across Mrs. Trollope; the library that employs me owns none of her novels at all (but one of her travel books).

I am not claiming that this disappearance is unique to what W.S. Gilbert called that singular anomaly, the lady novelist, as there are surely plenty of menfolk who have disappeared into the aether as well. Does anyone read George Gissing these days? Charles Kingsley? George Meredith? Bulwer-Lytton’s name remains, but as a joke. Victorian-era novelists are, at this point, largely reduced to Dickens, Collins, Trollope and Hardy; Eliot, Austen, Gaskell and Brontë. The second rank of known-but-not-assigned-in-class includes more men (Stevenson, Stoker, Kipling, Conan Doyle) but at least a couple of women. And the list of former best-sellers who have dropped entirely out of the culture probably includes more Harrison Ainworths than Margaret Oliphants. Still and all, when it was decided who would get on to the syllabi, those decisions were made in a context that was more inclined to call something written by a Man something like Literature.

Anyway.

The titular Vicar of Wrexhill, Mr. Cartwright, is a villain, a scoundrel and a cad, and the book is about the effects of a clergyman’s greed, ambition and dishonesty. It is specifically a caricature of an evangelist preacher; I found it amusing that the actual theological criticism centered on his blasphemous tendency to extemporized prayer, rather than using those forms from the Book of Common Prayer that the wisdom of generations had approved for all and every occasion. The outrage! A man of the cloth speaking from the heart! And yet, Ms. Trollope does make a good case that in her black-hearted character extemporary prayer is not only part and parcel of self-pride and self-aggrandizement, but is a tempting opportunity for wicked hypocrisy to work towards evil ends.

In fact, the portrayal of Mr. Cartwright is a remarkable achievement by an author, particularly in the form of the Victorian novel. In particular, Ms. Trollope’s depiction of the Vicar’s manipulations of the village women is terrifyingly plausible. It reminded me with tremendous force of the depictions of abusive relationships I have read only within the last ten or fifteen years. The way that he uses his authority within the relationship to isolate the women from other influences, the way he makes them dependent on him financially and socially, and particularly the way that he brings them to doubt their worth and their judgement, so that any action he takes seems to them as if it must be rooted in love and kindness even if it is obviously vicious; all of these are made clear and almost inevitable. The scene between the rich widow and her son is heart-rending; the Vicar has so prepared her that everything her son tries to attempt to open her eyes to the Vicar’s villainy seems to her a fresh example of his own. I don’t read a lot of literature that focuses on the portrayal of abusive relationships of that kind, but I have never read any fiction that (to my reading) so portrayed such an abuser and his victims with such clarity, sentiment and force.

Now, there’s no particular reason that a book written in 1837 should not portray such things, in the vocabulary of its time, as well as a twenty-first century novel would in the vocabulary of ours. It’s not as if those techniques rely on the technological revolution. Anyone really interested in writing such a book in 1837 or for that matter 1737 would have had plenty of examples to use. I don’t mean to suggest that it is amazing that anyone could have written such a thing at that time. Still, it surprises me. Most of the abuse-of-women I have read in Victorian novels is clearly the result of drink, occasionally the result of brutishness and drink, sometimes lust and drink, and while occasionally terrifyingly depicted, it is almost always the impetus of a moment. Longer-term abuse seems to involve kidnapping and imprisonment more than psychological manipulation, although I’m sure there are examples I am missing. Anyway, as it happens, this particular book has a particularly good portrayal that matches a modern understanding of the thing. In fact, I personally think it’s a better and broader example than Gaslight (or Angel Street)—in Gaslight, the villain tricks (or attempts to trick) his victim into madness, but the Vicar of Wrexhill induces subservience and compliance largely without resorting to the rigged gaslamps and stolen gewgaws. I could imagine the verb to wrexhill being more useful than to gaslight, although it seems unlikely it will come into the language.

I did have a question about Victorian novels and Victorian audiences that I should probably address elsewhere, but I’ll bring it up here, since I’m talking about the book: the genre conventions forbid specific mention of breasts or genitals or buttocks, and explicit reference to sex acts is never permitted. There are certain kinds of cues by which the reader is supposed to know that sex is taking place (that two people are lovers, for instance, or that a woman is pregnant, or that a woman is a prostitute or a fallen woman) without mentioning any specific acts. Yet sexual assault is a not infrequent driver of the plot. So I wonder whether there are cues that lead the original intended audience read the assaults as attempted rape? That is, as attempted penis-vagina penetration? This came to mind since re-reading Nicholas Nickleby:

‘Now why,’ said Sir Mulberry, ‘why will you keep up this appearance of excessive rigour, my sweet creature? Now, be more natural—my dear Miss Nickleby, be more natural—do.’

Kate hastily rose; but as she rose, Sir Mulberry caught her dress, and forcibly detained her.

‘Let me go, sir,’ she cried, her heart swelling with anger. ‘Do you hear? Instantly—this moment.’

‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Sir Mulberry; ‘I want to talk to you.’

‘Unhand me, sir, this instant,’ cried Kate.

‘Not for the world,’ rejoined Sir Mulberry. Thus speaking, he leaned over, as if to replace her in her chair; but the young lady, making a violent effort to disengage herself, he lost his balance, and measured his length upon the ground. As Kate sprung forward to leave the room, Mr. Ralph Nickleby appeared in the doorway, and confronted her.

‘What is this?’ said Ralph.

‘It is this, sir,’ replied Kate, violently agitated: ‘that beneath the roof where I, a helpless girl, your dead brother’s child, should most have found protection, I have been exposed to insult which should make you shrink to look upon me. Let me pass you.’

Now, there is nothing in there that explicitly indicates that Sir Mulberry was thwarted in an attempted rape. I think the first time I read the thing, I assumed that there was nothing unwritten that was meant to be understood. Rereading it, I don’t know: when Sir Mulberry caught her dress are we not to assume that he has clutched only cloth? When he leaned over and then lost his balance was he undoing his breeches and taking out his prick? Is Dickens assuming that readers, or at least most of them, will know that Kate being exposed to insult means that she was physically assaulted, and that had Fortune not intervened, Kate could well have been pregnant from rape by the next chapter?

The Vicar of Wrexhill contains a similar scene: a young woman finds herself unexpectedly alone with a man who has previously talked about her beauty and charm. The man has arranged with the Vicar to propose to the young woman at a time when they are alone in the house, with not only the residents but the servants (who I suppose are also residents) lured away.

“You think me tipsy, my sweet girl; but if I am, trust me it’s no more than just to give me courage to teach you your duty. […] And will you consent to be my wife, beginning from this very minute?”

Dreadful as Helen’s terror was, her senses did not leave her; on the contrary, all the strength of her mind seemed to be roused, and her faculties sharpened, by the peril that beset her […] contriving, as she did so, to push the table, which still continued between them, in such a direction as to leave her between it and the door of her mother’s bed-chamber. Corbold was evidently losing his head, and appeared aware of it; for he stopped short in his replies and professions of passionate love that he was making: and exclaiming with an oath that he would be trifled with no longer, he suddenly thrust the table from between them, and again threw his arms round Helen’s waist.

Now, because of the genre convention that the writer does not specifically refer to certain parts of the body, it’s easy to fall in to the belief that the Victorian reader truly did not know where they were, or what the mechanics of penetrative sex are. That’s obviously not true. An agreement not to talk about something in public (vaddevah dat means) doesn’t mean that people don’t know about the thing, or even that they don’t perfectly understand the indirect allusions to it. The modern reader, not having the cues, may be missing all the dirty stuff, or reading more in to it than the writer meant for the original readers to see. I vaguely remember an essay from someone born, oh, probably in the thirties, who said that he thought there was a lot less sex in films in the seventies than earlier, because it seemed like every time anyone had sex in a film in the seventies, you saw it, so you didn’t believe that they ever got any action offscreen. Whereas in the films of the forties and fifties, he believed that they were all screwing like mad the minute the camera panned to the fireplace. Is it the same with Victorian novels?

I am serious about it as a question, because I think it makes a difference in the books—is the assault an attempted rape or (I hesitate to use the word merely) attempted forced engagement? Is there an important line there or am I inventing one?

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Thoughtful and evocative review. Thank you! Your description of Trollope's depiction of psychological manipulation reminds me very strongly of how this subject is handled in a novel I know well, but I cannot call to mind what it is.

I don't know the answer to your question, but I suspect that your reading of such scenes as coded depictions of attempted rape is correct: I am sure that you could find a good deal of historically-grounded examination of this question in the scholarly literature.

An aside on Victorian novelists that are read and taught: if you are going to count Austen as a Victorian novelist being read and taught, then her contemporary Scott should also be included, as should Mary Shelley. Thackeray would also belong on the "read and taught" list. To the "read-but-not-taught" group, I'd add H. Rider Haggard. William Morris belongs on one list or the other, unless you would argue that his works of prose fiction are romances, not novels. I teach Morris in my Tolkien and Modern Fantasy course, but my attention to his prose is probably anomalous. I wouldn't expect him to be taught in a class about the Victorian novel, in any case.


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