A period of at least three months having passed since I completed Trollope’s Later Short Stories, it is interesting to find those which have remained most firmly fixed in my mind. I should say at once that these stories are almost always at the least interesting, but among them are a number of delicious gems, as well as some in the flawed but fascinating category. Among the latter a stand-out is Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices which attempts the astonishing task of examining the effects of inflation and living in a capitalist economy upon a German bourgeois hotel-keeper – the story begins with the wonderful sentence ‘If ever there was Tory upon earth, the Frau Frohmann was a Tory’. Really one cannot think of any other writer but Trollope who would essay this kind of subject matter. The story deserves much more attention (and a re-read) than I intend to give it here.
By and large, for me, Trollope is most succesful in these stories when he treads, or refines, old ground rather than when he is breaking new. This may be a mere reflection of my mood at the time of reading – looking for comfort – and it is certainly creditable that he was experimenting with something like the extraordinary New Zealand based Catherine Carmichael at such a late stage in his life and career, to take just one example. But it is the story The Lady of Launay which I want to write about here and its excellence and depth may be taken as representative, even if for me it is a most stunning example of Trollope’s developed talent. John Sutherland in his Introduction to the volume talks about the ‘virtuosic pitch’ which Trollope’s technical skils reached here in terms of devising a six-part narrative of two chapters each, with every part ending on a closing climax.
As Sutherland says this ‘achievement is the more impressive’ given the narrative’s basic simplicity. Mrs Miles – the Lady of Launay – has semi-adopted an orphan girl called Bessy, who has bought joy into her joyless life. Mrs Miles also has a son called Philip who is heir to her considerable wealth and property (and has few other means of support than what his mother allows him). To prevent any possibility of a match between Philip and Bessy,which she would regard as a social – and therefore moral – disaster, Mrs Miles tries to make Bessy fall in love with a Mr Morrison. But her scheme fails and Philip and Bessy become engaged in opposition to Mrs Miles wishes: the latter sends Philip away with a reduced allowance, and Betty is dispatched to a ‘safe house’ in Normandy. In spite of every inducement and threat, Philip and Bessy stay true, and at last, of course, Mrs Miles relents and all ends happily. As I say none of this is new ground – Lady Lufton in Framley Parsonage springs instantly to mind as a prototype for Mrs Miles. Philip and Bessy are fairly standard Trollope fare and not of particular interest. But in Mrs Miles it is as though Trollope wants to push his examination of a particular character type and a set of attitudes to near breaking point.
Right at the start Trollope sets out Mrs Miles’ character….
Mrs Miles was a lady who through her life had thought of little else than duty. Though she was possessed of wealth and social position, though she had been a beautiful woman, though all phases of self-indulgent life had been open to her, she had always adhered to her own idea of duty. Many delights had tempted her. She would fain have travelled, so as to see the loveliness of the world; but she had always remained at home.
Trollope continues in this vein for some time. And among what she sees as her duties…
was none stronger than maintaining the family position of the Launays. She was one of those who think not only that blue blood should remain blue, but that blood not blue should be allowed no azure mixture.The proper severance of the classes was a religion to her.
Now it might be argued that in some of this Trollope is being vaguely satirical, and there is certainly a comic edge to some of his descriptions (‘She would not leave the parish church to hear a good sermon elsewhere, because even a sermon might be a snare.). But I think this would miss the essential point. Trollope is genuinely interested in the psychology here and what happens when an entrenched moral code and deepest beliefs come in conflict with a person’s emotional needs and well-being. Bessy is the one thing in her life which makes Mrs Miles happy but she is willing to sacrifice that happiness in order to do her duty. As she writes to Bessy (yes there are letters here too – wonderful as usual)…
We have been sent into this world, my child, that we may do our duty, independent of that fleeting feeling which we call happiness.
There are it seems to me two things going on here of great interest. In the first place there is Trollope’s ambiguous relationship to what we might call, dangerous as it is to do so, Victorian values – the values of his age – and what better, more concise summary of these could there be than the line I have quoted above? Trollope notably has a love/hate relationship with these. He sees that on the one hand they lead to great unhappiness and misery, that they can be comic and self-defeating, that they prevent lives being lived to the full. On the other hand he sees that their being swept away opens the possibility of rampant selfishness, materialism and egocentricity – apres moi le deluge – or at least Crosby, Melmotte, Griselda and so on. Despite the fact of the happy compromises which occur here and in Framley Parsonage I wonder if Trollope really believed in them?
But the second aspect which strikes me, maybe of more permanent human relevance, is his portrait of pride. It is all too easy for the contemporary reader to dismiss Mrs Miles as a relic of a bygone age. I would argue, on the contrary, that most of us have a little of Mrs Miles in us. Of course the sources of our pride are different – we are not concerned (or very few of us thank God!) with blood-lines and birth. But having adopted a position, taken our stand, for whatever reason (and these are often trivial) how easy do we find it to retreat even if it is our own and others’ happiness which we are jeopardising? Pride is not a temporally limited emotion, and while the particulars of Mrs Miles’ case are historically limited, Trollope’s probing of the psychology is not. One needs to read the story to see how Trollope keeps examining and re-examining what is going on in Mrs Miles head to appreciate this. It is not pleasant. But then quite a few aspects of our psyche’s are not pleasant.
My own interpretation and examination of this story are different from that which occurred on Trollope-l when the story was discussed in 1998 (see http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/ladyoflaunay.html ) but I would adhere to my position that story’s interest – for both Trollope and me – lie in the character of Mrs Miles. In my view it is a mini-masterpiece which confronts some hard human truths.