Liminal Spaces in The Duke’s Children.
Winner of the 2018 Trollope Prize.
By DEVON BOYERS.
CHARLES DARWIN’S 1859 work On the Origin of Species transformed the Victorian Era, introducing new ideas about natural law and chance that clashed with the prevailing belief in a Judeo-Christian Creator’s active participation in the human trajectory. This period of dialectic concern over the nature of the laws of the universe shaped the Victorian Era into a liminal space in which largely uncontested confidence in order and intelligent Design struggled against an emerging uncertainty. Published in 1880, twenty-one years after Species, Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children allegorizes this liminal space through the relationships between the Duke of Omnium and two of his children, Lord Silverbridge and Lady Mary Palliser. The Duke’s socially conservative, patriarchal convictions concerning the proper spousal choices for his children mirror religious principles held by Victorian Christians, whose belief in a benevolent yet powerful Father God lent itself to a cultural emphasis on obedience and respect of a father’s will. Silverbridge and Mary challenge this patriarchal tradition by desiring spouses that reflect a Darwinian affinity for genetic favorability and variety rather than ubiquitous observance of their father’s will, ultimately forming an intergenerational conflict that parallels the intersection between generations of shifting ideas—Christianity and Darwinism, order and chance.
Although scholarship exploring the influence of Darwin on literature expanded considerably in the 1980s,1 Lauren Cameron’s insightful essay “Trollope and Darwin” notes the lamentable deficient of significant literary criticism concerning that influence on Trollope since then (201). Cameron largely attributes this shortage to biographers’ acceptance of Trollope’s “two epistolary proclamations of scientific ignorance” as being transparent2(“Perilous Trajectory” 37). Cameron argues, however, that taking these proclamations3 at face-value is inadequate considering Trollope’s engagement in the Cornhill social and intellectual group, especially when the British educated readership was fascinated by Darwin’s theory and cognizant of Origins’ influential power (“Trollope and Darwin” 203). Thus, if Trollope were to remain ignorant of Darwin’s theory, it could only have been sustained through willful resistance (Cameron, “Trollope and Darwin” 203).
Drawing from a critical awareness of the Darwinian environment in which Trollope wrote, George Levine’s brilliant chapter “The Darwinian World of Anthony Trollope”4 considers Trollope to be a “central example of a Darwinian novelist” whose “fiction fit Darwinian patterns” (177).5 Levine further elaborates this assertion:
There are to be no narrative equivalents to divine intervention [in Trollope’s fiction], and there are to be no disruptions of the current order of things, only slight, imperceptible gradations of change worked out in constant, quiet struggle… Trollope is casual about meaning, less symbolic, not at all allegorical, and with the worldly-wise tone of the rational onlooker… (179)
Although Levine’s perceptive insight into the “graduations of change” in Trollope’s narratives correlates with my argument for the dialectic exploration of shifting ideas in The Duke’s Children, Levine eventually concludes that Trollope is realist to the point of being “not at all allegorical” (179). I suggest, however, that Trollope’s writing is more complex than this, evading a binary separation of allegory (with its intentional and reflective author) and detached realism. In her description of Darwin’s evolutionary narratives, Gillian Beer sets a distinction between allegory and Darwin’s analogies:
[Analogy’s] communality expresses itself by first ranging two patterns of experience alongside each other, seeking their points of identity, and then using one pattern to extend the other. There is always a sense of story – of sequence – in analogy, in a way that there need not be in other forms of metaphor. If allegory is narrative metaphor, analogy is predictive metaphor. (74)
In The Duke’s Children, Trollope writes in both narrative and predictive metaphor, embodying the liminal space between literary movements in which Victorian positivism intermingled with and waned against an increasing interest in empiricism. Trollope makes this tension apparent through his “intrusive and frame-breaking” narrator (Anderson 512). In the context of literary works, natural theology (which derives its proof of God from observation and experience rather than divine revelation) and Darwinism necessarily have different conclusions concerning the role of the author, and while Trollope’s “tone of the rational onlooker” reflects a Darwinian, empirical approach to story writing, Trollope’s narrator also explicitly acknowledges his own role as creator in The Duke’s Children, as the Judeo-Christian tradition would entail (Levine 179).
In a chapter entitled “In Medias Res,” Trollope pithily discusses the advantages and drawbacks of beginning a story ‘in medias res’ or “in the middle of things” (525). “[T]he writer,” Trollope observes, “is enabled…to throw off from him the difficulties and dangers, the tedium and prolixity, of description,” while the “reader is made to think that the gold lies so near the surface that he will be required to take very little trouble in digging for it” (60-61). Trollope’s meta-analysis of his role as author in shaping the reader’s perception demonstrates, in the very least, his awareness of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s intentional creator. He continues:
I have always found that the details would insist on being told at last, and that by rushing ‘in medias res’ I was simply presenting the cart before the horse. But as readers like the cart best, I will do it once again,—trying it only for a branch of my story,—and will endeavour to let as little as possible of the horse to be seen afterwards. (61)
The horse-and-cart analogy mirrors the temporal aspects of Beer’s Darwinian “predictive analogy” with its sequential comparison between the act of revealing preliminary details of a story and the horse that necessarily pulls the cart. This comparison, however, also cannot escape the allegorical impulse of natural theology, acknowledging that something (or someone) is pulling the cart, just as Trollope is providing the story. Thus, Trollope is both the empirical observer and the intentional creator, and The Duke’s Children escapes any easy categorization as solely allegorical or realist, reflecting the Victorian dialectic between natural theology and natural selection.6
Beyond the narrative style, Trollope imbues the title of his work with the same suspension inherent in the liminal spaces that it explores. The different components of The Duke’s Children interact dynamically to reflect the push-and-pull of opposing ideas, such as the role of the possessive “Duke’s” in emphasizing the nature of the father-child relationship. The central conflict of the novel is often rooted in the Duke’s present but fading control over his children and their decisions, from his refusal of Mary’s engagement to Tregear, to Silverbridge and Isabel Boncassen’s delayed engagement over their mutual concern of the Duke’s reaction. This fading control is apparent in both the ordering of the names (the Duke comes first, but the Children will have the final word) and in the parts of speech, as the Duke is relegated to the adjectival position—destined to act only as a modifier on the solidly nominative Children. This foreshadows that, in this novel as in life, the new will outlast the old, but the future will remain forever shaped by what preceded it.
THE DUKE’S CHILDREN introduces the power of chance over a patriarchal will from the onset. The Duke’s beloved wife Glencora complains of a “cold, sore throat, and debility,” and “[a] week after their arrival at Matching she was dead” (Trollope 8). The unpreventable timing of her death causes the Duke intense pain that is further exacerbated by the news that Lady Mary has an unfitting suitor, Frank Tregear, and—perhaps more disturbing still—the Duke learns that Glencora approved of him. While Tregear is handsome and of good reputation, he is a commoner and would rely on Mary’s inheritance. The Duke’s disapproval of the match introduces the first conflict into the narrative, as the Duke forbids the union and determines that “[Mary] must be made to obey” (Trollope 155). Jeffrey Franklin notes that in The Duke’s Children, “[T]he discourse of money and the discourse of marriage are alike in that they each operate to regulate romantic desires that were perceived as dangerous” (900). In this instance, the discourses of money and marriage meet: the Duke is concerned that Tregear is pursuing her for her inheritance, but even more so, he is vexed that Tregear reminds him of Glencora’s first lover, Burgo Fitzgerald, who was the source of much strife in their early marriage.7 Glencora’s approval of Tregear is a particularly sensitive blow to the Duke, and in his pain, he forbids a marriage that he interprets as “disgraceful” (Trollope 39).
Although Mary decides to “obey her father to the letter” (Trollope 187), she does so in a spirit of respect towards him but not his desires—as she obeys with “a strong idea that she would ultimately prevail” and an implicitly expressed expectation that “she would look to be treated humanely by him, and not to be made miserable for an indefinite term of years” (Trollope 74). Mary’s obedience is sustained by her veneration towards her father and his presence as an established authority figure throughout her childhood, but she does not trust his will to direct her life: she will have Tregear, and she will wait until the Duke complies. This pseudo-obedience characterizes the nature of the Victorian liminal space between the established cosmology of Christianity and that emerging theory of evolution: while the structures of obedience to a patriarchal will (divine or human) linger, the understanding of that will has changed. By observing her father’s wishes with the full intention of outlasting them, Mary demonstrates that she considers her father’s authority to be something she co-creates by her compliance, not as something inherent or universal that she must adhere to. This fundamental siphoning of power away from the old order is consummated when Mary and Tregear eventually wed under the Duke’s begrudging permission, suggesting Trollope’s own prediction for the fate of both cosmologies. According to The Duke’s Children, this dialectic will lead to religion’s diminished power under the weight of the theory of evolution.
Beyond Mary’s complicated rejection of her father’s will for her choice of a husband, Darwinian ideas permeate the actions of the younger generation in two key aspects: sexual selection and chance. Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex8 delineates the role of choice and chance in the selection of a mate:
[It] is obvious that as long as the pairing of man, or of any other animal, is left to mere chance, with no choice exerted by either sex, there can be no sexual selection; and no effect will be produced on the offspring by certain individuals having had an advantage over others in their courtship. (896)
The choices that the younger generation make in selecting their mates demonstrates the kinds of traits that are desirable for reproduction; yet as a natural consequence of this argument, if there is no intelligent Design, any given individual’s traits will be inherited by chance, and whether they happen to be the one who is selected or not is likewise undesigned. Thus, choice is limited to agents within the system of sexual selection, with no exterior (and possibly patriarchal) will affecting who receives the right combination of traits to become the most fit to reproduce.
IN THE CONTEXT of the selection of a mate for survival, the Duke’s children are the “fittest” options in England. In the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition, Katherine Mullin and Francis O’Gorman write that “The Duke’s Children opens with two prizes—Lady Mary and Silverbridge—and two gamblers—Frank Tregear and Lady Mabel—who are willing to risk everything and each other in hopes of success” (xix). As they succinctly put it, “For Trollope, marriage is the biggest gamble of all” (Mullin and O’Gorman xix)—a comparison that is especially salient considering the nearly ubiquitous presence of gambling in the novel. Silverbridge, Tregear, Earl Grex, and Percival Grex, among others, each participate in various forms of betting, particularly with horses or cards and often to the result of great financial loss. In the unfortunate case of the eligible, prudent Mabel Grex, her father and brother’s losses are so great that she must forfeit her love for the penniless Tregear to marry into money. Despite her distaste towards gambling, Mabel participates in a different game of chance: the pursuit of a Palliser, Lord Silverbridge.
Mabel is Silverbridge’s first love interest, but when he implies that he would like to marry her, Mabel—guiltily self-aware that she does not love him but remains devoted to Tregear—rejects him, confidently wagering that he will return to ask her again. In language that assumes the terminology of natural and sexual selection, Mabel later tells her companion Miss Cassewary, “I spared him… Though I had him in my net, I let him go”—though she remains self-assured that “[h]e will become a prey, as I should have made him a prey” (Trollope 133). This gamble ultimately becomes an act of self-sabotage, and one that does not appear to be an isolated event: Mabel made a similar decision years ago when Tregear asked her to be his wife, but she denied his request based on their mutual financial “unfitness for such a marriage” (Trollope 492). In a later conversation with Silverbridge and Lord Popplecourt, Mabel vents her dissatisfaction with the gendered differences in the pursuit of a mate:
We [women] are dreadfully restricted. If you like champagne you can have a bucketful. I am obliged to pretend that I only want a very little. You can bet thousands. I must confine myself to gloves. You can flirt with any woman you please. I must wait until somebody comes,—and put up with it if nobody does come. (Trollope 229)
When Silverbridge comments that “[p]lenty come, no doubt,” Mabel rebuts, “But I want to pick and choose” (Trollope 229). Considering how Darwin presented sexual selection as being contingent on the ability to choose the mate with the best traits, Mabel’s words have an evolutionary echo. Her lament falls flat, however, because she did have a choice, and more than one; each man would have readily married her.9 She was both Silverbridge and Tregear’s first choice, and she had the added advantage of receiving the Duke’s singular approval as a wife for his son. If her failure to select a mate was not due to a lack of choice, then it seems that, according to Darwin’s sexual selection, Mabel may have inherited traits that prevent her from being successful.
Mabel is too perceptive for her own good: she rejects Tregear because she is aware of the external pressure that money would place on their marriage; she rejects Silverbridge because of her internal awareness of her lack of genuine love for him. Her response in both cases is to gamble that another, better opportunity will arise in the future, and in doing so, she demonstrates that she has apparently inherited the same self-destructive trait as her father and brother: a propensity to gamble to her own detriment. When describing her failed attempts at regaining Silverbridge, Mabel finds the language of horseracing to be the most salient, saying, “I craned at the first fence” (Trollope 488). This connection between marriage and gambling is indicative of the influences of sexual selection on the younger generation, where chance rules over each individual, who is left with no choice over which traits she has inherited. In the case of Mabel, regardless of her multiple advantages (including the Duke’s approval), she is unable to successfully select a mate before new candidates rise to take her place.
While the Duke desires that Silverbridge marry someone of the respectable English gentry, Silverbridge’s interest shifts to the uncommonly beautiful American heiress Isabel Boncassen, whose physical features Trollope describes in length. Aside from the basic assertion that she is “certainly a very pretty girl,” Trollope writes that she is “slight, without that look of slimness which is common to girls,” has a “perfect” figure (a detailed description of which would be “altogether ineffective”), an “excessive brilliancy” in her complexion, an “oval” face, teeth that are “excellent both in form and colour,” and eyes that are “full of life and brilliancy” (181). Trollope finishes by saying that “the vitality of her countenance…made all acknowledge that she was beautiful” (181). This depiction, while expansive, remains vague—and perhaps intentionally so, allowing the reader to fill in his or her own desired image. In his Descent, Darwin discusses the relativity of desired physical features to different times and places:
It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body. It is, however, possible that…each race would possess its own innate ideal standard of beauty… The men of each race prefer what they are accustomed to; they cannot endure any great change; but they like variety, and admire each characteristic carried to a moderate extreme. Men accustomed to a nearly oval face, to straight and regular features, and to bright colours, admire, as we Europeans know, these points when strongly developed. (890)
Trollope’s portrayal of Isabel reads like a stock description of the nineteenth-century European definition of beauty, from her oval face to her bright complexion, setting her up as the possessor of the most desirable physical features. Even the laudatory description of her nose espouses Darwin’s “characteristic carried to a moderate extreme,” as Trollope writes, “Her nose at the base spread a little,—so that it was not purely Grecian. But who has ever seen a nose to be eloquent and expressive, which did not so spread?” (181).
Based on her physical appearance, as well as her similarly striking charm and intelligence, Silverbridge’s interest in Isabel is unsurprising (especially by Darwinian terms). The one challenge to their union, however, is her Americanness. The Duke strongly approves of Mabel because she embodies all the necessary requirements for the English social construct of a favorable upper-class marriage: she is titled, respectable, beautiful, mannered. Yet Silverbridge is drawn to something (or someone) foreign, suggesting that perhaps he is ruled by an unconscious need for genetic favorability and variety, rather than an orderly, traditional desire for intermarriage among bluebloods.10 It is likely that Trollope received inspiration for Silverbridge and Isabel’s union from the marriage of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill, which occurred in 1874 (just six years before The Duke’s Children was published) and was the first of many unions between American heiresses and the English peerage (Serratore). Yet although such marriages were essentially unions of negotiation in which American money was exchanged for an English title, Trollope takes a different approach (Serratore). While Silverbridge consistently loses money through poor gambling choices, he is hardly in need of money; and despite Isabel’s admission that she does “like lords,” she is likewise comfortable dancing with “bank clerks” or “whoever comes up” (Trollope 203). Thus, their union is, particularly for Silverbridge, more of a deviance from the norm than a necessary pursuit of wealth or title (aptly reflecting Darwin’s evolutionary narrative that recognizes “[d]eviance, divergence, accidentals” as “the material of sustained change” [Beer 74]). Within the context of sexual selection, Silverbridge’s pursuit of an outsider—regardless of his father’s will—indicates that modernity in The Duke’s Children is marked not only by a slow erosion of tradition but also by a natural law that recognizes the dangers of excessive intermarriage within the English gentry. Isabel’s Americanness, while problematic for the traditional Duke, may be the infusion of new blood and fecundity that the next generation is unconsciously seeking.
In fitting symmetry to Mabel’s disastrous nuptial gambling, Isabel likewise gambles her future with Silverbridge; but, unlike Mabel, she is successful. After Silverbridge proposes, Isabel asks him to delay his request, hoping that her insistence on the Duke’s approval will aid in receiving it. While they could be married without the Duke’s consent, Isabel has a different perspective of the Duke’s will than his children do. Mullin and O’Gorman write that “[t]o the Boncassens, looking in from outside, [the Duke] is properly the lord of Isabel’s fate, and submission to his will is required by both social and seemingly natural laws” (xv). Isabel’s experience as a foreigner is much different than that of Silverbridge and Mary, who have only experienced the English peerage as insiders. They can afford to diverge from the norm because they set the norm, whereas Isabel must acknowledge the traditions if she is to be accepted. Thus, Isabel participates in endorsing the patriarchal structures that Silverbridge and Mary struggle against. The amalgamation of Silverbridge’s divergent pursuit of an American and Isabel’s subsequent reaffirmation of the Duke’s authority aptly depicts the liminal state of the opposition between patriarchal will and evolutionary progression, in which neither force emerges as entirely victorious.
By the end of the novel, Isabel and Silverbridge are wed, as are Mary and Tregear. Despite the prolonged conflict, the Duke ultimately adapts to the headstrong desires of his children—perhaps implying the ultimate fate of all ideas, even well-established patriarchal traditions, in the face of extinction. Mary laments to Silverbridge that, although her father eventually consents to her marriage, he “looks at me as though I had broken his heart” (Trollope 469). Silverbridge warns her not to “expect too much from him” as “[h]e has not had his own way with either of us, and of course he feels it” (Trollope 469). The Duke’s external and internal states during the ceremony of Mary and Tregear’s marriage confirm Silverbridge’s insight: Duke appears to be “a man with few cares, …who now took special joy in the happiness of his children,—who was thoroughly contented to see them marry after their own hearts,” and yet “he was reminding himself of all that he had suffered” (Trollope 505). This uneasy ending is indicative of the uncomfortable relationship between patriarchal will and divergence, allegorizing the transitory state between creationism and evolution in the Victorian Era as the Judeo-Christian tradition lingers but does so forever altered.
Devon Boyers is an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. This essay is the winning essay in the University of Kansas’s 2018 Trollope Prize competition. Comment from the Prize committee: The judges commended Ms. Boyers’ essay, “In Medias Res’: Liminal Spaces in The Duke’s Children,” ‘for its subtle argument and well-constructed analysis. The essay traces the impact of Charles Darwin’s ideas on Trollope’s novel The Duke’s Children, at the level of its themes (the power of chance over patriarchal will), narrative structure (a narrator who positions himself as both empirical observer and intentional creator), and generic conventions (its elements of allegory and realism). The Duke’s Children, Boyers argues, ultimately resists easy categorization as solely allegorical or realist, reflecting the Victorian dialectic between natural theology and natural selection.’
Anderson, Amanda. “Trollope’s Modernity.” ELH, vol. 74, no. 3, 2007, pp. 509–534. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30029570. Accessed 2 May 2018.
Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. vol. 2nd ed, Cambridge University Press, 2000. EBSCOhost.
Cameron, Lauren. “A Perilous Trajectory: Alice Vavasor’s Darwinian narrative in Can You Forgive Her?” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, no. 128, 2015, p. 36+. Literature Resource Center, www.link.galegroup.com.proxy.wm.edu/apps/doc/A448339699/LitRC?u=viva_wm&sid=LitRC&xid=705c233a. Accessed 20 May 2018.
——. “Trollope and Darwin.” The Routledge Research Companion to Anthony Trollope, edited by Deborah Denenholz Morse, Margaret Markwick and Mark W. Turner, Routledge, 2017, pp. 201-09.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Print.
——. On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition. 1859. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Franklin, J. Jeffrey. “The Victorian Discourse of Gambling: Speculations on Middlemarch and the Duke’s Children.” ELH, vol. 61, no. 4, 1994, pp. 899–921. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2873363. Accessed 3 May 2018.
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Morse, Deborah Denenholz. “Glencora’s Legacy: Mary, Mabel, and Isabel as Spiritual Daughters in The Duke’s Children.” Women in Trollope’s Palliser Novels. Ann Arbor: U Michigan Research P, 1987.
Mullin, Katherine, and Francis O’Gorman. Introduction. The Duke’s Children, by Anthony Trollope, 2011, Oxford University Press, pp. xi-xxiv.
Serratore, Angela. “How American Rich Kids Bought Their Way Into the British Elite.” Smithsonian.com, 13 Aug. 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-american-rich-kids-bought-their-way-into-the-british-elite-4252/. Accessed 2 May 2018.
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- See Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983) and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists (1988).
- Cameron cites John Hall’s Trollope: A Biography and John Halperin’s Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and Others in particular.
- One of these statements occurs in Trollope’s 1868 letter to archeologist J. E. Taylor, stating that “I am afraid of the subject of Darwin. I am myself so ignorant on it…” (Kincaid, Letters, I, 447).
- See his Darwin and the Novelists (1988).
- Lauren Cameron agrees, although she prioritizes different Trollopean works than Levine. In “Trollope and Darwin,” Cameron notes that, as the Palliser novels were the only series that Trollope wrote in full after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, they are the “most important site of Darwinian study in Trollope’s oeuvre” (203). She writes further on Darwinism and the Palliser series in “A Perilous Trajectory: Alice Vavasor’s Darwinian narrative in Can You Forgive Her?”.
- See Jenny Bourne Taylor’s “Trollope and the sensation novel” in The Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope.
- See Deborah Denenholz Morse’s chapter “Glencora’s Legacy” in her Women in Trollope’s Palliser Novels.
- Published in 1871 (Descent), nine years before the completion of The Duke’s Children.
- Deborah Denenholz Morse’s chapter “Glencora’s Legacy” in Women in Trollope’s Palliser Novels brilliantly extrapolates Mabel’s internal conflict in being “caught between her society’s romantic ideals of love and feminine purity, and society’s practical dictums about marrying wisely” (126). See also Juliet McMaster’s Trollope’s Palliser Novels.
- Darwin’s Origin states that “close interbreeding lessens fertility, and, on the other hand…an occasional cross with a distinct individual or variety increases fertility” (249).