Review of "The Bertrams" by Anthony Trollope
The unwritten rules of courtship among 19th century English gentry are the source of many a plot twist in Anthony Trollope novels. If a woman falls in love, she must not breathe a word of it to anyone, including the object of her affections; only he can initiate the process by falling on his knees before her and daring to call her by her first name. She may signal her acceptance by letting fall a tear, or her rejection by coldly addressing him by his surname in her reply. Couples who are not betrothed are not permitted to use each other’s given names.
Moreover, a man must never offer, nor a woman accept, if their combined incomes are not sufficient to support them. Indeed, the ancient purpose of marriage is to combine fortunes to the best possible advantage. Add to that the lack of birth control, and you can see that underfunded unions can be disastrous. In all of Trollope’s novels, money and love rule the plot. The rules, both followed and broken, are the substance of The Bertrams. If you read Trollope, you must be prepared to accept these rules, and willing to step into the mindset of the age. But isn’t this what we yearn for when we read classic literature?
Trollope is like a cross between Dickens and Balzac. Like Balzac, he is scathing on the subject of what his characters will do for money, but, like Dickens, circumspect about the sexual consequences of their actions. Young Bertram breaks the rules by impetuously proposing to a woman he has only known a week, when not yet established in his career. After giving it some thought, she declares that she will marry him—but only after he is financially secure. Tempers fray during the three years he has to wait, until the match is broken during an argument, and on the rebound she accepts the offer of a rising star on the political and financial scene on the understanding that love will play no role in their marriage.
In a subplot, Bertram’s best friend has suffered some financial and educational reversals and is forced to make an agreement that will tie him to a job that is not sufficient to support a wife. He tells the woman he loves—but has not yet proposed to—that he can never marry. She is torn between sorrow and disgust at his faint-heartedness.
The story is about the fate of these two pairs of star-crossed lovers. Not to give away the plot, but one thing you can count on in a Trollope novel: deserving lovers will end up in each other’s arms, however long the road to that conclusion may be. (And, since Victorian novelists got paid by the word, the road usually is long.)
During the portion of this novel that takes place in the Middle East, you can depend on being offended by Trollope’s racism. But he is merely mirroring the colonial racism of English society of the time.
I quite enjoy Anthony Trollope. The love stories keep the plot percolating merrily between long dissertations on the sleazy underbelly of Victorian finance and politics, which are much like the finance and politics of today. Lovemaking has changed in the nearly two centuries since he wrote, but everything else is pretty much the same.