High Fidelity

Rob Horning

The fifth of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, The Small House at Allington, tells the story of Lily Dale. At the start of the novel, Lily is jilted by the callow Adolphus Crosbie, an undeserving suitor more concerned with worldly ambitions than love. She knows that Crosbie has left her for the wealthy Lady Alexandrina, but she remains stubbornly committed to him anyway. She is then courted by Johnny Eames, a clerk. Despite her affection for him, Lily refuses his love, instead choosing a life of celibacy. Trollope persists in withholding a conventional happy ending from Lily through this novel and The Last Chronicle of Barset, in which she replays her refusal to marry to the increasing irritation of successive generations of modern readers, for whom her sacrifice seems more and more pointless. 

Lily Dale is emblematic of the strange role women play in Trollope’s work. On the one hand, he writes women with the conventional sentimentality, codifying the idea that the requirements of a primogeniture system of inheritance happily coincides with a woman’s natural inclination to undying love. On the other hand, he creates stubborn, independent female characters who are attuned to gender-based double standards. In Lily we have a unique melding of these traits. Her commitment to Crosbie seems to affirm the naturalness of women’s fidelity, even as her refusal to marry Eames, which is unwavering despite the advantages it would entail, asserts a fierce independence. So why does she remain faithful to a man who dumped her for an aristocrat? 

The obvious thing about The Small House at Allington is that it examines the double standard with regard to love. Women love once and forever; men are ‘weaker’ and love according to what suits them at a given point in their lives. Male love is contingent on the context; female love is a contract signed in blood. Of course, this is a ramification of patriarchy and primogeniture. But more specifically, it has to do with women serving as guarantors of property transfers and then as illiquid stores of value after the key transaction they have facilitated through marriage has been executed. Women must be constant in their ‘love’ so that property is passed along in an orderly fashion within approved family lines. This keeps value from becoming too mobile and disseminating itself more generally and yielding a more egalitarian society – or at least a society with enough mobility to make its losers restive and willing to rebel. 

Trollope takes this system for granted, which allows him to toss off passages like the following, summing up the whole of the patriarchal social structure at the height of its resistance to capitalism’s creative destruction. In this passage, Johnny Eames is embarrassed by the willingness of his benefactor, an earl, to give him capital. Without it, he will be unable to propose to the jilted Lily, who is the niece of a squire:

He did not know whether it would be right in him to accept such pecuniary liberality from any living man, and almost thought that he should feel himself bound to reject the earl’s offer. As to the squire’s money, that he knew he might accept. All that comes in the shape of a young woman’s fortune may be taken by any man.
That’s a pretty naked, almost astonishing, statement of the rules Trollope believed governed social relations in the upper-middle classes in Victorian England. Men can’t just give property to one another – that suggests a dangerous liberality that can upset the established hierarchy. Instead, women are the means by which men can give each other things. Marriage therefore functions as a vetting process that permits property transfers out of the family – or consolidates property according to the wishes of scions. Not by accident does much of the novel’s plot revolve around Lily’s sister Bell refusing to marry her cousin Bernard Dale, an arrangement the squire demands. Not by accident does Samuel Richardson’s paradigmatic 18th century novel Clarissa have the same plot about compelled marriage for the sake of property management. A woman’s constancy certifies her fitness as a financial instrument that makes property liquid for a brief window of time within the constraints of social custom. The ideological task of novels, even ambivalent ones like The Small House at Allington, is to make it seem plausible that love can follow from fidelity rather than serve as the prerequisite for it. A woman chooses to be true then experiences the pleasures of love, which are forever pegged to that choice. Likewise, as Trollope goes to some lengths to show over the course of two novels, Johnny Eames is feminized by his constancy. Lily Dale’s faithfulness to Crosbie, who dumped her when he discovered she had no money to bring to the marriage, makes a mockery of the expectations placed on women. Having been valued once, she refuses to be repriced in a secondary market. She represents a kind of frozen asset; her rejection of Eames’s proposal prevents the property shift the earl wants to engender. Soon enough for the society Trollope is depicting, it will be impossible to use marriage to preserve the aristocratic order. Far from being pointless, Lily’s kind of stubborn love is exactly what will hasten its undoing. Here’s how she describes her stubbornness: ‘What can a heart be worth if it can be transferred hither and thither as circumstance and convenience and comfort may require?’ She seems to believe that limiting herself to being used for only one (failed) exchange preserves her self-worth; her self-value disappears when she becomes the conduit for transfers between other parties. It’s an impossible position. If she marries, she surrenders her value; if she refuses marriage, she forfeits her social value, as well as the opportunities, pleasures and rights that marriage might enable. She takes a rigged system to its absurd extreme and illustrates just how determined women must be to retain self-worth when they are begrudgingly permitted only one significant decision in their lives: who to marry. This is why some commentators interpret Lily Dale as being in love with herself and glad to be jilted – she gets to have the value of her choice continually reinforced with none of the unpleasantness of outgrowing that choice once consummated and watching its significance dwindle. But the underlying tragedy her situation suggests is that women can’t feel themselves to be appreciated within the context of ordinary domesticity – the happy life that Crosbie despairingly imagines from within his hellish marriage to Lady Alexandrina. Instead, female self-worth depends on being suspended in pre-matrimonial limbo, affianced but never married. Women like Lily can only have a theoretical value that finds no expression in the everyday practice of adult love.

Rob Horning is the Executive Editor of The New Inquiry and author of Marginal Utility.