Our book today is Anthony Trollope’s muscular, merciless 1875 satire The American Senator, whose title character, Senator Elias Gotobed from the fictional state of Mikewa, is one of those annoying mannequins Trollope sometimes hauls into his books so he can use them not only to comment on the absurdities of everything around them but also to comment on the absurdities of annoying mannequins. Senator Gotobed is thus made a braying, obnoxious sermonizer who’s forever finding fault with the English customs and manners of the country squirearchy of Dillsborough, the rural seat to which he’s been invited from America by his friend from the diplomatic service, the priggish local landowner John Morton. Trollope’s own beloved barbaric ‘sport’ of fox-hunting comes in for some particular ridicule from the Senator, and the inability of the locals to justify or defend it all is clearly meant to indict them, not it (although as always in Trollope, the scenes themselves are magnificently done).
The real focus of the novel lies elsewhere – specifically, in the carefully-upkept feminine wiles of John Morton’s semi-fiancee, Arabella Trefoil, the impoverished niece of a duke. Trollope once proclaimed that he himself was frightened by Arabella, and it’s easy to see why: she is a gigantic praying mantis, a vagabond phony whose only purpose in life is to snare a wealthy husband and so rest from her wanderings. In her ceaseless scheming toward this end (she’s mildly content with the prospect of John Morton until she scents the possibility of entrapping the much wealthier young Lord Rufford), she is easily the most memorable thing in The American Senator – indeed, one of Trollope’s most successfully-realized female characters. She dominates the book so thoroughly that many readers have wondered (as one wag said of Daniel Deronda, that it should be greatly edited and retitled Gwendolen Harleth) why it isn’t called Arabella Trefoil, and the answer might well be that Trollope couldn’t bring himself to so honor a character he so despises.
This totalitarian tendency of authors to despise some of the characters they themselves have breathed into being is well-attested (I doubt I’m the only person who wishes Jane Austen would just lay off poor Mrs. Bennett, whose concern for her daughters is, after all, fairly selfless and whose rare moments of mirth are prettily unfeigned), and it’s a recurring tick of Trollope’s. In The American Senator, he rarely misses an opportunity to turn his readers against Arabella Trefoil – beginning his treatment, as he so often does, right away, in her physical description:
She certainly had fine eyes, though I could never imagine how any one could look at them and think it possible that she should be in love. They were very large, beautifully blue, but never bright …
He takes great delight (and shows unmistakable virtuosity) in making Arabella a pitiless figure, utterly without sentiment (we’re initially given intriguing hints that she once loved a man with her heart instead of her wallet, but those hints are dropped early and never raised again) in her quest for a disposable income and a detached residence. Trollope himself has made her the penniless cast-off relative of a family who despise her through little fault of her own but mainly because of her odious mother; he’s given her the very understandable desire to leave off wandering and enjoy the security she’s never known, and he’s given her a very small arsenal of tools to achieve that end – and yet over and over again, he interrupts his own dialogue in order to stick pins in her:
“I’ll tell you what it is, mamma. I’ve been at it till I’m nearly broken down. I must settle somewhere – or else die; – or else run away. I can’t stand this any longer, and I won’t. Talk of work – men’s work! What man ever has to work as I do?’ I wonder which was the hardest part of the work, the hairdressing and painting and companionship of the lady’s maid, or the continual smiling upon unmarried men to whom she had nothing to say and for whom she did not in the least care!
The implication of these venomous asides to the audience is fairly clear: if Arabella had any real virtue, she’d content herself with John Morton and his merely respectable income and dusty middle-of-nowhere family house of Bragton. It never seems to occur to our author that the same arid choice faces the ostensible heroine of the book, stupid little Mary Masters, who’s expected to marry the dull but good-hearted prosperous local businessman Lawrence Twentyman (“I know what I am, and I know what she is, and I ain’t good enough for her,” he complains at one point. “It should be somebody that can talk books to her. I can tell her how to plant a field of wheat, or how to run a foal; – but I can’t sit and read poetry, nor yet be read to” – and did any beau ever put it more plainly than that?). Even in the face of cruel bullying by her mother, Mary Masters can’t make herself accept that life – not only because she doesn’t love Twentyman, but also because the match would in some vague but real way be a ‘step down’ in the world.
Arabella Trefoil is more honest about her ambitions, and that this is somewhat to her credit is reflected in the fact that although Trollope is unremittingly brutal to her, he allows her a sweet, brief scene with the dying John Morton before he ships her off to Patagonia with a husband as vapid and gaudy as we’ve been continuously told she herself is.
Trollope said he wrote the novel to express the depth of his scorn for ‘women who run down [that is, chase] husbands,’ but as is so often the case, his own artistry undercuts him. There’s a great deal of difference between a tragic figure and an out-and-out victim, and I defy any reader to finish The American Senator without thinking Arabella Trefoil just simply gets a raw deal. The truth is, she’d have been a much better Lady Rufford than she would have been a Mrs. Morton – and she’d have been happier, too.