As much as I love Anthony Trollope, reading Castle Richmond earlier this year shook my faith in him a little. But all the wonderful recent posts from people discovering Trollope - and falling under his spell - have made me want to pull the Palliser and Barchester novels off the shelves again. Instead, last week I read a book with a child psychopath, a serial killer who tortures animals, a perfect trifecta of ick factors for me. I abandoned the book, but not before reading enough to feel like I needed a mental palate-cleanser. Some time in an ordered Victorian world suddenly seemed very appealing. I decided on Dr Wortle's School not quite at random: it's one of his shorter, later novels. I wasn't sure I had the stamina for a door-stop (I recently lost interest in The Woman in White about a third of the way through).
Oh, this book was such fun from start to finish. Let me start with the title character, Dr Jeffrey Wortle. He may be the Rector of Boswick, a town in the Midlands, but his heart and soul are in his school, an exclusive establishment that prepares boys for Eton (of course I was reminded of the schools that play such a big part in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire). His school is a great success, packed with noblemen's sons, despite the stiff fees. He has carried on his school over the objections of three different bishops, with whom he has waged the kind of clerical war so familiar in Barsetshire. He also has a running feud with the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, the parent of a former pupil withdrawn in a quarrel over the fees (technically over extra charges incurred). The editor of my Penguin Classics edition, Mick Imlah, suggests that Dr Wortle is the closest Trollope ever came to creating a literary döppelganger. Trollope's own son and his first biographer thought so, nothing that they shared a "blustering amiability, an imperious manner, and a good heart."
All three characteristics, along with the stubbornness of so many of Trollope's characters, are soon on display. Dr Wortle has hired a new curate and usher for his school, a Rev. Henry Peacocke. Like the Doctor an Oxford man, he has just returned to England after several years working at a university in St. Louis, Missouri. There he married his wife Ella, a beautiful American woman, who will serve as the school's matron. The Peacockes do not fit neatly into the parish, however. They refuse all social invitations, including some very flattering ones from the students' parents, and Mr Peacocke is strangely reluctant to take up his curate's duties. People begin to talk, especially the Hon Mrs Stantiloup.
At this point, in Chapter III, "The Mystery," Trollope breaks into the story, in that familiar confidential tone:
And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story telling to which you have probably become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart. There is a mystery respecting Mr and Mrs Peacocke which, according to all laws recognized in such matters, ought not to be elucidated till, let us say, the last chapter but two, so that your interest should be maintained almost to the end, - so near the end that there should be left only space for those little arrangements which are necessary for the well-being, or perhaps for the evil-being, of our personages. It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest, - should you choose to go on with my chronicle, - simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others. You are to know it all before the Doctor or the Bishop, - before Mrs Wortle or the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, or Lady De Lawle. You are to know it all before the Peacockes became aware that it must necessarily be disclosed. It may be that when I shall have once told the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you. That there are many such readers of novels I know . . . Therefore, put the book down if the revelation of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment. Our mystery is going to be revealed in the next paragraph, - in the next half-dozen words.
How cool is that? A Victorian spoiler warning! And one that the Penguin editors might take to heart, as it happens. Also, Trollope is considering how stories are constructed, and why people read them. Is it just for the sense of discovery, of unraveling secrets? If so, he says, he is "far from saying . . . [that] is not the most natural and the most efficacious" kind of interest, but if so, he is going to deprive his story of it.
Well, like the author, I am going to discuss the mystery and its effects, so here is my spoiler warning!
In the author's words: "Mr and Mrs Peacocke were not man and wife." It isn't their fault. Mrs Peacocke was previously married to a ne'er-do-well, a former Rebel in the Civil War, Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy. After making his wife's life a misery for several years, he went off with his brother Robert to the Texas border lands, where he was reportedly killed. Henry Peacocke traveled all the way down to the border and spoke with Robert, who confirmed his brother's death. Mr Peacocke then returned to St. Louis and married the widow. One day Col. Lefroy showed up at their house, very much alive, drunk and demanding money. The Peacockes could think of nothing to do but flee the country. Mr Peacocke refused to abandon his wife, and she accepted his decision. They continued to live together and present themselves as husband and wife. But knowing how society would see them - particularly Mrs Peacocke - they avoid society. Now with questions coming up, Henry Peacocke had just decided to tell the Doctor everything, when Robert Lefroy shows up, demanding money in his turn. When he is refused, he begins telling the story to everyone he meets.
Of course the reaction is instantaneous: the Peacockes are living in sin, and their presence is contaminating the school and corrupting the boys. Mr Peacocke is of course completely unfit for a curate's place. The Hon Mrs Stantiloup is loud in expressing these opinions. As the news spreads, parents begin making excuses to withdraw their sons. The Doctor, however, takes a different view. He refuses to condemn the couple, because what else could they do in such a terrible situation? How could a husband abandon his wife under those circumstances, even if she wasn't technically his wife? And if he clings to her, naturally she must cling to him (as women do). With quite progressive and heterodox ideas for a Church of England minister in the 1880s, Dr Wortle prepares to defend the Peacockes. Here the editor suggests that Trollope had in mind his good friends George Eliot and her partner George Lewes, who could not marry because Lewes was unable to obtain a divorce. The editor notes that Trollope's wife Rose refused to receive the couple in her home, but Trollope visited them in theirs.
Through Dr Wortle, Trollope points out again and again that in transgressions against sexual morality, it is the woman who pays the higher price and is judged more harshly, especially by other women. The man in the case can usually walk away with little damage to his reputation. This double-standard is a frequent theme in Trollope's novels, such as The Vicar of Bullhampton and He Knew He Was Right. Bigamy is also a common theme in the Victorian literature I have read, and it must have represented a real anxiety in people's minds about having to take strangers at face value. It plays a major part in two other Trollope novels, Castle Richmond and John Caldigate.
At the Doctor's suggestion, Peacocke sets off for America again, dragging Robert Lefroy along, to look for definite proof about the fate of Ferdinand. Meanwhile, Dr Wortle insists on Mrs Peacocke remaining in the school, though in seclusion. Mrs Wortle is not best pleased about this, especially since the other woman is so beautiful. Gossip again goes to work, eventually reaching the Bishop's ear, setting off another battle. Dr Wortle is of course convinced that he is right and everyone else is wrong - one of Trollope's stubborn men, like Plantagenet Palliser and Mr Crawley, and even quiet Dr Harding. But to his own surprise he finds himself riding over to consult the vicar of the next parish. Each time he gets Job's comfort and plain words. Mr Puddicombe actually tells him that he is wrong about several things, including his war with the Bishop. The Doctor resents this, and disagrees, but can't ignore Mr Puddicombe's words. Meanwhile the story alternates between Boswick and the southwestern United States, where Henry Peacocke is on the hunt. At one point he even has a photograph made of a crucial piece of evidence!
To lighten the story a little, there is a also a quiet romance between Dr Wortle's only daughter and a former pupil. Like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, he falls in love with his tutor's daughter. His parents are not thrilled, but at least Mary is no Lucy Steele. One reason her father is so attached to his school is that he is determined to give his daughter a dowry of £20,000.
N.B. I am finding that the publication dates of some Victorian novels can be a bit confusing. This one was published as a serial in 1880 (the publisher originally objecting to the Peacockes' situation), and then as a book in 1881. I am using the later date for the Mid-Century of Books.