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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Dr. Wortle’s School

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 05/15/06 at 06:04 PM

Anthony Trollope’s late Dr. Wortle’s School (1880) is the kind of book that makes people think “subversive"--indeed, John Halperin, editor of the 1984 World’s Classics edition, describes it as “a novel far more ‘subversive’ than anything in the Dickens canon” [1].  Dr. Wortle, our hero, has a problem: Mr. Peacocke, one of his fine assistants, has a lovely American wife who is, alas, not his wife.  The Peacockes have been deceived into a bigamous marriage via the machinations of the odious Lefroy brothers--one of whom, Ferdinand, was/is married to Ella Peacocke.  Instead of breaking up the household, however, the Peacockes (really, Mr. Peacocke) elect to remain a couple.  Needless to say, by Victorian standards, cohabitation is not quite the thing.  Oh, dear.  What will Dr. Wortle do?

As readers may be aware, I cringe whenever “subversive” lumbers into view--and, despite its potentially sensational subject matter (which Trollope rapidly desensationalizes), the novel caused no problems for the critics [2].  Something else nagged at the back of my mind as I read the book: where had I seen the novel’s core moral problem before? By “core moral problem,” I don’t mean bigamy per se, which is standard-issue plot fodder in Victorian fiction.  Rather, it’s Dr. Wortle’s bemused sense that “the circumstances in this case are so strange, so peculiar, that they excuse a disregard even of the law of God and man” (94).  The novel never argues that cohabitation out of wedlock is morally right; instead, it proposes a case in which doing the “moral” thing would result in grave emotional and psychological harm to both parties--indeed, for the wife, severe physical hardships as well.  Dr. Wortle agrees that, under the same circumstances, he too “would have clung to her,” even “reconciled it to my God,” although “I might have been wrong” (88).  In other words, the narrator explicitly assigns the moral reasoning involved here to self-confessed “sinners” (88)--fallen and fallible.  If forced to choose not between right and wrong, but between wrong and wrong (both the narrator and the characters make it quite clear that Mrs. Peacocke is subject to potentially irreparable harm either way), what should a fallible man do? And how should others respond?

Jane Eyre, as it happens, also uses its (thwarted) bigamy plot to think about right action in the face of unique circumstances.  In Jane Eyre, divine absolutes simultaneously check human action and liberate it.  Mr. Rochester argues that “unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules” (ch. XIV); given his particular set of circumstances, first bigamy and then cohabitation appear to be the right responses.  But whereas Trollope’s narrator, Mr. Peacocke, and Dr. Wortle all concede that cohabitation constitutes a sin, Rochester demotes objections to it to “an obstacle of custom--a mere conventional impediment” (ch. XX).  Yet Rochester’s contempt for “custom” in fact conceals a genuine desire for worldly approval--a desire rendered deeply ambivalent by the rest of the novel, which elevates the dictates of conscience over the dictates of social convention.  Jane’s belief in divine law short-circuits any extramarital fling with Rochester, but it also allows her to make the scandalous proposition that she accompany St. John Rivers to India without marrying him.  So long as Jane can square her conscience with Biblical teachings, she can obey or disobey social conventions as she pleases; Rochester, meanwhile, enslaves himself to the good opinion of others (Jane included).

Dr. Wortle’s School doesn’t refute Jane Eyre--after all, it agrees with Jane Eyre‘s position that God’s law forbids cohabitation--but it takes sly potshots at that novel’s claim that conscience, girded by Biblical precepts, can lead to moral certainty.  On the one hand, Dr. Wortle’s School absolves the Peacockes (they married in good faith); on the other hand, it intensifies their difficulty (they are cohabiting).  Peacocke himself inverts Rochester’s self-serving desires: he doesn’t tell Ella about his feelings until after his “discovery” that Ferdinand is dead, and he refuses to leave her afterwards because “[h]ad we been separated then, because of the law or because of religion, the burden, the misery, the desolation, would all have been upon her” (88).  Ella, who is not an orthodox Christian, nevertheless repeatedly expresses her willingness to sacrifice everything for her beloved husband--the man she regards as “the most perfect of human beings” (208).  (Jane Eyre would probably have something to say about Ella’s idolatry.) The virtues of self-sacrifice adumbrated in Jane Eyre keep the Peacockes together, even though both society and religion demand that they be kept separate.

N. John Hall suggests that there’s “a kind of moral relativism” here (464), but I think that Trollope is experimenting with something more frustrating, for characters and readers alike: a situation in which all right behavior leads to other moral wrongs, and in which the “right” characters are, nevertheless, wrong.  In such a situation, the novel suggests, the best guides to action are honor, charity, and, indeed, doubt.  As the very upright Mr. Puddicombe tells Dr. Wortle near the end, “There will be those, like myself, who, though they could not dare to say that in morals you were strictly correct, will love you the better for what you did” (258).

[1] Anthony Trollope, Dr. Wortle’s School, ed. and intro. John Halperin (1984; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), ix.

[2] See N. John Hall, Trollope: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 464.  Hall also suggests that Trollope may have been thinking of George Eliot and G. H. Lewes, something I also suspect. 


Comments

I haven’t read Dr. Wortle’s School, but I was browsing the first chapter, which casts the novel as somewhat of a character study of Dr. Wortle. In many ways he seems like a more or less simple conservative.

But I wonder how the following passage might fit into things:

He not only disliked, but openly ridiculed all signs of a special pietistic bearing. It was said of him that he had been heard to swear. There can be no doubt that he made himself wilfully distasteful to many of his stricter brethren. Then it came to pass that there was a correspondence between him and the bishop as to that outspoken desire of his for a curate without the grace of godliness. But even here Dr Wortle was successful. The management of his parish was pre-eminently good. The parish school was a model. The farmers went to church. Dissenters there were none.

Would it be correct to call him a ‘relaxed Tory’? Or maybe an ‘organic conservative’? There seems to be a lot of nuance in the way Trollope builds his characterization, which becomes all the more important given that he will ultimately absolve the Peacockes.

There seems to be a certain pleasure here in being a conservative who makes an exception.

By Amardeep on 05/16/06 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Two thoughts:

1) As you may already know, Trollope’s Castle Richmond manages to completely forget its bizarre Irish famine plot by pulling out a non-deceased husband toward the end of the book (is this a standard Trollope move? Mostly I’ve only read the serial fiction)

2) While Jane Eyre definitely does pay lip service to “God’s law,” I’m not sure they can be equated to Biblical precepts. Biblical precepts are notoriously squiffy on marital law. Are you thinking in terms of a Victorian understanding of God’s law on marriage? Or does Jane make biblical references that I’ve missed (most likely the case).

By prefer not to say on 05/18/06 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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