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How Should a Gent Behave?

The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct

by Shirley Robin Letwin
Harvard University Press, 303 pp., $20.00

Shirley Letwin has written the best book on Trollope that I read during the past centenary year of his death. But her book is not only about Trollope. It is a subversive book about England—subversive, that is to say, of those who until very recently brought about a consensus between the center and the left of the Conservative Party and the center and right of the Labour Party. Her book explores Trollope’s treatment of the characters in his novels but it also has undertones about the assumptions that Englishmen once made about the way people ought to behave at home, in love, in business, and in the House of Commons. Shirley Letwin is an American living in London who has a fondness for some British institutions and manners. But she gets exasperated when good old class-ridden England takes to the egalitarian bottle and has tipsy affairs with such foreign whores as socialism, sociology, scientism, and others who when you go to bed with them pick your pocket.

Englishmen used once to be admired—even if they were also mocked by foreigners—for claiming to be gentlemen. Today in England no one in the press or television would dream of calling anyone by such an offensive name: it would be to suggest that he was trying to behave like Bulldog Drummond or Bertie Wooster. And yet less than two hundred years ago Madame de Staël and Tocqueville both praised Britain for being the one European country with open entry to its aristocracy and for having invented the useful word “gentleman,” which was regarded abroad as untranslatable.

It was untranslatable because it did not designate some rank or status in society. In Victorian times there were innumerable books of etiquette which purported to describe the criteria for being a gentleman. Some maintained that it depended on birth, others thought the right education was sufficient. No one got acknowledged as a gentleman simply because he married an earl’s daughter. But if a girl married an earl’s son she was in. The tutor of an earl’s son would be treated as a gentleman, but the governess of his daughters would not be treated as a lady. Some argued that a profession only became respectable when one of its leading members was knighted—the first surgeon was knighted in 1778, the first engineer in 1841, and the first dentist in 1886. All these talismans were fraudulent.

Conduct—how you behaved—was the real criterion for being considered a gentleman. How can one describe good conduct? Clearly it means more than manners—though I think Trollope concealed from himself how such manners mattered. Clearly such devices as casuistry cannot explain morality any more than grammar and idioms express the nuances of a living language. A crib, such as Castiglione’s description of the courtier, is just as unable to describe how we should behave. The triumph of the novel was that it could do so. It could explain why judgments ordinary people make about the behavior of others are often so trite. It could show that there are rules but that the rules sometimes do not apply; and that judgments that appear to be inconsistent with the rules are really instances of moral sensitivity. The thesis of this book is that no one made such judgments more sensitively than Trollope. All his novels, Shirley Letwin contends, answer the question: how should a gentleman behave?

It is characteristic of her liveliness that she declares that “the most perfect gentleman in Trollope’s novels is Madame Max Goesler.” Madame Max, readers of Trollope’s political novels will remember, is the rich, charming, attractive young widow, daughter of a German Jewish attorney, whose husband left her a fortune and who so beguiles the old duke of Omnium that he offers to make her his duchess. But she turns him down. Not because she wants to marry solely for love. Not because his family opposes it—she demands an apology from her friend Lady Glencora, the duke’s daughter-in-law, who tells Madame Max that such a marriage would disgrace the duke. Not because she feels that she could not play the part; she knows she could to perfection. She refuses because, although the duke makes the offer genuinely, in his old age he is not of perfect judgment. He would not have chosen her at the beginning of his life: so she would be taking advantage of an old man’s weakness. She refuses the duke not because self-sacrifice is the hallmark of a gentleman. The real hallmark is self-respect. That is what a gentleman must preserve.

Madame Max has not only a gentleman’s self-respect but gentlemanly integrity. Integrity is a quality that Shirley Letwin maintains a gentleman needs to cope with the fact that the world is changing. He must change with it but he must not give in to change because some changes will be for the worse. You have to recognize that your own self has to relate to others and speak their language, but no gentleman should accommodate himself to please everyone. A gentleman has to be diffident but also resolute, rather than wise and altruistic. He should leave altruism to foolish intellectuals.

Madame Max, who loved Phineas Finn, had the courage to propose marriage to him because she knew he could not face the imputation that he was marrying her for her money. In a changing world you cannot be sure what is for the best and that is why diffidence is a virtue. It is diffidence that makes a gentleman skeptical of all panaceas for the future of mankind and of altruism, which tells him that he should put others above himself. Diffidence does not mean lack of courage. A gentleman needs courage because he must realize that in life things will not always go his way. He needs courage to stand against mass opinion when he thinks it wrong. That Dean Lovelace did not hesitate to knock the marquess of Brotherton down when he called the dean’s daughter a whore and punish him with his fists so mercilessly that the marquess was badly hurt certainly proved the dean had the courage to behave as many people would think a clergyman should not behave. But the dean had even more courage. His daughter was married to Lord George, the marquess’s brother, and their small son was heir to the title and estates. Trollope makes it plain that everyone would have called Lord George a gentleman. But Lord George did not live up to the standard of one. He prided himself on not being sordidly ambitious and refused to suspect his brother, the marquess, of perpetrating a fraud and depriving his son of his legal inheritance. But this tolerance, if you like this excessive diffidence, was not selfless. It sprang from weakness and cowardice.

Of course a gentleman should be honest. Honesty, says Mrs. Letwin, “bears no relation to what is now called ‘authenticity.”’ Honesty means being clear about what you know and what you don’t know and what kind of knowledge is appropriate to answering the questions in hand. It means that what a man says today should bear some relation to what he has said in the past and will say in the future. But honesty is not the same as consistency because a man must judge how far like is like; and even if it is like, he may judge that circumstances demand a different response. Deceit should be repugnant to an honest gentleman because it involves manipulating people. But it is not dishonest to lie, for instance, to save a friend, so long as you acknowledge that you did lie. Nor is it dishonest to address a stranger in a different manner from a friend.

Anyone can make generalizations like these—and that is not how the argument runs in this book. Mrs. Letwin shows how, even if you have not read some of the novels, the characters do or do not exemplify these virtues. Trollope imagined how his characters would respond to the moral dilemmas he created for them and tells us how hard it is to be really honest or brave or self-respecting and how subtle are the evasions men concoct when they want to appear to be so, but cannot face the consequences.

Well, how should a gentleman make love? Bound by Victorian conventions Trollope does not say. But he makes it clear that his women love their men because they find them sexually attractive. He disliked coy lovers. Each of his ideal pair in Framley Parsonage “longed for the other and they were not ashamed to say so.” Some of his women are repelled by good men and yearn for cads because they find them sexually attractive. What is more, his women have minds of their own and are not toys. They do not dwindle into dolls after marriage. Nor do they fail to let their beaux or their kinsmen know what they think. Phineas Finn, that Irish charmer, begs Violet Effingham “to try to love him.” She says she sees no reason why she should since it would displease everyone. But when her family warns her that he is after her money she says that if she liked him well enough she would marry him “even if he had been dug right out of a bog.”

Shirley Letwin says that whether Phineas is a gentleman is a nice question. He was certainly not a true lover; he was thoughtless, sometimes coarse, and anything nasty he dodged. As Trollope says, he lacked “something in individuality and was accordingly too much a friend to everybody.” What saves him is his honesty, his refusal to break a promise. He stands by what he said in the heat of a political argument about Irish tenants’ rights even though he knows he will lose office if he does so. Again, he stands by his promise to his first love even though to marry her will end his parliamentary career. (In other words, self-respect keeps him straight, not fear of the consequences of his actions.) Trollope thought that one might love and one might lose but nothing ever justified turning married life into a tragedy. But it will turn into a tragedy if a husband or a wife determines to dominate the other and neglect the other’s individuality. Mrs. Proudie is a monster because she is determined to usurp her husband’s place and be the bishop herself.

Gentlemen make marriages of convenience and some of these work (Lord Fawn and Lady Eustace of the diamonds). Others don’t because love has been sacrificed to worldly desires (the Kennedys and the Ongars). Flirting is one of the gentlemanly joys of life so long as neither gets infatuated. Cohabitation—well, in out of the way places such as Australia—can be condoned. Promiscuity not. Men and women should stand up for themselves in love and marriage, but the jealousy of a Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right is a madness. Unlike Proust, Trollope did not regard jealousy as inevitable. It was a malady, not the natural condition of love. Believing something to be true does not make it so. No gentleman should allow himself to be obsessed simply because life is full of unwelcome surprises.

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