"It is a poor time we women have, — is it not, — in becoming playthings to men?" (387)
he theme of women, power, and money runs throughout Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Gaskell's Margaret and Trollope's Marie, Mrs. Hurtle, and to a certain extent Hetta represent female characters struggling make lives for themselves in a world riddled with problems attributable to men and their foibles. From the club to the ballroom to the factory, disaster abounds in these novels as a direct result of the competition and resulting skewed relations between young, old, rich, poor, foreign and British men, all either in possession (literally) of a wife or in want of one.
According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, "on trial throughout the Victorian period was not only the institution of marriage but the family itself, and, most particularly, the traditional role of women as wives, mothers and daughters." This "Woman Question" evoked much debate and opinion, even from the Queen herself. Victoria wrote in a letter to her recently married daughter in 1858 that: "There is great happiness...in devoting oneself to another who is worthy of one's affection; still men are very selfish and the woman's devotion is always one of submission" (II, 1595). With all due respect to Her Majesty, it seems Gaskell and Trollope had more faith in many of their women and even celebrated their ability to challenge the accepted female role in courtship and engagement.
Both authors depict their heroines as strong-willed, self-respecting, determined, and therefore, considerably, if not completely, successful. However, both also in the tradition of Charlotte Bronte, emphasize the idea that "fortune," presumably in the form of inheritance, must preceed every Victorian woman's success and independence. Even while intelligent, driven and competent, a woman in Victorian society remains debilitated for as long as she fails to secure a substantial "fortune." As a result, husbands-to-be and fathers use monetary control to essentially manipulate and determine the fate of their women.
For example, even after Margaret Hale has proven herself to be strong, courageous, confident, and self-empowered, she cannot take her final step toward independence until she inherits money from Mr. Bell. In doing so, she secures her freedom before committing to marry Mr. Thornton. She exists as totally independent, if only briefly, before she binds her life to that of another:
And collecting herself once more, she went on rapidly turning over some law papers, and statements of accounts in a trembling hurried manner. "Oh! here it is! and — he drew me out a proposal — I wish he were here to explain it — showing that if you would take some money of mine, eighteen thousand and fifty-seven pounds, lying just at this moment unused at the bank, and bringing me in only two and a half per cent, — you could pay me much better interest, and might go on working at Marlborough Mills." . . . She was most anxious to have it all looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement, in which the principal advantage would be on her side. (529)
It seems this significant moment of independence that preceeds conscious choice to marry for emotional and not fiscal reasons intensifies the declaration and assures the profundity of her love.
Similarly, Hetta Carbury becomes financially dominant in her relationship with Paul Montague, as Roger throws "aside that law of primogeniture which to him was so sacred that he had been hitherto minded to make Sir Felix his heir in spite of the absolute unfitness of the wretched young man" (II, 404) and leaves his name and his estate to his female cousin. Going a step beyond Gaskell, Trollope emphasizes the utter incompetence of the male descendant in contrast to the complete suitability and goodness of the female. He laments the prevalence, and acceptance, of situations in which the male heir, however in capable and disgraceful, receives everything without question.
Marie Melmotte provides another example of a woman for whom a large inheritance exists as the final step toward empowerment. Like Margaret, she proves her strong will and her preserverance throughout the novel. Though foolish at times, she remains endearing and well-meaning. The death of her father and the nature of her trust funds leave her at novel's with much opportunity and the freedom to make personal decisions. She may finally break out of her role as an objectified business venture for "fortune-seeking husbands."
She had over a hundred thousand pounds of her own, and, feeling conscious of her own power in regard to her own money, knowing that she could do as she pleased with her wealth, she began to look out into life seriously. What could she do with her money, and in what way would she shape her life, should she determine to remain her own mistress?
The tone of both authors celebrates the excitement characteristic of these young women departing from a point of new-found freedom and anticipating their deserved leisure, relief, and, we hope, happiness. Trollope employs interrogatives to convey the power inherent in serious decision making. Gaskell uses dialogue, Margaret's own words, to suggest her complete self-sufficiency and her assumption of responsibility as it relates to her own affairs. They seem to take pride in their ladies, encouraging them to reach their potential (as human beings, not as females) and so should we.
Last modified 2000