n rare occasions in literature, a novelist creates a character who comes to dominate a book, almost accidentally. Such a character is Lady Glencora Palliser, who, with her husband and lover, come, almost at the end of the first volume, to the rescue of the rather pedestrian novel which Trollope had till then been making out of his failed play, The Noble Jilt. The plot needed rescue. Henry James remarked of his heroine, Alice Vavasor, who finds it difficult to choose between an unreliable cousin with an evil streak, and a patently upright and patient gentleman, 'that he could forget her, too, for that matter'. In fact, she jilts both her admirers twice, and ends up by marrying the gentleman. Twined round this story in counterpoint are the mildly comic affairs of the Widow Greenow (whom most of us will forget): and the marital fortunes of the Pallisers.
In fact, the Pallisers had first appeared in The Small House at Allington, written three years earlier. Barely a couple of pages show us the somewhat wooden Plantagenet being rebuffed by the equally wooden but virtuous Lady Dumbello, to the dismay of his family, and in particular its head, the Duke of Omnium. 'As we shall not have space to return to his affairs in this little history', Trollope swiftly marries him in an off-hand paragraph to the lively blue-eyed Lady Glencora MacCluskie, whose liaison with the unsuitable Burgo Fitzgerald has been worrying her guardians. This tidy arrangement seems final. 'We will hope that Lady Glencora was satisfied', says the narrator.
Trollope shows us, unmistakably, how very far from satisfied a spirited girl may be with a good but insensitive husband, when the sexual side of such an arrangement is less happy than it should be. In putting this predicament unambiguously to a conventional Victorian audience, he was walking on dangerous ground. He did it brilliantly. And if he produces a happy ending, there is no doubting the reality of the characters he invented. 'They have served me', he said of the Pallisers, 'as safety valves to deliver my soul'.
[Published with the permission of The Trollope Society]
Last modified 2000