Like Trollope's The Way We Live Now, this mock Nursery Education Report from Punch ridicules the priorities, conventions and values of Victorian society, as especially tainted by a self-absorbed, and money and status obsessed aristocracy. This satirical piece identifies religion, government, royalty, commerce, employment and the limited independence of women as main sources of corruption -- and therefore degeneration -- of Victorian society. This conversation between Bishop Elmham and Roger Carbury essentially sums it all up:
"Of course Mr. Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing."
"It's going to the dogs, I think; -- about as fast as it can go."
This alphabet chart begins with "A for aristocracy, a thing I should admire." This suggests a child's learning and accepting as truth the notion that a person's title defines their entire existence.
It hints at the superficiality and ignorance inherent in the blind generalization of character prevalent in Victorian society. Trollope addresses the same idea, though takes it further by mocking the absolute complexity and nonsense of the whole "title" business:
Perhaps if there is one thing in England more difficult than another to be understood by men born and bred out of England, it is the system under which titles and property descend together in various lines . . . They who are brought up among it, learn it as children do a language, but strangers who begin the study in advanced life, seldom make themselves perfct in it. (I, 221)
Perhaps in describing the veritable impossibility of understanding this extensive "system", Trollope suggests its utter lack of value or meaning.
The letter "B stands for a Bishop who is clothed in soft attire" which immediately takes Trollope's reader to his chapter The Bishop and the Priest. although his main religious characters somehow manage to avoid total hypocrisy and worthlessness, they remain deserving of criticism. The bishop, though wealthy and living "as a nobleman in the country", it seems often loses sight of his vocation: "He was never known to declare to man or woman that the human soul must live or die forever according to its faith." (II, 149) Furthermore, the priest seems more concerned with the fame and prestige associated with his religion than with the benevolence of it:A man is great who who has made for himself such a position as that of Mr. Melmotte. And when such a one leaves your Church and joins our own, it is a great sign to us that the Truth is prevailing. (II, 49)
Also highly significant in light of Trollope's portrayal of Victorian social mores and prejudices is the letter "F" which "doth stand for foreigners, whom I should patronize." Even a fairly decent and reasonable character such as Mr. Longestaffe reveals himself as utterly intolerant of foreigners; and by no means does the opposition stem from differences of relgious belief. Mr. Longestaffe is hardly the pious type. Needless to say, this accused "Jew" remains one of Trollope's most straightforward, honorable and intelligent figures:
"And a Jew?" He again asked the horrid question, and again threw in the thunder. On this occasion she condesended to make no further reply. "If you do, you shall do it as an alien from my house. I certainly will never see him. Tell him not to come to me, for I certainly will not speak to him. You are degraded and disgraced; but you shall not degrade and disgrace your mother and sister. " (II, 143)As relates to Trollope's description of a typical arrogant and self-concerned gentleman, the alphabet rhyme offers "N stand for a nobleman, who's always good and great." Again, Mr. Longestaffe provides the rather unfortunate example:
He entertained an idea that all who understood the matter would perceive at a single glance that he was a man of the first water, and a man of fashion. He was intensely proud of his superior position in life. There were no doubt gentleman of different degrees, but the English gentleman of gentlemen was he who had land, and family title-deeds, and an old family place, and family portraits, and family embarassments, and a family absence of any usual employment. [I, 116]
As the nursery rhyme calls the Cabinet members "tools", so does Trollope ridicule the world of Victorian politics: "He had very little to say when he attempted to explain the political principles on which he intended to act." (II, 418) As the rhyme pokes fun at the young ladies learning to sing "this pretty son", so does Trollope lament the frivolity of any given wife present at Melmotte's dinner for the Emperor: " They did not care whether Melmotte was arrested at the dinner, so long as they, with others, could show their diamonds in the presence of eastern and western royalty." (II, 78)
Finally, the rhyme addresses "Gold", "Income", "Salary", "Taxes" and the face of Victoria on British coins. This abundance of monetary references clearly comments on the plight of Victorian society as that which revolves around wealth, and the status and lifestyle it allows one to attain. Trollope could not lament this predicament any more forcefully, more thoroughly or more brilliantly than he does. And although it serves as a source of humor and mockery in his novel, it remains for him a grave and depressing aspect of reality:
"I don't think I'll marry anybody. What's the use? It's only money. Nobody cares for anyhting else. Fisker's all very well; but he only wants the money. Do you think Fisker'd ask me to marry him if I hadn't got anything? Not he. He ain't slow enough for that." [II, 402]
Perhaps most depressing she does end up marrying him.
Last modified 1998