A "Woman's Best Right" - To a Husband or the Ballot?: Political and Household Governance in Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels
97 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2020
Date Written: October 2020
The year 2020 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 2018, the United Kingdom marked the one hundredth anniversary of some women securing the right to vote in parliamentary elections and the ninetieth anniversary of women securing the right to vote on the same terms as men. People observing the Nineteenth Amendment’s centenary may have difficulty understanding why it required such a lengthy campaign. One influential rationale in both the United Kingdom and the United States was domestic gender ideology about men’s and women’s separate spheres and destinies. This ideology included the societal premise where the husband was the legal and political representative of the household and extending women’s rights—whether in the realm of marriage or of political life—would disrupt domestic and political order. This Article argues that an illuminating window on how such gender ideology bore on the struggle for women’s political rights is the mid-Victorian British author Anthony Trollope’s famous political novels, the Palliser series. These novels overlap with the pioneering phase of the women’s rights campaign in Britain and a key period of legislative debates over reforming marriage law. This Article looks at how the Woman Question (as mid-Victorians called it), including the question of women’s political rights, featured in these novels. In his fiction and nonfiction, Trollope expressed decided views about the Woman Question, insisting that a woman’s “best right” was the right to a husband, rather than to the ballot or greater employment. However, the evident tension between such views and the rich portraiture of Trollope’s female characters—including in the Palliser series—suggests an intriguing dialectic between espousing and subverting Victorian ideals about womanhood. Examining the first three novels in the series, Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, and Phineas Redux, this Article shows how they link matters of public power and political rule to private power and household rule. The novels gesture toward parliamentary debates over the Woman Question, but, by comparison with Trollope’s detailed creation of parliamentary debates with real-world parallels, do not include debates over woman suffrage or the various marriage law–reform bills that failed or succeeded. Even so, this Article shows that the characters in the Palliser novels are mindful of, and constrained by, the marriage law of the time, including husbandly prerogatives of household rule, wifely duties of obedience, and women’s limited options for exiting a troubled marriage. Through analyzing the various marital relationships formed in these novels, as well as other familial relationships and friendships, this Article identifies how legal and social rules about gender roles shape the characters’ connections to political and household power. Trollope’s female characters act in a social context in which marriage is the expected “career” for women, even as some of them experience ambition for a political career or occupation other than—or in addition to—marriage. The novels also explore women’s limited ability to exit disastrous marriages, even as they include examples of relatively egalitarian marriages that seem to transcend models of husbandly rule and wifely submission. This Article’s close reading of the novels is augmented by literary criticism on Trollope and some contemporaneous writings by nineteenth-century feminists, which provide a counter to Trollope’s portrayal of the feminist positions in the Palliser novels. Because Trollope believed that his novels taught important moral lessons about love, marriage, and the legal and political issues of his day, this Article also considers how Trollope’s complicated stance toward the Woman Question shaped the lessons taught in the Palliser novels.
Keywords: Anthony Trollope, Frances Trollope, Palliser novels, Woman Question, Woman suffrage, 19th century feminism, Women’s rights, marriage, British novels, Household power, Political representation, Gender and literature
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