Lately, perhaps out of some atavistic urge to feel like I’m still in graduate school, I’ve been reading Trollope’s Palliser novels, which explore happenings in the marriage market for various peers, heiresses, and parliamentarians in the late Victorian age. Trollope is no prose stylist, and he doesn’t seem to trust his readers to get anything; he has a clumsy habit of explaining with a thud what’s between the lines of his dialogue, which lulls you into a laziness about thinking too hard about the action. (This does make the books considerably easier to read, it must be confessed.) Forgive this overstatement as a kind droll irony, though, and the books become much funnier, and they are pretty humorous to begin with—not in a laugh-out-loud way by any stretch of the imagination, but Trollope is so consistently cynical that a curmudgeon like me can take pleasure in them. The characters are almost always keeping their minds on the money and struggling to find various ways to politely pass that off. The only exceptions are the female heroines, who are made dramatically compelling mainly by serving as an alternative reward to money for the muddled, dithering heroes, who invariably must choose between financial pragmatism and romance. But these heroines usually have a counterpart who struggles with the way women are shut out from the public sphere; the recurring Glencora Palliser character serves as a series-long touchstone for this theme, but each novel has its own iteration of the smart, ambitious woman who must marry to have a vicarious career. Trollope doesn’t explicitly condemn this arrangement, though he usually makes these women suffer without ever seeming convinced they don’t deserve it.
But this vicarious behavior is complemented by other strategies for power, or at least self-gratification, which are set against the backdrop of the real political power exercised by the politicos who are always just offstage. Lizzie Eustace, of The Eustace Diamonds, has her shrewdnesss warped by the lack of an outlet and her ambition redirected toward the only sphere she is allowed to exercise her wits, finding a lover. She seeks one with no respect for social mores, her “Corsair” whose contempt for society might allow her to feel free of it by proxy. Trollope tells us, “She had a grand idea—this selfish, hard-fisted little woman, who could not bring herself to abandon the plunder on which she had laid her hand—a grand idea of surrendering herself and all her possessions to a great passion.” This is her way of transforming her wealth into a purchasable narrative through which she can experience the oversize emotions she has been accustomed to believing come with her rank. The marriage market, so reimagined, becomes her way of making her life into a novel, of allowing for the best kind of consumerism of all, self-consumption. And then we see the society scandal-mongers relishing in her tale, eagerly consuming the story that we readers are consuming too while sustaining the plausibility of the fictional world we are trying to lose ourselves in—what could better symbolize realism than gossip, the nuts and bolts of how we articulate social values in everyday life?
This figuring of how the novel should be consumed within the novel itself, through the eager consumption of scandal, typifies the way novels model for us how to enjoy vicariousness. Lizzie, in playing at sincerity to win lovers who she then can’t property respect as she hopes to (who is not a “Corsair” capable of duping her), gets herself tripped up by the classic consumer conundrum: the inauthenticity that comes from trying to purchase authenticity. “Could she not be simple? Could she not act simplicity so well that the thing acted should be as powerful as the thing itself;—perhaps even more powerful? Poor Lizzie Eustace! In thinking over all this, she saw a great deal.” Called upon to respond naturally, simply, in order to perfect herself as an attractive object, Lizzie instead takes artifice to the next degree of complication, simulating objecthood and playing out a pretense to supply herself with a sense of her subjectivity—of her pursuing her own desires. “To be always acting a part rather than living her own life was to be everything.” Consumerism, vicariousness, identity-construction through narratives, they all prove to be different iterations of the ever-disappointing process of willing states (pleasure, spontaneity, love, etc.) that can be experienced only as by-products. But our failed attempts, thanks to outside ideological prodding from the advertising world (which tells us the right objects can vindicate a phony self—the fantasy prompted by consumption making an identity “as powerful as the thing itself” if not moreso) lead us only to redouble our efforts rather than conceive new goals. Lizzie thinks money can buy her the right to a “poetical temperament,” but that temperament itself is clearly a calculated sham; it may as well have been derived from an advertisement. The only power she is left with is the power to conceal her own crimes, to hide the fact that thee is nothing true inside her beyond the schemes, that she has, as Trollope tells us bluntly, “no heart.” Whether her angelic antithesis, Lucy, does, is another question—she is rather lifeless, moved around like a piece of furniture and waiting eagerly to be commanded by her fiancé/boss.