Kept in the Dark

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Kept in the Dark is one of Anthony Trollope’s very last novels, and surely one of his very worst. Written in wincingly melodramatic – and insanely repetitive -  style, Kept in the Dark is too boring even to be silly.

Cecilia Holt is the pretty only daughter of  a prosperous provincial widow (Trollope characteristically precisely numbers the family fortune at 20,000 pounds – enough to keep a house and garden and leisurely annual trips to Europe). 

She is wooed by a visiting baronet, related to the Dean of the local cathedral, Sir Francis Geraldine. Sir Francis is a very bad baronet and also a very stupid one: as soon as he has engaged himself to Cecilia, he immediately begins to neglect her and make various cutting remarks about the bondage of marriage.

After a few weeks of this, Cecilia breaks off the engagement. Sir Frances is so outraged by this treatment that he promptly tells all his relatives that he broke the engagement off with her. It is hard to believe that even in 1882 the rapid end of an engagement in which (so far as we know) the courting couple never even kissed could have caused much scandal, but Trollope insists that it would, and to escape the shame, Cecilia and her mother head to Europe.

There they meet George Western, a moderately wealthy country gentleman of starchy morality. Western is traveling – guess why? – to overcome the pain of his broken engagement! His fiancee jilted him to marry the wealthy cousin of Sir Francis. Small world.

George tells Cecilia the whole story. For reasons that never make any sense however many times Trollope repeats them, Cecilia cannot bring herself to follow. They are married, set up house in Western’s charming country cottage where Cecilia can wrestle with her agonizing guilt. Just as she has nearly made up her mind to come clean, who should show up in her drawing room but Sir Francis himself. He has a country place just 2 miles down the road. As I said: small world.

Cecilia rebuffs him, Sir Francis writes a letter to George REVEALING ALL, and George (never a very appealing personality to begin with) is enraged. He leaves the house, departs for Europe, and sends a lawyer to negotiate a separation, gallantly offering Cecilia 7/8 of his income if she needs it.

Cecilia responds just as a Victorian wife should, with self-blaming grief and unremitting devotion to her furious husband. She refuses his money – she only wants him back! She returns to mother … this is where the novel begins to seem really, really long … and discovers she is pregnant. After extending the separation as long as humanly possible, Trollope at last achieves a reconciliation with a Victorian love scene that is as about as easy to swallow as a tablespoon of Nutrasweet.

Sir Francis and various other minor villains are suitably punished and all ends happily ever after.

The whole thing reminds me of one of those “I Love Lucy” episodes where Lucy forgets to make a deposit to the Christmas Club and then spends the next 24 minutes scheming to hide the catastrophe from Ricky. 

And yet awful as the book is, it periodically shows flashes of something better, some potential that Trollope could have explored had he been less bored, less eager for money, less ill, less whatever his excuse might have been for publishing this unworthy book:

Trollope does show little gleams of understanding that there is something seriously wrong with the system of gender relations that could produce this plot. People should not get irrevocably married after a sum total of 5 or 6 hours of social pleasantries in a drawing room. Western’s idea of the role of the wife – who as he says exists only to cool and calm his existence – is bound to produce misery, and Cecilia’s idea – that fathomless self-abnegation will surely produce some useful guilt in her lord and master – is if possible even worse. At one point, one of the minor characters describes marriage as a relationship in which women begin as men’s toys and end as their slaves. Good line! Too bad there was no Victorian editor to tell Trollope to develop that thought – and then cut 3/4 of the remainder.

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