Of the major Victorian novelists, Anthony Trollope is by far the most deliberative. He usually isn't interested in the questions of perception, representation, and subjectivity that tend to plague George Eliot, but prefers instead to devote his energies to decision-making. Many of Trollope's novels fixate on some difficult decision to be made, whether involving a marriage, a will, or a question of honor; the "action" often consists of the characters worrying this decision one way and another. While Trollope can certainly write a good action scene--the hunt in The Eustace Diamonds, for example--he prefers to locate his most important upheavals in the recesses of a character's consciousness.
The reader makes it almost all the way to the end of Lady Anna before anything "happens," and even then, what happens (an attempted murder) doesn't happen very successfully. Lady Anna focuses tightly on the title character's choice of suitors: should she marry the new Earl Lovel, as her mother (and just about everybody else) desires, or should she marry Daniel Thwaite, a Radical tailor, whose proposal she has already accepted? The former would resolve the years-long legal difficulties plaguing her mother, who has had to defend her title and the legitimacy of her daughter against the claims of the late earl; the latter, however, would be both the honorable course and the course of true love. Lady Anna discovers that her mother will do anything to see that she marries the new earl; the new earl is very fond of Anna, of course, but is also very fond of her enormous inheritance; and Daniel Thwaite loves Anna deeply, but also loathes aristocrats.
As Stephen Orgel notes in his introduction to the World's Classics edition, the most intriguing character is the monomaniacal Countess Lovel (vii)--one of Trollope's obsessives, like the husband in He Knew He Was Right. The Countess' willingness to destroy anything in her path, just so long as she maintains the family's good name for her daughter, has an immediate nineteenth-century ancestor in The Bride of Lammermoor's terrifying Lady Ashton, but many readers will also hear echoes of Lady Macbeth and even Medea floating somewhere in the distance. Trollope's narrator gives the reader plenty of access to the Countess' thoughts, but usually in free indirect discourse instead of direct quotation--as here, when the Countess reacts to her lawyer's argument in favor of Thwaite's suit:
The reader need hardly be told that this was wormwood to the Countess. It did not in the least touch her heart and had but little effect on her purpose. Gratitude;--yes! But if the whole result of the exertion for which the receiver is bound to be grateful, is to be neutralised by the greed of the conferrer of the favour,--if all is to be taken that has been given, and much more also,--what ground will there be left for gratitude? If I save a man's purse from a thief, and then demand for my work twice what that purse contained, the man had better have been left with the robbers. But she was told, not only that she ought to accept the tailor as a son-in-law, but also that she could not help herself. They should see whether she could not help herself. They should be made to acknowledge that she at any rate was in earnest in her endeavours to preserve pure and unspotted the honour of the family. (442).
Trollope never hesitates to remind his reader that he's the one pulling the strings, and this paragraph is no exception. As an opening onto a character's thoughts, the first sentence is actually a bit odd: provided that we've been paying attention, we should already know the Countess' response. And so, we ask, why keep going? In this instance, we need to keep going because the Countess' predictability is precisely the point here. On this subject of her daughter's marriage, the Countess cannot engage in any dialogue, internal or external, that will dislodge her antagonism to Thwaite. Moreover, the moment of self-exculpatory reasoning that follows is odd for a different reason: is it the Countess speaking, or the narrator? "Gratitude..." sounds like it might be the Countess thinking, especially given the determined misreading of Thwaite's motives ("greed"); nevertheless, the "I" takes us back to the narrator, who apparently has to fill in for the Countess' deficiencies in moral reasoning. To whom does that analogy belong, anyway? And the concluding lines render the self-justification moot, anyway, since it's clear that the Countess has made up her mind to assert her will over and against those in favor of temporizing with Thwaite.
Orgel notes that Trollope stacks his deck quite heavily in this novel--Anna's choice is no choice at all (ix)--and the plot's predetermined outcome finds itself reflected in the Countess' inability to engage in any sort of open-ended debate. Anna and Thwaite are equally stubborn; this is, all in all, a novel about exceptionally bull-headed people on a collision course. The Countess' imagined "they," consisting variously of lawyers, acquaintances, relatives, and society in general, are the only people who change their mind. It's just that they rarely change it for any good reason. And while the lovers are "right," Trollope doesn't reward them with the promise of happiness ever after. It's as though Trollope set out to write a novel about How Not to Justify One's Behavior.