Frances Trollope famously wrote under conditions not exactly favorable to the upper reaches of literary craftmanship: she began writing in her early fifties with The Domestic Manners of the Americans and, to feed her penniless family, went on to produce novel after novel. While Mrs. Trollope's writing skills were hardly equal to her son Anthony's--more along the lines of Catherine Gore--it's nevertheless true that some of her fiction remains readable.
The Widow Barnaby (1839) is a case in point. There are certainly things to grumble about: about halfway through, the plot starts to feel jury-rigged; when Trollope finally separates the widow and her niece, Agnes, the novel's forward momentum abruptly stops; and the virtuous Agnes is, as this type of Victorian heroine tends to be, too bland and predictable to maintain the reader's interest. Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid noticing that the novel's moderately boisterous sensibility feels closer to the eighteenth century (Trollope was born in 1779) than the early Victorian period; in some ways, the book reads like a considerably more genteel version of Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker. The novel takes a picaresque tour of England, landing the widow, Martha, and her put-upon niece in increasingly fashionable locales. Martha is out to acquire another husband, preferably as wealthy as possible; poor Agnes, dragged along for the ride, is pursued by the youthful and genteel Frederick Stephenson, but falls in love with the much-older Colonel Montague Hubert. As Martha toodles determinedly along, Mrs. Trollope takes the opportunity to swipe at social climbers, flirts, and evangelical Dissenters. (No friend of evangelicals, she also devoted an entire novel, The Vicar of Wrexhill, to satirizing them.)
Readers who come to Victorian fiction with the vague notion that all novelists felt the need to drown their narratives in didactic schmaltz will be surprised. Obviously, we're supposed to disapprove of Martha and the various frauds she comes across, but Trollope makes her point through comedy instead of overt moralizing (in fact, her attack on the Dissenters--she comes up with a new sect, the "Anti-work Christians"--makes it clear that she distrusts the moralizing penchant); moreover, she refuses to tie up all the bows as neatly as we might expect. When Agnes' father, the very delinquent Mr. Willoughby, suddenly puts in an appearance at the end of the novel, his explanation for being a deadbeat dad--"I believe that the total impossibility of my transmitting any share of the wealth amidst which I lived to a child whom I had great reason to fear might want it, was the primary cause of it..." (394)--is clearly rather lame. Agnes' example doesn't seem to have altogether cured Lady Elizabeth of her propensity for collecting social oddballs, while Frederick and his eventual wife, Nora, are both amusingly prolific (twelve children!) and, clearly, not as good at money management as some might desire. Agnes herself, while given to bouts of puerility, would probably fail the RTS test for Christian heroines: she makes no secret of her unhappiness, is in the right when she finally decides to openly disobey her aunt, and seems to spend far more time mooning on about Colonel Hubert than about her religious faith. In fact, there's remarkably little religion in this novel, either openly or covertly.
There is, however, quite a bit of sex. By which I mean, of course, the various early Victorian literary methods of discussing sex and sexual desire, as opposed to the sort of thing one finds on Desperate Housewives. Martha spends her youth chasing after officers; men openly stare at attractive women; one of Martha's failed amours accosts Agnes, in a manner that both she and we are meant to find sexually threatening; Martha's eventual clergyman husband uses religious rhetoric as a means of seduction; and Lady Elizabeth warns Agnes that she ought to avoid becoming a governess at all costs because "you are a great deal too handsome for any such situation" (263). By our standards, this is all quite tame, but in literary context, Trollope is being fairly blunt. Our protagonists, in other words, are moving through a landscape marked by both social class and erotic desires. The widow, endowed with a suspiciously healthy appetite--she is forever downing Bath buns, cakes, toast, oysters, and whatever else comes to reach--derives part of her comic appeal from her belief in her irresistible powers of attraction. Agnes, of course, seems remarkably unconscious of her aesthetic appeal.
Trollope's interest in sexual machinations also plays into one of the novel's key themes: the importance of right appearances. Nineteenth-century literature groans under the burden of the truism that "appearances are deceiving"--so much so that my students learn to shout out "Appearances!" the moment it raises its ugly head. But while most writers argue that "the inside" or "the soul" or "character" or whatever count more than "the outside" or "beauty" or "nice clothing" or whatever, there's usually a hidden third term. It's not just that inner should trump outer, but that the inner should come accompanied by an appropriate outer. Jane Eyre may be plain Jane, but her trim, self-contained body is explicitly the right type of body--one that manifests the nature of the self within. What Trollope does, however, is eliminate the "inner" almost entirely from the equation. The novel emphasizes the play of surfaces, of properly disciplined clothes, manners, and bodies. Agnes' Aunt Betsy irrationally rejects her when it appears that she will look too much like the loathed Martha, but the lesson here is not that it's wrong to pay attention to appearances; it's just that the appearances must be judged correctly. Agnes wins the heart of Colonel Hubert through her singing--both in solitude and in privately sponsored performances--and, while professional performances are clearly out of the question, the novel rewards her for her self-display. Moreover, when Agnes becomes a heiress, she certainly doesn't object when her aunt dresses her with "remarkable elegance" (355); wealth, in other words, ought to be tastefully displayed on a woman's body. It's not that moral goodness counts for nothing in Trollope's novel, but that just about everyone in the novel's world weights the "outside" far more heavily than is common in most canonical Victorian texts. In that sense, if the novel looks back to eighteenth-century picaresque satires, it also looks forward to Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Just about everyone--even, to a certain extent, Agnes--is of the world, worldly.