“Dr Wortle’s School”, a little-know novel by Anthony Trollope, is a splendid discussion of how we deal with taboos. It remains 100% relevant today.
‘Mrs Peacocke… was a woman something over thirty years of age.. in the very pride and bloom of woman’s beauty. Her complexion was dark and brown – so much so, that it was impossible to describe her colour generally by any other word… Her features were regular, but with a great show of strength… She was strong and well-made, and apparently equal to any labour to which her position might subject her.’
Thus we are introduced to the heroine of “Dr Wortle’s School”, one of Anthony Trollope’s last works, written in 1879 over a period of three weeks.
Few people read Dr Wortle’s School. I’m not surprised: the title is off-putting, the plot slight and the issue – about a couple “living in sin” – old-fashioned in much of the world. Yet the writing shows a novelist at the peak of his powers.
Dr Wortle’s School: the story
The story concerned a couple, Mr and Mrs Peacocke, who arrive to work at a boarding school for boys in England. It emerges (this is not a spoiler – Trollope announces it in Chapter 3) that they are not married, because, unknown to them, at the time of their marriage, her previous husband was still alive. Great forces of moral outrage are brought to bear on them, and on their employer – Doctor Wortle – to make them leave the school, lest their “living in sin” pollutes the morals of the pupils.
As I note in my post Trollope: 11 reasons to read him, this 19thC novelist wrote great, strong women. Mrs Peacocke is no exception. I was struck by the description of her complexion in the passage above – alluded to only once in the book. Mrs Peacocke, fierce, proud, independent, separated and dark-complexioned – perhaps black – is far from the stereotypical heroines of nineteenth-century literature.
Dr Wortle, too, is a fine creation: stubborn and, above all, unwilling to bow to the outrage of others in matters of morality. Yet, like Aunt Augusta in Travels with my Aunt, he is far from perfect: as Trollope observes: The Rev. Jeffrey Wortle, D. D., was a man much esteemed by others – and by himself. Indeed, Trollope distances himself from Wortle. When Dr Wortle puts himself, his livelihood and his school at risk in order to defend Mr and Mrs Peacocke, Trollope wryly observes: It would perhaps be unfair to raise a question whether he would have done as much, been so willing to sacrifice himself, for a plain woman.
Indeed, Dr Wortle is almost as stubborn as Louis Trevelyan, the (anti-) hero of He Knew He Was Right, another outstanding Trollope novel on which I have blogged (click on the link):
- But yet [Dr Wortle] could not give up Mrs Peacocke… He had promised not only her, but her absent husband, that until his return there should be a home for her in the schoolhouse. There would be cowardice in going back from his word which was altogether foreign to his nature. He could not bring himself to retire from the fight, even though by doing so he might save himself from the actual final slaughter which seemed to be imminent.
Dr Wortle’s School: quotations
On “living in sin”
- ‘What have we done of which we should be ashamed?’ Comment: Trollope’s sympathies are with Mr and Mrs Peacocke here.
- ‘I would have clung to her, let the law say what it might,’ said the Doctor, rising from his chair. [Mr Peacocke:] ‘You would?’ [Dr Wortle:] ‘I would – and I think that I could have reconciled it to my God. But I might have been wrong,’ he added; ‘I might have been wrong. I only say what I should have done.’
- [Dr Wortle’s] first conscience told him that he owed a primary duty to his parish, a second duty to his school, and a third to his wife and daughter. In the performance of all these duties he would be bound to rid himself of Mr Peacocke. But then there came that other conscience, telling him that the man had been ‘more sinned against than sinning’ – that common humanity required him to stand by a man who had suffered so much…
- If he [Dr Wortle] kept the man he must keep him resolving that all the world should know that he kept him, that all the world should know of what nature was the married life of the assistant in whom he trusted. And he must be prepared to face all the world, confiding in the uprightness and the humanity of his purpose.
- ‘A woman should not live with a man unless she be his wife.’ Mrs Wortle said this with more of obstinacy than he [Dr Wortle] had expected.
- [Dr Wortle] ‘It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.’ To this terrible suggestion poor Mrs Wortle did not dare to make any answer whatsoever.
- [Mrs Stantiloup, Dr Wortle’s arch-enemy] ‘If we’re not to put down this kind of thing, what is the good of having any morals in the country at all? We might just as well live like pagans, and so without any marriage services, as they do in many parts of the United States.’
- [Dr Wortle, to his wife] ‘I do not order it. I only ask it.’ Such asking from her husband was, she [Mrs Wortle] knew, very near alike to ordering.
- What comfort does a woman get out of her husband unless she may be allowed to talk to him about everything?
Dr Wortle on Bishops
- [The Bishop] was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. Comment: a fine description of making the most of what you’ve got.
- An affectionate letter from a bishop must surely be the most disagreeable missive which a parish clergyman can receive. Affection from one man to another is not natural in letters. A bishop never writes affectionately unless he means to reprove severely. When he calls a clergyman his ‘dear brother in Christ’, he is sure to go on to show that the man so called is altogether unworthy of the name.
- [Dr Wortle] ‘I have had battles before this, and had hoped that now, when I am getting old, they might have been at an end. But there is something left of me, and I can fight still.’
Dr Wortle’ School: on trolling
- ‘Never notice what may be written about you in a newspaper,’ he would have said. Such is the advice which a man always gives to his friend. But when the case comes to himself he finds it sometimes almost impossible to follow it. ‘What’s the use? Who cares what the “Broughton Gazette” says? Let it pass, and it will be forgotten in three days. If you stir the mud yourself, it will hang about you for months. It is just what they want you to do. They cannot go on by themselves, and so the subject dies away from them; but if you write rejoinders they have a contributor working for them for nothing, and one whose writing will be much more acceptable to their readers than any that comes from their own anonymous scribes. It is very disagreeable to be worried like a rat by a dog; but why should you go into the kennel and unnecessarily put yourself in the way of it?’ The Doctor had said this more than once to clerical friends who were burning with indignation at something that had been written about them. But now he was burning himself, and could hardly keep his fingers from pen and ink.
- There is no duty which a man owes to himself more clearly than that of throwing into the waste-paper basket, unsearched and even unopened, all newspapers sent to him without a previously-declared purpose.
- ‘It is the man who shivers on the brink that is cold, and not he who plunges into the water.’
- The man who will not endure censure has to take care that he does not deserve it.
Dr Wortle’s School: Taboos
I was struck that Dr Wortle’s School is a case study in taboos.
For many readers today, the poisonous debate about an unmarried couple that engulfs Dr Wortle may seem a bit out-of-date or irrelevant. But try experimenting with some more modern taboos. I won’t list them here, because what might seem a taboo to some people might seem fine to others. But conjure up in your own mind the circumstances under which you might object to a couple, or a person, working at a school your child attended. What would make your forehead crease? What would make your blood run cold?
To readers of Dr Wortle’s School in the 1880s, having an unmarried couple working at a school would have been just as much a taboo as some of the worst things you can imagine. Will history judge us to be as wrong about our present-day taboos today as they – viewed with hindsight – were then?
I hope you have enjoyed this review, with quotations, from “Dr Wortle’s School”. If so, do explore the rest of my Trollope Archive. Comments, shares and links always welcome.