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Okay, just for the sake of argument–let’s say that fiction is for what I say it is for, for people, not for plot.

I bring this up because I am in the middle of reading Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, the last in his series of Palliser novels, centered around Parliament.

For those of you who have never read Trollope, and don’t want to, let me point out that these are not “political” novels as the word would be used today.  Plantagenant Palliser–in the later books the Duke of Omnium–is a Liberal, but it would be impossible to figure out what a Liberal means from reading this fiction. 

The books center on Parliament only in the sense that they center on the lives of the men in parliament and their families and acquaintances, and in that a good deal of time is psent illustrating the way elections work and governments are formed.

So you can find out a good deal about the way that Parliamentary government works, but next to nothing about the differing positions of Liberals and Conservatives on things like, well, trade.  Or the rights of women, which was one of the Big Issues that had begun to occupy the British political mind.

The Duke’s Children does take up an issue that has been on my mind a good deal, in spite of the fact that I’m a twentieth century American and not a Victorian Brit.

That issue is hard to put straightforwardly, but I’m going to do the best I can.

How much should the appearance and actuality of wealth and rank matter to the way you will be treated by the world around you–and how much should they matter to you, yourself?

That really is putting it very badly.  Let me try to get around it sideways, like this.

The Duke’s Children is in a way the mirror volume to the first book in this series, called Can You Forgive Her?  In that first book, Lady Glencora Palliser, newly married to Plantagenant (who is not yet the Duke, because his father is still alive), nearly ruins herself by running away with the man she didn’t marry.  That man–Burgo Fitzgerald–had no money, no position (he was never going to be a Duke), and a very iffy reputation.   He was, however, the person who turned Glencora on fire.

This may seem like an old fashioned problem, one we would never have any trouble with today.   And certainly men and women today are much freer in making decisions of this sort simply by the fact that women now have control of their own money and can work at whatever profession they want.

It is one of the great annoyances of reading Trollope that he can understand this idea completely–he knows that there’s something wrong with women being given nothing to have on th eir minds but the men they marry–and still be firmly opposed to doing about it the only thing that could be done.  Trollope was not a feminist, even of the nineteenth century variety.

But although this issue seems archaic, I don’t think it is.  A great deal of the  Worst  Weekend in My  Life from earlier this year resulted exactly from people taking my appearance (including my given name), coupled with a complete lack of actual knowledge about me, at face value.  Obviously I must be doing X, since immigrants often do X because they don’t understand the social norms of this country.

But, of course, I’m not an immigrant, and neither were either of my parents.  And on one side of my family,  I’ve got people from New England going back to the seventeeth century.

The thing about Lady Glencora is this:  she was happier with Plantagenant Palliser than she ever would have been with Burgo Fitzgerald.  She did not love Palliser as she loved Fitzgerald, but she didn’t hate him, either.  Trollope was not trying to say that an entirely hollow, materialistically-based marriage would be a good one.  Lady  Glencora was very fond of Plantagenant, and happy in his company, she just didn’t have searing-gut feeling that is supposed to be “love.”

That romantic passion comes and then it goes, the Victorians would have said.   Respectability, honor and an ordered life last forever.

So far I do indeed concur.  The older I get, the more I understand the importance of a regulated life.  There’s a Victorian phrase for you.

But there are other aspects to this that I don’t find so clear.  I’m still adolescent enough, for instance, to be annoyed when people judge me by my clothes, or get angry with me because they can’t do that because all the parts don’t fit. 

I’m a very peculiar person in some ways.  There are things–and cothes are one of them–that I honestly resent spending money on, even when I have lots of money and spending a lot in one place wouldn’t change my ability to spend a lot in another.  Clothes are one of those things.  The most expensive I get in the way of clothes is L.L. Bean–the whole Vineyard Vines thing drives me crazy–and mostly I go fo whatever I can pick up in Marshalls or K-Mart for under thirty dollars.  Under twenty for stuff like jeans and under ten for t-shirts. 

And, of course, seeing me dressed like that, people make assumptions not only about my financial status–which I tend to think it none of their business, but which matters a lot in certain kinds of interactions–but about my level of education, even my upbringing.  And since none of these things “fit” what I look like, I often get people very angry–and that one time, I ended up in a situation I might have avoided if I’d just agreed to look the part of what I actually am.

Trollope’s late work is notable for the extent to which he is questioning the assumptions of a lifetime, for being unsure of where it should rest, on which side of what issues.  Lady Glencora gave up the love aof a man who was socially beneath her to find contentment, if not ecstasy, in the bosom of a proper marriage.  Her daughter, Lady Mary, will be allowed to marry her commoner–a somewhat better sort than her mother’s, as he has honor, if no more money than Burgo had. 

This being Trollope, I don’t expect to get the answers to any of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately.  And no matter how archaic this theme sounds, it’s with us still, in movies and in novels.  The importance of wealth and rank to marriage is the theme of The Notebook, the importance of wealth and rank in general is the theme of The Devil Wears Prada.

The reason why I think Trollope belongs in the Canon and those other things will never make it is this:  Trollope accepts the fact–and it is a fact–that there is a real question here.  It is not simply black and white–people who care about wealth and rank or their appearance, are bad and shallow people, and the high ground resides with the people who reject both and declare the world well lost.

For one thing, Trollope understands that the world can indeed be lost–by individuals, on an ondividual basis, in an individual life–and that that doesn’t always work out well.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Weekend'

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  1. In large part, the judgement of people about your wealth or lack thereof based on your manner of dress depends on *where* you live, Jane. East Coast (and midwest for that matter, from my experience) persists some attitudes that simply don’t exist anymore in California. Nobody dresses up here, mostly. Lawyers dress for court. Celebs dress up for red carpets. The rest of us are comfortable almost all the time, including the rich folks.

    Last year I needed a new mattress. I researched and found a place in Beverly Hills that hand-builds mattresses for the stars, and had a great reputation. These things are NOT cheap. So my husband & I trail out there, wearing our low-budget clothes, both of us overweight, me in a beat-up wheelchair. Perfect opportunity for snooty salesperson to assume we don’t have the means and don’t put your low-rent asses on my merchandise!

    Instead, we got courteous, attentive service and ended up making a purchase. People out here have learned not to make those assumptions based on dress, because the people who look like bums could very well buy & sell you. Dress-up is for fun, not social position messaging. We save that for our cars. ;)

    There are, of course, plenty of sub-cultures here (Orange County comes to mind) where dress and appearance, home and toys and cars are intensely important, where people (bored housewives and bored husbands) actually seem to care about things like “position” and keeping up. I don’t consider them the norm, and actual wealthy people don’t play those games much either.

    And we’re too damn multi-cultural to have expectations about someone based on their name. A Hispanic name could mean someone who just arrived from Mexico…or someone whose family has been here since before Mexico (or the US) existed. A non-European name means nothing in regard to competence or intelligence, or ability to navigate cultural norms.

    In many ways, it’s refreshing. To some people, it’s just confusing and scary. I don’t hang out with those who don’t find it refreshing.


    27 Sep 09 at 12:56 pm

  2. Hmmm. Am I addressing the same Jane Haddam who once told me that certain characters were fundamentally the same because they all had the same function in the plot? Just checking.

    The Christian in me tells me that one does not judge people by their clothing because this is morally wrong: the important things about a person are matters of wisdom and grace and have nothing to do with riches.
    The analyst tells me not to judge on the basis of clothes because you’re likely to be analytically wrong: John D. Rockefeller, famously, can afford to keep his watch on a plain leather fob. I’ve known some seriously rich people and my father has known more. Most of them dressed well under what I would wear for an interview. (Of course, they didn’t need the job.)
    But the sergeant in me would also like a word. He says that it is one thing to be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and another not to clean them and sew up rips as necessary. Informality is not the same as slovenliness.
    There are also suitable levels of clothing for a variety of functions dictated by custom as well as practicality, which is why I wore my Class A uniform to my wife’s funeral and bought a suit for my son’s wedding–and wear slacks and a blazer (with tie) to church every Sunday. Because showing up in jeans and a Miskatonic University sweatshirt I would NOT have been the same person. I would have been someone else: someone who didn’t show the respect the occasion and persons deserved.

    The sergeant would also like to point out that you can sometimes save yourself a lot of time and trouble by dressing like the sort of person others expect to take orders from or defer to. I’ve read Fisher too, but you can take the traditional “old New England” disregard for appearances to a point at which you just make trouble for yourself.

    Mind you, this didn’t keep me from ditching the tie the first day we were allowed to work without one. It just means that even on “casual day” it’s clean slacks and a (short sleeved) dress shirt for me.


    27 Sep 09 at 3:11 pm

  3. I understand completely about the desire not to dress to fulfill the expectations of others. However, the expectations I’m dealing with are the stereotype of the frumpy librarian. And I’m doing my part to disprove that stereotype by example. It’s actually not that expensive these days–eBay is a wonderful thing.

    As Robert said, it can also be a matter of respect, both self-respect, and respect for the people you come in contact with. I’m sure you’re not going around with ripped or dirty clothing, but there are people who do. Also people who wear clothing that’s really tight, really low-cut, who wear spike heels to a picnic and a motorcycle jacket to a job interview.

    For most of us, these all are part of the first impression a person makes on us. In fact, I think most people dress to try to convey to others the kind of person they are, or at least wish to be. The impression appearance gives may or may not be accurate, but unless we get to know the person better, it may be the only impression we have. And some people, who only look at surfaces, will never move beyond that initial impression.

    That being said, in some difficult situations, carefully chosen clothing can also function as a kind of mental armor or camouflage.

    Lee B

    27 Sep 09 at 4:39 pm

  4. And I got so carried away with appearances that I neglected to address All for Love and the World Well Lost.
    Another author to look at here is Georgette Heyer, specifically CIVIL CONTRACT. The heir to a bankrupt estate has to choose between the woman he loves and saving the estate by marriage to an heiress he barely knows. The novel is not about the choice–he marries the heiress–but about the consequences. Marrying outside one’s station is a guarantee of culture clash. To love one woman, marry another and behave honorably throughout is something worth writing a novel about.

    I can think of a number of authors who would get out of this situation by cold-bloodedly killing off the heiress in the last or next to last chapter. I could name some who have. Heyer plays it absolutely straight, not even turning Jenny Chawleigh (the heiress) into a beauty, but leaving her plain, dark and a little plump with a blunt tongue.

    Not to say the book lacks Heyer’s usual humor. It’s hysterical in places. But Heyer too understood that passion is not enough.


    27 Sep 09 at 6:12 pm

  5. Hmm, I’m planning a vacation in New Zealand. One of the motels has had so much credit card fraud that they are asking for photo-id at check in, in addition to my credit card.

    No one expects tourists to wear suits and ties around a small town, but if I dress like a bum, I might have trouble booking a helicopter tour at $450. That seems reasonable to me. I agree with Robert, dress for the occasion.


    27 Sep 09 at 6:18 pm

  6. I don’t know how coherant I am – just got back after a long trip and am too keyed up to sleep.

    I think Lymaree might be a bit optimistic as to the judgements people make about appearance. I think appearance is one of the many things we use to analyze and deal with the strangers we meet. Of course, it’s classy – not to mention smart – for a business to be polite to all potential customers in a society without rigidly enforced dress codes. That doesn’t mean that their employees don’t make the judgements, it means they don’t act on them, which is something I can live with. I run into this a lot. I don’t dress well. I actually rather like being able to slip anonymously into the background, dismissed as just another struggling middle-aged nobody, but to be honest I didn’t dress much better when I was earning more, and the main reason is that I find actually doing something about planning my wardrobe (let alone actually shopping for clothes) so incredibly tedious that it’s always right at the bottom of my list of priorities.

    I spent several days living well above my means in a hotel I wouldn’t have been able to foot the bill at even with the big discount they gave my employer. I didn’t dress any differently than usual. I was treated at all times with exquisite courtesy by all the employees. That’s just good behaviour; it doesn’t mean that the various clerks and maids didn’t have my actual income mentally calculated to the penny and didn’t know perfectly well that I’m unlikely to be a regular customer!

    Re Glencora – I think it’s a modern myth, much promoted by books and movies and TV and music, that there is only one true love and only with that one person can anyone have perfect happiness. And yet we probably all know some women who have become passionately attached to men who make them miserable, and some of them could probably have had perfectly happy marriages with someone else – someone less exciting. But that’s not something our society likes to belief.


    27 Sep 09 at 7:56 pm

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