Anthony Trollope’s Unusual Approach To Femininity in “A Ride Across Palestine”
Victorian England was a historical context in which masculinity prevailed. Men were celebrated for their adventurous and explorative accomplishments. The same cannot be said for the women of the era. While men were encouraged to go on adventures, explore, and engage in masculine activities, women were thrust into the background. The same can be said for the literature of the Victorian era, especially stories that center around tales of adventure. Masculinity has been the main ingredient of adventure stories for as long as the genre has existed. Femininity on the other hand, while always present, is usually not the main theme. That being said, femininity does play a major role in making adventure stories what they are. While encouraging masculinity was the main goal of Victorian era adventure stories, perhaps they provided some inspiration to the women of the era as well. Without femininity, stories such as Anthony Trollope’s “A Ride Across Palestine”, would have no climax, and no real theme. In his story, Trollope celebrates femininity in an unusual way, first with tricking his audience about his female characters gender, and then giving her qualities that were not usually associated with females during the Victorian era.
In “A Ride Across Palestine” we are immediately introduced to the story’s main character, Mr. Jones. We immediately get the sense of adventure as his journey is described, “I intended to start, of course on horseback for the Dead Sea, the banks of Jordan, Jericho, and those mountains of the wilderness through which it is supposed our savior wandered for forty days when the devil tempted him” (3). We instantly get the impression that the protagonist is a masculine figure. We get this impression due to the fact that during this era, going on such an adventure was considered a masculine experience. The audience also gets the feeling that perhaps Mr. Jones is a bit lonely, “At any rate I dislike solitude, and especially travelling solitude, and was, therefore, rather sad at heart…” (3). This is where the audience is first introduced to a Mr. John Smith. Immediately it is clear something is off about this character. Despite Smith’s quirkiness, Mr. Jones likes him without understanding why, “I was taken with John Smith, in spite of his name. There was so much about him that was pleasant, both to the eye and to the understanding!” (6). It is clear that there is something about this Smith that is unusual. Mr. Jones cannot quite put his finger on it, but it makes him interested in this character. It is not until later in the story that he realizes his instant attraction to John Smith was probably owed primarily to the fact that Smith is, in fact, a girl.
Throughout their journey together, Mr. Jones feels rather protective of Smith, without understanding why, even going so far as to bribe someone to switch saddles just so Smith will be more comfortable: “I would have done almost anything in reason for his comfort” (15). His protective feelings coupled with Smith’s unusual behavior makes it even more obvious to Mr. Jones that something is not quite right with his companion. Trollope gives us many clues throughout the story towards Smith’s true identity. For example, Trollope gives his character many qualities that are considered to be feminine, “But Smith, I observed, was much more courteous in this way to the women than to the men…” (12). The fact that Smith is more comfortable around women was a huge clue considering many men, especially in the Victorian era would find it easier to be around other men. Later on, Smith begins to show even more traits that are usually attributed to women, “‘You’ll kill yourself, in your present state of heat;’ he said, remonstrating, just as one’s mother or wife might do” (21). Smith inadvertently was showing a part of himself that one would not usually associate with a man. Smith could have easily given himself away when he begins to cry when he and Mr. Jones are talking about his troubles, “I looked around and saw him in tears” (25). This is probably one of the most obvious clues, because while Smith is still being mysterious it was not considered manly in the Victorian era, or even now, for a man to shed tears.
All of the clues Trollope gives the audience shows the qualities and traits that he considers to be feminine, and therefor he believed should belong to a woman. Trollope speaks of Jones’s protective feelings towards Smith because during that era, it was common for females to be considered the weaker sex, and therefore they needed to be protected. The other traits previously discussed, such as the worrying and crying were also considered to be markedly feminine. These traits all put together, make us wonder how, having travelled across a country with Smith, Jones had not figured out that Smith was actually a woman. This makes us think that perhaps, deep down Mr. Jones knew something wasn’t right. In fact, Jones and Smith developed quite the friendship, one that wasn’t exactly a conventional male friendship, “We sat down together…close together, so that when I stretched myself out… my head was resting on his legs. Ah Me! One does not take such liberties with new friends in England” (22). It was Smith’s feminine qualities that made Jones comfortable enough to act this way. If Jones had known Smith’s true identity, an action such as this would be considered completely inappropriate. Smith’s feminine qualities were, perhaps the entire reason their friendship developed so fully and why Jones felt such compassion towards his companion.
Trollope employs certain stereotypes towards femininity in “A Ride Across Palestine”. He implies that women are the weaker, more emotional sex. Despite these stereotypes, Trollope does portray his one female character as a surprisingly strong figure. Smith, whose actual name turns out to be Julia Weston, is actually the more praiseworthy of the two main characters. Not only was she able to dress like a man and deceive her travelling companion (much to his embarrassment), but she also attempted to take her life into her own hands in a time when it was not common for a girl to do so. This alone makes Julia Weston an extremely admirable character. Julia is able to dupe Mr. Jones for the whole duration of their trip, which was probably considered quite praiseworthy during this time. It certainly damaged Jones’s ego when he found out a girl had actually outsmarted him, “I saw before me so terrible and embarrassment! And then I felt so thoroughly abashed in that I had allowed myself to be so deceived! It all came back upon me in a moment, and covered me with a shame that even made me blush” (34). The fact that Jones was so ashamed was probably not from just being deceived but more so that he was deceived by a woman. Unfortunately, Julia’s deception and attempt at taking her own life into her hands turned out to be futile in the end. Even in the face of defeat, Julia manages to remain composed and does not feel anger towards Mr. Jones. She even defends him when being confronted by her uncle, “’He has been kind to me beyond my power of words to express; but, till told by you he knew nothing of my secret. Nor would he have known it” (39). Julia remained strong and kind even when challenged by her unpleasant uncle. This alone makes her an extremely meritorious and likable character. In the end, Julia Weston is forced to return to her uncle, much to her dismay. Despite being such a strong character and breaking the stereotype of femininity in this era, Trollope still allowed his character to be controlled by a male.
On the whole, Trollope portrayed his female character in a most unusual way throughout most of “A Ride Across Palestine”. He gave his character the qualities of a female while not informing his audience that the character actually was female until the end of the story. In doing this, Trollope made Julia the most interesting and admirable character in the story, as she not only breaks stereotypes, but is also portrayed as an unusually strong female character. Despite Julia’s return to her uncle in the end, the audience was entranced by Julia and roots for her. This story and its character, Julia Weston, was an unexpectedly delightful surprise to find in a story from the Victorian era.
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