I’m going to follow up my post on Kidnapped with another one exploring a folk song reference in a nineteenth century novel. This time the book is Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and the song is Lord Bateman (sometimes known as Young Beichan; Child Ballad no. 53). The song is, I think, one of the great ballads: adventure, rescue, a strong and resourceful heroine and a happy ending. The novel is an extremely solid, rewarding read, the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels dissecting nineteenth century British political life and government through the rise and rise of Mr Plantagenet Palliser. I don’t intend to summarise the entire plot (if you’ve not read the book you can find it here and a summary here), only dwell for a few minutes on one of the subplots at the point where book and song converge.
In Lord Bateman, the hero is rescued from a Turkish prison by the king of Turkey’s daughter. She finds him a ship and sends him back to England; before he leaves, the two swear eternal love to each other. After seven years without a word, the woman (named as Sophia or Shusha Pye) packs up to go and look for him, eventually arriving at his castle on his wedding day. Lord Bateman, true to his first love (unlike most ballad heroes), rejects his bride and marries Sophia*. My favourite singing is that of Chris Wood but there’s a wonderful rendition on Dogan Mehmet’s album Outlandish recalling Sophia’s Turkish roots.
In Trollope’s novel, the guardians of Lady Glencora, an exceedingly wealthy young woman, have persuaded her to marry Palliser against her inclination. She is unhappy in her marriage and unable to repress her feelings for Burgo Fitzgerald, the man she gave her heart to before her marriage. Palliser is far too honourable a man to distrust his wife but Lady Glencora knows that she is being watched by others in his household for any hint of indecorum or scandal, and resents this. It’s at this point that there’s the half-quotation from Lord Bateman. It’s a blink and you miss it reference. Lady Glencora speaks up “very boldly, like the proud young porter,” against her husband’s choice of chaperone to accompany her to a party where each knows Fitzgerald will be present.
So why make reference to Lord Bateman? Well, in Can You Forgive Her?, as in most literature there’s a good dose of intertextuality. The half-quote reminds a reader that Lady Glencora and Sophia start in similar positions: each is wealthy, each loves a man dependent on her, each pledges her heart to that man. Then their paths diverge. Lady Glencora’s reference to the ballad underscores this. She’s protesting against the limitations on her life and choices. In the ballad, the ‘proud young porter’ keeps the door of Lord Bateman’s castle, the (literal) gatekeeper standing between Sophia and happiness. Sophia speaks up boldly to the gatekeeper, and so achieves her happy ever after. Lady Glencora attempted to speak up for her choice of man and future, she wished to rescue Burgo Fitzgerald from his debts and dissolution (and there are hints enough in the text he’d have been a better man had he married her), but her words were silenced and her wishes unheeded. And although Lord Bateman can renounce his new married bride and suffer no more than a mild rebuke from her mother, it would be a very different fate for Lady Glencora were she to do the same to Plantagenet Palliser and turn back to her true love.