Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day (book #95)

Frances Trollope, 1843.

What a muddle, but powerful despite that.

Tells the story of a brother and sister, Frederic and Ellen, and a village girl, Jessie Phillips. Frederic is unredeemably evil and seduces Jessie. When her mother does, she has to go into the workhouse. She absconds from the workhouse to confront Frederic, who repudiates her (the book leads me to use words like unredeemably and repudiates). She then has the baby in a barn. Whilst she is unconscious after the birth, a woman who is a “natural,” Silly Sally, takes the baby away. She brings it back after Jessie has been discovered and taken back to the workhouse. Frederic then finds the baby and murders it, in a nasty few lines:

In an instant the thought suggested itself to Frederic Dalton that Jessie has abandoned her child, with the certainty that a few hours of such abandonment would cause its wished-for death, and his heart leaped with mingled agitation and joy as he thought that he should be thus saved from all future danger of discovery or inconvenience. … but … the infant’s piercing cry again smote his ear, and the wretch paused to curse it, as he remembered the probability that it might live till noonday brought wanderers, either for pleasure or for business, through the lane, who might, and must discover its existence, if it repeated such cries as it was then uttering. “Confound her idiot folly!” he exclaimed; “if she had common sense enough to determine that it should perish, why could she not silence this confounded cry?” He had turned as he muttered these words, and was again standing over the spot where the child lay. Again it uttered a sharp piercing cry. He raised his booted foot, and made a movement as if in sudden rage, and the piercing cry was heard no more.

The body is discovered some days later, and Jessie is tried for infanticide. Ellen discovers her brother’s guilt and tells him to leave the country. Instead he recklessly falls into a river and is drowned. As she stands in the dock at the end of her trial, Jessie hears this mentioned. The verdict is then announced, not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity, and Jessie is found dead in the dock.

There are two subplots. The first concerns Ellen, who is in love with the local nobleman, who has decided on his parents’ advice that he can’t afford to marry her because of their joint poverty. At the end of the book they do in fact marry. The other, slighter, subplot concerns Ellen’s friend Martha, who falls in love with a lawyer whom she persuades to work on Jessie’s behalf. Although these are strictly subplots and the main business of the novel is with Jessie, in fact Ellen’s story, in particular, takes up a good deal of space, probably more than Jessie’s. Elsie B Michie writes that “The juxtaposition of these plots makes the novel a strange hybrid that combines the dark concerns of reformist prose with the romantic brightness of earlier nineteenth-century fiction”.

As you can see from the quotation, Trollope can’t leave well alone. For goodness sake, why qualify the text with the stuff about why the wanderers might be there? And the first sentence could be cut off after “mingled agitation and joy”.

Trollope has two political targets in the book. The first is the workhouse system brought about by the amendment to the Poor Law in 1834. Trollope shows it as abusive, humiliating and pointless. Although Jessie is perfectly able to work, she can’t work whilst she’s in the workhouse, she has to associate with women who are “of that wretched class of females which a seaport town is sure to produce … prostitutes,” and when she wants spiritual advice the visiting minister refuses to talk to her. Trollope’s second target is the Bastardy Clause in the same Act. This made mothers of illegitimate children solely responsible for their support; the fathers had no duties.

There is a longer summary here.

And here’s Mr Mortimer, the new Commissioner:

Mr. Mortimer … committed one or two sad blunders … he had enforced the legal necessity of coming into the [work]house upon a widow woman, who had maintained herself and three children by working like a horse at any labour that was proposed to her, because he did not happen to know that she stuttered dreadfully, and could not pronounce the word “yes,” which would have been the satisfactory answer to a question he had very attentively put to her when enquiring the reason of her present want of help …

The Gay Seducer 1, 2 and 3:

The Gay Seducer 1

The Gay Seducer 2

The Gay Seducer 3

Much leg-play throughout.

Jessie in prison:

Jessie in prison

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