Ralph the Heir (1871) is not among the more heralded novels by Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 of them. Trollope himself called it "one of the worst novels I have written," that it justified the dictum that "a novelist after fifty should not write love-stories." In his autobiography, he notes that the two main heroes — both, somewhat inconveniently, named Ralph Newton — have no life, and he purports not even to remember the book's heroines. Aside from the usual gratuitous hunting sequences, much of the novel is taken up with a completely detached subplot in which a barrister runs for Parliament in a corrupt election, an account Trollope based on his own bitter electioneering experiences. It's haphazardly plotted and ploddingly repetitive even by Trollope's standards — yes, it's a serialized novel, but the cumbersome reiterations of the characters' various relations to one another seems more like padding than requisite memory-refreshing.
But even when Trollope is at his most off-putting, he is still masterful at probing the peculiar moral dilemmas that faced the late Victorian gentry in decline. With the commercial classes rising irresistibly, the aristocratic code of conduct that delineated the classes was eroding, leading to much fretting in Trollope's novels about what constitutes a "gentleman" and what keeps that ineffable designation from being completely arbitrary. Many a Trollope novel is set up to examine how much legal wrangling and is required to maintain the class structure reproduced through primogeniture, and how much human sympathy and moral common sense must be suppressed. He seems to accept the idea of a gentleman is a necessary fiction that maintains social order, worrying endlessly about the idea's fragility, how it becomes overwhelmed with contingencies.
Usually in a Trollope novel, some technicality involving the legality of a particular marriage crops up that immediately changes a character's property rights and inheritance or marriage prospects (in Ralph the Heir, the two Ralph Newtons temporarily trade places as likely heirs of a large estate), and then everyone's behavior toward that person changes accordingly. Trollope doggedly illustrates the hypocrisy of this and seems to implicitly condemn it, all while loudly proclaiming its rectitude and necessity. He has a special genius for showing how the twists of fate for these ambiguously placed protagonists affect they way they perceive themselves and the various rationalizations they use to protect their self-esteem.
What seems to haunt Trollope is the possibility that the whole idea of in-bred gentility is a bunch of utter bullshit; his novels often read like his weirdly tortured and not entirely successful efforts to convince himself that it isn't so. This is especially true of Ralph the Heir, which is entirely preoccupied with moral laziness, entitlement, corruption, and human interchangeability — obviously you don't give your two main characters the same name by accident. Most of the novel is spent with the "bad" Ralph, who was brought up knowing he was to inherit a fortune and an estate (also called Newton) and thus, we are led to believe, never had to develop any moral fiber. He never adopts a profession other than recreation and quickly falls needlessly into debt buying clothes and hunting horses he doesn't "really" need. In fact, Ralph needs to go into such debt, because the extent of his credit is precisely the extent of his privilege, which he seems bent on maximizing as a matter of pride. No one outside Ralph's family is especially surprised at his behavior or expects him to be otherwise. Somehow his moral unfitness seems especially fit for an aristocrat in training.
The "good" Ralph, the son of the bad Ralph's uncle, would have been the heir to the same estate, but he is seen as a bastard because his mother died before her marriage could be properly certified as legal. Though depicted as reserved and proper and universally respected, this Ralph is also seen as inherently unsuitable to inherit the property — a "travesty." Trollope has several characters from across the class spectrum show visceral repugnance to the idea, all repeating that it just "somehow" wouldn't be right. The whole social order is at stake if an estate, which forms the basis of the idealized notion of community, goes to the "wrong" person.
After all, such a property as Newton does not in England belong altogether to the owner of it. Those who live upon it, and are closely concerned in it with reference to all that they have in the world, have a part property in it. They make it what it is, and will not make it what it should be, unless in their hearts they are proud of it. "You know he can't be the real squire," said one old farmer to Mr. Walker. "They may hugger-mugger it this way and that; but this Mr. Ralph can't be like t'other young gentleman."
That's among the most reactionary passages in the novel, in which the tenants yearn to be proud of the hierarchy that condemns them to inferiority and are shown to be committed to the gossip-level ideological work to protect it. (It is same spirit that makes contemporary veneration of Britain's current royals so nauseating. Nothing makes me more proud of being American than evidence of knee-jerk British servility to its royal family.) They will do their best to make sure the good Ralph is miserable is he inherits, because that would imply that mobility is available for some but not others — better that none should have it and the traditional codes be implemented with no respect for the merits or flaws of particular individuals in particular cases.
It's supposed to be far more obvious how Polly Neefit, the "breeches-maker's daughter," is unfit to become the wife of bad Ralph, who is brought to propose to her by her father as a way of settling his debts. "Nothing on Earth could make her a lady," Ralph's de facto guardian tells him, saying he would "sooner cut my throat" than marry so beneath him. But like the good Ralph, Polly proves to be a sort of moral exemplar, refusing to marry above her station and choosing instead Moggs, an idealistic, union-organizing firebrand and the only character in the book who shows any convincing passion about anything.
Trollope's plot seems designed to expose a society that sees it as proper that morally superior characters be barred social advancement — a kind of generalized, complacent corruption that is mirrored by the specific political corruption in the parliamentary election, which results in the borough being stripped of political representation altogether. The cynical implication is that the people of Trollope's world don't deserve politics and can't accommodate merit-based reform. Late Victorian society, in his estimation, has every incentive to prevent merit — or its companion virtue, love — from being socially efficacious. Instead, society is compelled to reproduce itself to try to conserve privilege in the face of the economic shift in power that threatens it. None of Trollope's characters are willing to understand this shift as anything but the consequence of individual moral failings, a loss of aristocratic nerve or a lapse of gentlemanly conduct in the face of adversity. They refuse to recognize that economic logic can be just as necessary and irresistible as their own supposedly necessary logic linking bloodlines and authority. They become intransigent in their ideology, trying to preserve in etiquette codes and habitus what can no longer be supported by money and political influence. But that doomed fight leads only to a more intense cynicism, all in the name of protecting an order that believes in nothing but the idea that its privilege shouldn't ever have to be justified.
The only way Trollope has to make the contradiction cohere is evoke the nebulous concepts of the "gentleman" and the "lady" and assert that it has irresistible affective force on those confronted by it. Even the radical Moggs in Ralph the Heir can't resist it:
Moggs was as true as steel in his genuine love of Labour,—of Labour with a great L,—of the People with a great P,—of Trade with a great T,—of Commerce with a great C; but of himself individually,—of himself, who was a man of the people, and a tradesman, he thought very little when he compared himself to a gentleman. He could not speak as they spoke; he could not walk as they walked; he could not eat as they ate. There was a divinity about a gentleman which he envied and hated.
The habitus of a gentleman —the guarantor of the hierarchy's perpetuation — appears to be this mix of accent, poise, posture, and material access to the good things in life, but by the end of the passage it has been elevated to pure fetish.
But gentlemen themselves are no less at the mercy of the fetish. The novel culminates in bad Ralph marrying a random daughter of a neighboring aristocrat who is hastily introduced in the waning chapters. We've seen how indifferent he is to the ideal of "true love," proposing to three different women in a span of a few months. He has no particular attachment to any particular woman; he accepts that his station in life structurally demands that someone fill that role of lady for his estate, and he assumes a correspondingly indifferent attitude about her personal qualities. This is what being a gentleman by virtue of inheritance signifies. You aren't expected to do anything socially significant (like marry someone and set up the next generation of owners) on a merely personal level. The personal sphere for someone of bad Ralph's stature is strictly limited to pastimes like hunting and drinking. This is a social requirement (though that same society also is ready to demonize that manner of personal expression as moral weakness if necessary). But love is not personal for his class, if it is to survive.
Trollope unfolds this philosophy in a blunt passage near the end of the book, which shows Ralph's autonomy vanishing into the generic comforts of a suitable arranged marriage:
Whether marriages should be made in heaven or on earth, must be a matter of doubt to observers;—whether, that is, men and women are best married by chance, which I take to be the real fashion of heaven-made marriages; or should be brought into that close link and loving bondage to each other by thought, selection, and decision....
No doubt there had been very much of heaven in Ralph Newton's last choice. It may be acknowledged that in lieu of choosing at all, he had left the matter altogether to heaven... Now he had succumbed at the bidding of heaven and Lady Eardham, and he was about to be provided with a wife exactly suited for him. It may be said at the same time that Augusta Eardham was equally lucky. She also had gotten all that she ought to have wanted, had she known what to want. They were both of them incapable of what men and women call love when they speak of love as a passion linked with romance. And in one sense they were cold-hearted. Neither of them was endowed with the privilege of pining because another person had perished. But each of them was able to love a mate, when assured that that mate must continue to be mate, unless separation should come by domestic earthquake. They had hearts enough for paternal and maternal duties, and would probably agree in thinking that any geese which Providence might send them were veritable swans. Bickerings there might be, but they would be bickerings without effect; and Ralph Newton, of Newton, would probably so live with this wife of his bosom, that they, too, might lie at last pleasantly together in the family vault, with the record of their homely virtues visible to the survivors of the parish on the same tombstone. The means by which each of them would have arrived at these blessings would not redound to the credit of either; but the blessings would be there, and it may be said of their marriage, as of many such marriages, that it was made in heaven, and was heavenly.
Their love marks them not at all as distinct individuals; it just assures continuity in the social order until they are corpses in their proper corner of the graveyard. They are unable to frame love as a kind of personal ambition to become something unique, because ambition implies social mobility, which only threatens their entitlement. For Ralph to genuinely love, as an expression of his individual "passion linked with romance," would require him to show enough courage to resist the social order that is so intent on making him "lucky" and rewarding him for no good reason — or rather for the very good reason of his being exactly the sort of god-graced person who never would think to use his privilege to resist the way things are traditionally done.
By the end Trollope admits that he wrote Ralph the Heir to try to show how someone like bad Ralph, who superficially does what is socially expected of a person in his position of privilege, can nonetheless be a thoroughly rotten person. His inborn gentlemanliness, of which, for ideological purposes, he remains forever the possessor, must be shown instead to be subtly deceptive, a mask over one's true character rather than a stock description of it.
Ralph Newton did nothing, gentle reader, which would have caused thee greatly to grieve for him, nothing certainly which would have caused thee to repudiate him, had he been thy brother. And gentlest, sweetest reader, had he come to thee as thy lover, with sufficient protest of love, and with all his history written in his hand, would that have caused thee to reject his suit? Had he been thy neighbour, thou well-to-do reader, with a house in the country, would he not have been welcome to thy table? Wouldst thou have avoided him at his club, thou reader from the West-end? Has he not settled himself respectably, thou grey-haired, novel-reading paterfamilias, thou materfamilias, with daughters of thine own to be married? In life would he have been held to have disgraced himself,—except in the very moment in which he seemed to be in danger? Nevertheless, the faults of a Ralph Newton, and not the vices of a Varney or a Barry Lyndon are the evils against which men should in these days be taught to guard themselves;—which women also should be made to hate. Such is the writer's apology for his very indifferent hero, Ralph the Heir.
Still Trollope reserves his sternest judgment for the failed Parliamentary candidate, Thomas Underwood, whose general ineffectiveness and lack of resolve is exposed as a consequence of his unwillingness to knuckle down and accept modest, achievable purposes. Rather than raise his daughters at home as he should, he spends all his time in his offices in a miserable state of suspended procrastination, pretending to work on a biography of Francis Bacon but never writing a single line. "By Bacon he had justified to himself,—or rather had failed to justify to himself,—a seclusion from his family and from the world which had been intended for strenuous work, but had been devoted to dilettante idleness." Like Ralph, he is constitutionally unfit to persist in something; he can't be true to something he imagines he wants (let alone his family, whom he neglects and leaves vulnerable to various emotional mishaps). But he even lacks the excuse of society's great expectations having been foisted on him. He doesn't have the courage to enjoy even his own idleness.
So idle as he had been in thinking, so inconclusive, so frail, so subject to gusts of wind, so incapable of following his subject to the end, why had he dared to leave that Sunday-keeping, church-going, domestic, decent life, which would have become one of so ordinary a calibre as himself? There are men who may doubt, who may weigh the evidence, who may venture to believe or disbelieve in compliance with their own reasoning faculties,—who may trust themselves to think it out; but he, too clearly, had not been, was not, and never would be one of these. To walk as he saw other men walking around him,—because he was one of the many; to believe that to be good which the teachers appointed for him declared to be good; to do prescribed duties without much personal inquiry into the causes which had made them duties; to listen patiently, and to be content without excitement; that was the mode of living for which he should have known himself to be fit. But he had not known it, and had strayed away, and had ventured to think that he could think,—and had been ambitious. And now he found himself stranded in the mud of personal condemnation.
It's better to be utterly conventional, or even idle and irresponsible like Ralph, than be blind to one's own mediocrity. Trollope would have us believe that ambitiousness is an unworthy gamble, whether you are an aristocrat trying to escape enforced leisure, a tradesman's daughter who might marry above her station, or a professional trying to make a lasting contribution to human knowledge. All that is frivolity compared with ensuring that the English class structure is guaranteed for another dismal, loveless generation.