Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 March 2006
AMIDST THE CAST OF Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers (1857) is the stunningly beautiful “Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni,” who turns the heads of readers and characters alike. “It was impossible,” the narrator informs us, “that either man or woman should do other than look at her” (ch. 10). Dark and mysterious, brilliant and alluring, Madeline Neroni entices the swains of Barchester to pay her court, then toys with them mercilessly and enjoys watching them writhe. The fact that she is both beautiful and without compunction may do little to set her apart from other Victorian villainesses, Trollope's Lizzie Eustace, for instance, Wilde's Mrs. Cheveley or, more infamously, Thackeray's Becky Sharpe, but while Lizzie, Mrs. Cheveley, and Becky ultimately meet with poetic justice, their fortunes descending as their ruthless self-interest becomes increasingly apparent, Madeline keeps herself carefully protected. Pristinely beautiful from first to last, La Signora Neroni guards her virtue and maintains an even temper, bemused both by those who hate her and by those who court her, ultimately returning with her family to their home in Italy, apparently unchanged by her experience in Barchester society. Madeline has a strange kind of integrity; she is a powerful figure, a force to be reckoned with, able to stand up with equal ease and self-assurance to the daunting Mrs. Proudie, the earnest Arabin, and the slick Mr. Slope.