Florence Mountjoy is a peculiarly gripping young woman, who, as so often happens in Anthony Trollope’s novels, has promised herself to a young man that her mother objects to. Trollope’s Mr. Scarborough’s Family is one long examination of the nature and rationality of fidelity. Florence and Henry Annesley become betrothed early on, and then the latter is falsely accused of scandalous behavior that threatens his inheritance and his betrothal. As happens, the family puts all sorts of pressure on Florence to break the engagement, which she resolutely resists: she will have her Henry, or no one.
Of course, other eligible young men are introduced to Florence in order to weaken her attachment. Mr. Anderson (no relation), a rather dashing if otherwise banal civil servant, falls rather badly for her. He proposes to Florence, but she will not deviate from the course of her original love. Instead, Florence exacts from Anderson a promise to desist from bothering her further—a promise that he keeps, as a proper gentleman should.
That might be the end of it, but Anderson isn’t done. “A cloud has passed over me,” he announces to Florence at their final meeting, and “it will never be effaced.” Disconsolate and heartbroken, Anderson reminds Florence that he kept her promise and asks one of her: if Florence should change her mind about Annesley, would she give him a chance? Such a promise would only impose an obligation on Florence to notify Anderson if her fiancé were, for whatever reason, to not become her wife.
Now pause for a moment: what do you think that Florence should do? Is such a promise benign? It is a conditional promise: she would give Anderson a try only if Annesley were to disappear from her life. And it would be a weak promise, at that: she need only notify Anderson, and give him a chance to try his fortune again. For a young woman who has spent 350 pages or so having her faithfulness to her fiancé tested, such a proposal seems benign.
As you might imagine, though, Dear Florence will have none of it. The promise is “so impossible,” she responds, offended at the suggestion that anything could remove Annesley from his position as fiancé. She rejects the conditional: she cannot bring herself to contemplate a possibility where Annesley goes one way and she another, much less make a promise that would be contingent upon this happening.
It might seem like Florence is simply too romantic, or that she has too exacting a standard for faithfulness to her promise. I suspect that if we polled most people, they would give us either of those responses. I am sympathetic to her stance, in part because both responses are so intuitive: there is something delightfully romantic about such extraordinary fidelity to a promise, something death-defying about such an unswerving commitment that will not even contemplate other possibilities. The romantic has discovered the iron law within love, which is more indestructible than any a legalist might erect. They will not contemplate conditionals, because they cannot contemplate life without their beloved.
This is the sort of scenario that I think we are regularly faced with, in both erotic contexts and many others. The hypothetical mood is a crucial arena for moral reasoning: phrases like ‘would you,’ ‘could you,’ and ‘should you’ that are all preceded by an if disclose something crucial about our hearts and our selves. “Would you ever consider marrying that person?” The question is an invitation to consider a person within an erotic context—and if we are already married or pledged to someone, that is precisely what we ought not do. (It seems to me licit for the single person to ask such a question—and even, in some cases, wise!) The wrongness is more clear, though, if the thought is an intention or a promise: if my spouse died, I would try to marry that person. While such an intention is conditional, it still commits ourselves in a way that signals the non-exclusivity of our present love. There are certain thoughts and intentions that the exclusive commitment of love delights in rejecting, and conditional intentions or desires are among them.
Which is to say, the exclusivity of love within marriage is tied to its all-consuming nature: it is because the other so fully and completely captures our attention and desire that we cannot contemplate even the possibility of others taking their place, regardless of how fanciful the conditions might be. Florence Mountjoy had it right. But then, Trollope’s heroines usually do.