Madeline, the younger daughter of Stanhope, is a beautiful young woman who has been deserted by her Italian husband. She had been maimed and left lame by her husband, so that now she demands to be carried wherever she wants to go, while she reclines on a sofa. She calls herself La Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. She pretends that she is related to Italian nobility, though her husband was only an adventurer, a captain in the Pope’s guard. Madeline attracts men easily, flirting with, and seducing them.
Trollope’s feminine characters are women who look for power for individuals, for money, and women who want radical change in attitudes towards sex; Trollope sees feminists as women who look upon marriage as a disaster for women and who want power in the arrangement, equal power. Signora Neroni is the perfect example of such kind of feminity. She uses her sex to entrance. She has no ambitions, no desire for power over others. She is willing to be a sex object in male fantasies. She doesn’t network. She doesn’t want to educate herself to better herself (which Trollope identifies as feminist and some of his females read). She doesn’t have political opinions (which Mrs Proudie does and Trollope identifies as feminist) The Signora is subversive of most of the upbeat aims of feminists.
In fact she and her delightful brother are the radicals of the book—different kinds of radicals from our Mr Harding. We can however bring the Signora into our umbrella of modern attitudes by emphasising her crippled and poverty-stricken state: one may read Trollope’s somewhat ambiguous words about her crippling as indicating her husband beat her and it was he who destroyed her legs. She lives upon her father and her family. She needs
desperately. She is really a victim of patriarchy. She cannot get off her couch. Bertie must move it for her. But of course to use the word ‘victim’ of the Signora brings home to us how Trollope can show us how some personalities can exploit a weakness and turn it into a kind of strength. No one thinks of the Signora as a victim in this book — her strength is one of her inward character which is where it finally counts for Trollope. Charlotte
The signora’s life has been extremely interesting, beginning with an ill-fated marriage to an Italian man. Abuse at the hands of her husband leaves the signora with an amputated leg but a highly sophisticated spirit. Having always been a great beauty, the signora’s major pastime is seducing men. She manages to do so with Mr. Slope, though she eventually rejects him in disgust. She considers seducing Mr. Arabin but finds herself actually respecting him and feeling that he should be with Eleanor, the woman he loves, instead. There was talent in them (her eyes) and the fire of passion and the play of wit, but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead, and courage, a desire of masterhood, cunning, and a wish for mischief. Her ambition was to create a sensation, to have parsons at her feet. . . .Before she resolved on any contemplated escapade, she would make a small calculation....she was a powerful spider that made wondrous webs, and could in no way live without catching flies. Though forced to give up all motion in the world, she had no intention of giving up the world itself.