Last Chronicle of Barset

lastIf I’d known Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset was 900 pages long, I might have been daunted. Reading it on the Kindle, none of the sheer massiveness of the physical book tempted me to give up on it despite lots of interruptions as I read it. It brings to a conclusion the six novels of Barsetshire, all of which I’ve now read.

The plot centers around the unfortunate figure of Mr. Crawley, a poor clergyman allegedly patterned after Trollope’s own father. He was introduced earlier in the series, and in the opening pages of this book we’re told that he has been accused of stealing twenty pounds. No one who knows him believes he is guilty, but somehow matters escalate and he faces trial. The ripples of this spread throughout the community and we are (happily, in my case) reacquainted with a large cast of familiar characters, all of whom are to some degree aware of, and involved with, this basic problem.

I was moved by this novel. It made me think about the line between perfectionism and principle, and about character and generosity. The intricate tapestry of Mr. Crawley’s plight and its impact on so many diverse people provided a glimpse of how a connected community functions, for better and for worse. Trollope has been faulted by some (as he notes in his conclusion to the novel) for sketching out the relational lives of his clergymen without depicting in much depth their sense of calling or ministry. But in creating such a this-worldly view of Barsetshire, he ends up showing the church at work — even without casting it in religious language and themes.

We say goodbye to some important characters in this story, and I found myself crying for both of them — despite the fact that one of them was very dear, and the other very notorious. Like other Victorian novels this one has its longeurs, but the attentiveness and depth with which Trollope creates characters is worth every painstaking description and every carefully noted nuance.

There were a couple of plotlines I could have done without. I’m tired of hearing about John Eames and Lily Dale; both of them annoy me. Lily, as one reviewer noted, deserves a slap with a wet fish, and Johnny is irritatingly obtuse in his affairs with women. As in The Small House at Allington, he gets himself into almost-serious trouble with a London maiden through a combination of flirtation and spinelessness, all while allegedly saving his heart for Lily. The other plot involves an artist, a bored matron, and a beautiful young model in London, and this plotline seems so gratuitous I found myself scratching my head over why it was there at all.

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These sidelines notwithstanding, I loved The Last Chronicle of Barset. It was the perfect farewell to this series, leisurely enough for a Northeastern winter read and full of insight and heart. The good news is that if I grow homesick for these characters I can either read these books again or start on the Palliser chronicles, in which some of them apparently reappear.

The Small House at Allington

small-house-allington-anthony-trollope-paperback-cover-artThe Small House at Allington is fifth of Anthony Trollope’s six Barchester novels. The setting and most of the main characters are new, though familiar characters from the other novels come into the story at various points: Lady Dumbello, the Grantlys, Plantagenet Palliser (how I love that name — “Plant, for short,” as my daughter says), the supremely annoying De Courcys, even Mr Harding.

But the Dales — widow Mrs Dale, her daughters Lily and Bell, and their somewhat crusty benefactor Squire Dale, form the core of this story. (Spoiler alert…) As usual we have gentlefolk facing the all-important matter of marriage, and fortunately Bell makes a good one. Lily is not so fortunate, falling in love with the handsome and upwardly climbing Adolphus Crosbie, who pledges marriage but then dumps her within the month for a DeCourcy. Despite the forlorn wooing of neighbor John Eames, and the efforts of the squire and an influential earl who champions John’s cause after Eames rescues him from an enraged bull, Lily persists in faithfulness to her departed lover, calling herself a widow.

On the whole I find Lily rather irritating, despite her status as Trollope’s favorite character. (I’ve also read that Mrs Proudie is one of his favorites — a very different lady! So I suppose we should take these ratings with a grain of salt.) Rather than the bracing lecture she deserves, she gets pampered, coddled, and given a fortune. Similarly, my reactions to the ostensible hero John Eames and the villain Crosbie weren’t quite what they ought to have been. Johnny has a silliness that kept me from caring whether he succeeded or not, and Trollope — who is said to have offered Eames as a representation of his own young manhood — is quite in agreement that he is “calf-like.” Crosbie, on the other hand, I found to be a more complex and tragic character. (Funny, isn’t it, that a book can be so very enjoyable despite having characters you think are ninnies…)

I enjoyed the foray into different social strata, from nobles to working class folk like the postmistress and Hopkins the gardener. Trollope is nothing if not a good psychologist, and he deftly depicts the subtleties of human motivation. My recent reading of C.S. Lewis turned up some references to Trollope — Lewis loved reading him — and I thought perhaps I could see Trollope’s influence in the compassion and humor with which Lewis portrays a wide range of characters. (I thought particularly of the scenes in The Magician’s Nephew that feature Queen Jadis amidst the domestic servants and working class crowds of a London street.)

I read this on my Kindle and confess to listening to parts of it using the text-to-speech function. It reminds me of some interesting discussion I read recently on the question of whether listening and reading are in fact the same experience. I’ve mused over the subject on this blog before (here and here, for instance), but if you’re interested in a more in-depth consideration of the questions, you’ll find food for thought here, here, and here.

Dr. Thorne

0de29f330db2e8a636a54526741434b41716b42Dr. Thorne is the novel that precedes Framley Parsonage in Trollope’s chronicles of Barsetshire. I read Framley first, and though I wish I’d gotten to know Dr. Thorne beforehand, he didn’t suffer any from having been met out of sequence. In fact I liked Dr. Thorne even better than Framley Parsonage.

For one thing, it has more comedy. The main plot is a modified Cinderella tale involving Dr. Thorne’s niece, an heir of an old country estate washed nearly into oblivion by debt, and an old story of revenge and reconciliation. Trollope is a keen observer of human nature and social relations, and he seems to enjoy satirizing the posturing and maneuvering of his large cast of characters. He writes with sympathy of people struggling to promote their many and varied understandings of what’s the best or most loving course of action. Many of the characters are deeply flawed, but Dr. Thorne, his niece Mary, and the young Frank Gresham who loves her all emerge as genuinely admirable characters.

Much of the humor satirically exposes a time of change in England in which the accepted power trio of money, property and pedigree is beginning to break apart. Squire Gresham’s money and property are deeply indebted, but he, and more especially his wife the Lady Arabella, cling to the supposed superiority conferred by their bloodline. Lady Arabella has several conversations with both the doctor and his niece in which she intends to discourage the possibility of Mary’s marriage to Frank through what she believes to be the unquestioned notion of superior breeding. Arabella is so certain of herself that the conversations come off as comical, for the Thornes don’t share her views. The conversations mark a changing social order as well, one in which new money can make up for inferior blood, and even an individual without money, property or blood can have value. Landed families who compromise their property with debt can no longer depend on a shared assumption across all class lines that they are entitled to homage anyway.

The old order is changing, Trollope seems to say. In the case of Mary Thorne, we feel this change is attractive. She is a heroine filled with sense and nobility, and if a rigid class structure destroys her chance of marrying “up” for love, we want to see the structure toppled. But in other cases, it’s not such an appealing prospect. Louis Scatcherd is heir to a fortune, but without either breeding or natural decency and decorum. His wealth buys him a place at every table, but Trollope gives him a coarseness that makes him ridiculous and disqualifies him from our readerly affections. Ultimately he meets a tragic end, one that’s narrated with compassion but that feels like a relief partly because his fortune is left in better hands.

I really liked Dr. Thorne, a humane character with integrity and just enough vinegar to give the infuriatingly scheming Lady Arabella some resistance. Mary was at times a bit too “good” to be true (Trollope does sentimentalize his heroines), but I don’t begrudge her the happy ending. Though later in his career Trollope adopted a darker view of people, for the most part this novel has a rollicking feel that I enjoyed. I’m going to take a break from these novels for a bit and then return for more.

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Framley Parsonage

FramleyParsonageIt’s been awhile since I ventured into the 19th century with Anthony Trollope. I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers, and I thought Framley Parsonage came next. Turns out I was wrong; I skipped over Dr. Thorne. But I still enjoyed reading about Mark Robarts, a parson with social and professional ambitions that get him into trouble, and the cast of characters surrounding him.

Robarts has habits that make his patroness, Lady Lufton, uncomfortable. He likes to ride in the hunt. He likes to talk horses and other impious topics. And he likes to hang around with the wrong sort of people — moneyed, worldly folk in whom he sees the possibility of advancement. In a way he is proven right, for he gets a nice promotion thanks to his friend Sowerby, a member of parliament. Sowerby is also a notorious debtor, however, and in a moment of weakness Mark signs his name as security to one of his bills — and then another. When collection day comes and neither Sowerby nor Mark have the money, the “shepherd” is led off to the slaughter when bailiffs arrive to take account of all his possessions. That is until — well, it would spoil the plot for me to say more.

Suffice it to say that Mark vows never to put his name on a bill again. His wife Fanny stands loyally by in total support, without a trace of bitterness. She is the archetype of the Victorian “angel in the house,” and an example of the curious mix of social realism and sentimentality in this novel. Other female characters — Fanny Robarts, Mark’s sister Lucy, Lady Lufton, Mrs. Crawley (the wife of a neighboring clergyman) and even the coldly beautiful Griselda Grantly — must all prove their mettle not by straightforwardness but by clever maneuvering. In several ways this book reminded me of a Jane Austen novel, though Austen died when Trollope was just two years old. The wisdom of the women is shown mainly in their ability to make a good marriage, a matter of paramount importance.

Several clergymen are depicted, from the politically important Dr. Grantly to the miserably poor Rev. Crawley to the naive but good-hearted Mark Robarts. Trollope for the most part avoids their spiritual lives and focuses on their significance and mode of operation socially. There is one brief explanation of Robarts’s easygoing nature, offered in defense of his enjoyment of hunting and other controversial pastimes. He wants to mix with the world rather than be simply a voice “against cakes and ale,” available when needed to the worldly as well as to the pious. The issue of clerical pride comes up more than once, both in Mr. Crawley’s refusal to accept charity despite his needy family and in Robarts’ initial refusal of help in his debts. On the whole Trollope seems to think religion is made more palatable by a dose of humility in its clerics, and perhaps even a crushing experience.

There is much more to the story — other characters, other plotlines, some political, and some romantic. For me it was an entertaining read that fell into the category of escape literature. I enjoyed my time as a fly on the wall in 19th century England and look forward to more jaunts among the people of Barsetshire.

The Way We Live Now

I started reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now last spring. Sherry of Semicolon had mentioned when she got her Kindle for Christmas that this was one of the free books she downloaded, and as a Trollope fan I followed her example. I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers, and I like Trollope’s discerning and gentle understanding of character.

The Way We Live Now was a little more difficult going, and I set it aside until recently. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working through it. It’s the quintessential Victorian novel, originally published serially, and therefore “built to last” — full of plots and sub-plots and twists and turns. Trollope’s motto seems to have been, “Make ’em laugh, make ’em weep — make ’em wait.”

You have to be in the mood to take on such a novel, and I was. But even so, the substance of the book is darker and more satirical than the other Trollope novels I’ve read. It was published in 1875, a few years after Trollope returned to England and was shocked and horrified by the crass materialism and superficiality he found. These are his targets, and his characters are liberally clothed in unattractive traits as they attempt to manipulate their way to a good living.

All of them are playing a game. They bring their form of capital — wealth, class, or gender — to the table and try to make it work for them. All classes are represented, from the pastoral to the aristocratic. The central figure is Melmotte, a rich but crass financier with a mysterious past who attracts all of London into a constellation around him. He’s a catalyst for revealing what the other characters are willing to do to get ahead, and very few of them have any moral criteria beyond money.

Anyone who reads this will see the likeness to today’s world. Melmotte’s business is the railroad, and his rise and, ultimately, fall parallel the housing bubble that wrought havoc on our own economy. (At least, according to my very basic understanding of it!) The only difference is that in keeping with the expectations of his chosen genre, Trollope brings it all to a satisfying conclusion somehow. The right people end up together. Some of them find real love despite unpromising beginnings. The verdict on aristocracy, and on the importance of wealth or class, seems to be that it’s a minefield to be navigated carefully, one that can very easily blow up and destroy the hope of happiness — which, despite their talk, all the characters long for. Trollope suggests that happiness, though it’s often mistakenly attributed to material status by most of the characters in the novel, is really a spiritual commodity — one that can’t be bought or sold, but which is bound up with a person’s basic integrity.

It seems obvious, but apparently we need reminding — 137 years later, in a world eerily similar to the one Trollope examines in The Way We Live Now.