Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.

I’ve mentioned before that Anthony Trollope is my favorite Victorian Era novelist. I do not mean to take anything away from Dickens or Collins, both of whom I enjoy. It’s just that Trollope is much more a master of nuance. Dickens created a host of memorable characters, but they are just that - characters - or perhaps even caricatures in many cases. In particular, his female characters are either humorous stereotypes or impossibly good yet flat angels. Collins wrote exciting plots and great suspense, and I love reading his books, but they tend to be a fun escape. It is much harder to imagine oneself in such situations or experience such twists of circumstance and coincidence. Again, I do not wish to take anything away from these authors. I highly encourage everyone to read their books.

What Trollope brings to the table is a depth of characterization that is truly rare. There are no simple portrayals. Everyone has flaws and warts, but very, very few are wholly sinister either. (Not even the lugubrious Obadiah Slope - the best of his villains.)

I have been attempting to read one Trollope novel each year for the past decade or so, although I only started reviewing them in 2011. Here are my past reviews:

Framley Parsonage is the fourth (of six) in the Barchester series. The first two, The Warden and Barchester Towers are essentially a set, and should be read together. Doctor Thorne can be read as a separate novel, as it contains entirely new characters, and knowledge of the previous happenings in Barchester and its surroundings is not necessary to understand the plot.

In contrast, it is thoroughly necessary to read all three earlier books in order to understand the dynamics in Framley Parsonage. The Grantleys and the Proudies from the first two books feature prominently, and their long standing feud affects the events of this book. To a lesser extent, it is helpful to be familiar with Doctor Thorne and the Greshams, and particularly Miss Dunstable, as they will all play parts in this book. These familiar characters add to the delights of this book; Trollope does a great job of integrating the new characters into the world of Barchester.

The central plot - but by no means the only one - is the misadventures of Mark Robarts, the young vicar, who wishes to mix with higher society. Unfortunately, these characters are from the opposite political faction from his patron, Lady Lufton. Also, in the case of his friend Mr. Sowerby, they do not happen to have the best of scruples. In a moment of weakness, he co-signs for a loan for Sowerby, and this leads to a near financial and personal disaster.

Further complicating the relationship between Lady Lufton and Mr. Robarts is that Lord Lufton, Mark’s childhood friend, and Lady Lufton’s only son, falls in love with Mark’s young sister Lucy. Lady Lufton considers Lucy an undesirable potential daughter-in-law primarily because she is of lower birth, but also because she is short and not particularly beautiful. (Obviously, I sympathize with Lucy for those very reasons.) She has won the heart of Lord Lufton not through beauty, but through her ready wit. Lucy’s conduct and strength of character is impressive throughout, but she remains human, frailties and all.

Other subplots involve politics (Trollope draws the events loosely from recent history), a battle for hunting lands, and of course a few marriages. As is the case with the other Barchester books, the endings are happy for most of the characters - even the ones that probably don’t deserve their good fortune. However, Trollope doesn’t really do “happily ever after.” In this series, we are able to observe the future happiness (or unhappiness) of the characters as time goes on, and the relationships among the characters becomes ever deeper and complex with the passage of time.

One of the fun things about reading literature from this era is immersing oneself in a truly foreign culture. The Barchester books are all about the Church of England in the Nineteenth Century. We modern Americans lack any concept of a State-supported church with its government paid posts and suspicion of “dissenting churches,” like the Baptists and Methodists. (There is a name-check of Charles Spurgeon - not in a particularly favorable way.) However, the moral dilemmas are in some ways easier to analyze in an unfamiliar context. (This is why fantasy and science fiction can be powerful tools of ethical analysis when done well.) It also makes one appreciate the benefits of our own free market approach to religion.

One also comes to appreciate that despite its flaws, our political system is much more representative than that of Nineteenth Century England, when votes were mere proxies for the whims of the hereditary nobility, particularly out in the villages.

Some things never change, however. Lady Lufton is the quintessential conservative.

She liked cheerful, quiet, well-to-do people, who loved their Church, their country, and their Queen, and who were not too anxious to make a noise in the world. She desired that all the farmers round her should be able to pay their rents without trouble, that all the old women should have warm flannel petticoats, that the working men should be saved from rheumatism by healthy food and dry houses, that they should all be obedient to their pastors and masters–temporal as well as spiritual. That was her idea of loving her country.

So, it is of perfect horror to Lady Lufton when her parson goes to a party at the castle of the Duke of Omnium, who is of the opposite political party. (It is also hinted that he is a bit of a rake - but Trollope is also clear that this is based primarily on his status as a bachelor.) And of course, then as now, opponents were best demonized.

It was so thoroughly understood at Framley Court that the duke and all belonging to him was noxious and damnable. He was a Whig, he was a bachelor, he was a gambler, he was immoral in every way, he was a man of no Church principle, a corrupter of youth, a sworn foe of young wives, a swallower up of small men’s patrimonies; a man whom mothers feared for their sons, and sisters for their brothers; and worse again, whom fathers had cause to fear for their daughters, and brothers for their sisters;–a man who, with his belongings, dwelt, and must dwell, poles asunder from Lady Lufton and her belongings! And it must be remembered that all these evil things were fully believed by Mrs. Robarts. Could it really be that her husband was going to dwell in the halls of Apollyon, to shelter himself beneath the wings of this very Lucifer?

Later, Lady Lufton would refer to “gamblers, Whigs, atheists, men of loose pleasure, and Proudieites” as a group. (Lady Lufton also loathes the Proudies, and hates that Mark must associate with Bishop Proudie - even though Proudie is technically Mark’s superior.)

There are too many great lines about politics to quote them all, but one of my all-time favorites is this one.

There are servants who think that their masters cannot do without them; and the public may occasionally have some such servant.

Such delightfully dry and understated Trollopean humor.

Other details are lovingly yet pointedly noted. For example, the Proudies host an early breakfast before the church services. Convenient for everyone, Trollope notices, except for the servants, who are not afforded the luxury of observing the sabbath - one of Mrs. Proudie’s pet causes. (I will note that this has been the case for servants - and slaves - throughout history. Whether it is a day of rest or the issue of women working, the “godly” lifestyle is simply unavailable to the lower classes.)

It was also interesting to see the transition in medical ideas. The older generation in this book still believed that travel during pregnancy was a terrible risk and should be absolutely avoided; while the younger generation was coming to accept activity as being healthy during pregnancy.

Also notable was the casual anti-Semitism that is a feature of European literature (and occasionally American literature as well). The Jewish moneylender is assumed to be a greedy cheat.

Despite the fact that the main plot revolves around Mark Robarts, the heart of this book and the true drama lies in the relationships and personalities of the women. There are a whole host of strong women, some delightful like Lucy, some delightfully awful like Mrs. Proudie, and a host of interesting females that fall somewhere in between. Lady Lufton is controlling and prejudiced, but she has a good heart, and is able to behave with great generosity in the end.

Fanny Robarts, Mark’s wife, is good hearted and supportive, but more than that is level headed and socially intelligent. She is gentle with her husband, but Mark comes to realize that he would be much better off if he listened to her advice more often. Fanny is also the opposite of catty. She doesn’t play games and wears her heart on her sleeve, but she genuinely loves her husband and her friends, and does what she can to bring them together. Her strength in adversity is understated, but thoroughly believable. She is a woman of fortitude. 

Mark and Fanny Robarts. My edition lacks illustrations. 
This is one by John Everett Millais from the first edition.

Miss Dunstable, the heiress to a snake oil fortune, is thrust into a social position far above her birth - and she knows it. She is intelligent and witty, however, and is able to both navigate the maze well while making her unworthiness an ongoing joke. She never takes herself seriously, and thus is impervious to public opinion. She would be an excellent addition to any dinner party.

Lucy, as I noted earlier, is also a strong (young) woman. Despite the fact that she is called a “ministering angel,” the Victorian cliché - and has earned the title - she is no typical Victorian heroine. She stands up to everyone, male or female, who attempts to dismiss her, whether it is Mr. Crawley, the over-proud impoverished parson, who tries to refuse help; or Lady Lufton herself, who seriously underestimates Lucy’s strength of character. The contrast between Fanny and Lucy is interesting, because Fanny cannot but betray her emotions, despite her general calm nature; while Lucy is more extremely emotional but has vast reserves of self-mastery.

The other great contrast is that between the plain, short Lucy and the tall, gorgeous Griselda Grantly. (Lady Lufton greatly prefers the latter, at least at first.) Lucy is all personality, while Griselda seems to lack any that is not the result of continual practice. She eventually marries Lord Dumbello (sometimes Trollope’s names make me laugh), the rich and titled, if not exactly brilliant, future duke.

Lord Dumbello was made aware that he was reckoned among the wisest of his age. He had married a wife who managed everything for him, who never troubled him, whom no woman disliked, and whom every man admired. As for feast of reason and for flow of soul, is it not a question whether any such flows and feasts are necessary between a man and his wife? How many men can truly assert that they ever enjoy connubial flows of soul; or that connubial feasts of reason are in their nature enjoyable? But a handsome woman at the head of your table, who knows how to dress, and how to sit, and how to get in and out of her carriage–who will not disgrace her lord by her ignorance, or fret him by her coquetry, or disparage him by her talent–how beautiful a thing it is! For my own part I think that Griselda Grantly was born to be the wife of a great English peer.

The contrast between the love match and the match made for other reasons is one of Trollope’s favorite themes. Indeed, the question of how we choose between desire and duty in all of life’s decisions is a timeless question, and is worth revisiting regularly.

In the case of another more minor character, the decision was made in favor of money, and never really regretted.

As for her husband, it had never occurred to her to love him. She had married him for a position; and being a clever woman, with a good digestion and command of her temper, had managed to get through the world without much of that unhappiness which usually follows ill-assorted marriages. At home she managed to keep the upper hand, but she did so in an easy, good-humored way that made her rule bearable; and away from home she assisted her lord’s political standing; though she laughed more keenly than any one else at his foibles.

One of the notable things about Barchester in general is that women are pretty universally in charge, with few exceptions. Barchester Towers, as much as anything, concerns the domineering ways of Mrs. Proudie, which is passed on to her daughters, as the author makes clear in this book.

They had wills of their own which became stronger and stronger every day. Of the three with whom Mrs. Proudie was blessed one was already in a position to exercise that will in a legitimate way over an excellent young clergyman in the diocese, the Rev. Optimus Grey; but the other two, having as yet no such opening for their powers of command, were perhaps a little too much inclined to keep themselves in practice at home.

Despite these sharply witty descriptions, Trollope does display compassion for all of his characters, even the Proudies. They too are allowed their happiness to the degree that they are capable of enjoying them.

In the end, a series of marriages occur, despite the fun that Trollope pokes at the very idea of ending books with marriages. (He does an even better job of this in He Knew He Was Right.) Even Miss Dunstable finds love of a sort - with the crusty and antisocial Dr. Thorne. Their courtship is quite amusing. If you can even call it a courtship. They too are flawed while remaining loveable. As Trollope puts it, regarding the relative merits of Lord Lufton, and his possible unworthiness for a girl like Lucy, “That will be said because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for the world’s common wear and tear. I may as well confess that of absolute, true heroism there was only a moderate admixture in Lord Lufton’s composition; but what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were thought to be worthy of women’s love? What would the men do? and what - oh! what would become of the women?”

Trollope’s books have many admirable men and women, but few “absolute, true” heroes. Every man and woman has flaws, some more minor than others. Many will find love. Of the ones that fail or destroy their own chances at love, we mourn for most of them. (Nobody will mind that Slope doesn’t get the girl, of course.) Owen Fitzgerald in Castle Richmond (one of my favorites) loses the girl despite his noble actions. Louis Trevelyan destroys his love through pride and jealousy in He Knew He Was Right. And perhaps most tragically of all, George Bertram and Caroline Waddington let their own pride and stubbornness stand in the way of their own happiness and a match that everyone agrees should happen. (The Bertrams)

But in this way, Trollope gives hope to those of us who have perhaps a moderate admixture of “true heroism.” We will never set the world on fire, attain fame or fortune, or rise to the top in any way. However, we can still be worthy of a woman’s love, and enjoy the blessings of a quiet life.

As I have before, I highly recommend Anthony Trollope. Everyday situations and the nuance of human frailty can be every bit as rewarding as adventure, when the tale is told by a master.

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