Friday, July 15, 2016

The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I love Anthony Trollope. I won’t reiterate all that I have said about him in previous posts other than to note that he is my favorite Victorian author because he has a psychological depth rarely reached by others, and writes outstanding female characters.

Previous reviews of books by Trollope:

Barsetshire Novels:


For the last several years, I have been alternating between books in the Barsetshire series and unrelated books. Prior to my blog, I read the first two, The Warden, and Barchester Towers, which really go together as a single story. Those are combined in the BBC series. I also have read, at various times beginning in my late teens, Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Castle Richmond, The Vicar of Bullhampton, and The Bertrams. Considering my library contains an additional 19 beyond those I have read, I think I shall be occupied for a while at my rate of one per year.

The Claverings is an interesting twist on the usual Victorian marriage drama. Quite often, a fair maiden must choose between suitors. Perhaps between the wealth she needs, and the love she wants. In this one, Trollope chooses to put the man on the horns of the dilemma, so to speak.

Harry Clavering is the son of a clergyman. He has no money to his name, and has decided to seek his fortune by learning the trade of an engineer rather than seek a living with the church as his father did. At the opening of the book, he is in an argument with Julia Brabazon, who has just broken their engagement. Harry has loved Julia for years, and the two were practically engaged. She, however, has decided against a life of relative poverty, wishing instead to imitate her older sister (who has married Harry’s cousin, Lord Hugh Clavering.)

Julia instead marries the wealthy and dissipated Lord Ongar, a cruel and vindictive man. Within a couple of years, Lord Ongar dies, having in his final illness falsely accused Julia of having an affair with one of his friends in an attempt to disgrace her and get out of the marriage.

In the meantime, Harry has apprenticed himself out to an engineering firm, and, as many predecessors have done, asked one of the daughters of the founder to marry him. Florence Burton is the opposite of Julia in many ways. She is short, a bit homely, and has no aristocratic blood. So, in a way, marrying Harry is a move up for her, and down for him, even though her family has more money.

The problem that results is obvious. Julia still loves Harry, but she now has her late husband’s fortune. Harry never really stopped loving Julia, but figured she was gone for good, and let himself love again. He loves Florence too, which gives him a dilemma. Other considerations are the monetary: choosing Julia would set him for life; and the social: Julia is higher class. Counterbalancing this, however, is that jilting Florence would taint his honor, and would also undoubtedly hurt her, which he doesn’t want to do.

Harry is, unfortunately, wishy-washy, and cannot bring himself to do the hard thing - either way - until he is brought to it by necessity. This means that he has, at the midpoint of the book, pledged his love to two different women, yet cannot tell the other goodbye.

Even Trollope himself seems just a bit embarrassed by how Harry appears in this novel. Alas, circumstances - and not entirely of Harry’s making - have placed him in a bind, and he doesn’t rise to the occasion.

Harry Clavering, who is the hero of our story, will not, I fear, have hitherto presented himself to the reader as having much of the heroic nature in his character. It will, perhaps, be complained of him that he is fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good. But it should be remembered that hitherto he has been rather hardly dealt with in this pages, and that his faults and weaknesses have been exposed almost unfairly. That he had such faults and was subject to such weaknesses may be believed of him; but there may be a question whether as much evil would not be known of most men, let them be heroes or not be heroes, if their characters were, so to say, turned inside out before our eyes.

This is such classic Trollope, generous to a fault to his characters. There is little of unmixed good or evil in the people who populate his stories; they are human, leaning good or bad according to their role, but with such an amalgam of the opposite that even the minor characters are more than caricatures. Well, most of the time.

In contrast to Harry are the various women. Julia is proud, unafraid either to stand up to her abusive brother-in-law or to pursue Harry with a will. And she lays down the gauntlet: Harry must choose, and she will accept that choice - and she expects Florence to do the same.

But Florence is no simpering Victorian heroine either. She is by no means willing to beg for Harry’s love, and has no intention of having him if he doesn’t eagerly desire her back. She will set Harry free without an attempt to pursue him though it break her heart. And she does it with strength, not weakness. Harry is, perhaps, not worthy of either of them.

Another woman of note is Florence’s sister-in-law Cecilia, who has no intention of letting Harry off easily, and confronts Julia directly about her intentions. As Julia says at the end of their tense meeting:

“You have been quite right; - you are fighting your battle for the friend you love bravely; and were it not that the cause of the battle must, I fear, separated us hereafter, I should be proud to know one who fights so well for her friends. And when all this is over and has been settled, in whatever way it may be settled, let Miss Burton know from me that I have been taught to hold her name and character in the highest possible esteem.”  

Trollope also contrasts different marriages in this book. Julia’s sister Hermione has married wealthy Hugh Clavering. But Hugh is a hard, cruel man. When Julia is widowed, Hugh refuses to see her, worried that the rumors (which he knows to be false) might make him look bad. Furthermore, he refuses to let Hermione visit her sister, until it becomes convenient, and then he visits Julia and offers to let the sisters be with each other, but in the most insulting manner possible. After their child dies, he pretty much dismisses Hermione as worthless. Thus, both sisters find they have sold their very happiness for wealth. Hugh clearly thinks that Julia is at fault for not taking the abuse Lord Ongar gave her.

“Only think what a man he was.”
“She knew that when she took him, and should have borne with him while he lasted. A woman isn’t to have seven thousand a year for nothing.”

Or, as a later poet would put it, he paid the cost to be the boss.

In contrast to these bad marriages are two others. Florence’s brother Theodore and his wife Cecilia are happily married - and remarkably equal. Cecilia visits Julia without telling her husband, knowing he wouldn’t approve. But when she ‘fesses up, he finds it more amusing than anything. The two of them are clearly best of friends and well matched.

The other one is between Harry’s father and mother. Mr. Clavering loves to think he rules the household, but everyone knows that isn’t the case. He may fuss all he wants, but she gets her way when she wants. As the youngest daughter, Fanny, says, “When you say papa particularly wishes anything, mamma, you always mean that you wish it particularly yourself.”

To a degree, these marriages serve as alternative scenarios. Who will Harry choose, and what will his life be like?

A few other characters deserve mention. Hugh’s younger brother Archie, a bit dim and addicted to gambling, is nice comic relief, as is Archie’s friend from their naval days, Captain Boodle.

More central to the plot are a brother and sister pair from Russia who serve as villains of a sort. (Hugh is probably the other real villain.) They conspire, more individually than together, to try to blackmail Julia. After all, since Lord Ongar claimed that Julia had an affair with Count Pateroff, all he has to do is threaten to confirm the rumor. His sister, Sophie, might or might not be a spy, but she is definitely a grifter. She weasels money out of Archie, and attempts to leach off of Julia as long as she can. Perhaps both suffer a bit from an uncharacteristic level of stereotyping. Trollope seems to have taken the easy way out by using their exotic origin a bit too much. As I noted, this is rare in his books, so it stands out here. Nevertheless, the characters are both interesting and necessary to the plot, so it is hard to quibble too much.

One final character comes to mind: Mr. Saul, the curate. Trollope is definitely a partisan of the “high church,” generally portraying evangelical and other dissenting clergy in a poor light. Of course, Obadiah Slope of Barchester Towers is such an utterly delightful villain, with his vanity, self-righteousness, and intolerance of fun. Mr. Saul is an interesting exception. He may be a bit too serious for his own good, but he is hardworking, compassionate, and thoroughly honest. Mr. Clavering may dislike him for aspiring to wed above his station, but Saul is an honorable man, and one cannot help but cheer him on.  

I also want to mention a couple of other bits from the background of the book. Early on, Julia regrets not making her financial situation clear to her lawyer. This never ends well, as any lawyer can tell you. Her hiding of a debt is one of the causes of friction with Lord Ongar, although he would have found another pretext anyway.

The final one is a delicious line from Theodore Burton about the work he has done the Metropolitan Railroad - what would eventually be the London Tube. In a historically accurate touch, Trollope mentions that there were many who dismissed the idea as a pipe dream. (Sorry.) Theodore is both a true believer, and a cynic at the same time.

“But we will never get any thanks,” he said. “When the thing has been done, and thanks are our due, people will look upon all our work so much as a matter of course that it will never occur to them to think that they owe us anything. They will have forgotten all their cautions, and will take what they get as though it were simply their due. Nothing astonishes me so much as the fear people feel before a thing is done when I joint it with their want of surprise or admiration afterwards.”

This book lived up to expectations thoroughly. It is another of Trollope’s keen insights into human psychology, and contains some of his strongest female characters. I will also note that it is one of the few in which he doesn’t telegraph the ending. At least not entirely. Usually he tells you up front what will happen, and then allows the characters to respond as the plot unfolds. In this case, it is not until near the end that one finds out just who Harry chooses, and even whether this book will be a tragedy or not. I won’t spoil that, but just comment that as in all Trollope novels, the destination is always less important than the journey.


This book was, like many of the era, serialized. One reason I admire Trollope is that he seems able to plot things out well enough to keep them from rambling. In fact, The Claverings was considered at the time to be a rather perfect novel from the formal perspective. No loose ends, nothing unnecessary. Not that a bit of rambling is all bad - David Copperfield is a masterpiece, and Pickwick Papers is such fun, to cite two of Dickens’ works.

One thing this book lacks is illustrations, at least in the edition I have. However, the cover has this delightful painting, At the Opera, by William Powell Frith. One can only speculate whether it might depict Julia or Florence.

1 comment:

  1. Hooray! Another author to explore. Thank you. I already listened to the audio book "The Warden" at last week and downloaded some of the books onto my Kindle. So far, I think I'll like him, but will see how it goes. It's always interesting to read a new author from a time and genre that I tend to appreciate.