Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.

Regular readers of my blog know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. I try to read one of his books every year. Past reads since I started writing about them are:

Barsetshire Chronicles:

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Other books:

These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.


Orley Farm is one of Trollope’s stand-alone novels, and the last of the set of Dover paperbacks I was given in my teens by the husband of my violin teacher. Along with some Wodehouse and a few hardback Dickens, he gave me five Trollopes - I had never heard of him, but fell in love.

While Orley Farm had its moments, it was not my favorite of Trollope’s books. In large part, this stems from two factors. First, while Trollope is usually fairly gentle with his characters, writing few true villains, and making everyone human; in this case, he seemed more to dislike his characters than like them. For the most part, they are rather unlikeable, and it is difficult to really be in sympathy with them, the way one is in most of Trollope’s novels. It isn’t the presence of unpleasant characters so much as it is the lack of humanizing traits which are the problem. I found it uncharacteristically difficult to understand the motivations, and thus found many of the characters to be caricatures rather than the truly three dimensional inhabitants of the typical Trollopean world.

The second factor is somewhat related to the first. I feel that Trollope wrote this book more to complain about lawyers and the British legal system than to explore the psychology of his characters. Whatever Trollope is as an author, he isn’t Charles Dickens, and he isn’t particularly adept at the use of caricature in satire. Rather, Trollope’s strength as a satirical and social writer is his ability to humanize the victims of injustice - and especially injustice inflicted with good, reforming motivations. Thus, we can sympathize with Mr. Harding even as we may agree that he is the recipient of a sinecure that probably should be reformed. We can feel for Carrie Brattle, whose status as a “fallen woman” gives her no real chance at a decent life. We can even understand the loathsome Mrs. Proudie and her attempts to further her religious beliefs, even as we hate her methods - and even perhaps the substance of those beliefs. She is all the more real for being humanly understandable.

This was my biggest problem with Orley Farm. I had a hard time finding a character who was really fleshed out, particularly for the first half of the book.

A bit of background might help here. Trollope was the son of a failed barrister. His father never really made a good go of it in law, and was forever in debt. His mother, however, was a skilled writer. Her books aren’t much read today, and she wasn’t a world class author, but she was financially successful, and her books were indeed influential. Domestic Manners of the Americans was her most successful, and many of her observations about American arrogance and hypocrisy still ring true. She also wrote an anti-slavery novel which inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, and an “industrial novel,” about class injustice in the age of the Industrial Revolution - another book which inspired more famous later authors. So, with her husband failing to make a living, it fell to Frances Trollope to support the family with writing.

Young Anthony eschewed the law, and went to work for the Postal Service, where he invented the pillar letter box, and found time to write. While he never studied law, he absorbed a large amount of knowledge about it, and his books generally get the legal details right. Although the British legal system of the Victorian Era is much different from the 21st Century American legal system. (I could write a whole post about all of the differences…)

What Anthony never seems to have understood about the law was the idea that the criminal law system is supposed to be biased in favor of the accused - in large part to counteract the power of the State. In theory (although not as often in practice), this should result in a very small number of false convictions - but should, by design, allow a number of guilty persons to go free. That this isn’t necessarily the case in practice is beside the point. Yes, money still tends to get one off, and impoverished people of color tend to be falsely convinced more often than wealthy whites. But the problem isn’t that we make it too easy for those horrid criminal defense lawyers to get people off.

But that is precisely the point Trollope wants to make. He honestly seems to believe that guilty people shouldn’t be defended, and that neutral witnesses shouldn’t ever have their credibility attacked. As a lawyer, this is an offensive idea. And in general, Trollope is so much more subtle than this, which is why I was disappointed.

The plot is basically this. (Spoiler alert!)
 My Dover paperback edition has the original J. E. Millais illustrations.

Sir Joseph Mason the elder was a wealthy man, with two major estates. After his first wife died, leaving a grown son, Sir Joseph remarried a young woman barely out of her teens - a woman who was beautiful but under challenging financial circumstances. She marries him out of need and pressure from her family, not love. They have a child together, and soon thereafter, Sir Joseph dies.

A last minute codicil to his will leaves Orley Farm - the lesser estate - to the infant. The previous will would have left everything, except for the small allowance to the widow required by law, to the older son. The question was, did young Lady Mason forge the codicil?

The first trial - the probate - takes place after the death, and is alluded to in the book. The real action occurs twenty-one years later, when the infant, Lucious, comes of age. He angers the son-in-law of the lawyer who worked for Sir Joseph. Said son-in-law, himself a lawyer, goes through the old documents and discovers evidence which may be in favor of a finding of forgery. He contacts Joseph Jr., the older son, and incites him to seek a prosecution of Lady Mason for perjury and forgery. That trial is the centerpiece of the story.

This being Trollope, the book is roughly 650 pages long, and pretty dense. It also has a number of subplots involving the periphery players. Lady Mason’s lawyer has domestic troubles because his neglected wife assumes he is having an affair with Lady Mason. Lady Mason’s neighbor and old friend, Sir Peregrine Orme, falls in love with her, while his son unsuccessfully pursues the daughter of a judge - she instead falls in love with an idealistic young barrister who ends up working on Lady Orme’s case. Even the witnesses have their own little dramas going. Everyone connected with the case is somehow involved in the story.

As usual with Trollope, the question isn’t really if Lady Mason is guilty. Rather, it is how each of the characters response to the situation. Including her. There is the legal question, of course: will a jury find her guilty? There is the moral case: what would real justice look like? And there is the social question: guilty or not, will she and her son lose their reputations?

So much about this is good. The book had some great moments in it. If only Trollope had allowed himself to actually understand how a lawyer could - and should - defend a guilty client. I think he was a bit blinded by his own upbringing. I wasn’t able to find out much of the circumstances of his father’s failure, but it is entirely possible that the idealistic Felix Graham is meant to be a stand-in for the elder Mr. Trollope. He is hopeless at the task of doing his best even when he doesn’t believe in his case. And he is advised that maybe he should pursue his writing instead. (Of course, in this particular world, he also is able to marry a wealthy woman.)

I think another factor here is that Trollope was by nature and inclination, a conservative. He preferred the High Church to the Low Church, was suspicious of reforms of all kinds, and staunchly supported the existing class system, even though he wasn’t a winner in that system. Thus, I think that he couldn’t - despite really making an effort - see the moral injustice inherent in giving property to one child while leaving the other destitute. Hey, Primogeniture has a long and storied history, even if it was brutal to younger children, and undoubtedly fed the unending wars of the last, well, millennia. After all, a bunch of younger sons without money, whose class meant they couldn’t make a living by working, with few prospects...hey, might as well go to war and try to win an award from the king, right? Trollope really does try. But he can’t quite go there. Rules is rules.

I think this is ultimately why I had a hard time feeling the characters. Lady Mason is a great character, for the most part. But Trollope’s conservatism can’t allow her to truly stick to her guns. In a later (or earlier) era, she could have been the hero of the book. Likewise, Lucious is a real prick, and it is impossible to like him. I suspect Trollope didn’t want him to be a sympathetic victim - he somehow had to deserve tragedy. Thus, of the main players in the central drama, the most believable are those I would call the true villains. Mr. Dockwrath, the lawyer who stirs everything up in retaliation for losing his lease, ignores the advice of his much wiser wife, grubs for as much as he can get, and ultimately loses everything. He thoroughly deserves it. But he is also believable: I know people like that, and they often end the same way. Likewise, I know people like Joseph Mason the younger, consumed with a thirst for revenge because he feels cheated out of what he “deserves,” namely everything. But again, he is believable. He is still, 25 years later, pissed off at his father for refusing to “act his age” and remain a widower. Instead, he fell for the charming young lady (who he blames entirely for his father’s actions), with the result being an unwanted younger brother who might get some of the inheritance.

Some of the minor characters are really good. I liked Judge Stavely and his family - of all the people, I would most like to meet them in person. Faced with the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with a poor, unattractive, but intelligent man, he supports her, remembering his own courtship. I also liked the lawyer, Mr. Furnival. He is very imperfect, clearly, but very human - and a rather conscientious lawyer. I’d want to hire someone like him: aware of his limitations, devoted to seeing his clients’ cases through, quietly competent, and in no need of self-aggrandizement.

As in any Trollope novel, there is much good writing, and a number of memorable lines. Here are a few that stood out to me.

From the first chapter, where Trollope introduces the book:

It is not true that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Were it true, I should call this story ‘The Great Orley Farm Case.’ But who would ask for the ninth number of a serial work burthened with so very uncouth an appellation? Thence, and therefore, - Orley Farm.
I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights. The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure. No such aspirations are mine.

Or, Mr. Furnival, giving the common - and true - lament of us lawyers:

‘We lawyers are very much abused now-a-days,’ said Mr. Furnival… ‘but I hardly know how the world would get on without us.’

There is a great scene involving Sir Joseph the younger and his wife. While he is extravagantly rich, she is a penny-pinching shrew. Their food is almost inedible, and they really can’t entertain, because she refuses to have proper and sufficient provender for the spread. Trollope describes their attempt at a Christmas dinner, and what followed.

And then they all went to church. Mrs. Mason would not on any account have missed church on Christmas-day or a Sunday. It was a cheap duty, and therefore rigidly performed.

There is another extended musing which is quite fun. I am reading a book on the intentional “moulding” of a wife - I wonder if Trollope was familiar with the facts or not - so this quote seems apropos. It also is percipient on a few timeless questions: is trying to turn a spouse into what you wish they were ever a good idea? And what is the real reason creeps like Roy Moore want to find much younger girls? Anyway, here is the quote, which comes after we are introduced to Felix Graham, and the “engagement” he is in with his ward - at the insistence of her father, when she was a mere child. She was not, in any meaningful sense, consulted.

In speaking of the character and antecedents of Felix Graham I have said that he was moulding a wife for himself. The idea of a wife thus moulded to fit a man’s own grooves, and educated to suit matrimonial purposes according to the exact views of the future husband was by no means original with him. Other men have moulded their wives, but I do not know that as a rule the practice has been found to answer. It is open, in the first place, to this objection, - that the moulder does not generally conceive such idea very early in life, and the idea when conceived must necessarily be carried out on a young girl. Such a plan is the result of much deliberate thought, and has generally arisen from long observation, on the part of the thinker, of the unhappiness arising from marriages in which there has been no moulding. Such a frame of mind comes upon a bachelor, perhaps about his thirty-fifth year, and then he goes to work with a girl of fourteen. The operation takes some ten years, at the end of which the moulded bride regards her lord as an old man. On the whole I think that the ordinary plan is the better, and even the safer. Dance with a girl three times, and if you like the light of her eye and the tone of voice with which she, breathless, answers your little questions about horseflesh and music - about affairs masculine and feminine - then take the leap in the dark. There is danger, no doubt; but the moulded wife is, I think, more dangerous.

Don’t get hung up on the Victorian nonsense - Trollope was a product of his time. Just enjoy the gentle snark.

My final quote is about Judge Stavely, after he has essentially opened the door to the possibility of Felix Graham marrying his daughter Madeleine.

But the judge was an odd man in many of the theories of his life. One of them, with reference to his children, was very odd, and altogether opposed to the usual practice of the world. It was this, - that they should be allowed, as far as was practicable, to do what they liked. Now the general opinion of the world is certainly quite the reverse - namely this, that children, as long as they are under the control of their parents, should be hindered and prevented in those things to which they are most inclined. Of course the world in general, in carrying out this practice, excuses it by an assertion, - made to themselves or others - that children customarily like those things which they ought not to like. But the judge had an idea quite opposed to this. Children, he said, if properly trained, would like those things which were good for them. Now it may be that he thought his daughter had been properly trained.

I am somewhat of this mindset. Coming from a religious tradition which is fundamentally authoritarian - and increasingly so - I have had my own bit of pressure (as an adult, by the way) to order my life, not according to what I want and believe is best for my family, but according to the preferences of others. Or, to be more accurate, I have been pressured to pressure my wife to conform to the expectations of others. Because in a patriarchal religious tradition, women face most of the expectations. I think Judge Staveley was ahead of his time in this idea that children are, when it comes to decisions about their future, entitled to choose their own lives.

I don’t want this review to sound too negative. While this isn’t my favorite Trollope book, it still is good, just flawed. If you haven’t discovered Trollope, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first book, because it lacks the best traits of his writing: psychological subtlety, sympathetic characters, and a wry distrust of convention even as he defends it. I’d go with the Barchester Chronicles, or perhaps with The Bertrams or Castle Richmond as starters.

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