Friday, March 2, 2018

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 4: Can you forgive me?

Mr. Fenwick came round from Farmer Trumbull's side of the church, and got over the stile into the churchyard.
Illustration by Henry Woods from The Vicar of Bullhampton; image from Project Gutenberg.

Over the past few months I've read five more novels by Anthony Trollope. Yes, I can't help myself. If you haven't yet read any Trollope, I wouldn't recommend starting with any of these books, good as some of them are. Instead I would suggest reading The Warden (1855) and its sequels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. But if these novels aren't the place to begin with Trollope, they still offer certain characteristic pleasures: vivid characters, compelling situations, and often perceptive psychology.

The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870)

Mary Lowther writes to Walter Marrable.
Illustration by Henry Woods from The Vicar of Bullhampton; image from Project Gutenberg.

Like the Barsetshire novels, The Vicar of Bullhampton is about the passionate conflicts taking place just beneath the surface of a seemingly placid English village. In ministering to his parishioners, Frank Fenwick, the well-meaning but incautious Anglican vicar of the title, finds himself entangled in their troubles.

First, there is the attempt of Frank and his wife Janet to encourage the courtship of his longtime friend, the local squire Harry Gilmore, with her longtime friend, the near-penniless Mary Lowther. It does not go smoothly. Mary feels pressured to accept a man she doesn't love. And while she is vacillating she meets her cousin, Walter Marrable, to whom she feels strongly attracted, but who can't afford to marry her. Walter has a rich uncle, but is only the third heir in line, and it seems very unlikely that he will succeed to the estate.

Next, there is Frank's involvement with the gruff miller Jacob Brattle, his unruly son Sam, and his disgraced daughter Carry, all of whom get caught up in a murder investigation. And finally there is a low-intensity religious war carried on by the village's rival minister, Mr. Puddleham. The opportunistic Puddleham seizes the chance offered by a breach between Frank and the largest local landowner, the Marquis of Trowbridge, to promote the building of a new Methodist chapel right across from the Fenwick's vicarage.
"If I were you, Frank, I should not think so much about it."
"Yes, you would, old boy, if it touched you as it does me. It isn't that the chapel should be there. I could have built a chapel for them with my own hands on the same spot, if it had been necessary."
"I don't see what there is to annoy you."
"This annoys me,—that after all my endeavours, there should be people here, and many people, who find a gratification in doing that which they think I shall look upon as an annoyance. The sting is in their desire to sting, and in my inability to show them their error, either by stopping what they are doing, or by proving myself indifferent to it." (Frank Fenwick to Harry Gilmore, Ch. 31)
Other Trollope novels . . .
  • that turn on inheritance plots: Doctor Thorne, The Eustace Diamonds, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Cousin Henry, Miss Mackenzie
  • that involve mysteries: Phineas Redux, The Eustace Diamonds, The Last Chronicle of Barset, The Land-Leaguers 
  • that feature conflicts between the representatives of the established church and those of Low, evangelical or Dissenting churches: The Chronicles of Barsetshire
Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (1871)

She came up to him quickly, and gave him her lips to kiss

"She came up to him quickly, and gave him her lips to kiss."—[Page 96.]
Illustration from Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite; image from

This novel could almost be described as Trollope's Clarissa, although in keeping with its author and its era there is thankfully no abduction or rape of the heroine. Emily Hotspur, the beautiful and vivacious daughter of a landed family, is desired by her parents to marry a wealthy, decent man who fatally lacks charisma. Instead she falls in love with her handsome and deeply indebted cousin George. Emily's marriage to George would fulfill her father's dearest wish by uniting the family titles with the family estates of Humblethwaite and Scarrowby. What Emily doesn't fully realize, but her father gradually discovers, is that George behaves badly: he is a gambler and a liar who keeps a married actress as a mistress.
But his own child, his only child, the transmitter of all the great things that fortune had given to him; she, in whose hands were to lie the glories of Humblethwaite and Scarrowby; she, who had the giving away of the honour of their ancient family,—could she be trusted to one of whom it must be admitted that all his early life had been disreputable, even if the world's lenient judgment in such matters should fail to stigmatize it as dishonourable? . . . He knew that Cousin George was no fitting husband for his girl, that he was a man to whom he would not have thought of giving her, had her happiness been his only object. (Ch. 4)
And then Sir Harry discovers that George has done something far worse. As in Clarissa, the love of a virtuous young woman for an inveterate rake will lead to tragedy.

Other Trollope novels that feature young women pursued by honorable but unexciting men, but who find themselves drawn to charming but disreputable profligates with suspect motives: the Palliser novels, The Small House At Allington, The American Senator, The Way We Live Now

Cousin Henry (1879)

Cover of Cousin Henry; image from Oxford University Press.

Although George Hotspur doesn't have many redeeming qualities, Trollope excelled at creating flawed characters with whom, nonetheless, the reader comes to feel a certain sympathy. "We are too apt to forget when we think of the sins and faults of men how keen may be their conscience in spite of their sins," writes Trollope (Ch. 17), and the conscience of the title character in Cousin Henry torments him mercilessly.

Henry Jones, a London clerk, is the nearest male relative and thus heir of the old Squire Indefer Jones. Henry is something of a weasel, and is roundly disliked by the squire, the squire's ward Isabel, and all the servants and tenants who will one day be in his charge. The squire is tormented because his wealth is mainly tied up in the properties which Henry is set to inherit; the squire can bequeath to Isabel, his young niece who has lovingly looked after him for the past ten years, only a modest legacy.

After the squire's death evidence grows that he made a new will as he lay dying, only no trace of it can be found. Henry comes to be suspected of knowing what happened to the squire's final will—which, in fact, he does. Henry is conscious of possessing the estate fraudulently, and yet can't bring himself either to reveal or destroy the true will. So the will remains hidden, and Trollope masterfully depicts Henry's increasing sense of guilt and entrapment.
"I have come to tell you," said he,—not understanding her feeling in the least, and evidently showing by the altered tone of his voice that he thought that his communication would be received with favour,—"I have come to tell you that the legacy shall be paid in full. I will see to that myself as soon as I am able to raise a penny on the property."
"Pray do not trouble yourself, Cousin Henry."
"Oh, certainly I shall."
"Do not trouble yourself. You may be sure of this, that on no earthly consideration would I take a penny from your hands."
"Why not?"
"We take presents from those whom we love and esteem, not from those we despise."
"Why should you despise me?" he asked.
"I will leave that to yourself to judge of; but be sure of this, that though I were starving I would take nothing from your hands." (Isabel to Henry, Ch. 8.)

Kept in the Dark (1882)

When the letter was completed, she found it to be one which she could not send.
Illustration by John Everett Millais from Kept in the Dark; image from

After a brief acquaintance Cecilia Holt accepts the proposal of the dashing Sir Francis Geraldine. As their engagement continues she discovers that their sensibilities are not in sympathy; he is older and far more jaded. She ultimately makes the difficult decision to break it off—difficult because a woman who ends an engagement is seen as inconstant. (She can't win: if she is the rejected one she is viewed as tainted by the man's repudiation.) As she tells a friend, "I am prepared to bear all the blame. I must bear it. But I am not prepared to make myself miserable for ever because I have made a mistake as to a man's character." (Ch. 1)

A few months later she meets George Western, a man nearing 40 who is just getting over the heartbreak of being jilted by his fiancée. George finds a sympathetic ear and a kind heart in Cecilia, and soon proposes to her. She wants to tell him about her past engagement but keeps putting off her confession. Events overtake her intentions, and once they are married, that previous engagement becomes a secret she must conceal.

And then Sir Francis visits Cecilia in George's absence, and writes a letter to him alluding to the engagement. When George reads the letter, he "felt for a moment as though he had received a bullet in his heart." He imagines that Cecilia and Sir Francis are in league together. His wild suspicions are without foundation, of course. Cecilia is affronted and angered by his jealousy, and George finds her denials unconvincing. He soon decides to separate from his wife and go to live on the Continent.
That one damning fact was there,—clear as daylight, that she had willingly bestowed herself upon this baronet, this creature who to his thinking was vile as a man could be. As to that there was no doubt. That was declared. How different must she have been from that creature whom he had fancied that he had loved, when she would have willingly consented to be the wife of such a man? . . .
It was grievous to be borne,—the fact that he had been so mistaken in choosing for himself a special woman as a companion of his life. He had desired her to be all honour, all truth, all simplicity, and all innocence. And instead of these things he had encountered fraud and premeditated deceit. (Ch. 12)
The only hope for their marriage is if both learn to admit error and bring themselves to ask for forgiveness, but both are too stubborn and unyielding to do so. Trollope portrays two people whose desire to reconcile is overwhelmed by their need to cling to their outrage and sense of injury.

Other Trollope novels that feature couples whose mutual misunderstanding threatens their marriage: He Knew He Was Right, the Palliser novels.

The Land-Leaguers (1883)

Title page of The Land-Leaguers; image from

This novel was left unfinished by Trollope at his death. It is set in Ireland, a place with which Trollope was intimately familiar. He lived there for much of the 1840s and 50s while working for the Post Office; it was in Ireland that he met his (English) wife, Rose Heseltine, and began his writing career.

Trollope was dismayed by the misery and suffering he witnessed in Ireland, a dismay he expressed in his early novels such as The Macdermots of Ballycloran and Castle Richmond. But he was also disgusted by the violence of the oppressed. The immediate impetus for the novel seems to have been the assassinations of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Permanent Undersecretary at the Irish Office, Thomas Henry Burke. In May 1882 while strolling in Dublin's Phoenix Park the two men were stabbed to death by members of a splinter nationalist group, the Invincibles. A month later Trollope began dictating The Land-Leaguers to his niece and amanuensis, Florence Bland.

The novel opens with the deliberate flooding of the fields of an English-born landlord, Philip Jones, by a shadowy group of toughs ostensibly seeking rent abatements but whose ultimate goal is to drive Jones off his land. Jones' 10-year-old son Florian witnesses the opening of the floodgates, but under threat from the men and pressure from the village priest is sworn to silence. As Jones is boycotted by villagers who face reprisals if they deal with him, he is deeply hurt that, in his view, Florian is siding with their enemies rather than confiding in him.

Kate Field; image from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives.

A second plot concerns Jones' elder son Frank and his sweetheart, the Irish-American singer Rachel O'Mahony. (Rachel seems to have been based at least in part on the American actress Kate Field, and possibly as well on Trollope's niece Beatrice, an amateur singer.) The union of Frank and Rachel faces two major obstacles. The first is that Rachel's father Gerald is an Irish nationalist politician, but a rather comically ineffectual one, who supports policies antithetical to Jones. Again there is a connection to a real person: John O'Mahony was the founder of the Fenian Brotherhood, an American group that provided advocacy and financial support for the Irish Republican struggle.

The second obstacle is Rachel's desire for an opera career, which takes her to London in the company of her Jewish manager, a particularly repellent character improbably named Mahomet M. Moss. While Rachel is alone and ill, Moss tries to force himself on her—only to receive a shock.
"Rachel, say the word, and be mine at once."
"You do not understand how I hate you!" she exclaimed.
Then he got up, as though to clasp the girl in his embrace. She ran from him, and immediately called the girl whom she had desired to remain in the next room with the door open. But the door was not open, and the girl, though she was in the room, did not answer. Probably the bribe which Mr. Moss had given was to her feeling rather larger than ordinary.
"My darling, my charmer, my own one, come to my arms!"
And he did succeed in getting his hand round on to Rachel's waist, and getting his lips close to her head. She did save her face so that Mr. Moss could not kiss her, but she was knocked into a heap by his violence, and by her own weakness. He still had hold of her as she rose to her feet, and, though he had become acquainted with her weapon before, he certainly did not fear it now. A sick woman, who had just come from her bed, was not likely to have a dagger with her. When she got up she was still more in his power. She was astray, scrambling here and there, so as to be forced to guard against her own awkwardness. Whatever may be the position in which a woman may find herself, whatever battle she may have to carry on, she has first to protect herself from unseemly attitudes. Before she could do anything she had first to stand upon her legs, and gather her dress around her.
"My own one, my life, come to me!" he exclaimed, again attempting to get her into his embrace.
But he had the knife stuck into him. She had known that he would do it, and now he had done it.
"You fool, you," she said; "it has been your own doing."
He fell on the sofa, and clasped his side, where the weapon had struck him. She rang the bell violently, and, when the girl came, desired her to go at once for a surgeon. Then she fainted . . .
"I knew it would come," she said to her father [afterwards]. "There was something about his eye which told me that an attempt would be made. He would not believe of a woman that she could have a will of her own. By treating her like an animal he thought he would have his own way. I don't imagine he will treat me in that way again . . . a man must be made to understand that if a woman won't have him, she won't! I think Mr. Moss understands it now." (Ch. 43)
The Land-Leaguers is filled with violence. Not only is Rachel sexually assaulted and Moss stabbed by her in self-defense, but multiple characters are shot or shot at, several are murdered (including one of the major characters), and had the novel been finished it would have ended with a hanging. It is a dispirited and dispiriting work that is definitely not the place to begin with Trollope. And because I didn't want it to be the place I ended with this author whose work has given me so much pleasure, it inspired me to read the other novels discussed in this post.

Although I imagine I'm not quite done with Trollope—I've only read a little more than half of his fiction, and none of his nonfiction beyond An Autobiography—this may well be my last Trollope post. After this I'm not sure I will have a great deal more to say about him or his books. No promises, though!

For other posts on Trollope, please see:
I've also written about the parallels between a scene in The Last Chronicle of Barset and Verdi's La Traviata (The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi) and about the British television series The Pallisers and Doctor Thorne.

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