Category Archives: Classics

Classics Review: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope


Framley Parsonage is the eleventh Anthony Trollope novel I have read, ten of them just in the last couple years, so I think I am getting the hang of his style. The man could sure crank out some novels! I never get tired of them. They are character-heavy and as addictive as “Downton Abbey” (but make no mistake, waaay better than “Downton Abbey”). Sure, British Victorian culture might be weird and alien to a 20th to 21st century American, but lately my own culture has become so weird and alien that the Victorians are beginning to look sane and rational.

In Framley Parsonage we are introduced to Mark Robarts, the good-looking eldest son of a financially successful physician. Doctors have an interesting position in Trollope novels. They are generally a respectable bunch and can become wealthy, but their status among the aristocracy is lowly, I suppose because they work for their living. Young Mark gets to go to school at Harrow and Cambridge where he becomes friends with Lord Lufton, and eventually receives the patronage of his friend’s mother Lady Lufton and an excellent living (900 pounds per year) as a parson in the village of Framley.

Mark Robarts is one of Trollope’s tribe of charming, likable (at least Trollope likes him), but flawed young men. Trollope does not like all of his flawed young men (Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister comes to mind). The ones he does not like come to a bad end; the ones he does like are rescued from their difficulties and learn their lesson. Such is the power of the omniscient author.

At the strong suggestion of Lady Lufton, Mark marries a sweet girl named Fanny and by age 26 is established in his career, happily married, and already has a couple of kids. And he is bored. He wants more and suffers from the flawed thinking that, although he has had the best of fortune, he is destined for more. His buddy Lord Lufton (Ludawig) has already gotten into all kinds of debt trouble and cost his mother all kinds of money, mostly through his association with a dissipated Member of Parliament named Mr. Sowerby. Soon enough Mark also falls into the snare of Mr. Sowerby, stupidly signs his name to a paper, getting himself deep into financial trouble.

Trollope likes Lord Lufton, so he becomes the supporting hero of the novel. Since our hero Mark is already married, Lord Lufton must provide the romantic interest. There are two ladies in his life: Griselda Grantly, the beautiful blonde daughter of Archdeacon and Mrs. Grantly (who we have met in The Warden and Barchester Towers) and Mark’s feisty younger sister, Lucy Robarts. Lady Lufton is doing everything in her power to fix her precious son up with the Grantly girl, but (of course) Ludawig goes for Lucy.

It is a delight to see how the main characters from Trollope’s other novels weave themselves into the plots as we read through the Chronicles of Barcetshire. We get to enjoy some absolutely delicious backbiting and vicious rivalry between Grantly’s and Bishop and Mrs. Proudy. These two clerical families have not yet recovered from the bad blood created in Barchester Towers and now both have daughters in marriage market. Also in Framley Parsonage, Plantagenet Palliser makes his first appearance. I did not realize how much continuity there is between the Chronicles of Barcetshire novels and the later Palliser series.

* * * * * * *

For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of delving into these two series of six novels each, I will provide a list in chronological order. I cannot get enough of them. I’m so sad that after this one I have only two to go. But except for a recent production of The Way We Live Now I have not even begun to tap into the films and TV based on Trollope’s novels, so I know I have many delights in my future.

The Chronicles of Barcetshire

The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

The Palliser Novels

Can You Forgive Her?(1864)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1879)

Classics review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

imageI vaguely remember reading My Ántonia back in high school AP English but in the decades between then and now, which included getting a degree in English + 21 hours of graduate studies, I did not read anything else by Willa Cather. Until reading O Pioneers!  last week. How could such a thing happen?  Isn’t that like living in Washington DC and never visiting the Smithsonian? I guess it’s just mathematics: so many books + so little time + busy life = not getting around to Willa Cather (and too many other great authors to count).

Oh well. I will focus on the wonders of the books I have read and not on the mountains of books I have not. A climber of Mount Literature faces a task far more daunting than a climber of Mount Everest – but certainly a far more pleasant one. What climber of Everest gets to wrap of in a warm blanket drinking hot coffee while climbing?

But if we are to get around to talking about  O Pioneers! we must leave all mountains behind and descend onto the stark plains of Nebraska.  This novel, the first in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, is about the hardy people who set out to farm the American plains in the 19th century  – that is, the first settlers of European ancestry. Native Americans do not appear in O Pioneers! but I understand they play a role in the next in the series, The Song of the Lark.

My first reaction to this book was a feeling of cleansing, as if I were showering off all the layers of technology and infrastructure that have accumulated since the late 1890s: highways, strip malls, cell phones, televisions, Wal-marts, income tax forms, junk food, top forty songs, Hollywood, and super models. It felt so refreshing to transport my mind to a place where none of these things exist, a place where people’s minds are free of most of what occupies our minds in this era. If the mind is stripped of all this 21st century clutter, what can be left to fill it up? In the Nebraska of this novel it turns out there is more than enough to occupy the minds of the characters: things such as eating, weather, harvests, family conflicts, hopes and dreams, and the rarest human necessities, love and friendship.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old where Her father tried farming for 18 months, and then moved his family to the town of Red Cloud and opened a real estate business.  The vast flatness and stark beauty of the land as well the character of the people, mostly recent European immigrants, made a huge impression on young Willa.

The story is told in a plain-spoken third person narration, suitable to the strong simple characters and the hard realities of their lives. The story focuses on the Bergsons,  a family of Swedish-American settlers.The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is able to succeed where many people fail due to a combination of intelligence, perseverence, and quality of strength that is hard to describe, but which Cather captures beautifully. I liked that through her difficulties Alexandra never becomes hard or unkind, but remains a cheerful kind person, always seeking the best for everyone but strong enough to avoid letting people take advantage of her.

Alexandra’s extraordinary character contrasts with that of her brothers Lou and Oscar, both of whom have their good points and good intentions, but who simply do not possess the necessary traits to succeed in the challenging new land, at least without the good sense and business acumen of their sister. When story begins, Alexandra is about 20 and has come to town to pick up some supplies. She has brought along her five-year-old brother Emil and runs into her best friend Carl Linstrum, a skinny teenager who lives on a neighboring farm. We also a meet charming little girl in the general store named Marie, a Bohemian child dressed in “Kate Greenway” style. Marie later plays a major role in the plot.

Carl accompanies them part of the way home and Alexandra tells him how worried she is about the future. Her father is dying. Later that night her father tells her brother Lou and Oscar, 19 and 17, that Alexandra is to be in charge if the business-end of the farm and is no longer to work in fields.

I loved the way the novel deals with the core basics of life – working the land, erecting houses on the bare land, and the basic needs even among the strongest for love and friendship. How many families do we know in which one person plays the part of the “strong one” or the anchor so that everyone else can be weak, neurotic, adventurous, and foolish. Alexandra is the poster child for that strong family member; for the next 20 years she puts her needs on hold for the sake of family and farm in loyalty to her beloved father. But she has her limits and life eventually brings her to edge of her emotional endurance.

When she faces the worst does she fall apart, triumph, or a little of both? This is not a saccharine story. There is both great joy and crushing heartbreak, just like real life. There are elements of naturalism and elements of the Victorian omniscient narrator, but Willa Cather’s voice is her own. The Great Plains trilogy was very popular but later Cather faced a lot of unkind criticism for not get on board with the modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s. I’m glad she didn’t. My writing/life lesson from this novel is stick faithfully to your own voice and style, even if it does not happen to be trendy.


Classics review: Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

doctor thorne.jpgThe title character of Doctor Thorne is a humble country doctor, but the author/narrator tells us: “Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshamsbury in his place, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The loves and adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger.’” Dr. Thomas Thorne is descended from an old and respected family and is a distant relation of the Thornes of Ullathorne, a highly respected family in the region. However, his particular branch of the family has fallen to a low rung on the social ladder.

Family pedigree, or what they call “blood” or “birth”, figures prominently in this novel as it does in all of Trollope’s novels. In Doctor Thorne some of the characters are absolutely obsessed with it. As an American whose family history prior to my grandparents fades into sepia-colored rumors of trips across the Atlantic from the vague mists of Eastern Europe, this obsession with ancestry is an alien and mysterious concept to me. But I am always fascinated by it. I feel sure that the whole family connection thing has moved history along in ways I have not yet realized.

This doctor has a ne’er-do-well brother named Henry, a real dissipated wretch. Henry is not in the book long and does not rate deep sympathetic psychological analysis. We are simply assured that he is bad. However the doctor does his best to support and care for his wretched brother. Why one brother turned out so badly while the other became a near Saint we are not told. It is what it is.

Well Henry Thorne seduces a village girl and get her pregnant. When he gets shot to death by the girl’s brother, Dr. Thorne arranges things for the village girl to marry a local tradesman and emigrate to America, adopts her baby girl, and mitigates the sentence of the brother, Roger Scatchard, so that he gets only six years (justifiable homicide, you know….) Dr. Thorne provides for the child, Mary, to be secretly brought up in the country and then sent to school and taught to be a lady. When she is 12 years old she comes to live with her good uncle, after enough time has passed that the villagers do not draw the connection between the scandal and the sweet little niece.

Some modern readers might be annoyed by Trollope’s frequent authorial commentary, but as a writer I love the insight into his novel-writing process. For example:  “I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognised by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.”

The main subject of the book, besides the foibles of various kinds of Victorians, is the hypocritical attitude of the Victorian aristocrats toward money. No one is worth the aristocrats’ time unless they have good birth. Until, that is, they need an infusion of money. Then they are eager to marry their son and nephew off to the daughter of a patent medicine huckster. The  patent medicine heiress in this novel is Miss Dunstable, and she is the funniest and most entertaining character I have yet come across in all my Victorian novel reading. Her wealth and therefore desirability for marriage gives her the rare freedom to say anything she wants to say. Therefore she gets to play the role of court jester, loudly pointing out all the hypocrisy with good-natured humor.

The story centers on the Gresham family, the landowning gentry in the village of Greshamsbury. The father, Mr. Francis Gresham starts life with a healthy income but marries young to a rather foolish girl, Lady Arabella, the daughter of the old and very snobbish de Courcy family and then makes some foolish decisions early on which result in getting into debt. Also the couple has 10 children (!), one son and nine daughters. Several of the daughters are sickly and require expensive medical care, and sadly, four of the children eventually die. I understand that dying in childhood was so commonplace in Victorian times that it was almost expected, so apparently this is realistic. The death of the children gets only a paragraph or two in the backstory.

The real action begins with the 21st birthday of Frank Gresham, the son and heir. By this time, the property is heavily mortgaged and the Greshams are on the brink of ruin. The only hope is that young Frank will “marry money.” Accordingly, his mother and aunt, Lady de Courcy, set out to do everything in their power to make that happen. Unfortunately for the family debt situation, but fortunately for our plot, Frank is already in love with his respectable, but penniless neighbor, Mary Thorne. Both Frank and Mary are wonderfully likable characters who grow and change during a four-year span, Frank in particular.

As for Dr. Thorne himself, he is sort of the mechanism that moves things along and smooths things out, the voice of sanity, and the glue that holds the whole plot together. He is also a lovable character, one of those saintly characters you run into in Trollope novels and also occasionally in Dickens, belonging to the species I call the “disinterested scientist.” This character is primarily interested in his “work” – usually science, engineering, medicine, or anything selflessly academic. He always does the right thing because he is never interested in accumulating wealth and is generally not interested in love and marriage until is he is middle-aged or beyond.

Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Chronicles of Barcetshire series, but it has only a tenuous connection with the first two novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers. If you like the laugh-out-loud humor, the penetrating perception of human nature, and the smooth as silk writing of Trollope, you will love this novel.

Finally read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but made mistake of seeing films first

I decided about a month ago I needed to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These novels were published in 1954 and 1955 and the films came out in the early 2000’s, so long ago that the action figures are now collector’s items. But hey, I work on my own timeline, and 2016 turned out to my personal LOTR year. Maybe it has something to do with what’s going on in the world – horrible wars and the feeling of a spreading darkness, and being an election year with its spectacle of people clutching after that ring of power.

Certain members of my family, who have been Tolkien fans for years, have watched the LOTR movies repeatedly so I have caught parts of them multiple times. I did go to see each of the films when they they first came out, and honestly, I did not like them all that much. Not that they are half bad as film adaptations go. As such they are quite good. It’s just that these kind of action productions are not to my taste and haven’t been for quite a while. As I get older I seem to be developing a sort of strange resistance to this business of “being entertained.” The thought of going to a concert or watching a movie is steadily losing what appeal it ever had.

The books, of course, are a whole different experience. I must have
read The Fellowship of the Ring before, because once I began reading it, parts of it came back to me.  And I remember reading The Hobbit. The Two Towers and The Return of the King seemed new to me. Now that I have read the entire trilogy I am not sure how a true Tolkien fan can love the films. The Lord of the Rings is all about words and language and histories passed down through poetry, song, and legend. The books have rhythm, depth, and towering height. To do them justice it seems to me you need to devote the time and mind-space to reading them.

I must say I love Howard Shore’s soundtrack, even though the main theme sounds just like an old hymn called “This is My Father’s World.” (Which is so appropriate maybe it’s deliberate.) Apparently the LOTR soundtrack has won a “Best Soundtrack of All Time” award for like six years in a row from some organization called ClassicFM. It’s possible that the experience certain literature can be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack. (For that matter some lives could be enhanced by a good instrumental soundtrack.) But maybe even music limits the mind by overlaying a structure the mind wouldn’t otherwise impose on itself. My reading experience is also affected by picturing the characters as their film counterparts. It’s always a mistake to see the movie before you read the book.

But maybe in this case it is not a big deal. I am not upset about it. I did it to myself.  I think that on the whole it is a good thing that books are adapted to film, as long as the filmmakers make a good faith effort to be true to the book to the extent the limitations of their medium allow. There have been many book adaptations that seek to appeal to current values and tastes rather than trying to be true to the book. You could make a case that even this is healthy – literature reinterpreted to speak to the culture. But when the movie actually reverses or debases the spirit or theme of the book – I find that sort of thing abhorrent.

For example the main theme of the LOTR is that you cannot compromise with evil. You cannot keep just a little bit of evil and think you can use it for good. The nature of evil is such that it wants to devour and make everything part of itself. If the films had changed things just a little bit to let the good guys keep the ring of power, that would have destroyed the story. But these films, although they adapted much, did not change that most important thing. So they are tolerable.

In my next post I will talk about which LOTR character I most related to and which part of the saga really got to me.

Classics Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

barchester towersThis year, 2015, has been my year of Trollope. I finished reading all of the Palliser series and then went on to the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire The Warden, which was a delight, and have most recently finished Barchester Towers, which is, as Victorian novels go, practically perfect – especially if you like a good helping of wry humor in your novels. This second novel of the Barsetshire Chronicles has the added benefit that we are familiar with the core group of characters and are happy to find out how things have turned out for them after the traumatic upheavals in The Warden.

About five years have passed since the end of the previous novel, and we find kindly old Bishop Grantly on his death bed with his son the Archdeacon by his side. The Archdeacon loves his father but the old man has been in the process of dying for several weeks and the Archdeacon is hoping to be appointed his replacement as Bishop. It’s pretty much a sure thing unless a new Prime Minister and his party come in. That would mean the new gang of liberals would want to appoint a liberal clergyman to the post. The old Bishop hangs on to life just long enough for a new government turnover and the unfortunate Archdeacon loses his chance at the plum gig by moments.

The new regime appoints a certain Dr. Proudie to the post and into the cozy town of Barchester comes the new Bishop and his entourage, which includes the domineering Mrs. Proudie – “the real Bishop” – and his odious chaplain, the slimy social-climbing Mr. Obadiah Slope. This group belongs to the new evangelical, less traditional, wing of the Episcopal Church. It is strange reading a novel in which the liberals, who want things like Sunday schools for poor children and more inclusiveness in the church, are cast as the villains, but such is the case in Barchester Towers.  These people have scant respect for tradition and are perceived by our more conservative friends as vulgar busybodies. I found myself perfectly happy to root for the old guard against these obnoxious upstarts, even though generally I tend to sympathize with the oppressed masses. Mr. Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and even the Archdeacon, are just more likeable.

At the end of The Warden Eleanor Harding marries the young reformer John Bold but in Barchester Towers we find that he has, alas, died. It is apparent that Trollope never quite warmed up to John Bold, whose reforming zeal is the impetus for driving poor kind Mr. Harding out of his comfortable job as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, the local alms house, so it is no surprise that he kills the poor guy off. Besides, Bold’s early death leaves Eleanor a rich young widow who is available for romantic adventures.

Also newly arrived in town is the bizarre Stanhope family. The father, Dr. Vesey Stanhope, is a clergyman who went to Italy to recover from a sore throat and stayed there for 12 years, allowing proxies to take care of his clerical duties. His three Bohemian young adult children, two daughters and a son, both charm and scandalize the town. Bertie Stanhope, the ne’re-do-well son becomes one of Eleanor’s unwanted suiters; but he causes her little trouble compared to the odious attentions of Mr. Slope.

Trollope uses some unusual narrative devices in this novel, from time to time allowing the authorial voice to interrupt the flow of the story. For example his assures his readers that we need not worry that “his” Eleanor will marry either Bertie Stanhope or Mr. Slope. She has too much sense to allow such a thing to happen. In the process Trollope clues us in to his philosophy of novel writing: in a good novel this sort of information should not interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. And indeed it does not.

The pleasure of this novel is in the perceptive humor and the characters, none of whom is perfect, but all of whom are either lovable or interesting or both. Trollope somehow makes even the scheming Archdeacon lovable. I think the secret is that Trollope really likes these characters and makes us like them too. In real life when we like someone we like them in spite of or even because of their imperfections. It’s that way with the Barchester characters. I found myself affectionately shaking my head at the antics of Archdeacon Grantly even though he is the kind of man I probably couldn’t stand in real life.

It is Archdeacon Grantly’s scheming that brings another key character into the story: the handsome intellectual Mr. Arabin, former professor of poetry at Oxford University, who, at Dr. Grantly’s invitation, accepts a position as vicar of a quirky local parish called St. Ewold. Mr. Arabin is a conservative and Dr. Grantly needs an ally in his political struggle with the Proudie/Slope faction. Mr. Arabin is also single, and as it turns out, rather lonely. So Eleanor Harding soon has a third suitor, this one much more suitable.

Other interesting characters are Wilfred Thorne, squire of St. Ewold’s and his spinster sister Monica Thorne. This pair are evangelical about preserving the tradition of their Saxon heritage. Then there is the poor clergymen Mr. Quiverful, his wife, and their 14 children, who desperately need Mr. Harding’s old post as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital so that the children can have decent shoes to go to church. And there are also variety of townspeople who get the light of literature shone upon them so that we get a glimpse of ordinary village life with its jealousies, its passions, and pretensions. I look forward to soon reading the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series: Dr. Thorne.

Classics Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

the wardenAfter completing the Palliser series, I decided I might as well start on Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, Trollope’s earlier and more popular six-novel series. I actually did read the first two of the series, The Warden and Barchester Towers a long time ago, so long ago that I really didn’t remember much about them, probably because I found them so strange at the time that I could hardly understand what was going on. Wardens, bishops, archdeacons, and all the strange culture of Victorian life in general were all but incomprehensible to the younger me. This was before the Internet, so I could not then do what I can do now: go to Wikipedia each time I need background information. Besides making books themselves more available, the Internet greatly enhances the reading experience by making it easy get educated on historical and cultural context. I think that is a gain for humanity.

The Barchester Chronicles take place a century and a half ago before motor vehicles, telephones, mass communication, and women’s liberation. Things like writing letters and going to church were essential to staying connected with other human beings. One of the most valuable benefits of reading Trollope and other 19th century authors is simply an understanding of what life was like before the modern era. Stories of humans, stripped of the now ever-present technology and its accompanying cacophony, give me a clearer idea of what our strange species is all about.

The Barchester novels begin with The Warden, published in 1855, in which we meet Mr. Septimus Harding, a sixtyish clergyman who lives a charmed life as warden of an almshouse in a lovely picturesque home on a generous salary of 800 pounds per year. This means he is the caretaker of a facility called “Hiram’s Hospital,” home since the 14th century to 12 worn-out old working men. A certain medieval landowner named Hiram bequeathed his land for an almshouse and its maintenance. The will specifies that the almshouse would provide for 12 elderly wool carders who could no longer work and had no family to care for them in their old age. The rents and products produced be the surrounding land were to be used for the support of the facility. Over the centuries the will was carried out but the wool carders evolved into 12 poor working men in any field and the wardenship evolved into a very comfortable living for a clergyman appointed by the bishop.

Mr. Harding is a gentle soul who plays his violoncello for the elderly residents, keeps his gardens, and writes books about hymns. His younger unmarried daughter Eleanor lives with him and his older daughter Susan is the wife of Dr. Grantly, the energetic archdeacon, and fierce defender of the rights of the Church. The old men love their warden and he loves his life. Everyone is happy. Of course this paradise cannot last, at least if we are to have a novel to read.

The spirit of reform is in the air and questions are popping up all around England about the disparities in income between the clergy and the poor they are supposed to be serving. One of these busybody reformers, a young medical man named John Bold, has come to live in Barchester and begins to question why the warden gets so much money and the poor workmen get only a tuppence a day plus room and board. The busybody reforming newspaper The Jupiter takes up the cause, portraying poor Mr. Harding as a greedy parasite living off the money meant for the poor.

Dr. Grantly’s father is the bishop, who is a close lifelong friend of Mr. Harding, so we truly have a cozy arrangement in Barchester. Dr. Grantly has no patience for the liberals and their meddling with the time tested institutions of the Church, so when John Bold files a lawsuit against Mr. Harding, Dr. Grantly gets his own counsel, Mr. Abraham Haphazard, and goes to battle with full force. The Bishop, another gentle soul who hates conflict, only wants peace. But Mr. Harding is tortured by the very suggestion that he might be taking money that he has no right to. Though he has been warden for ten years, the idea that he was doing anything wrong never occurred to him. The 12 old men split into warring factions: those wanting their rights to 100 pounds a year and those supporting their beloved Mr. Harding and the status quo. As if this isn’t enough, there is another complication: Eleanor Harding and John Bold, the young reformer who stirred up the trouble, are romantically involved.

The Warden holds its own as a brilliant novel 160 years after its publication. The issues are the same: the haves and have nots – one group of people living at the expense of another. In this novel, however, the people with the power and money are so charming and the world they run so sweet and stable, that the reformers seem like the evil ones. Right and wrong are not easy to discern, and Trollope’s message seems to be that it would have prevented a lot of suffering to have just left well enough alone. As George Orwell put it, “A time-honoured abuse, he [Trollope] held, is frequently less bad than its remedy. He builds Archdeacon Grantly up into a thoroughly odious character, and is well aware of his odiousness, but he still prefers him to John Bold, and the book contains a scarcely veiled attack on Charles Dickens, whose reforming zeal his found it hard to sympathize with.”

Mr. Harding is confronted with a hard choice and this most mild-mannered of men makes a decision so unheard of at the time that it send ripples of shock and surprise through Barchester and the whole clerical world. I found The Warden to be irresistible, I think because Trollope writes with razor-sharp perception about the foibles of human character and the flaws of our social systems but also with genuine warmth, affection, and humor. The most horrible characters have their good points – he makes a point of defending Dr. Grantly despite his harsh insensitivity and greed – and the good characters are never too sugary sweet (as you often find in Dickens). Trollope may perhaps have an underlying agenda to defend tradition, but his main focus is in simply telling a compelling story of people caught in the traps laid by the world and by their own decisions.

Classics Review: The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope, Palliser Series #6

the dukes children coverI have just completed the final book of Anthony Trollope’s six-novel Palliser series. I think this is the first time I have read an entire series of anything since my Laura Ingalls Wilder days. The closest I came was about 10 years ago when I read several of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries about ten years ago. But after four or five of those the Egyptian archeology shtick got old. The Palliser series, though not universally riveting reading, did keep my attention all the way to the conclusion of the final novel.

Number 6 in the series, The Duke’s Children, begins with the death of Lady Glencora, Duchess of Omnium. Now why in the world did Trollope kill off one of his most popular characters? My theory is it’s because Glencora’s death triggers a plot that finally puts her shy mild-mannered husband Plantagenet, Duke of Omnium, in the spotlight. In the previous novel The Prime Minister, he is titular character but Lady Glencora still hogged most of the limelight. In The Duke’s Children the three surviving Palliser children, Lord Silverbridge, Lord Gerald, and Lady Mary, aged 19 to 22, are ready for romance. Of course all such romance is supposed to be approved and sanctioned by their stern father. Therein lies plenty of opportunity for conflict.

I say “surviving” children because I could swear that in The Prime Minister the Pallisers had four children and there was even a mention of a certain “little Lady Glencora.” There is no explanation of what happened to this missing daughter. I notice inconsistencies like this and they bother me. I know the death of children was commonplace in Victorian England, but was it so commonplace that that Trollope did not see the need for even a couple of lines in little Glencora’s memory? He is known for writing rapidly and he had to meet those serial deadlines. Perhaps it was an oversight.

Once I recovered from this glaring omission  I enjoyed the book. The Duke is now in his late forties and old beyond his years. He has lost his sense of purpose (working in the public service) as well as his beloved wife. Now he must deal alone with his wayward children who, in his opinion lack a proper sense of the duty that comes with their exalted hereditary position. It seems he has had very little personal contact with any of his children through the years what with all the nurses, servants, and boarding schools.

Also Lady Glencora has left a problem behind that brings back painful memories. Lady Mary, age 19, has gotten herself engaged to marry a certain Mr. Tregear, a smart handsome guy without a shilling to his name. Tregear is a school friend of her brother Lord Silverbridg. Lady Glencora encouraged the romance because she figured the young man’s income was of no importance since Lady Mary would have plenty of money for both of them. Of course she had not gotten around to mentioning all this to the Duke before she became ill and died suddenly.

When Tregear gets around to breaking his intention to the Duke he finds himself coldly rejected. The Duke most certainly does not approve the match. He considers Tregear to be a nobody and a fortune hunter. Also Tregear reminds him of Burgo Fitzgerald, the handsome rogue with whom his wife nearly ran off with early in their marriage (see #1 in the series, Can You Forgive Her?). Besides, his daughter ought to marry someone more equal in rank, family, and income. However Mary is adamant that she will not stop loving Frank Tregear and though she will not marry him without her father’s consent, will consider herself engaged to him for the rest of her life if necessary. The slow softening of the Duke toward Tregear forms the plot of the novel.

Lord Gerald, the middle child, is a minor character in the story, serving only to add to the Duke’s troubles by his gambling debts and disobedience. You see the effect of money and privilege on the two sons: they are only a little afraid of displeasing their father, but secure in their wealth and rank, have no other fears. The eldest son, Lord Silverbridge, plays a major role as co-protagonist with his father. He has already displeased the Duke as the novel begins because he has been kicked out of Oxford (for painting the Dean’s house red). In addition, he is responsible for introducing his sister to her objectionable suiter. Lord Silverbridge starts as quite an uncertain shallow person but we get to see his character slowly mature as the Duke undergoes a mellowing.

Silverbridge is in the market for a bride. His father is encouraging him to consider taking a wife as he will not come into some of his property until he is married. His choices come down to the proper and beautiful but slightly jaded Lady Mable Grex, a lady fully approved and endorsed by his father, or a visiting American, the even more beautiful Isabel Boncasson. After some months of waffling Lord Silverbridge goes wholeheartedly for Isabel, despite the fear of his father’s further displeasure.

The thing I most enjoy about these Trollope novels is the insight they give me into the workings of Victorian aristocracy, a realm of culture I would certainly never get to otherwise experience. It amazes me how limited they were in their behavior and how many unwritten rules they had. It seems the more sensitive you were to these unwritten rules, the more refined a gentleman or lady you were. I am not sure how Trollope himself knew the inner workings of the aristocracy, not being an aristocrat himself, but I know he had closer access to that strange and rarified world than I do. He surely read the papers at the time, and makes effective use of these rags in his novels. He may have even seen their carriages and silk top hats as they traveled around the cities and towns.

Trollope seems to have begun with the reasonable assumption that Dukes and Duchesses are human being just like ourselves, only with the addition of lifelong money, power, luxury, and social privilege. He used his abundant creative imagination to imagine what kind of effects those additions might have of the character of a human being. Still, I think he does better when writing about his favorite character types: the penniless gentlemen trying to make a go of life among the wealthy and powerful, e.g., Phineas Finn. I’m sure he could personally relate to these characters.

The Palliser novels were serialized and published between 1864 and 1879. In 1875 Trollope wrote the non-Palliser novel, The Way We Live Now, which some critics consider to be his masterpiece. I did like that one a lot and was happy to see that a few of its characters amble into The Duke’s Children. The indolent Dali Longstaff plays a significant role here as Silverbridge’s rival for the heart of Isabel Boncasson, and Lord Nitterdale also plays a small role, now happily married and a success in Parliament.

Classics review: The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope, Palliser series #5

The Prime MinisterFive down, one to go! I moved quickly from the excellent Phineas Redux to The Prime Minister. As long as I have caught the Palliser wind I figured I might as will finish the marathon, so I have already begun the last novel of the series. But before I get too many chapters into The Duke’s Children, let me jot down a few notes about the one I have just finished.

As usual Trollope highlights the character of the social climber, that ubiquitous unfortunate who has the outward appearance and tastes of the upper class but lacks the capital to support himself in the style he craves. This scenario generally results in romances and marriages of dubious purpose, debt, and desperation. In the case of this novel these themes were all present in their most extreme expression.

In Phineas Finn the titular character is a social climber who was also presented to the reader as a decent human being with a real sense of morality. Phineas didn’t always comply with his moral sense, but the point is he has it and suffers guilt when his actions come up short of his own standards. In The Prime MInister we meet Ferdinand Lopez, a social climber who lacks something of that basic core of decency. It is interesting that while the other characters in the world of the novel finally and universally consider Lopes to be “a bad man”, Trollope, as omniscient narrator, digs a little deeper into his psyche and reveals that Lopez is simply a man who lacks an understanding of what it means to be “good.” He equates goodness with having money,keeping one’s temper under control, and presenting a high-class appearance to the world. This error is quite understandable in a culture in which everyone behaves as if having money does equate to being good (as in being from a “good family”) and not having money makes you undesirable company and your motives automatically suspect.

I liked this book for its close examination of character, of course because I find all of Trollope’s writing such a pleasure to read. The prose is beautiful and the story telling is breathtaking. But there are also things about this book not to like. Plantagenet and Glencora Palliser, now Duke and Duchess of Omnium, take center stage as the Duke’s service as Prime Minister is requested. He is to lead a “coalition government” in an attempt to unite the liberals and conservatives. (The actual PM during the 1870s when this novel takes place would have been either William Gladstone or Benjamin Disraeli. I wonder if Trollope was the first to fictionalize the history of a current State.)

So the first thing not to like are the more tedious parts concerning 19th century Parliamentary politics. But I did find it interesting that there was some reference to the building up of armaments that would lead to the first world war. Of course Trollope would not have known for sure what it would lead to unless he could see the future. At least this book did not include a single fox hunt.

The other thing that rather annoys me are the frequent references to Ferdinand Lopez’s lineage, indicating suspicion that he might have some Jewish blood. Gasp. Sadly it’s difficult to read very long in 19th century English literature without running into antisemitism. It is an unpleasant presence in history like classism, suppression of women, and syphilis. If you want to go back and indulge in the joys of Victorian literature you have to take the bad with the good.

So what happens in this novel is that a rich old-money girl, Emily Wharton, falls for this shady but handsome Lopez character. Her father is appalled at the very thought of his daughter marrying this interloper with no known parentage, but when Emily persistently insists she loves the guy, he finally weakens and relents. She marries Lopez and the heart of her other suitor, the perfect-in-every-way darling of the family, Arthur Fletcher, is shattered into a thousand pieces.

Meanwhile the Duke of Omnium reluctantly becomes PM and the Duchess goes on a spending binge of throwing elaborate parties to promote her husband’s popularity. Ferdinand Lopez worms his way into getting invited to these lavish affairs and uses his charm and good looks to become a favorite of the Duchess. In opposition to both her husband’s request and the new reform laws, the Duchess attempts to use her influence to get Lopez into Parliament. Marital strife, scandal, and unforeseen consequences ensue.

I am almost sorry I have only one book left to read in the Palliser series. Fortunately Trollope was one of the most prolific writers who ever lived and I will need to read for a long time before depleting that mine. The entire Barchester Towers series awaits!

Classics Review: Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, #4 in the Palliser series

Reading Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series is a long-term project. I  began the first book, Can You Forgive Her?, about a year ago, and I find, for the most part, I like each novel more than the previous one. Perhaps familiarity has something to do with it: you tend to care about people more as you get to know them better, and what people can you ever know better than those that populate a hefty well-crafted Victorian novel?

Phineas ReduxI was a bit hesitant to embark on Phineas Redux within mere days of finishing The Eustace Diamonds. I remembered that my feeling about Phineas Finn, the second novel in the series, were on the lukewarm side. Not that the book was not good enough to stick with it. Anything by Trollope is well worth the effort. But, I thought, am I really ready to read another long book about the same shallow fortune-hunting protagonist? So much Parliament –the bills, the speeches – and so much fox-hunting. Parliament and fox hunts are difficult for me to relate to especially when it is already a stretch to relate to these Victorian aristocrats.

Our world seems to be spinning further and further away from that quaint society with its ways and manners. (I often wonder if it is noticeably more difficult for the younger generation – millennials they call them – to relate to 19th century literature. But that’s another article….) Ultimately part of the charm of reading Trollope is that it becomes so apparent that even with the distance of years and leap of technology, Victorian aristocrats turn out to be more like me than not. Trollope was writing about the exact same species of creature that I interact with every day. I realize just how superficial an overlay technology really is. What counts is our common humanity.

I need not have hesitated for a moment to read Phineas Redux, fox-hunting and Parliament notwithstanding. As the story begins, few years have passed and Phineas is older and wiser. At the end of Phineas Finn our hero who had made a success for himself in the government makes the decision to leave the high-society life, turning down the opportunity to marry the wealthy and beautiful widow, Madame Max Goesler; instead he goes home to Ireland to marry his hometown sweetheart and practice his trade as a small town barrister. In Phineas Redux we find that his young wife has died in the first year of their marriage trying to give birth to her first child.  When some of his old friends in high places call on him to stand again for Parliament Phineas risks his small life savings to return to life among the rich and famous. Lucky Phineas wins a seat as member for Tankerville because his opponent is called out for voter fraud, but his reappearance on the scene rekindles a few flames in some of the broken hearts he left in his wake. Trouble ensues.

Upon returning to London, Phineas innocently accepts a few invitations from old friends, one of whom is Lady Laura Kennedy, a woman who has made the scandalous decision to separate from her tyrannical husband. Lady Laura is not happy. She is living the life of an outcast in Dresden with her old father. Out of pure sympathy and friendship, Phineas offers to comfort and help her in any way he can. However pure friendship between a man and a scandalized woman is not well understood in this particular society, especially when Quintus Slide, the hostile editor of the newspaper “People’s Banner” makes it his mission in life to spread malicious rumors. Then the spurned husband, Robert Kennedy, a religious fanatic on the edge of madness, attempts to shoot Phineas in the head.  All the bad press makes it unlikely Phineas is going to get a paying job in the cabinet, something his desperately needs to stay in Parliament.

Just when you think it can’t get worse for poor Phineas, it gets worse. Phineas is put through the trial of his life, one that strips all the gloss off his life and enables him to clearly discern hypocrites from true friends. Among his true friends is the woman he rejected in the past, Madame Max Goesler, a character we get to know better in this novel. I liked her a lot and also enjoyed the reappearance of Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. There is also a fun sub-plot involving the romance of a distant Palliser cousin, the stubborn Adelaide Palliser, her clueless ne’er-do-well lover Gerard Maule, and her hapless suitor, Mr. Spooner.  Oswald and Violet Chiltern round out Phineas’ small group of friends, providing both comedy and backbone to the events of the story.

The thing I liked most about this book is how Phineas is changed by the experience, how, no longer dazzled by the glamour of high political society, he is able to see the world as it really is. If I had not done so before, I now number Trollope among my collection of the wisest authors, those who view the world  sub specie aeternitatis, a term I learned from reading Albert Jay Nock. It means seeing things from an eternal perspective.

* * * * * * * *

Note 1: I listened to the fabulous unabridged audio edition of Phineas Redux, narrated by Simon Vance. The novel was first published in 1873 in serial form in a publication called The Graphic.

Note 2: Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series consists of six loosely-related novels:

  • Can You Forgive Her?
  • Phineas Finn
  • The Eustace Diamonds
  • Phineas Redux
  • The Prime Minister
  • The Duke’s Children

Classics Review: The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

the eustace diamonds“We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her,” says the droll omniscient narrator. Then the novel goes on to entertain the reader at great length with the tale of Lizzie Greystock and her adventures. By the time we reach the end of the first chapter, the penniless orphan Lizzie Greystock has become Lady Eustace, wealthy widow of Sir Florian Eustace, whom she married with greatest speed, knowing that he was suffering from consumption and would not be likely to live long. She has also engaged in shady dealings with a loan shark jeweler named Mr. Benjamin and has had some ugly quarrels with her aunt, the Countess, Lady Linlingow.

Sir Florian quickly becomes disillusioned with his beautiful young wife as he has to deal with paying off some large unsavory debts she failed to mention, but he leaves her with a generous living and also an heir to the Eustace property, a son born a few months after he dies. It is made perfectly clear that Lizzie is a lying scheming adventuress. She is a liar who is out for herself but, at the back of my mind I wondered what her alternatives were, if she wanted to avoid a life of impoverished dependency. As if to answer this question, we are soon introduced to Lucie Morris, a sweet good-natured governess, who is the love of Frank Greystock, Lizzie’s barrister cousin. Later on, Lizzie decides that Cousin Frank might make good husband material for herself which generates quite a bit of drama. Frank Greystock is kind of borderline as far as his moral character. He seems to represents everyman, one who tries to be good but is constantly pulled to the dark side, and through most of the novel he vacillates about whether to choose love (Lucie) or money (Lizzie).

Besides being a fascinating psychological character study The Eustace Diamonds is also a crime novel, complete with a group of Scotland Yard detectives who have their own axes to grind. The issue arises from Lizzie’s money grab through her marriage to Sir Florian. After the dust settles it seems that she is in possession of a diamond necklace that the Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown insists is a family heirloom that rightfully belongs to the estate and not to the widow.

Illustration of Mr. Camperdown trying to get Lizzie to hand over the diamonds. From an edition of The Eustace Diamonds published in 1900. I have been able to find very few pictures for this novel. May have to do some myself!

Illustration of Mr. Camperdown trying to get Lizzie to hand over the diamonds. From an edition of The Eustace Diamonds published in 1900. I have been able to find very few pictures for this novel. May have to do some myself!

The necklace is worth 10,000 pounds. To get an idea of how much money this was, Lizzie’s inheritance from her husband amounts to 4,000 a year which is considered fabulous wealth. Her uncle, Dean of Bobsborough and father of Cousin Frank Greystock, is said to pull an income of 1500 per year as a clergyman, and on that he supports a family of five. Lizzie insists that her husband gave the necklace to her as a gift and refuses to give it up. Conflict ensues. Eventually the necklace is stolen. Apparently. But detectives Mr. Bunfit and Mr. Gager smell something fishy about the whole affair. The newspapers report daily on the situation, everybody who is anybody in London is talking about it, and rumors fly fast and free.

Adding comedy and intrigue to the plot is the motley gang of “friends” Lizzie has gathered around her, first entertaining them at great expense at her castle in Scotland and then sharing a house with the pair of ladies when they return to London. The ladies are Mrs. Carbuncle, a beautiful and charming but impoverished social climber, and her ill-tempered young niece Lucinda Roanoke. A pair of gentlemen round out the party: Sir George De Bruce Carruthers, a nobleman with a shady past and no discernible source of income, and the bad-tempered Sir Griffin Truett, another financially unstable nobleman who is interested in the very incompatible Lucinda.

Lizzie likes to think she likes poetry and casts Sir George in the role of the romantic and poetic “corsair”. She flirts with the idea that, if Frank Greystock doesn’t work out, she might consider Sir George as husband number 2. By the way, she has already accepted a proposal of marriage from Lord Faun, but Lord Faun is so dull and stuffy and he says he won’t go through with the marriage until she surrenders the diamonds to the family estate. It seems Lord Faun does not like embarrassing situations involving trouble with the law.

The writing is fast moving and sucks you in like a strong river current, laughing all the time. Besides being a fascinating psychological character study The Eustace Diamonds is also a crime novel, complete with a group of Scotland Yard detectives who have their own axes to grind. The issue arises from Lizzie’s money grab through her marriage to Sir Florian. After the dust settles it seems that she is in possession of a diamond necklace that the Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown insists is a family heirloom that rightfully belongs to the estate and not to the widow.

The necklace is worth £10,000. To get an idea of how much money this was, Lizzie’s inheritance from her husband amounts to £4000 a year which is considered fabulous wealth. Her uncle, Dean of Bobsborough and father of Cousin Frank Greystock, is said to pull an income of £1500 per year as a clergyman, and on that he supports a family of five. Lizzie insists that her husband gave the necklace to her as a gift and refuses to give it up. Conflict ensues. Eventually the necklace is stolen. Apparently. But detectives Mr. Bunfit and Mr. Gager smell something fishy about the whole affair. The newspapers report daily on the situation, everybody who is anybody in London is talking about it, and rumors fly fast and free.

Adding comedy and intrigue to the plot is the motley gang of “friends” Lizzie has gathered around her, first entertaining them at great expense at her castle in Scotland and then sharing a house with the pair of ladies when they return to London. The ladies are Mrs. Carbuncle, a beautiful and charming but impoverished social climber, and her ill-tempered young niece Lucinda Roanoke. A pair of gentlemen round out the party: Sir George De Bruce Carruthers, a nobleman with a shady past and no discernible source of income, and the bad-tempered Sir Griffin Truett, another financially unstable nobleman who is interested in the very incompatible Lucinda.

Lizzie likes to think she likes poetry and thinks Sir George fits the role of a romantic and poetic “corsair” so she flirts with the idea that, if Frank Greystock doesn’t work out, she might consider him as husband number 2. By the way, she has already accepted a proposal of marriage from Lord Faun, but Lord Faun is so dull and stuffy and he says he won’t go through with the marriage until she surrenders the diamonds to the family estate. It seems Lord Faun does not like embarrassing situations involving trouble with the law.

Apparently in was quite expensive in 19th century England to live the high life: your clothing, carriage, and your home address were all part of your ticket to society, and being included in society was necessary to living the high life. In the case of men, it was perceived as necessary to do what was necessary to get ahead in society and in their career, and in the case of women, making the right impression might mean the difference between living a life surrounded by interesting people and the basic comforts of life and living a life as a poor dependent, such as Lizzie’s unfortunate companion Miss McNulty.

I started reading Anthony Trollope’s six-book Palliser series a full year ago. I liked Can You Forgive Her? a lot so after finishing the initial book I jumped right into Phineas Finn which was okay but had too many fox hunts and Parliamentary proceedings to suit me at the time. Maybe I just got kind of got burned out on Trollope. So I took a long break from the series before embarking on The Eustace Diamonds. I needn’t have! The fox hunts in this novel didn’t bother me at all. They are perhaps briefer and definitely more interesting. I am eager to read the next one– Phineas Redux and after that The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children. I have high hopes.

The more you read Trollope the more you appreciate the sheer quality and entertainment value of his writing, wit, and psychological depth. Of course, with reading, I know that certain books will interest me at one point in my life and not another and I’ve noticed another strange thing – one book will affect how I perceive the next one. For example, right after finishing The Eustace Diamonds, I picked up The Hours, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner by Michael Cunningham.

I have recently been on a Virginia Woolf kick and knew that this book had something to do with Woolf. And I probably would have enjoyed The Hours at a different time in life, in a different mood. But coming right out of The Eustace Diamonds it struck me as self-conscious sludge and I only finished reading it through sheer determination. The characters in The Hours take themselves so seriously. The book has no sense of irony, no omniscient narrator to shake his head indulgently at their foolish pretentions. The characters seem like some of us feel about real life, left to our devices to sort out the fog and sludge of our illusions, feeling our way in the darkness with only enough light to see through the day.

When I went back and re-read the first several chapters of The Eustace Diamonds the quality of Trollope’s writing felt like a flood of relief, like coming home to something genuine and true. How good to get back to a solid book world in which the author is an adult in charge. Everything is under control, and if the characters don’t know it, the reader does.
I am certainly no Trollope expert. Besides the first three Palliser books I have only read The Way We Live Now. Way back in my distant shadowy past I read Barchester Towers, but I hardly remember it. (Something else to look forward to – The Barchester series!) But I’m pretty sure I am seeing a pattern here: Trollope is very interested in how money affects the lives of his characters: their social decisions, their prospects in life, and especially their moral character. When I read How We Live Now a couple years ago, I thought, well this is all about two things: love and money.

Now, after reading a few more of Trollope’s novels, I see that the emphasis is heavier on the money side of the equation. Oh love gets its due and the deserving characters end up choosing it in the end, but the bulk of the action has way more to do with money. From what I have Wikipedia puts it: “Anthony Trollope suffered much misery in his boyhood owing to the disparity between the privileged background of his parents and their comparatively small means.” He was certainly superb at capturing psychological complexity in his characters. The great writer Henry James, brother of early psychologist William James, has a couple of things to say about Trollope on this subject:

“If he was to any degree a man of genius, and I hold that he was, it was in virtue of his happy and instinctive perception of human variety; his knowledge of the stuff we are made of.” Henry James

And this:

“He remains one of the most trustworthy, although not the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”

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