One of the pleasant surprises in blogging has been discovering so many fellow Trollope readers. I don't have a single one among my real-life book friends, nor have I convinced anyone even to try one of his books, but then I haven't gone looking for a Trollope discussion group as I did with Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Dorothy Dunnett. In blog after blog, though, I find Trollope books discussed. Just this week, I prefer reading posted a great review of his Autobiography.
As I've mentioned before, I tend to pick up any Trollope novels that I see in the used bookstores, because stores likes Barnes & Noble generally carry only a couple of titles, usually The Warden and perhaps The Way We Live Now. That is my rationalization, at least, and it means a definite Trollope section in the TBR pile.
John Caldigate is vintage Trollope, with a complex but fast-moving story and very sympathetic characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Written in 1877 and published in 1879, the same year as Cousin Henry (which I posted about back in May), it was published the year after Is He Popenjoy?, one of my favorite of his novels. In some ways, John Caldigate is a mirror-image of the earlier book.
The John of the title is the only surviving child of Daniel Caldigate, the squire of Folking in the parishes of Utterden and Netherden in Cambridgeshire. Daniel lost his wife and John his mother at an early age, along with John's two young sisters, and father and son have had a difficult relationship. John much prefers to stay with his aunt and uncle Babington and his lively girl cousins, which displeases his father. Their relationship only grows worse when John goes to college in Cambridge, where he runs up debts, borrows money, and loses it at Newmarket. To his father's horror, he ends up owing well over £1,000. In his anger, Daniel determines that if he is to pay this money, then the family entail must be broken. John will receive a fair share of the estate, like the Prodigal Son, and Daniel will look for another heir. John has his own plans: to go to Australia to mine for gold with a college friend, Dick Shand. Needing capital for his venture, he agrees to his father's plan.
John Caldigate has to be one of Trollope's most susceptible heroes. Before he leaves for Australia, his aunt Babington has talked him into an engagement with his cousin Julia; though John never actually says yes to it, he doesn't say no. Then on a visit to the Shand family, he shows signs of attachment to Dick's sister Maria, including a stolen kiss. At the same time, he has fallen in love-at-first-sight with Hester Bolton, the young daughter of his father's financial advisor. Though he only meets her once, he decides on the spot that he will return with his Australian gold and marry her.
These three romantic entanglements do not prevent John from falling into a shipboard romance with Euphemia Smith, a widow, formerly an actress, going out to Australia for a new start. In a variation on what Victoria Glendinning calls Trollope's "Ur-story," this younger country-bred gentleman falls under the spell of an older, more experienced and sophisticated woman. Over the six weeks of the voyage, John's fellow passengers, and even the Captain himself, warn him not to become involved with Mrs. Smith. By the time the ship arrives in Melbourne, however, he has proposed and been accepted.
John and Dick set off immediately for the gold fields in New South Wales. They end up in a wide spot in the road called Ahalala, where after weeks of backbreaking labor they find gold. Trollope's descriptions here reminded me of the California and Colorado gold rushes (Isabella Bird describes Colorado mining towns in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains). He was of course writing from his own experiences on two trips to Australia, visiting his son Frederic (who with his brother Henry may also be the source of Trollope's familiar theme of father-son conflict).
Four years later, John Caldigate returns to England a wealthy man, having sold his claim to his former partners. He and his father, corresponding regularly, have rebuilt their relationship. Daniel has repented of disinheriting his son, who has worked so hard and succeeded so well. Back in Cambridgeshire, John takes up the life of an English squire. Meeting Hester Bolton again, he is determined to marry her as he planned all those years ago, a dream he never forgot. Hester is the only child of her father's second marriage. Her mother is an evangelical Christian of the lowest of Low Church beliefs. She believes John Caldigate to be an unredeemed sinner, unworthy of her daughter, whom she would prefer to keep safe, pure, and unmarried at home. Hester's brothers and sisters-in-law intervene, arguing that Hester cannot be kept locked away from her woman's destiny of marriage. Much against her mother's will she meets John, falls in love with him, and marries him.
A year later, shortly after the birth of his son, John is deluged with telegrams and letters from his former partner in the mine, telling him that it turned out to be worthless and demanding restitution from him. John ignores these, but he cannot ignore a letter from another former partner, signed Euphemia Caldigate, threatening to disclose their marriage if payment is not made. When John again refuses, accusations of bigamy are made. John is forced to admit that he lived with Euphemia as his wife, but denies absolutely that they were married.
When Hester's family learns the sordid story, they immediately believe that John is a bigamist, that he has ruined Hester and sired a bastard. So here we have the mirror-image of Is He Popenjoy?, which also involves a possibly bigamous marriage and the status of the child of that marriage. The Boltons insist that Hester must separate from her wicked seducer. She believes in her husband with an absolute, unshakable faith. When she refuses to leave him, her family even attempts to hold her by force. In the Boltons, Trollope paints a very unflattering picture of evangelical Christians, especially in Hester's mother, who loves her daughter dearly but is concerned only with her immortal soul, despising the world and its joys as snares of the devil. But there are interesting nuances to her character and its beliefs:
"Mrs. Bolton was certainly not addicted to papistical observances, nor was she at all likely to recommend the seclusion of her daughter in a convent. All her religious doctrines were those of the Low Church. But she had a tendency to arrive at similar results by other means. She was so afraid of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that she would fain shut up her child so as to keep her from the reach of all evil. Vowed celibacy was abominable to her . . . But yet, on behalf of her child, she desired seclusion from the world . . . Superstition was as strong with her as with any self-flagellated nun. Fasting, under that name, she held in abhorrence. But all sensual gratifications were wicked in her sight."There is also an officious clergyman, the perfectly named Mr. Smirkie, a spiritual brother of Mr. Collins, of whom Mrs. Proudie would undoubtedly approve. But to balance the clerical scales, there is Mr. Bromley, the rector of Utterden, a humane and liberal man, who believes John innocent and whose support becomes very important especially to Hester.
Euphemia Smith (or Caldigate) arrives in England with the other former partner, and with witnesses to the marriage. On their testimony, John will be brought to trial for bigamy. The second part of the book then becomes a detective story. One of the crucial pieces of evidence is an envelope from John addressed to "Mrs. Caldigate" at Alahala. Analyzing this evidence lets Trollope include another favorite theme, the postal service. Here an enterprising postal clerk, Samuel Bagwax, one of Trollope's great minor characters, delves deep into crucial evidence on postal marks and stamps. (This section reminded me very much of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal.)
I don't know that I would recommend this book as an introduction to Anthony Trollope, but it's one that any confirmed Trollopian won't want to miss, and I'm very glad to read it and to have it on my shelves.