The Vicar of Bullhampton, Anthony Trollope
Somehow in a year rich with reading the Victorians, I nearly missed my favorite. I've read his friends (William Thackeray and George Eliot), a fellow author he commended (Rhoda Broughton), one who admired his books (Henry James), and other contemporaries (Charlotte Yonge, Ada Cambridge and Mary Elizabeth Braddon), not to mention modern authors whom he inspired (Jo Walton and Angela Thirkell). And I've managed this year to collect a biography of him and several of his books, including two titles that I didn't immediately recognize: The West Indies and the Spanish Main, which Paul Theroux calls "one of the ten essential travel books," and Marion Fay.
I have been keeping an eye out for this book ever since I read Trollope's autobiography. He devoted several pages to it, first to a complaint that its publication as a serial was transferred to a second-rate magazine because Victor Hugo was behind on a serial that he was writing, which took precedence. Trollope was not happy to be displaced, because he considered Hugo's later works "pretentious and untrue to nature," and because "I should be asked to give way to a Frenchman." He also spent several pages explaining - defending really - his story, which has as a central character a fallen woman, a "castaway," to use his term. He even reprinted his preface to the novel, where he excused bringing "the condition of such unfortunates" to the attention of "the sweet young hearts of those whose delicacy and cleanliness of thought is a matter of pride to so many of us." But then he went on to write, "For the rest of the book I have little to say. It is not very bad and it certainly is not very good." He even claimed to have forgotten much of the plot! All of this made me curious to read it, and I was happy to finally come across a copy this summer.
I am so glad that I chose this one off the Trollope section of the TBR stacks. I completely disagree with his assessment of it - it's actually really good. He sets his story very precisely in Wiltshire, in a small town "seventeen miles from Salisbury, eleven from Marlborough, nine from Westbury, seven from Haylesbury, and five from the nearest railroad station . . ." The Vicar of the title is Frank Fenwick, and he's a peach. So is his wife Janet, the mother of their four children, "gay, good-looking, fond of the society around her, with a little dash of fun, knowing in blankets and corduroys and coals and tea . . ." The Fenwicks have as their nearest neighbor the local squire, Harry Gilmore, the Vicar's dearest friend from college days. Neither the Vicar nor the Squire is popular with the Marquis of Trowbridge, who owns most of the parish. He considers Gilmore a mere squatter, and the Vicar next door to an infidel who preaches Divine forgiveness rather than wrath (and lacks proper respect for the aristocracy). It is a matter of grief to the Marquis and his daughters that the living in their town is not in their hands, but belongs to Mr. Fenwick's Oxford college. They have turned their faces away from the Vicar and his church, to favor the local Methodist minister, Mr. Puddleham, with whom the Vicar is carrying on polite clerical war.
The Vicar is the link between three different stories that Trollope weaves together in this novel. The first concerns Harry Gilmore, who has fallen in love with Mary Lowther, a friend of Mrs. Fenwick staying at the vicarage. Mary doesn't love him, but she is being pressured to marry him not just by the Fenwicks but also by her Aunt Sarah, back home in Loring. Trollope is at pains to point out many, many times that women are made for marriage, it is their only possible career, and a spinster like Aunt Sarah has a "starved, thin, poor life," compared with married women like Mrs. Fenwick. Mary finds this concerted pressure very difficult to resist, but she does not love Harry Gilmore.
The second story concerns the Fenwicks' neighbor, a farmer named Trumbull, who is murdered in the course of a robbery. Sam Brattle, the son of the local miller, comes under suspicion, because he has been hanging around with two trouble-makers, strangers in the parish, one ominously nicknamed "The Grinder." The Brattle family is already under a cloud, because their daughter Carry was seduced by a soldier and now, cast off by her furious father, is generally known to be a prostitute. Trollope writes about this in rather veiled terms, never saying that she actually works the streets. As the murder investigation proceeds, a bit like "CSI: Bullhampton," the Vicar discovers that Carrie has returned to the area. She has even become engaged, unfortunately to the second suspect in the murder. Mr. Fenwick takes it upon himself to rescue Carry from her life of shame, even as she is implicated in the murder. Still, he hopes to reconcile her with her family. Both he and his creator argue that her sin is small in comparison to other sins, committed more frequently and more openly, which are easily passed over. They also note that the shame and guilt fall on the woman in such cases, not on her partner. There are frequent allusions to Mary Magdalene and other sinful women in the Bible. Both Trollope and his Vicar express their concern about "How is the woman to return to decency to whom no decent door is opened?" Mr. Fenwick struggles to open that door for Carry, as the murder case plays out.
The third story is the most fun, to my mind. The Marquis is so disgusted with the Vicar, particularly after he takes up Carrie Brattle's cause, that he gives the Methodist minister a plot of land on which to build a new chapel. And that plot of land is smack in front of the Vicarage gates. Mr. and Mrs. Fenwick are horrified and outraged as the new brick Salem rises practically in their garden. They have no recourse, though, until Mrs. Fenwick's brother-in-law, a brilliant London barrister, takes a hand. The solution is found through research in the bishop's chancery archives, which delighted me!
Trollope as usual balances these three interweaving stories perfectly. In fact, sometimes the change between them caught me off-guard, when I wanted to stay with Mary, or with Carry, to find out what happened next. On the whole, though, this isn't one of Trollope's sunniest books. There is a lot of unhappiness and suffering, with Harry Gilmore's pursuit of Mary Lowther dragging on and on, and with the Brattle family, not to mention poor Farmer Trumbull murdered. But there is also much to like here, starting with the Vicar. His preaching so offends the Marquis by proclaiming that since all are sinners - even marquises, not to mention vicars - all stand in need of grace and forgiveness. There is much consideration of faith and observance in this book, as well as what I think is Trollope's only depiction of Holy Week services. The Vicar practices what he preaches, but he isn't a plaster saint. His interest in Carry is not in fact completely pastoral, he is very aware of her physically, though he doesn't admit that to himself. His wife points out that he enjoys picking fights a little too much, and he is as much to blame as the Marquis for their conflict. I admire what Trollope was trying to do through him, to address a real problem in society, by emphasizing the humanity of the outcasts, and asking what in practical terms could be done to help them.
The edition I read is a Dover reprint of the 1870 first edition, with lovely engravings but no notes or supplementary materials. I learned from the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope that this was one of his least-successful books. The Saturday Review actually called it "third-rate"! According to the editor of the Companion, this book has "never been much read or appreciated." That's a shame. In my opinion, this isn't one to miss.