I decided to start my year celebrating Anthony Trollope with this book, one of the last published before his death in 1882. As so often happens with his books, the first few pages captivated me, and I was deep into the story almost before I knew it.
When Mr. Lionel Trafford went into Parliament for the Borough of Wednesbury as an advanced Radical, it nearly broke the heart of his uncle, the old Marquis of Kingsbury. Among the Tories of his day the Marquis had been hyper-Tory. . . Wednesbury had never been the Marquis's own; but his nephew was so in a peculiar sense. His nephew was necessarily his heir,- the future Marquis,- and the old Marquis never again, politically, held up his head. He was an old man when this occurred, and luckily for him he did not live to see the worse things that came afterwards.Two of Anthony Trollope's favorite themes there in the first pages: politics and father-son conflicts. Then he adds two sets of mis-matched lovers into the mix. The "infinitely worse" sin that Lord Hampstead commits is to bring his friend George Roden, a clerk in the Post Office service, to Hendon Hall. There, in the family's house outside London, George meets Hampstead's sister Lady Frances Trafford, and they fall in love. When her stepmother the Marchioness discovers that he has had proposed and been accepted, she instantly banishes him from the house and vents her wrath on Lady Frances. Lady Kingsbury is equally angry with her stepson, for introducing such an unsuitable person into the family. She disapproves of both her stepchildren. She can't help wishing that her own eldest son, Frederic, was the heir instead. It becomes a frequent topic of conversation with Mr Greenwood, the Marquis's nominal chaplain, who is eventually tempted to act in the matter. Meanwhile, Lord Hampstead, visiting George Roden's home, meets a neighbor of his, Marion Fay, and falls in love in his turn. The daughter of a Quaker, a clerk in a business house, she is no more welcome to the Kingsburys as a future daughter-in-law than the postal clerk is a son-in-law, and more blame is poured on Lord Hampstead.
The Member for Wednesbury became Marquis and owner of the large family property, but still he kept his politics. He was a Radical Marquis, wedded to all popular measures, not ashamed of his Charter days. . .
But it came to pass that the shade of his uncle was avenged, if it can be supposed that such feelings will affect the eternal rest of a dead Marquis. There grew up a young Lord Hampstead, the son and heir of the Radical Marquis, promising in intelligence and satisfactory in externals, but very difficult to deal with as to the use of his thoughts. They could not keep him at Harrow or at Oxford, because he not only rejected, but would talk openly against, Christian doctrine; a religious boy, but determined not to believe in revealed mysteries. And at twenty-one he declared himself a Republican,- explaining thereby that he disapproved altogether of hereditary honours. He was quite as bad to this Marquis as had been this Marquis to the other. . . Lord Hampstead would not even condescend to sit for the family borough. . .
But there was worse than this,- infinitely worse.
By making one of his heroes a clerk in the postal services bureau, Trollope introduces another familiar theme, one of course based on his own years of service there. The scenes set in George's office are some of the funniest in the book. They feature a wonderful character, Samuel Crocker, who sits just across from George Roden. He is the worst employee, lazy and perpetually late, always on the brink of getting fired. That's partly because he spends so much of his time and energy in social climbing. Once he discovers George's friendship with Hampstead, he tries to build on his friendship with George to claim Hampstead as an auxiliary friend. His maneuvers are hilarious, particularly because he is completely tone-deaf and never realizes how much he annoys pretty much everyone, starting with his "friend' George. But there's also a little touch of pathos to how desperately he tries to latch on to people.
In Lady Frances and Marion Fay, Trollope wrote two strong female characters, who choose for themselves. Lady Frances insists from the start that she will marry her postal clerk. She is twenty-one, and though she has no money of her own, she knows that eventually she will get her way.
Some spoilers will follow:
Lady Frances is prepared to wait, as her furious stepmother carts her off first to Germany, and then to the family's country estate. Eventually her father allows her to live with her brother at Hendon Hall, which I thought very progressive of him (and his author). But her story comes to an unexpectedly happy (and somewhat farcial) ending: George's mother, who has a mysterious past, finally reveals that while living in Italy she married into a noble family. Even though her husband turned out to be a rotter, her son is still the Duca de Crinola (the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope helpfully points out that this "comic title" means "Duke of Horsehair"). George inherits nothing but the title, yet that makes him acceptable to the Kingsburys and their circle (including the lovely Lord and Lady Persiflage). However, George, a staunch Englishman, refuses to claim an Italian title, insisting that he will continue to work in the Post Office. This scandalizes everyone except his future wife. He is warned, ominously, that the Queen will have to be consulted. It all dissolves into farce, with a wedding at the end. And poor Samuel Crocker goes slightly crazy when he learns that his office mate is a real live Duke.
All of this plays out against the story of the second couple, Lord Hampstead and Marion Fay. While Lady Frances stands by her lover from the start, Marion rejects hers. Though she loves him with all her heart, she argues that the distance between them is too great, that he should choose someone more fitting to be the future Marchioness. The Republican Hampstead of course rejects this. But she has an unanswerable argument in her health. Her mother and all her siblings died of consumption, and she knows she will too. And sure enough, she begins to decline into that picturesque consumption so beloved of Victorian novelists. (Trollope himself of course lost a brother and sister to consumption.) My only quibble with this book is that I found their story increasingly tedious and too maudlin for my tastes. There are a lot of long noble speeches about love and happiness and Heaven, particularly when Hampstead tries to persuade Marion to marry him anyway. And the sicker she gets, the holier she becomes, until her soul just flits away one day to a better world (Trollope actually says it "flitted.") (It was in these sections that I felt the weight of my Penguin edition's 856 pages.) All Hampstead's future happiness is buried in her grave, and at the end of the book, he is preparing to sail around the world, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Since he is determined never to marry another, the wicked Lady Kingsbury will get her wish, and one of her sons will eventually inherit the title and the family honours. She is the worst stepmother I have met yet in his books, beating out Mrs Masters in The American Senator.
According to my invaluable Companion, the critical reaction to this book was mixed, and I can see why. I certainly wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Trollope. But I agree with the critic of the Athenaeum, who wrote, "the reader will recognize with pleasure much of the brightness and lightness of touch which characterized his early work."