I also thought of Trollope when I was considering comfort reading. His stories can draw me in so easily, with that familiar narrative voice. To me, the first pages of this book are vintage Trollope.
It is not true that a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Were it true, I should call this story 'The Great Orley Farm Case.' But who would ask for the ninth number of a serial work burthened with so very uncouth an appellation? Thence, and therefore, - Orley Farm.A few pages later, he tells us, "as all the world knows, Hamworth church stands high, and is a landmark to the world for miles and miles around." That's one of Trollope's catch phrases, "all the world knows," and I smile now every time I see it.
I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights. The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure. No such aspirations are mine. I make no attempts in that line, and declare at once that agriculturalists will gain nothing from my present performance. Orley Farm, my readers, will be our scene during a portion of our present sojourn together, but the name has been chosen has having been intimately connected with certain legal questions which made a considerable stir in our courts of law.
That said, however, I am 100 pages into this 800-page book, and there are so many unTrollopian things going on. I don't think I've ever written a book-in-progress post before, but I am just so surprised at these atypical elements. I don't know where the story is going, and I don't think any of these qualify as spoilers.
Just to set the scene: Orley Farm is an estate, one of two owned by Sir Joseph Mason. At his death, he left the larger estate, Groby Park in Yorkshire, to his oldest son Joseph. By a codicil to his will, he left Orley Farm to his son from a late second marriage, Lucien. Joseph Mason had always understood that the two properties were to come to him, and after his father's death he took the widowed Lady Mason to court over the will (Lucien being an infant at the time). Mr. Mason lost the case, and Lady Mason has remained in possession of Orley Farm for the last 20 years, collecting its £800 a year in rents and income.
As the story opens, Lucien Mason has just turned 21 and taken over the farm. He and his mother are on friendly terms with the local squire, Sir Peregrine Orme. His grandson and heir Peregrine is a little younger than Lucien. Now normally, Trollope would tell us who the hero of his story is going to be. Not here. It may be Lucien, who is obsessed with scientific agriculture and is risking his capital on uncertain improvements, deaf to advice or caution. Perhaps Perry will be the hero - but he is obsessed with rat-catching, and he is a spendthrift in the bargain. Both of them are hobledehoys, and I have no idea what is to become of them.
Usually by the time we're well into the story, Trollope has also introduced his heroine, and told us she will be the heroine. There's no sign of one yet. I did think that it might be Sophia Furnival, the daughter of a London barrister involved in the Orley case. She is described as
a clever, attractive girl, handsome, well-read, able to hold her own with the old as well as with the young, capable of hiding her vanity if she had any, mild and gentle with girls less gifted, animated in conversation, and yet possessing an eye that could fall softly to the ground, as a woman's eyes always should fall upon occasion.But Trollope immediately makes it clear that she isn't his heroine: "Nevertheless she was not altogether charming. 'I don't feel quite sure that she is real,' Mrs. Orme [Perry's mother] had said of her, when on a certain occasion Miss Furnival had spent a day and a night at The Cleeve."
If we don't have a heroine, though, we certainly have a female villain, in Mrs. Mason of Groby Park. I think she is the most evil woman I have come across in Trollope's books. She starves her family in the dining room, while devouring food served her own dressing room. Her three daughters live on short rations of bread and butter, while she is privately served roast fowl and bread sauce. Her husband had to insist that the servants receive board wages (food and lodging), because she was not giving them enough food to live and work on. Mrs. Mason spends the money that she saves on food (from everyone else) on luxurious clothes (for herself), while her daughters wear old thread-bare clothes. This is a serious matter, since all three are of marriageable age, and I'm sure they're hoping to escape their mother's abuse as quickly as possible. Trollope has surprisingly strong words for her: "Such a woman one can thoroughly despise, and even hate..." I am already hoping that Mrs. Mason will get her come-upppance, and wondering if it will be as drastic as Mrs. Proudie's.
I also have to mention the oddest chapters, where Samuel Dockwrath, a lawyer in the Orley Farm neighborhood, travels up to Groby Park in connection with the disputed will. He spends one night at a hotel in Leeds, in the company of some commercial travelers. Trollope goes into great detail about these men and their interactions. This seems so far outside his usual milieu, but he lays out their community with its rules and hierarchy as he does Barsetshire society. One of the salesmen, Mr. Kantwise, represents the Patent Steel Furniture Company. with a line of folding iron furniture. It isn't selling all that well in Yorkshire. Unwilling to let any opportunity for a sale pass, he insists on unpacking and assembling for Mr. Dockwrath "three tables, eight chairs, easy rocking-chair, music stand, stool to match, and pair of stand-up screens, all gilt in real Louey catorse; and it goes in three boxes [when taken apart]." That "Louey catorse" cracked me up every time I read it.
This story keeps surprising me. I'm looking forward seeing what the next 100 pages brings - maybe a hero or heroine. And there may be additional updates, with the long Christmas weekend for reading.
Edited to add: I got the younger Mr. Mason's name wrong, it's Lucius (not Lucien).