The first is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. At its heart is a lawsuit over the estate of the title. Sir Joseph Mason's will left it to his son by a second marriage, through a codicil. His elder son challenged the will at the time of his death, and lost. Now he is going to try again, on different grounds. As in many of Trollope's books, there are several subplots winding around the main story, with a large cast of characters. I found the secondary stories just as interesting as the main one. The second half of the book focuses more on the legal case, and I became more and more curious about how it was going to end - though I resisted peeking ahead. As usual, Trollope brings his many stories together into a neat ending, though this time without all of the detail that he sometimes gives us about his characters' futures. (I am still surprised at the imprudence of one parent in regard to a child's marriage.)
Both the introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition and the invaluable Oxford Reader's Companion point out that Trollope uses his fictional trial to indict the British legal system and call for reforms. (Apparently he got many of the legal details wrong, and offended some lawyers.) He particularly objected to the idea that it is the maneuverings of lawyers that make a case, not justice itself, and so the courts favor those with the best lawyers. Some of the strongest words come from Mr Moulder, a commercial traveler whose brother-in-law John Kenneby is to be one of the chief witnesses at the trial.
"Look here, John; if you're paid to bring a man off not guilty, won't you bring him off if you can? I've been at trials times upon times, and listened till I've wished from the bottom of my heart that I'd been brought up a barrister. Not that I think much of myself, and I mean of course with education and all that accordingly. It's beautiful to hear them. You'll see a little fellow in a wig, and he'll get up; and there'll be a man in the box before him, - some swell dressed up to his eyes, who thinks no end of strong beer of himself; and in about ten minutes he'll be as flabby as wet paper, and he'll say - on his oath, mind you, - just anything that that little fellow wants him to say. That's power, mind you, and I call it beautiful."On the whole, I think Mr Trollope agreed with Mrs. Smiley.
"But it ain't justice," said Mrs. Smiley.
"Why not? I say it is justice. You can have it if you choose to pay for it, and so can I. If I buy a greatcoat against the winter, and you go out at night without having one, is it injustice because you're perished by the cold while I'm as warm as toast. I say it's a grand thing to live in a country where one can buy a greatcoat."
Which brings me to my last point: this story is full of strong female characters. Trollope draws interesting parallels between some of them. Lady Mason and her neighbor Mrs. Orme are both widows with only sons. But while Lady Mason has been on her own, holding the property for her son, Mrs. Orme has been wrapped in cotton-wool by her loving father-in-law. He wants to shield her from everything that might defile her pure goodness, but she eventually insists on stepping outside the narrow role he has defined for her. There are two neglected wives, Mrs. Furnival, whose husband is Lady Mason's attorney; and Mrs. Moulder, wife to the commercial traveler. Both are married to hard-working and successful men, who leave them alone at home most of the time. Mr. Furnival is moving in higher social circles now, and the invitations no longer include his wife. They do include his daughter Sophia, a young woman with a sizable dowry and a mind to marriage. She is contrasted with Madeline Stavely, a young neighbor of the Ormes, who follows her heart. There are other secondary characters like Mrs. Smiley, quoted above, who is considering a second marriage but wants to protect the property from her first; Mary Snow, a young woman being brought up to be the perfect wife; and Bridget Bolster, the second major witness in the case, and a much stronger one than poor John Kenneby. And I can't forget Mrs. Mason, the miserly wife of the claimant to Orley Farm, the nastiest woman I have met yet in Trollope's books: a miser starving her family and her servants while stuffing herself in private. The scenes where she siphons off parts of the Christmas dinner for her own use - almost in the face of her invited guests - made my jaw drop.