Sunday, July 3, 2011

Who is Popenjoy?

Is He Popenjoy?  Anthony Trollope

This is one of my favorite Trollope novels, though not his best-known.  It isn't part of the interconnected Barsetshire and Palliser novels, and there isn't a single cameo from another book.  It was apparently not well-received when it was serialized in 1877-1878 and then published in book form in 1878.  The copy I have is an Oxford World Classics edition from 1965, a small hardback with no introduction and none of the explanatory notes that have now become standard.  Fortunately, I have the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope, to fill in the gaps.  From it I learn that the Spectator in reviewing it called it "unwholesome," and Charles Dickens, Junior, who serialized it, removed allusions to adultery, pregnancy, and lactating mothers - all of which were apparently restored in the book version.

There are two main, intertwined stories, both centering on marriage and parentage.  The action is divided between London and Brotherton, a cathedral city in the county of Brothershire. In the first story, Lord George Germain, the younger brother of the Marquis of Brotherton, marries Mary Lovelace, the daughter of the Dean of Brotherton.  Dean Lovelace is a very loving father, and a rich one.  Though his own father kept a livery stable, he has risen in the Church and intends his daughter to have a high place in society.  The Germain family is cash poor, and the head, the Marquis, has been living in Italy for many years, leaving the management of the estate to his brother. Despite the inequality of the match, it is made. Mary is not in love with Lord George, who had previously been refused by a neighbor, Adelaide De Baron, who later made her own advantageous marriage.  Mary is a perfect Trollopian heroine, beautiful, innocent, playful, with an inner strength and even a stubbornness in her own beliefs, though accepting first her father's and then her husband's authority.  Fifteen years younger than her husband, she sets herself to fall in love with him, who though he is handsome is also presented as taciturn, gloomy, weak, and often irritable.

When the newlyweds go up to London, Mary meets Jack De Baron, a lively Guards officer who becomes a friend, really a playmate. Though their relationship is innocent, it becomes the subject of gossip, which tortures Lord George.  At the same time, he falls again under the spell of Adelaide De Baron Houghton, who flirts with him, draws expressions of love out of him, and writes him very indiscreet letters.  One of these letters falls into Mary's hands, but Lord George continues to obsess over her morals and behavior.

The second story revolves around the Marquis of Brotherton.  When Lord George writes to his older brother to announce his marriage, the Marquis replies that he too is going to be married.  Then comes the report that not only is he already married, to an Italian woman, but he has a son, his heir, Lord Popenjoy.  This comes as quite a surprise to his English family, who cannot help wondering why this news was kept from them.  As the heir to a great title and an estate (however diminished), the child's birth should have been announced and celebrated.  Dean Lovelace, who has ambitions for his daughter, insists that the marriage must be investigated, to prove that the child is actually legitimate and the rightful Lord Popenjoy.  Lord George reluctantly agrees, for the good of the family, that any doubts must be set to rest, but the Marquis is naturally enraged by the suggestion that his son is a bastard.

The Marquis is a thoroughly nasty character.  When he returns to England, he evicts his mother and unmarried sisters from the ancestral home, where they have been living in all the years of his absence.  He demands that they find a home far away, rather than taking the dower house to which his mother is entitled, and he is enraged again when they defy him in this.  He refuses to see his family, insisting that he will only visit his mother when his sisters are absent, and he will allow no one to meet his wife.  He berates Lord George for his marriage to, as he puts it, the livery stable, and he tells Mary's father the Dean that she is a "-----" (a term so bad it couldn't be printed - all I can guess is "whore" ?).

There is also a subplot involving one of Trollope's favorite targets, strong-minded women, especially American women. On her first visit to London, Mary is taken to a lecture at the "Rights of Women Institute. Established for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females," commonly referred to as "the Disabilities."  The speaker, a fat German with a moustache [always good for a laugh], a Baroness Banmann, is soon overshadowed by Doctor Olivia Q. Fleabody of Vermont.  Civil war breaks out among the women, with the Baroness eventually suing the institute's officers.  Trollope is mocking the women's rights movement when he writes about their belief that "a glorious era was at hand in which women would be chosen by constituencies, would wag their heads in courts of law, would buy and sell in Capel Court, and have balances at their banker's."  At least the women have the last laugh here.

The resolution of this family drama comes only after two deaths, one of them an innocent bystander, which are the cost of the happy ending but don't seem to carry that much emotional weight. This is an unsettling book, but it is a fascinating one, and it should I think be better known.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!