Sunday, April 27, 2014

Love in the time of Famine (with apologies to Mr. Marquez)

Castle Richmond, Anthony Trollope

I have been curious about Anthony Trollope's novels set in Ireland since reading in his autobiography, and in Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography, about the years he spent living and working in Ireland for the postal service, in the 1840s and 1850s.  I have read somewhere that the Irish-set novels are "frequently pedestrian," but I wanted to see for myself.  I thought they would be an interesting contrast to the published journals of Elizabeth Grant Smith, the "Highland Lady," which cover the years 1840-1856, almost the same time that Trollope was in Ireland (1841-1859).  From the introduction, I learned that Castle Richmond, set during the Famine in 1845-1846, was begun as Trollope was leaving Ireland for a new appointment in England.  He started the novel in 1859, but he set it aside to write Framley Parsonage, for the first issue of his friend William Thackeray's new Cornhill Magazine, because the editors didn't want an "Irish story." 

While Framley Parsonage was Trollope's biggest success to date, Castle Richmond received little attention and sold poorly when it was published in 1860.  The editor of my Oxford World Classics edition, Mary Hamer, suggests that its setting during the Famine made readers at the time uncomfortable, as did the ambiguous situation of Ireland itself.  But it is also just a strange story.  Really, in some ways it is typical Trollope, with three interweaving stories.  The first concerns Lady Clara Desmond, whose young brother the Earl is heir to a broken-down estate in County Cork, which her mother the Countess is holding together mainly by her will.  Two men love Clara, who is sixteen when the story opens: Owen Fitzgerald, with a small holding at Hap House; and his kinsman Herbert Fitzgerald, heir to a baronetcy and £14,000 a year, from his father's estate at Castle Richmond.  Clara's practical mother forces her daughter to reject Owen on the grounds of poverty, and eventually Clara accepts Herbert.  The Countess's great secret is that she has fallen deeply in love with Owen herself, and she hopes that her daughter's rejected suitor might turn to her instead. 

However, in the second major story line, Herbert's father Sir Thomas is under great stress, his health failing, under frequent visits from a mysterious man.  His wife Lady Fitzgerald suspects that the visitor may have something to do with her first marriage, to a scoundrel who deserted her almost immediately, and was reported to have later died in Paris.  Owen is the next heir in line after Herbert, and if he becomes Sir Owen, the wealth of Castle Richmond would make him an acceptable husband for Clara - in which case the Countess would unselfishly give him up.  Clara's young brother Patrick is rather in love with Owen as well.  An impressionable schoolboy, he spends his holidays from Eton with Owen.  In one emotional scene, he declares his love, at one point throwing himself on Owen's breast and bursting into tears.  Anyone looking for homoerotic subtext in Trollope should consider this book, where Owen and Patrick end up travelling the world together.

I found much of this emotional turmoil exhausting, particularly Owen's obsessive possessive love for Clara, which he keeps proclaiming.  When it seems that he might become the next heir to Castle Richmond, he repeatedly offers to trade it all for Clara herself, if Herbert will just give her back.  I did appreciate that Clara, Herbert and the author all make it clear that she is not up for trade, that she will decide for herself.  Balancing Owen's hopeless love is the Countess's. Trollope does not mock her feelings, but he repeats over and over that she was wrong for marrying for wealth and status.  In his view, she traded her youth and beauty to be a Countess, she made a bad bargain, and it is her own fault that she is now poor and alone.  I found her more sympathetic than I think her author did.

All of this emotional toil and trouble plays out against the true suffering and misery of the Famine, the third strand of the story.  The main characters are not personally affected by it, as members of the gentry and aristocracy.  Their rent revenues may fall, but they will not themselves starve.  Though the Castle Richmond family - Herbert, his mother and sisters - faces the loss of their home and their £14,000, they have other resources.  But outside their gates, all around them, people are suffering and dying.  Herbert and his agent, with the local clergymen, sit on the charitable boards working to save the population from starvation.  Clara Desmond and Herbert's sisters do what they can to help.  Trollope reports on this work in detail, and the scenes set among the Irish people seem more real than the emotionalism of the love stories.  Occasionally he reports some incident that he witnessed himself, which adds to the realism of these sections.  Though Trollope wrote so often about clergymen, he didn't often deal directly with faith.  Here he tries to explain the devastation of the Famine as the will of God, for his own purposes, which human beings cannot always understand, and to insist that God's mercy was still active even in the midst of so much human suffering.  It is a bit chilling to read in his "Conclusion" that in the end, the Famine was a good thing for Ireland, by thinning its population through emigration and death, and reforming its reliance on the potato and single-crop farming.

This was an interesting book, though I can't say I really enjoyed reading it.  Looking at the other "Irish" books, I see The Kellys and the O'Kellys described as a "light-hearted story," while his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran is "set in the violent Ireland of the 1830s."  I think I'll move the Macdermots further down the list, at least for now.


  1. I think the book would have been more interesting if it was just about the famine and the people it affected, but then I guess it wouldn't have been a Trollope novel!

  2. Anbolyn, I felt the same way! but Trollope didn't really write about the class of people really affected by the Famine. He is a realistic writer, but not for all levels of his society.

  3. I like Trollope best when he is working with the political classes and exposing the type of double dealing that we can still find today. For that reason 'The Pallisers' will always be my favourites. I'm not sure there would be enough here to keep me interested. Although I would be fascinated by novel that explored the political dealings that made lives for the Irish farmers so much worse.

  4. Alex, he tried to give some context to the Famine, by explaining the system of land-holding & tenant farming, but only enough to frame his story. And he doesn't address what was going on in England with reference to Ireland, except to state firmly, more than once, that the government's policy was the right one.

  5. I'm becoming a fan of Trollope, but I think if I read this book, I might rethink my fan-girl status. It does seem odd--all the angst and drama of the family seem trivial compared to the famine and the bit about it "thinning" the population seems callous and off-putting overall.

    Glad I read this review--Trollope has such a mass of novels, this should be easy to take a pass on. :)

  6. Jane, the family drama is typical Trollope, though a bit over the top compared to later stories - and I would probably have enjoyed it more in a different setting. I have a fancy to read all of Trollope's novels - but this isn't one I will re-read.


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!