I find that the Trollope novels I love the best (at least so far — he wrote nearly fifty novels and many other works as well) take a central theme, like forgiveness or inheritance or family secrets, and approach it from every possible angle. In He Knew He Was Right, for instance, Trollope takes modern marriage and squeezes every drop from it. Characters are married, single, widowed, jilted, divorced, debutantes, engaged, lovers. They approach it from every possible philosophy and point of view. And then, of course, there’s narrator-Trollope, as in every book, and you never know how seriously to take him.
Framley Parsonage is not quite as well-organized as He Knew He Was Right, from this point of view. Still, this story of a young and ambitious priest, Mark Robarts, who has already risen quickly in life and would like to rise farther and faster still, gently juggles the questions of pride, money, and love, and does it better than most.
Mark has the living at Framley Parsonage because the kind and generous Lady Lufton gave it to him. While he is, of course, grateful for this place (he does less work for more money than any other vicar of his age, and the reader can sense the hardworking Trollope’s mocking resentment), it’s easy for a young man to feel that he has deserved whatever was dropped in his lap. Mark hobnobs with the fast-living, fast-spending set of the Duke of Omnium, and in a moment of terrible weakness, trying to look like a man of the world, he backs a bill he can never repay.
In the other major plotline of the novel, Mark’s sister Lucy falls in love with Lady Lufton’s son, and he with her. When Lord Lufton proposes, however, Lucy refuses — going so far as to swear it is impossible she can ever love him — because she knows the match will be repellent to his mother. How can the two come together, when Lucy will never say what she thinks?
It’s easy to characterize these plotlines as 1) money and 2) love, and to watch them wind around each other separately until they come to some kind of an end. But Trollope is more subtle than that. In fact, both stories are about pride. It is Mark’s pride, his insistence that he really owes nothing to Lady Lufton, his refusal to listen to his wife or even to his own conscience, that causes him to take the absurd step of backing not one, but two of the unreliable Sowerby’s bills. And it is Lucy’s pride, her decision that not even her fierce love for Lord Lufton can force her into a match where she is not welcomed as an equal, that causes her to take the absurd step of refusing her lover with a lie.
These two brands of pride are not equal in the reader’s eyes, of course, nor in Trollope’s. Lucy’s pride hurts only two people, and in the end has only beneficial consequences. She wins the respect even of Mr. Crawley, the proud, hard-living clergyman of Hogglestock. Mark, on the other hand, brings his family almost to the bailiffs, and certainly to notoriety and pain.
One of the great joys of the novel is the wonderfully ironic Lucy Robarts. She rarely says what she means, and virtually no one can tell when she is joking and when she is serious. Her fond brother and sister-in-law, Fanny, don’t know her well enough to be able to tell, and go about puzzled:
It was evident enough that [Lucy’s] misery was real; but yet she spoke of herself and her sufferings with so much irony, with so near an approach to joking, that it was very hard to tell how far she was in earnest.
And when Lucy jokes about her own sufferings in love, the reader wishes Lucy had a sister out of Austen, to understand her:
“Lucy, I do not believe that you care for him one jot. If you were in love you would not speak of it like that.”
“There, there. That’s my only hope. If I could laugh at myself till it had become incredible to you, I also, by degrees, should cease to believe that I had cared for him. But, Fanny, it is very hard. If I were to starve, and rise before daybreak, and pinch myself, or do some nasty work,– clean the pots and pans and the candlesticks; that I think would do the most good. I have got a piece of sack-cloth, and I mean to wear that, when I have made it up.”
“You are joking now, Lucy, I know.”
“No, by my word; not in the spirit of what I am saying.”
Lucy is so self-aware, not only of what she feels, but of what others expect her to feel, that she can outline both in the same paragraph. She is an absolute joy.
And so, I ought to say, is the marvelous Miss Dunstable. We met her and her snake-oil fortune in Doctor Thorne, and all I will say is that she is equally wonderful in this book, demonstrating both the evils of such a massive inheritance and the courage a good heart needs to undertake it.
I appreciate these chronicles more and more as I go through them. Two more, and then — on to the Pallisers!