Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope (1861)

History records that Elizabeth Gaskell said:

“I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end.”

I’m inclined to agree with her, and I think that is because it has so very many of the things I look for in a Trollope novel done rather well:

  • Church and Parliament
  • Vicarages and Country Houses
  • New and Returning Characters
  • Town and Country
  • Financial and Romantic Intrigues

At the centre of this book is a young man named Mark Robarts.

Mark was the son of a doctor from Devon, who shared a tutor with the young Lord Lufton. The dowager Lady Lufton was delighted with the friendship, and she guided Mark towards an excellent education, a career in the church, a comfortable living at the parish of Framley in the diocese of Barchester, and a happy marriage with her daughter’s lovely friend, Fanny.

He was genial and likeable young man, but his passage though life had been so smooth that he hadn’t learned many important lessons, and that led him into trouble.

Mark was drawn into the local political set, and he was persuaded to sign a bill for a significant amount of money. He knew that the man who made the request had a bad reputation, that Lord Lufton had already had unhappy dealings with him; but he didn’t know how to say no and it didn’t occur to him that any man wouldn’t do all that he could to meet his obligations and that he would be called upon to pay money that he didn’t have.

He was, and so he signed another bill.

He knew that he had done the wrong thing, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife.

It was maddening, it was understandable, it was utterly believable ….

That’s the framework of the story – what you would read about if you looked up the book;  but, as is almost always with Trollope’s big books, there was much more that he hung on that framework to make it a delight.

0140432132.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Consider a Christmas tree. A fir tree in its natural state is lovely, but when it has been adorned with a lovely mixture of old familiar and shiny new ornaments it is something else entirely …

When Mark’s father died he was heartbroken, but it occurred to him that a legacy might solve his financial problems. It didn’t, because Mark’s father believed he was well set up in life and that his siblings needed what little capital he had rather more; but it did bring him a lovely adornment to his home in the shape of his sister Lucy. She became one of my favourite Trollope heroines, with her lovely mix of intelligence, practicality and femininity.

Lord Lufton was drawn to Lucy, and she to him, but she knew that his mother disapproved and so she tried to pull away.

Though I often disagreed with her, I thought that the dowager Lady Lufton was a wonderful character. She was wonderfully active in her efforts to put the world to rights. She sent in a poor and pious perpetual curate, Mr Crawley, to try to draw Mark away from his unsuitable companions. He was not a character I could love, but his story was so well thought out that I could understand. She also promoted a match between her son and the lovely Griselda Grantly, daughter of the Archdeacon of Barchester.

Lady Lufton was formidable, but she had the best of intentions, she only wanted her son to be happy, and she could also be humble when realised that she had erred.

I was delighted to meet the Miss Dunstable, the wonderfully independently minded heiress again. She was close to the young Greshams and Doctor Thorne still, but she had been drawn into the  same local political set as Mark. She was interested in politics, and they were interested in her as a matrimonial prize who would bring them a very fine fortune.

I found the political set to be the weak link in this book, its members the least engaging of its characters; and  I suspect that they were there to allow stories to play out as Trollope wanted them to,  and not because he loved them for their own sakes.

I so hoped that Miss Dunstable’s good sense would prevail.

She was wonderfully entertained by Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly, as each lady wished to outdo each other socially, and as each lady had daughters to be married off. I was too, but I was disappointed that the Griselda Grantly was shallow and self-absorbed, and I really could not understand how the daughter of the archdeacon and his wife had turned out that way.

She didn’t appreciate her grandfather, Mr Harding, but I was delighted that he was given a moment in the spotlight, and even more delighted that he was given the opportunity to talk about Barchester Cathedral and Hiram’s Hospital.

There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details, that I really could feel that I was walking through a world that had a history that had begun long before I arrived and that would go on long after I left. Anthony Trollope made that world spin, he managed all of the characters and stories in that world wonderfully well.

He seemed a little less chatty than usual; maybe because there was so much going on.

I was caught up in the human drama from the first page to the last; and thought I had a fair idea where the story was going I wasn’t really sure until the very end.

The resolution was magnificent, I was sorry to have to leave this world, but I plan to travel back there very soon.

East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)

I could tell you that ‘East Lynne’, a huge popular success in its day, has unremarkable writing, is horribly contrived, holds no real surprises, drifts into silliness and goes on for much too long.

But I could also tell you that I had to keep reading, that I was very well entertained, and that the book was very easy to read.

I’d read it before, many years ago, when my love for Victorian sensation novels was very new; and though I remembered that arc of the story I had forgotten so many details.

East Lynne is an estate, located near the small town of West Lynne.  It’s owner, the Earl of Mount Severn, was far from old but he was crippled by gout and very close to bankruptcy. He hoped to sell East Lynne, the only unentailed property still in his possession, privately, so that his creditors would not find out. Archibald Carlyle, a successful young lawyer from West Lynne, visited the Earl as he was very interested in the property.

At dinner, he met the Earl’s daughter, Lady Isabel Vane. He saw that she was beautiful, that she was innocent, that she loved her father dearly, and that she had no idea how precarious his – and her – position was.

After dinner, Lady Isabel left to attend a party with her cousin and chaperone Mrs Vane. Lady Isabel met Captain Francis Levison, her chaperone’s cousin from another wing of her family, at that party. He was charming but clearly no good; she was blind to his failings, and utterly smitten.

The Earl dies suddenly, and his estate and his title are inherited by a distant cousin. He is a good and decent man and he takes Lady Isabel into his home. He grows fond of her but his wife is unhappy with the situation and takes that out on Lady Isabel. When Carlyle has occasion to visit he discovers Lady Isabel in an agitated state and when he sees her position, and she reluctantly tells him what has happened to her, he offers her an escape. He proposes marriage, knowing that she has the qualities to become an excellent wife. She was still in love with Levison, but he had failed to show himself, and so she agreed to the wedding so that she could leave a horrible situation and return to the home she loved at East Lynne.

9780199536030_p0_v1_s1200x630Meanwhile, in West Lynne, another young woman was trouble. Barbara Hare’s brother, Richard was a fugitive from justice, accused of the murder of George Hallijohn. He had been found standing over Hallijohn’s corpse, gun in hand. It was known that Richard was he had been courting the dead man’s daughter Afy, whom he used to visit in their isolated cottage, despite his father’s angry opposition.  Richard paid a furtive visit to his family home, to see his mother and ask for money.  He told his sister that there was another man present on the night of the murder, a Captain Thorn, who had also courting Afy. He thinks that Captain Thorne must be the murderer, but he has no idea who he was or where he came from, and Afy has disappeared.

Barbara turns to Archibald Carlyle – a friend and neighbour of her family, and the man she had hoped to marry – for help. (for whom her feelings are more than friendly). Her father has disowned Richard, her mother is frail, and so she and he begin to work together, to try to clear Richard’s name.

In these early chapters I was wonderfully caught up with the story and the characters; developing firm opinions about the different characters, about what had happened, and what – in all probability – was going to happen.

Archibald Carlyle was a good man, but he was foolish in many ways.

He allowed his imperious spinster sister – Miss Corny – to shut up her own home and move into East Lynne, without giving a thought to whether she and his sweet-natured wife would be compatible. They weren’t.

He kept Barbara Hare’s secret and he failed to give his wife any explanation about why he spent so much time at her family home. It didn’t occur to him that his wife might fear the worst. She did.

Captain Francis Levison reappeared when Lady Isabel was at a very low ebb. He charmed her all over again, and she made a decision that would have terrible consequences ….

This was where things started to go wrong; because what I knew of Lady Isabel wouldn’t let me believe that she did what she did.

There was much drama as the story played out:

  • A train crash
  • A parliamentary election
  • A trial for murder
  • A deathbed scene or two.

I was increasingly aware that there was far too much melodrama, there was too much that was implausible and that there were far too many coincidences. I was still turning the pages quickly, I was still being wonderfully well entertained; the story was full of incident and I continued to be engaged by the characters and their situations.

I was fascinated by Ellen Wood’s attitude to them to. When she addressed her reader she had a very firm moral stance, but her story suggested that she really had a little more empathy and understanding. Even after her fall, Lady Isabel remained the heroine, and even though her creator put her through the mill she did allow her glimpses of true happiness and a promise of redemption.

I had to sympathise with her; a fundamentally good woman whose circumstances led her to make one mistake, that she would quickly realise was that and pay for so dearly.

I was sorry that the villain responsible for her fall was a little one-dimensional.

The women in this story were more interesting that the men, and they made must have made this story feel very modern in its own time. Afy was a minx, but she was doing what she had to, left to make her own way in the world. Barbara may have been rather proud, but her family situation was difficult, the prospects for a young woman whose brother had been labelled a murderer weren’t good, and she did the best she could for herself and the people she loved. Miss Corny – well I don’t quite have the words, except to say the her dress sense, her economies and her firm principle were wonderfully entertaining. I’d love to send her into the future – maybe into another book – to see what she made of it and what the future made of her.

East Lynne is a very big book, and because it became less plausible and more predictable as I went on I wasn’t entirely sorry to reach the end.

I have to say though, that because there was so much going on its pages, so much to think about, I’m very glad that I decided to visit it again.