Is there anything more delightful than a visit to Barsetshire? Reading Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope for the first time earlier this year has been one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of 2013. Any Trollope is attractive but there is something so welcoming about the Barsetshire books. Though I don’t think Framley Parsonage is the best in the series, it does introduce some wonderful characters and brings back old favourites.
The main conflict of the novel is good – a young clergyman, Mark Robarts, guarantees a friend’s debts then unsuspectingly finds himself on the hook for them – and the romantic subplots were excellent but, as is Trollope’s want, it was overlong. There was too much about Mr Sowerby, the MP whose careless ways cause Mark Robarts so much anxiety, and his unscrupulous group of friends. The drawing out of Mark’s association with these people, especially after he realises how irresponsibly he behaves when around them, did little to increase the tension of the story. And seeing these folk separate from Mark, carousing in London where Mr Sowerby continued his pursuit of the wealthy Miss Dunstable, stretched my patience when there were so many other characters I liked and was eager to get back to.
The central group of characters, though, was perfect. Mark Robarts, thanks to his longstanding association with young Lord Lufton, has had everything handed to him: an excellent education, a generous living, and a wonderful wife. He is a good man who has never been forced to make any hard decisions, whose goodness and moral judgement have never before been tested. When they are, Mark realises how weak he is. He is no hero and, left on his own, has no idea how to extricate himself from his troubles. For months, he feels too ashamed to reveal his failure to his loving wife or even his best friend, Lord Lufton. His weakness makes him feel terribly real but that alone does not make him particularly interesting. As usual, it is Trollope’s women who demand the bulk of the reader’s attention, affection, and esteem.
The men in this book feel young but perfectly so. Mark Robarts and Lord Lufton feel like normal twenty-six year old men, no different from the ones I know now. They are charming and bright and eager, loving and kind and thankful but, more often than not, they are also impulsive and proud and indecisive. They are not storybook heroes, who always know exactly what to do and say, but real men with much left to learn:
I know it will be said of Lord Lufton himself that, putting aside his peerage and broad acres, and handsome, sonsy face, he was not worth a girl’s care and love. That will be said because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for the world’s common wear and tear. I may as well confess that of absolute, true heroism there was only a moderate admixture in Lord Lufton’s composition; but what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were to be thought worthy of women’s love?
Their lovers – Fanny, Mark’s wife, and Lucy, Mark’s sister who falls in love with Lord Lufton – are even younger but are far more practical and productive than their menfolk. They can be just as confused emotionally but they know how to handle the challenges they face. The stalwart Fanny Robarts is wonderful. Already the mother of two young children, she is quiet and sweet but much stronger than her husband and diplomatic enough to keep up the relationship with Lady Lufton when that sensible woman is ready to give up on Mark. And Lucy, wonderful Lucy, has to be one of Trollope’s most delightful creations. Having come to live with Mark and Fanny after her father’s death, Lucy attracts the admiration of Lord Lufton, much to his mother’s displeasure. Knowing that his initial vows of love are more a sign of infatuation than real emotional commitment and that he could just as easily be convinced to propose to Griselda Grantly, the statuesque beauty his mother favours, Lucy tries to halt her own growing love for him. The result is one of the most amusing chapters in all of Trollope, with such wonderful exchanges as:
‘And what shall I do next?’ said Lucy, still speaking in a tone that was half tragic and half jeering.
‘Do?’ said Mrs Robarts.
‘Yes, something must be done. If I were a man I should go to Switzerland, of course; or, as the case is a bad one, perhaps as far as Hungary. What is it that girls do? they don’t die now-a-days, I believe.’
The more mature women are no less formidable or sympathetic. Trollope, bless him, understood how much fun the older generation was still capable of having, especially since the younger folk in this book spend so much of their time consumed with very weighty concerns. Their elders, for the most part, are left to indulge themselves in petty squabbles and flirtations without censure from the young:
How pleasantly young men and women of fifty or thereabouts can joke and flirt and poke their fun about, laughing and holding their sides, dealing in little innuendos and rejoicing in nicknames when they have no Mentors of twenty-five or thirty near them to keep them in order.
Miss Dunstable, the wonderfully sensible heiress introduced in Doctor Thorne, is back but in danger of drifting away from her true friends. Caught up with a fast, fashionable London set, she risks losing the warmth and genuine feeling she values in her relationships with the young Greshams and the admirable Doctor Thorne. Her attempts to claim the kind of life (and life partner) she desires is one of the novel’s most enjoyable subplots.
Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly, those two old foes, feature prominently here as well, though Mrs Grantly’s family has been cruelly cut since earlier books: she now has only one daughter and two sons (down from two and three, I believe). Mrs Grantly’s efforts to marry off the cold and exquisite Griselda occupy most of her attention but enough remains for her to make a number of jabs about the vile Proudies when their paths cross in London. I loved these glimpses of the battle-ready Mrs Grantly, even though it meant I got to see very little of my favourite Barsetshire resident, Dr Grantly.
As much as I loved Lucy, I think Lady Lufton was my favourite character in Framley Parsonage. Though she is an active and well-liked woman, her main focus in life, the source of her greatest happiness, is her son. She is content in his absence but “younger and brighter when he was there, thinking more of the future and less of the past. She could look at him, and that alone was happiness to her.” She wants only the best for him and, to her, the “best” means a suitable marriage, ideally to a bride of her choosing. Lord Lufton, still a young man, seems less convinced of the necessity of a wife but Lady Lufton, like any competent Victorian mama, sees no reason to let that stand in the way of her match-making:
In her mind, every man was bound to marry as soon as he could maintain a wife; and she held an idea – a quiet private tenet, of which she was herself but imperfectly conscious – that men in general were inclined to neglect this duty for their own selfish gratifications, that the wicked ones encouraged the more innocent in this neglect, and that many would not marry at all, were not an unseen coercion exercised against them by the other sex.
When her son goes against her wishes in picking a wife, Lady Lufton has to overcome her pride and accept the woman he has chosen. For a woman so used to having her own way, it is a difficult lesson but Lady Lufton can be impressively humble when she knows she has erred, which only makes me admire her more.
Had the subplots, particularly Mr Sowerby’s, been judiciously pruned, I think this would have been my favourite Trollope book to date. As it is, I still loved it and I can completely understand why Elizabeth Gaskell was moved to say: “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end.”