In recent months I have devoted quite a bit of my time to an activity that will no doubt surprise any regular readers of this space, in view of my customary hostility towards religion. I have been reading a series of novels that deal in immense detail with the lives of Anglican clergymen in Victorian England.
Readers with a modicum of knowledge of English literature will probably have immediately guessed that I have been reading the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope. I read some of them many years go, but recently came across a couple of others that have been sitting in my library unread for years, and was immediately hooked.
As portrayed in Trollope, Anglican clergymen of that period could more closely be compared to a nest of vipers, bitterly embroiled in resentful behaviour towards those above and below them, than to the cosy milk-and-water nice blokes that we are accustomed to think them.
The two novels that are the subject of this article are Framley Parsonage, and The Last Chronicle of Barset, the latter of which brings the series of six books to a close. Trollope, as I have discovered from reading a biography of him written by James Pope Hennessy, was an amazingly prolific writer who produced almost 40 novels, plus a plethora of short stories, travel books and other works in the 35 years that he was an active writer, but who also, during most of that time held down a job in the Post Office which took him to various places in the British Isles and even to other countries.
He was a keen observer of social conditions, and of politics, of which his so-called Palliser novels take us into the centre of the politics of his time. One distinguishing fact about him according to Pope Hennessy, was that he was incapable of recognizing his many bad works from his many good ones; he would no doubt have been amazed to discover that his two great series of novels are still being read 130 years after his death, and, also according to his biographer, many other of his novels besides the Palliser and Barchester series are among the finest novels ever written by an Englishman.
Trollope was a gruff, rowdy, unprepossessing character, marked for life by an horrendous boyhood in which he was neglected, virtually ignored by his family, who at one point emigrated to the United States with siblings in tow except that he was left behind alone at a school in England. When he decided to become a writer –-- very much in the family tradition, because his mother became a famous popular writer of travel books and novels --- he set himself a semi-industrial schedule which required him to get up at 4.30 almost every morning of his life and write until breakfast, producing in his almost illegible handwriting page after page of plots that he had carefully worked out in advance.
These two novels have cracking plots, but are even more impressive for the characters he draws with such deep understanding. One aspect of the life of that time that I found extremely fascinating from Trollope’s description of the country gentry and those dependent upon them, is that the inequality of incomes that is so notable a feature of our own times appears to have been even worse in those days than today, when we so often hear claims that it has reached “the worst levels ever.” Pope Hennessy claims that no other British writer has ever so clearly described the concern about money shown by the gentlemen of the shires. Within the Church the same thing was true: in Framley Parsonage Bishop Proudie, was the top dog in theory, but in practice he was a much despised weakling who was totally under the thumb of his aggressive, domineering, and, in the parishes, bitterly resented, wife.
Bishop Proudie came to his office against the wishes of Lady Lufton, a proud relic of the landed family of the county, who had at her disposal a number of parishes and other clerical appointments, some of which were accompanied by a substantial income, but others that were fated to be among the very poorest in the land. Lady Lufton had been nursing along one of her favourites, Mark Robarts, a handsome, likeable young man who quite soon felt the need to assert some minimal independence from his benefactor. He had his own horses, of course, with which to ride to hounds, and he did not hesitate to have social intercourse with certain characters who came under the rule of the Duke of Omnium, a man despised by Lady Lufton. This independent streak soon landed him in trouble, for he agreed to sign a bill for an influential man of business and politics, in the expectation that no call would be made on him to honour the debt. Of course the man was unreliable, and so the Rev. Mark, who was a close personal friend of young Lord Lufton, eventually found himself in some pretty dark waters.
Lady Lufton was a woman of immense wealth, and her son could have paid off his friend’s debts if only he had turned to him with a request for help. The Rev. however, was too proud to do so. Lady Lufton was hoping that her son might marry the eldest daughter of the Archdeacon, Griselda Grantly, a beautiful but rather empty-headed girl, thus assuring his future for all time, the Grantly’s being almost as wealthy as her ladyship. But Mark Robarts had a sister, Fanny, unregarded by Lady Lufton or anyone else, except that it was noticed that the young Lord was spending a lot of time in conversation with her. In the event Lord Lufton steadfastly refused to marry Griselda, and caused a tremendous kerfuffle by insisting that he would marry Miss Robarts.
The further complication of this plot came through the plight of Mr. Crawley, the impecunious holder of the parish of Hogglestock, a man of rigid virtue, immense learning, unbendable principle, and a pride so intense that he would refuse to allow his wife to accept gifts offered from better-off houses to ease the burden of poverty imposed by his rigidity on his wife and children. It has been written that Mr. Crawley is one of the greatest characters ever created in the English novel, a man so pious that even his wife recognized at times that his piety drove him to the brink of actual lunacy. So poor were they that Mrs. Crawley became stricken with typhoid, and to everyone’s amazement Miss Robarts insisted on moving into the Crawley hovel to tend to the invalid, and stayed here without ever leaving for many months until her patient had recovered.
With a girl of such sterling qualities, Lord Lufton’s infatuation with her could not be denied, especially since Griselda Grantly had begun to attract the attention of a stodgy Lord Dumbello, who stood to inherit an earldom, thus clearing the way for Lord Lufton to marry Miss Robarts, elevating her into Her Ladyship, albeit at a lower level than the Archdeacon’s daughter.
The various incomes of these people are said to have ranged from Duke of Omnium’s unmentionable fortune down through a graded system past the wealthy Dean Arabin and Archdeacon Grantly, with their two hundred thousand a year, to Mark Robarts with his several hundred a year, and lower to Mr. Crawley’s thirty-nine pounds a year, a veritable famine wage.
The clergymen may have had the occasional duty but none of the monied people is ever described as actually working for a living. They lived on their estates, and presumably on the income derived from rents paid by their tenants, and of course, from their investments. The sterling Lucy Robarts arranged for Mr. Crawley’s children to be housed with some of the more wealthy neighbours while their mother was ill, and one of these children Grace, was found already to have a sound classical education forced on her by her father, and in other respects to be a girl deserving of high praise.
By the end of Volume I of the Last Chronicle, Mr. Crawley had been accused to having cashed a cheque for twenty pounds which belonged to someone else. Thus he was accused of stealing, an offence which could end his career as a clergyman, and plunge his family into a social status beyond the imagination of any proper person. But there had been a further superb development of the plot. Just as Trollope had succeeded in creating in Fanny Robarts a portrait of a wonderful, pure, English girl, so he had created in Grace Crawley an even more rigidly proper, even more engaging and delightful young woman, who was lusted after by Major Henry Grantly, brother of the Marchioness, and son of the wealthy Archdeacon, who was so outraged that his son could think of marrying a girl from the family of a man likely to be convicted of theft, that he threatened to strip him of the eight hundred pounds allowance that enabled his son to live in relative luxury.
I simply had to find Volume II of this book, and instituted an immediate internet search for it. I was not surprised to find it was not available in second-hand bookstores in North America, but no fewer than 50 small second-hand bookstores in England had on offer exactly the Volume I was seeking. I bought one that was being sold for one dollar, plus four or five dollars for the postage. Although obviously no one could be making money on this transaction, the book arrived, printed in 1936, looking as if it had never been touched, in apple-pie order, and thus I was able to finish the story.
The Archdeacon was beside himself with fury that his son should have thought of marrying so far beneath him. He was adamant on the matter, but when he was finally persuaded to meet Grace Crawley, she so charmed him by her upright honesty and winsome manner that he began slowly to regret his stern admonition. When told that his son had already proposed to Grace and been rejected, the Archdeacon was delighted, the more especially because her refusal arose from the most impeccable of reasons, namely, the impossibility, in her eyes, that she should bring discredit on the Archdeacon’s family by allying it with a family headed by a likely thief.
This is the kind of dilemma that could occur probably only to the super-ethical heroines portrayed by Trollope. Certainly I have never known such a woman in my life, and I am not sure I should have liked her had I known such a one. But it all came out in the end, propelled by Miss Crawley’s outstanding qualities: a family friend, John Eames, who himself had been denied the girl he loved because, after falling for a bounder she had decided she would be an old maid for the rest of her life, undertook to go to Europe in search of the holidaying Dean Arabin, who, in his younger days had been a close personal friend of Mr Crawley. This voyage was so successful that Mrs Arabin, who had been unaware of the charges against Mr Crawley, readily admitted that she had slipped the cheque into an envelope of notes that she had sent to Mr. Crawley. The man was therefore cleared of theft, the whole case dropped, along with the Archdeacon’s objections to Miss Grace Crawley. And Mr. Crawley was reluctantly persuaded to accept an appointment to a better parish that would pay him a living wage for the rest of his life.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Pope Hennessy’s extremely high opinion of Trollope the novelist. Certainly, once involved in his unlikely tales of intrigue among the churchmen, I have proven unable to put them down. And I recommend them to anyone who loves a rattling good tale, and who has the time to read some very long books.