Thursday, April 18, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage is the fourth of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, following The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and Doctor Thorne (1858), and succeeded by The Small House at Allington (1863) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). Framley Parsonage was first serialized in Cornhill Magazine in 1860/1861, and published in book form in the latter year. (Serialization of novels was common in that period, and three of the Chronicles were first published in magazines, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.) The earlier Barchester novels were quite successful, but apparently Framley Parsonage was even more so.

I read The Warden when I was a teenager, and I read Barchester Towers last year (review here). I intended to continue reading the Chronicles in order, but I made a mistake, and got a (free!) audiobook version of Framley Parsonage and started listening to it before I realized I should have read Doctor Thorne first. (No big deal, I think -- I can certainly figure out much of what happened in Doctor Thorne from what I learned in Framley Parsonage, but Trollope's pleasures like very much elsewhere from the simple progressions of the plots.) The narrator of my version was Timothy West -- I note that Audible also features versions by Simon Vance, by David Shaw-Parker, and by Flo Gibson. I can only say that I think West did an excellent job.

The novel proceeds in several closely related threads. The primary thread concerns Mark Robarts, the Vicar of Framley Parsonage. Mark is a pleasant enough man in his late 20s, who became friends as a child with a boy of the same age, then the son of Baron Lufton, though Mark's friend, Ludovic, has succeeded to the title at the time of this novel. Lord Lufton's mother, Lady Lufton, is a benevolent woman, and she helped Mark Robarts get an excellent education, and sponsored him for the living at Framley Parsonage (a very good living) and even introduced him to his wife, Fanny. Mark is thus in a good situation, with a wife he loves, and children he loves -- but he does feel that he is too much in Lady Lufton's debt, and thus under her control. And so, as the novel opens,  he accepts an invitation from a new friend of his, whom he met through Lord Lufton -- Nathaniel Sowerby, who owns a house near the seat of the Duke of Omnium. The point here is that the Duke of Omnium is a Whig, and Lady Lufton is a Tory, and so Lady Lufton will not be happy. In addition, the Duke is reputed to be a very immoral man, and, in fact, Mark already knows that Mr. Sowerby is an unstrustworthy man, at least in financial matters, for he has already led Lord Lufton into debt, by rather shady means. Very soon, then, Mark finds himself agreeing to sign a bill for Mr. Sowerby, to help tide the man over some financial difficulties -- though the reader (and, soon enough, Mark) realizes right away that Mr. Sowerby will not be able to raise the money to pay off the bill, and the burden will fall on Mark. 

So, this thread is entwined throughout the novel: we realize quickly that Mr. Sowerby is on the road to complete financial ruin, and that he will bring Mark with him. Mr. Sowerby is the MP from the Duke's part of Barsethire (chosen by the Duke) and part of the book follows some political upheaval -- the Whigs gain control of Parliament. This allows Sowerby to angle for a plum appointment for Mark -- a Prebendary stall in Barchester -- which again, will only entangle Mark more damningly with Mr. Sowerby. (Trollope was keenly interested in politics and once stood for office himself.) This is the most political of the Barchester novels I've read, with plot lines involving multiple governments being formed (Trollope has great fun calling the Whigs "Gods" and the Tories "Giants" in an extended metaphor), and concerning the fortunes of not just Mark Robarts, but his brother John (who holds a minor position in a government department), and of Archdeacon Grantly (who stands to gain a Bishopric if a bill creating two new sees is passed), and Mr. Harold Smith, a pompous Whig (and brother-in-law to Mr. Sowerby) who wants a Cabinet position.*

The key romantic thread involves Mark's sister Lucy, who comes to live with Mark and Fanny, and thus meets Lord Lufton. The two fall in love, but Lady Lufton and the Archdeacon's wife Mrs. Grantly have long intended that Lord Lufton marry Griselda Grantly. Lucy is aware of that, and tries to hide her attraction to Lord Lufton, but any reader can see the way the wind blows. This is all resolved very nicely, even powerfully -- and Griselda Grantly, it must be said, is a terribly comical character in her almost imprenetrable self-conceit and lack of passion or intelligence. 

There is another significant thread, involving Mr. Crawley, a desperately poor clergyman with a meager living in a remote part of the county. Mr. Crawley was very briefly introduced in Barchester Towers as the friend of Mr. Arabin, who in that book became the new Dean of Barchester. Mr. Crowley and his wife have four children, and they can barely support them, but Mr. Crowley's pride is so extreme that he refuses all help, though Mr. Arabin as well as Fanny and Mark Robarts try to help, and sometimes manage to sneak treats to Mrs. Crowley. Mr. Crowley is a deeply flawed man, but a very honest and sincere one, and he serves as a moral corrective to Mark when he begins to stray. But the Crowleys face a severe crisis when Mrs. Crowley contracts a severe fever (probably typhoid fever), and Fanny and Lucy Robarts (especially Lucy) come to the rescue. (I understand that Mr. Crowley becomes the key character of The Last Chronicle of Barset.)

I have failed to mention many of the characters, some already familiar to readers of the previous books: the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie, the delightful heiress Miss Dunstable, Dr. Thorne of the book named for him; and well as such new characters as Mrs. Harriet Smith (Mr. Sowerby's sister), and the journalist Mr. Supplehouse.

I won't detail the plot any further -- likely I've already said too much. I just wish to say how thoroughly enjoyable the novel is -- indeed, I'm beginning to understand, how thoroughly enjoyable Trollope is. The novel -- as I understand it, most of his novels -- is told from an omniscient author point of view -- that is, the voice of the author is prominent, and he knows everything, and lets us in on a lot of what he knows. This sort of thing is unfashionable these days, and it is fraught with danger, but in skilled hands -- and Trollope's hands are very skilled indeed -- it is delightful. The author comments extensively on the events of the story, on the motivations and feelings of the characters, and on the moral and political lessons to be derived; and he does so with a beautifully ironic tone. The novel itself is at once gently satirical, and profoundly affectionate to all the characters, even a villain like Mr. Sowerby. It is very funny at times, and really moving at times. It is popular fiction -- of the highest order, but still popular -- and there is a sense that the author arranges that things turn out more or less for the best for the characters we like. But we do also learn, and think, about the society of which Trollope writes, and its social, economic, and political organization.

In summary -- this is a lovely book, and I recommend it highly. Likely it is best read after reading the earlier Barsetshire books -- but that should be no burden, they are quite enjoyable.

*(I understand that the Palliser novels -- originally called the Parliamentary novels -- are much more concerned with political maneuverings. They are also closely linked to the Barsetshire novels -- indeed, Palliser is the family name of the Duke of Omnium.)


  1. Ford Maddox Ford declared that Framley Parsonage was the greatest of all English novels. I wouldn't go that far, but I loved the book as I have loved every Trollope I Have read (all the Barteshires, The Way We Live Now, and the first three Pallisers). I look forward to each "new" Trollope as I look forward to few other books. People often dismiss his work as literary "comfort food", but I think they miss how critical he could be of his society and its values - while still being supremely entertaining.

    1. That's just it. The plots do resolve, as I said, so that the people we like best come out OK -- such things as the money that saves Mark Robarts, or Lady Lufton's change of heart re Lucy. And that can be argued as "comforting" -- though even there there are ambiguities: Mark, for example, has to, essentially, submit to Lady Lufton's gentle domination. Perhaps in a sense for his own good, but still! And behind all that there is the definitely satirical, indeed cynical, view of his society.

      It is, after all, no crime to entertain!

    2. But, no, FRAMLEY PARSONAGE is not as great a novel as, say, MIDDLEMARCH. (A novel which is also supremely entertaining, I should add.) Or DAVID COPPERFIELD, even (which is obviously a profoundly entertaining novel.) But, you know, all these novels are doing something different from each other, and a great in their different ways.

      For that matter, Ford Madox Ford himself has a novel that is at least in the large conversation about "greatest English novels", THE GOOD SOLDIER.

  2. I'll not be a spoiler, Rich, but the period that Trollope puts on the story of Mrs. Proudie and the Bishop at the end of the Barsetshire series will literally leave you speechless - I guarantee it! (In the words of Charles Barkley.)