It has been too long since my last visit to Barsetshire – either Anthony Trollope’s version or Angela Thirkell’s, for that matter. Time to check in with the Grantlys, Proudies, Arabins, and Thornes – and to meet some new friends: Lady Lufton of Framley Court, her slightly wayward son Lord Lufton, and the Vicar of Framley, Mark Robarts and his family.
Framley Parsonage opens with a description of Mark’s history and his rise to his own parsonage – thanks to his college friendship with Lord Lufton, and Lady Lufton’s patronage, at a young age. At first, I was a little concerned that Lady Lufton might be a Victorian version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but I needn’t have worried. Mark Robarts is no Mr Collins, and Lady Lufton – while she is certainly a bit bossy – has everyone’s best interests at heart. Of course, this is Trollope.
After Mark befriended her son, Lady Lufton took him warmly to her heart, installed him with a living at Framley Parsonage, and provided him with a wife – her daughter’s good friend Fanny. Having had a home and family heaped upon him before he was old enough to fully appreciate his good fortune, Mark convinces himself that he needs to continue climbing the ladder and meet more and more illustrious characters. In so doing, he falls in with a group of county luminaries of whom Lady Lufton heartily disapproves – the “immoral” Duke of Omnium, hard-charging government minister Harold Smith, and county MP Nathaniel Sowerby. Sowerby is a reckless spendthrift who has already convinced Lord Lufton to co-sign some bills for him, costing Lady Lufton some 5,000 pounds – and now he charms Mark into putting his name to two bills totaling 900 pounds, Mark’s entire annual income. Mark’s struggles to come to terms with this moment of foolishness make up the main plot of the book.
Mark Robarts’ mistake had been mainly this, – he had thought to touch pitch and not to be defiled. He, looking out from his pleasant parsonage into the pleasant upper ranks of the world around him, had seen that men and things in those quarters were very engaging. His own parsonage, with his sweet wife, were exceedingly dear to him, and Lady Lufton’s affectionate friendship had its value; but were not these things rather dull for one who had lived in the best sets at Harrow and Oxford; – unless, indeed, he could supplement them with some occasional bursts of more lively life?
Mark may be the main character – the flawed hero of the book, perhaps – but as is often the case with Trollope, the female characters are made of stronger fibers and possessed of more vibrant spirits, and they are by far the best part of the book.
First and foremost, there is Lucy Robarts. The Vicar’s younger sister, she comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Although at first a shy and “insignificant” (Lady Lufton’s word) presence, there is something about her – and young Lord Lufton is smitten. They become friends and, soon, they’re in love. But Lady Lufton disapproves of Lucy as a match for her son, and she sets Fanny Robarts, the Vicar’s wife, the task of putting Lucy on her guard. Lucy’s efforts to avoid Lord Lufton – a painful sacrifice on her part, because she is already in love – are poignant. But this is Trollope, so you can be sure the force of her character will win the day.
She’s helped along the way by her sister-in-law, Fanny Robarts. And while Lucy is the romantic heroine, I loved Fanny even more. Fanny feels the same affection and debt of gratitude to Lady Lufton that her husband does – she comes from a middle-class background, raised up to socializing with the squire’s family due to her school friendship with Lady Justinia Meredith, Lord Lufton’s sister. Lady Lufton embraces her daughter’s friend and installs her comfortably in the parsonage with Mark – who Fanny truly loves. Fanny believes that she owes her sunny, comfortable life to Lady Lufton’s kindhearted interference, but the fact of the matter is that she is ideally suited to be a Vicar’s wife. Both gentle at heart and strong at core, Fanny will do anything for Mark and Lucy. Although loving Lady Lufton dearly (and naturally conflict-avoidant) Fanny is willing to go to bat for her husband and sister-in-law, even though intimidated, at various points in the book – and Lady Lufton loves and respects her more for it.
‘I do not at all impute any blame to Miss Robarts for what has occurred since,’ continued her ladyship. ‘I wish you distinctly to understand that.’
‘I do not see how any one could blame her. She has behaved so nobly.’
‘It is of no use inquiring whether any one can. It is sufficient that I do not.’
‘But I think that is hardly sufficient,’ said Mrs Robarts, pertinaciously.
‘Is it not?’ asked her ladyship, raising her eyebrows.
‘No. Only think what Lucy has done and is doing. If she had chosen to say that she would accept your son I really do not know how you could have justly blamed her. I do not by any means say that I would have advised such a thing.’
‘I am glad of that, Fanny.’
‘I have not given any advice; nor is it needed. I know no one more able than Lucy to see clearly, by her own judgment, what course she ought to pursue. I should be afraid to advise one whose mind is so strong, and who, of her own nature, is so self-denying as she is. She is sacrificing herself now, because she will not be the means of bringing trouble and dissension between you and your son. If you ask me, Lady Lufton, I think you owe her a deep debt of gratitude. I do indeed. And as for blaming her – what has she done that you could possibly blame?’
Really! Despite loving her patroness dearly, and feeling more than a little intimidated – Fanny Robarts will beard the lion in its den for the sake of the people she loves, and that is hardcore. Indeed, there is no one like Trollope for sparking dialogue and strong female characters – except for Jane Austen. Mark Robarts’ story is engaging (and you do root for him to work his way through the tangled mess his social climbing creates) but as always with Trollope, it’s the women who steal the show, from the briefer appearances of the tough-as-nails Mrs Grantly and the fabulous Miss Dunstable (I adore Miss Dunstable!) to a worthy heroine, Lucy, and the absolutely wonderful Fanny.
What is your favorite Trollope novel?