At just over 500 pages Anthony Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton is a vast, multi-plot Victorian novel in which a lot of things happen. While there’s a brutal murder, and a subsequent hunt for the murderers takes place, for the most part the action revolves around the flawed decisions–some petty and others of a much larger scale–that are made by various characters. As the title suggests, the main character is the vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenwick. His role in the novel isn’t at first immediately apparent, for when the novel begins, the story appears to centre on the courtship of Mrs. Fenwick’s friend and house guest, Mary Lowther, by another very close and dear friend of the Fenwicks, Harry Gilmore. Mr Gilmore is in hot pursuit of Mary, but in return, she’s not that keen to marry Mr. Gilmore. She doesn’t love Gilmore, and she has this notion that she wants to marry a man she loves. Unfortunately, there’s no small amount of pressure from the Fenwicks–particularly Mrs. Fenwick who argues that if Mary marries Gilmore, love will follow. Since Mary is practically penniless and Mr Gilmore is the affluent owner of the handsome nearby estate, Hampton Privets, Mary’s refusal to accept Gilmore is rather interestingly interpreted as an act of perversity rather than evidence of integrity.
Another sub-plot concerns the Miller Brattle and his large family originally of “some twelve or fourteen children,” and now with “six still living.” Two of Brattle’s children have gone astray–Carry Brattle, the family beauty has fallen into prostitution while Sam Brattle hangs out with a disreputable crowd and comes and goes at the mill. Miller Brattle, a man who tends to brood over and nurse his grievances, blames the vicar for Sam’s lack of discipline. Miller Brattle isn’t a bad man, but he judges everyone by his own standards of morality and behaviour:
He was a man with an unlimited love of justice; but the justice which he loved best was justice to himself. He brooded over injuries done to him, -injuries real or fancied,–till he taught himself to wish that all who hurt him might be crucified for the hurt they did him. If any prayer came from him, it was a prayer that his own heart might be hardened that when vengeance came in his way he might take it without stint against the trespasser of the moment. And yet he was not a cruel man. He would almost despise himself, because when the moment for vengeance did come, he would abstain from vengeance. He would dismiss a disobedient servant with curses which would make one’s hair stand on end, and would hope within his heart of hearts that before the end of the next week the man with his wife and children might be in the poorhouse. When the end of the next week came, he would send the wife meat, and would give the children bread, and would despise himself for doing so. In matters of religion, he was an old Pagan, going to no place of worship, saying no prayer, believing in no creed,–with some vague idea that a superior power would bring him right at last, if he worked hard, robbed no one, fed his wife and children, and paid his way. To pay his way was the pride of his heart; to be paid on his way was its joy.
When the novel begins, Harry Gilmore’s proposal to Mary is a month old, and she still cannot give her answer. The Fenwicks are of one mind on the matter
Both she and her husband were painfully anxious that Harry might succeed. Fenwick had loved the man dearly for many years, and Janet Fenwick had loved him since she had known him as her husband’s friend. They both felt that he was showing more of manhood than they had expected of him in the persistency of his love, and that he deserved his reward. And they both believed also that for Mary herself it would be a prosperous and a happy marriage. And then where is the married woman who does not wish that the maiden friend who comes to stay with her should find a husband in her house? The parson and his wife were altogether of one mind in this matter, and thought that Mary Lowther ought to be made to give herself to Harry Gilmore.
A large part of the novel concerns Mary’s dilemma: should she or shouldn’t she marry a man she doesn’t love?
Another major sub-plot concerns a feud that erupts between the Marquis of Trowbridge and the Vicar over the matter of Sam’s involvement in the murder that takes place in Bullhampton. The Vicar, a man of staunch principles, but possessing scant diplomacy at times, offends the Marquis by speaking to him as an equal. As a result, the horribly offended Marquis, nearly apoplectic over the vicar’s insolence, uses the local dissenters led by Mr. Puddleham to exact his petty revenge against his arch-enemy, the well-meaning vicar of Bullhampton. Meanwhile the poor vicar is kept busy trying to ‘save’ both Carry and Sam Brattle and getting very little help from the rest of the Brattle family.
In some ways The Vicar of Bullhampton is a great companion novel to Can You Forgive Her? In that novel, the first of the Palliser series, Alice Vavasour is engaged to the eminently respectable Mr Grey, but she breaks the engagement only to become re-engaged to her disreputable cousin, George Vavasour. Alice is unaware that she’s rather smoothly manipulated into this position by her best friend, George’s sister, Kate. And in The Vicar of Bullhampton, we see pressure delicately applied with steely determination by Janet Fenwick, Mr Gilmore and by Mary’s aunt. Indeed by the end of the novel, Mr Gilmore’s determination to wed Mary borders on the unhealthy. Is this obsession or simply a man who wants something that, for once, he can’t get? That’s for the reader to decide.
The other major female character in The Vicar of Bullhampton is Carry Brattle–the former family favourite who once turned to prostitution becomes the family pariah. She’s not as fully developed as Mary Lowther, and she remains more of a “type,” and that “type” is the fallen woman–or as Trollope calls her in the preface “a castaway.” While Trollope makes it clear that Carry has made bad choices which had a cumulative result, he shows that Carry’s hard-hearted, self-righteous relatives are largely a smug, unpleasant lot, and through this theme posits the argument that heartlessness and a lack of forgiveness are greater sins than a sexual indiscretion that led to abandonment and a life of prostitution. In The Vicar of Bullhampton Trollope exposes the folly of human behaviour, and through the Marquis of Trowbridge’s feud with the vicar we see class snobbery, while through the extended Brattle family, we see moral snobbery. Both forms of snobbery lead to the notion of superiority and a lack of accountability, and through his characters Trollope argues that we are not perfect and that none of us are above accountability to our fellow-man.
The Vicar of Bullhampton is simply a delightful novel. Yes, there are a couple of true villains here, but for the most part Trollope has created flawed human beings who act as they think best, and sometimes they learn to revise those decisions whether they want to or not. The vicar of Bullhampton must learn to forgive his enemy in spite of the fact that his deepest and most insulting grievances are not addressed, and the inflexible Miller Brattle battles an internal struggle over conflicting moral beliefs. Trollope’s impeccable presentation of these events ensures a lasting fondness for his all-too human characters.