It was time for another Anthony Trollope, and while I can’t explain why I decided to read The Claverings, this selection, as it turns out, is a good companion novel for the recently read Can You Forgive Her? While Can You Forgive Her? concerns a woman who vacillates back and forth between two suitors, The Claverings is the tale of a young man who can’t choose between two women.
The novel begins by landing us into the action as the very beautiful Julia Brabazon drops, finally, forever and rather cruelly, the love of her youth, Harry Clavering in favour of an advantageous match with the very wealthy and much older, “debauched” Lord Ongar, a repulsive man who wears an “elaborately dressed jet black wig.” Harry accuses Julia of being a “jilt,” and while she doesn’t deny that, she attempts to mollify Harry’s accusations with arguments of practicality. Trollope gives us some wonderful numbers to play with here (I’ve been obsessed with the cost of living in the 19th century since reading George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street). We learn that Julia has 200 pounds a year to live on but owes 600. Lord Ongar lives on “perhaps” 60,000 a year. Harry Clavering’s father, Reverend Clavering earns 800 pounds a year, but that income is “nearly doubled” by his wife’s fortune. On that income and with a curate to do most of his work, Reverend Clavering hinges on Country Gentleman status. In fact, he used to be a “hunting parson” until Bishop Proudie “lectured” him about the appropriateness of the activity. Now Reverend Clavering reads poetry and novels to the exclusion of everything else.
Harry doesn’t want a career in the church despite his father’s encouragement and obvious easy lifestyle. Instead he plans to make his own way in the world and after Julia dumps him, Harry goes to Stratton to become an apprentice civil engineer living at the home of the Burtons. There he falls in love with the last daughter of the house (all the other daughters have also married previous apprentices), Miss Florence Burton. Now Florence isn’t as majestically beautiful as Julia, but she is the better person. Harry has the niggling feeling that somehow he’s been hooked by the Burton family into falling in love with their daughter. Of course, part of this feeling can be explained by the fact that Harry has simply followed in the footsteps of all the previous apprentices who lived at the Burton home. This repeated pattern of behaviour suggests that Harry isn’t particularly unique, and then again, the Burtons are a step down in the social stratosphere.
Harry, eager to wed, presses for an early marriage, and Florence opposes him on this issue. She argues that they should wait until Harry’s career is well established as she thinks that Harry would not cope well with poverty. The issue of money again rears its head–Florence will have a 100 pounds a year from her father, and Harry will earn 150 pounds annually in his new profession. He thinks this is plenty to live on, but Florence disagrees. The subject of sex also lurks under the surface of this pressure, and the disagreement over the issue of whether they should wait to marry quickly or delay the wedding day leads to the first rift between the engaged couple. Also around this time, the now widowed Julia Ongar returns to England under a cloud of scandal….
Harry Clavering, engaged to Florence Burton, finds himself championing Lady Julia Ongar, and he becomes a frequent visitor to her London home. Confused and bewitched, he no longer understands his own heart. Harry isn’t much of a hero as he’s young, plastic and weak.
Since the title of the novel is The Claverings, naturally the plot concerns other family members apart from Harry. Harry has two sisters, Mary and Fanny. While Mary marries Reverend Fielding, an appropriate match, in a minor aside Fanny is courted with persistence by the very serious and impoverished curate Mr. Saul–a man who earns a mere 70 pounds a year. Of course all these doings focus on the parsonage, but there’s another branch of the family at the ‘great house’ – Now to look at the family tree: Reverend Henry Clavering is the uncle of Sir Hugh Clavering of Clavering Park. Baronet Sir Hugh is married to Hermione née Brabazon, the older sister of Julia Brabazon, and we learn that they live on 7,000-8,000 a year. In spite of the close relationship between the families at the parsonage and at Clavering Park, there’s no love lost between the two sets of relations. Henry Clavering considers it his duty to remain on good terms with those who live at Clavering Park but he really can’t stand Sir Hugh. One scene in the novel includes an uncomfortable evening at Clavering with a very unpleasant Sir Hugh who acts rudely and does not bother to hide his boredom.
In this novel, Trollope addresses the restrictions placed on the decisions women face. Underneath all the talk of love and marriage lurks the idea of the lack of choices for women. Early in the novel, Julia tells Harry:
If you could only know how infinitely I should prefer your lot to mine! Oh, Harry, I envy you! I do envy you! You have got the ball at your feet, and the world before you, and can win everything for yourself.
You can choose, as I say; but I have had no choice,- no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle. I don’t like the snuff of a candle, and therefore, I am going to be married well.
While men may choose their careers, for women, their careers are marriage, and Trollope boldly addresses this reality. He tells us that Julia, who chooses to become a Countess was “mercenary” but adds, with generosity:
Were not all men and women mercenary upon whom devolved the necessity of earning their bread?
Of course we see where these ambitious marriages lead. Julia’s sister Hermione loves her husband, mean-spirited Hugh Clavering rather as an abused dog loves its human. Hermione is so desperate for love and attention that she opens herself up to scorn and derision from her heartless, mean-spirited spouse. Julia lives to regret her marriage and realises that she sold herself for worldly gain and made a very bad bargain in the process.
Bad characters always seem to be a great deal more fun to read about than good characters, and that is certainly true in The Claverings. Sir Hugh is a curious character–not a monster by any means, but there are important emotional components missing. He treats his wife appallingly, but then he’s not much better with anyone else in his circle. He barely tolerates his brother, Archie, loathes his uncle, and seems to dislike society on principle.
The Claverings is called One of the “three faultless” Trollope novels, but I’m not sure why that is. While I enjoyed the novel immensely (it is, after all, Trollope), I was never entirely convinced of Julia’s feelings for Harry Clavering. However, that niggling argument aside, some of the novel’s second tier characters are unforgettable. When Julia returns from Florence, she brings along the sneaky, opportunistic “Franco-Pole” Sophie Gordeloup, who may or may not be a Russian spy. Madame Gordeloup’s brother, Count Pateroff, one of Lord Ongar’s friends, is in hot pursuit of Julia as he regards her as his prize. Count Pateroff and his peculiar sister seem to be beings from another planet, and they are treated as such by the other characters in the novel who are at a loss to know quite how to deal with this pair. At one point Julia tells Harry to seek out the Count, and in spite of knowing the Count’s address, Harry can’t track his quarry down for weeks. When they finally meet for dinner, the topic of conversation (the digestion and the refusal to discuss the consumption of horsemeat in a “besieged city,“) is steered firmly by the worldly, savvy Count much to Harry’s frustration.
While the Count sees the widowed Julia as his rightful property, that sort of fortune floating around gets attention, and Sir Hugh Clavering, who has no time for his sister-in-law Julia since scandal attached to her name, decides that she’s the perfect match for his brother, Archie. Archie consults his friend Captain Boodle on the matter of exactly how to lay siege to the beautiful wealthy widow, and the scenes between Archie and Boodle are hilarious. Boodle, incidentally is mentioned in a minor aside in the Vicar of Bullhampton. While Boodle’s extremely funny strategy for laying siege to the wealthy widow includes the advice to treat her like a horse, this section of the novel really takes off when Sophie Gordeloup becomes involved in the intrigue. Throughout the novel, Sophie behaves appallingly, and yet no one seems to know quite how to stop her. She’s rude, pushy, grasping, and duplicitous–in essence, she’s in a class of her own. Archie thinks she’s insane while Captain Boodle can’t help but admire her.
Sophie certainly makes short work of all the men who sniff around the widow. Here she is in a scene at Julia Ongar’s home after getting rid of Captain Archie Clavering:
“He was come for one admirer,” said Sophie, as soon as the door was closed.
“An admirer of whom?”
“Not of me; oh no; I was not in danger at all.”
“Of me? Captain Clavering! Sophie, you get your head full of the strangest nonsense.”
“Ah; very well. You see. What will you give me if I am right? Will you bet? Why had he got on his new gloves, and had his head all smelling with stuff from de hairdresser? Does he come always perfumed like that? Does he wear shiny little boots to walk about in de morning, and make an eye always? Perhaps yes.”
“I never saw his boots or his eyes.”
“But I see them. I see many things. He come to have Ongere Park for his own. I tell you, yes. Ten thousand will come to have Ongere Park. Why not? To have Ongere Park and all de money a man will make himself smell a great deal.”
“You think much more about all that than is necessary.”
“Do I , my dear? Very well. There are three already. There is Edouard [Count Pateroff], and there is this Clavering who goes with his nose in the air, and who thinks himself a clever fellow because he learned his lesson at school and did not get himself whipped. He will be whipped yet some day,-perhaps.”
It’s through this scene that we see that the secret to the limited success of the Count and his sister Sophie Gordeloup, two people who expect to make their fortunes in England is to be found in the fact that they bend the boundaries of polite behaviour. Julia is clearly sending a message to Sophie that she considers it impolite to discuss the subject, but Sophie simply doesn’t care.
Anyway, another wonderful Trollope novel. A word on my copy. I read the Dover issue with original illustrations and a foreword by Normal Donaldson. The Claverings was originally published in serial form in 16 parts in The Cornhill Magazine 1866-1867.