Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

Time to pull another Trollope novel randomly from the shelf. This time it was Lady Anna, and on the back cover of my Penguin edition there’s a snippet: “Trollope pronounced Lady Anna (1874) ‘The best novel I ever wrote.’ ” And after finishing it, I cannot understand that statement at all–what about his beloved Barchester Towers (1857) or my personal favourite to date The Claverings (1867)? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Lady Anna, and it certainly had its merits, but at just over 500 pages, Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.

Lady AnnaLady Anna revolves on a legal case, certainly not an unfamiliar backdrop for Victorian novels, but here instead of fusty old legalities, there’s more than a touch of scandal and a heavy dollop of debauchery. The case involves a woman known as Josephine Murray who married Earl Lovel, and from the small parish church the 24-year-old bride was taken to Lovel Grange, an “ill-omened looking place.”  Trollope tells us that she did not love her much-older husband and that she married for ambition; “she wanted to be the wife of a lord.”  Thus he sets the stage for us to have some, but not too much, sympathy for this character.

Unfortunately Josephine Murray made a very bad choice. While the Earl is an extremely wealthy man, he’s also rumoured to be quite mad. That’s as good a term as any for the Earl’s strange, antisocial behaviour

He had so lived as to teach himself that those men who devote themselves to their wives, as a wife devotes herself to her husband, are the poor lubberly clods of creation, who had lacked the power to reach the only purpose of living which would make life worth having. Women had been to him a prey, as the fox is a prey to the huntsman and the salmon to the angler. But he had acquired great skill in his sport, and could pursue his game with all the craft which experience will give. He could look at a woman as though he saw all heaven in her eyes, and could listen to her as though the music of the spheres was to be heard in her voice. Then he would whisper words which, to many women, were as the music of the spheres, and he would persevere, abandoning all other pleasures, devoting himself to the one wickedness with a perseverance which almost made success certain.

So the wicked Earl is a seducer of women, but this time, with Josephine, his best efforts fail, and he “could be successful on no other terms than those which enabled her to walk out of the church with him as Countess Lovel.”  With a lecher for a husband, you’d expect Josephine to be unhappy, but her misery goes far deeper. Six months after the marriage, the Earl announced that he committed bigamy when he married Josephine as he had a wife still living (who has since died) in Italy. He refuses to remarry Josephine and tells her that he’s back off to Italy and that she can chum along as his mistress. The Earl, now supposedly a widower, departs for Italy … alone.

Josephine, with debts mounting, lives in precarious circumstances and the only person who offers to help her is a humble tailor named Thwaite. He takes Josephine and her daughter, Anna into his home, devoting his time and money towards Josephine’s restoration as the Countess of Lovel. It’s acknowledged that the Earl went through a marriage ceremony with Josephine, but the big unknown is whether or not the Earl is lying when he belatedly revealed himself to be a bigamist. There’s some evidence that points to the fact that the woman was already dead when the Earl married Josephine, but the Earl, who’s buggered off to Italy, argues otherwise and proof, one way or another is sketchy. It doesn’t help matters that some Italian woman, alive and well, claims to be the Earl’s first wife, but she may be the sister of the deceased first Countess, simply after money.  

Josephine now has a dilemma: should she choose to pursue prosecution and win the case against the Earl for bigamy, she will, in reality, publicly acknowledge that she was the man’s mistress and that her daughter is illegitimate. Both Thwaite and Josephine expect the case to fail, but it’s the necessary first step in proving her likely-legitimate claim to the earl’s title and fortune.  The Earl (in absentia) is acquitted of bigamy and then the case is slowly fought to establish Josephine’s claim.  Decades pass, and the death of the Earl throws the issue of inheritance back to the fore. Suddenly it’s Josephine’s claim to the estate vs the claim of the new young handsome Earl ….

Lady Anna reminded me of Is He Popenjoy?–another novel about illegitimacy and a mysterious marriage that may or may not have taken place in Italy. The characters in Lady Anna were not as satisfying however, and our hero, Daniel Thwaite, the son of the noble tailor, and Anna, Josephine’s daughter are not particularly interesting characters. Daniel, a capable serious young man, seems a little on the self-righteous side while Anna is entirely overshadowed by her mother, Josephine–a far more interesting, damaged, character.

Josephine is a woman obsessed. She married a blackguard for money and position and she’s spent her life to its pursuit–all in the name of her daughter, but this devotion becomes questionable as the novel wears on and we see that Josephine loves her daughter in as much as Anna can fulfill all the latent longing for titles and social position–even though these things have proven to be useless, empty ambitions. Josephine nurses her grudges against those who refused to help her when she was abandoned by her husband, and while that’s certainly understandable, she also, in a manner which shows her true nature, turns her back on the Thwaites. It’s one thing to remember your enemies, but it’s another thing to forget your friends

While there’s romance here, one of the underlying theme is legal vs. moral justice. Josephine seeks legal justice against her husband and yet when she finally gains that, she’s not too interested in moral justice–she ascribes her own desire for money and position to Daniel Thwaite when he seeks to marry Anna, but he’s challenged by the new Earl. Who will win Anna’s hand?

Lady Anna drags on past its due date, and events could have been wound up much sooner, but even so this is a Trollope novel, and he always has some wonderful observations to make about human nature. Here’s Daniel a radical who longs for the eradication of nobility;

Measuring himself by his own standard, regarding that man to be most manly who could be most useful in the world, he did think himself to be infinitely superior to the Earl. He was the working bee, whereas the Earl was the drone. And he was one who used to the best of his abilities the mental faculties which had been given to him; whereas the Earl,–so he believed,–was himself hardly conscious of having had mental faculties bestowed upon him. The Earl was, to his thinking, as were all Earls, an excrescence upon society, which had been produced by the evil habits and tendencies of mankind; a thing to be got rid of before any near approach could be made to that social perfection of which he fully believed.   

In Lady Anna, Trollope creates some subversive situations in his observations of class distinctions. Daniel believes that nobility is an antiquated fetish of the society in which he lives, and we see, through Trollope’s characters, that Daniel is right. Josephine is twisted by her dreams of regaining the long-elusive title, and through her daughter, she plots, along with the two opposing legal teams, to reestablish the status quo of titled society.

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18 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Fiction, Trollope, Anthony

18 responses to “Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

  1. Brian Joseph

    I am on a Trollope kick myself and I am currently reading Dr. Thorne.

    When reading in general, I like to say that I tend not to find plot all that important as I usually focus more on other aspects of the book. Trollope is an exception to this. With Trollope and a few other writers, because the plots are so engaging, I very much appreciate and become very interested in his story lines. Too bad that this one wears a little thin.

    Thanks for the review, I will put this one lower on my list of novels to be read.

  2. Jonathan

    I’ve never read anything by Trollope and up until a few years ago I’d stayed clear of most nineteenth century British writers – Dickens being the exception. I always preferred French, Russian or German writers of the nineteenth century and (predominately U.S.) authors from the twentieth century. But in recent years my resistance is weakening and I’m getting tempted. I watched the BBC version of The Way We Live Now a few months ago and enjoyed it; but what would be the best Trollope to start with?…Barchester Towers?

    • Yes Barchester Towers will hook you in. I almost wish I hadn’t read The Claverings already as it will be a difficult novel to beat.

      Did you like the BBC version of The Way We Live Now? I thought it was excellent.

      • Jonathan

        Yes, I really enjoyed the BBC adaption; it helped change my perception of Trollope. It seemed quite relevant to our current economic problems but I wasn’t sure how much, if at all, it was ‘adapted’ to fit modern tastes. It made me curious to try some original Trollope anyway.

        • You have to wonder if Melmotte and Saccard were related.

          Trollope is a great favourite of mine, and you probably already guessed that. He has a very wonderful sense of humour and a generous world view. I hope you read him at some point, A great friend of mine used to tell me that when I felt depressed, I should always pick up a Trollope. Advice, by the way, I’ve followed.

  3. I don’t think Trollope was a particularly good judge of his own work – he rated ‘Cousin Henry’ too which would have made a terrific short story or novella but was a fairly tedious novel (in my view at any rate). He does go on but somehow you have to love him don’t you.

  4. It’s interesting that he judged this highly. He must have been fond of the idea and his main character. I see that it’s not one to begin with. At least it wasn’t too long.

    • Yes I’d say not one to begin with. For me, the extended dilemma dragged a bit. Desperate Reader is on to something when she says that Trollope probably wasn’t the best judge of his own work.

  5. I’d love to find time for Trollope again … Maybe in my dotage when I am kindle bound. One can live in hope … Though I’m not quite sure what I’m hoping for here! You did make me laugh with your “Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.” It suggests that when I do get back to Trollope, it won’t be with this one.

    Each year my reading group tries to do one or two classics … And Trollope is on the list, but it probably won’t be this year I think.

  6. OK, there are other Trollopes to read before this one.

    • Yes, I’m glad I didn’t save this one for last. Trollope has created some immortal fictional characters–Lady Glencora, for example, but those sort of characters are not here. As I said Josephine is the most interesting (twisted) character, but she isn’t the direct focus of the book.

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