The delightfully understated Is He Popenjoy? isn’t my favourite Trollope novel, but it’s excellent. As with so many of these multi-plot Trollope novels there’s a great deal going on. The book’s main thread is concerned with the question of establishing legitimacy, and also wrapped into the plot are a couple of love affairs and a few peculiar, battling feminists. The story centres on sweet Mary Lovelace, the only daughter of the Dean of Brotherton who marries Sir George Germain, the second son of the family. George’s older brother the ‘head’ of the family, the Marquis of Brotherton, called simply Brotherton by his many siblings (1 brother and 4 sisters) lives in Italy, and there seems little chance that he’ll return since he detests England and detests his family. George, on the other hand, has a strong sense of family obligation, so when he falls in love with his penniless cousin Adelaide, his brief rebellion causes no small amount of distress to his many sisters–especially the steely-spined Lady Sarah. But Adelaide has no intention of leading a life of financial restriction, so she refuses George and marries, instead, the much older, malleable, and wealthy Mr. Houghton. Poor George is broken-hearted but eventually recovers enough to see the sense of proposing to the Dean’s only daughter who will have an instant dowry of 30,000 pounds and will also inherit her father’s none-too-shabby estate. The match is made with the Dean delighted that a man of his humble origins may live to see his daughter become the Marchioness of Brotherton, and 18-year-old Mary obeying her father, buries her notions of romance and hopes that the day will come when she loves her husband.
So the die is cast….or so it seems. The Dean, whose money comes with the taint of trade, assumes that the current Marquis, a confirmed bachelor, will die without issue. The Dean, therefore, looks forward to seeing his daughter eventually becoming a marchioness and his hypothetical grandson, a Marquis. Who, then, could have predicted that the contentious Marquis of Brotherton would enter the picture with a wife and child?
Shortly after George marries, Brotherton sends him a letter announcing his upcoming marriage to an Italian widow, so then imagine everyone’s astonishment when Brotherton returns a few months later, throws his family out of the house and moves in a wife who speaks no English and a child who is possibly 2 years of age. Questions begin to emerge regarding the legitimacy of the child, and at the forefront of those who are skeptical is the Dean of Brotherton who sees the little Popenjoy, as the heir to the title is called, as a usurper, a “so-called Popenjoy,” and about to rob his daughter of the chance of being the Marchioness of Brotherton. While Mary has no ambition to be a marchioness, the Dean’s aggressive battle mode against the Marquis places George in an awkward position. George wishes to avoid scandal and he has strong family loyalty combined with snobbery directed against the Dean’s origins. George would be quite happy if the Dean disappeared out of his life, but he feels obligated to the Dean because of his money and also because he is his father-in-law.
There’s an unpleasantness about the whole Popenjoy episode, and the Dean, who is shown to be a good, solid fellow, and an exceptional father, exhibits an unhealthy ambition when it comes to the legitimacy and health of poor “rackety” Popenjoy. This ambition is a fissure in the Dean’s character, and while the Dean, an intelligent, kind man and an exceptional father, is one of the two moral centres of the novel (he shares the position with the indomitable Lady Sarah), he’s still one of Trollope’s flawed figures. The Dean’s father “kept livery stables in Bath,” so the Dean, who married wealth, has seen a phenomenal rise in fortune, and he wants that to continue for his daughter and his future grandson. His desire to see his daughter with a title appears to be unpleasantly outside of his normally reasonable character, and while his questions regarding the actual timing of the birth of Popenjoy are legitimate, his desire for the child’s death is tasteless and unkind.
There’s an underlying problem in the match between Mary Lovelace and Lord George–he’s basically marrying her for her money which will prop up the family fortune, and she marries into the Germain family because her father desires the match. This ‘arrangement’ as delicate, subtle, and unspoken as it is, acts initially as an impediment to the young married couple’s happiness. It’s certainly what society deems a ‘suitable match,’ but it’s not based on love, and it’s also soiled with snobbery. Lord George is painfully aware that he’s obligated to keep the Dean in his life even though he feels that his father-in-law “isn’t quite …,” and thinks that while the Dean “ looked like a gentleman, [but] still there was a smell of the stable.” George also finds Mary’s wealthy great-Aunt Tallowax disconcertingly vulgar; she’s another relative he’d like to ignore, but Mary is set to inherit her fortune too. There’s a wonderful scene in the chapter Miss Tallowax is Shown the House in which the Dean and Aunt Tallowax are invited to lunch which includes some scrawny mutton chops and a much more meagre table than Miss Tallowax expected. After lunch, she is given a tour of Manor Cross–a magnificent old house in dire need of renovation:
Then they entered the state dining-room or hall, and Miss Tallowax was informed that the room had not been used for any purpose whatever for very many years. “And such a beautiful room!” said Mis Tallowax, with much regret.
“The fact is, I believe, that the chimney smokes horribly, ” said Sir George.
“I never remember a fire here,’ said Lady Sarah. “In very cold weather we have a portable stove brought in, just to preserve the furniture. This is called the old ball-room.”
“Dear me!” ejaculated Miss Tallowax, looking round at the faded yellow hangings.
“We did have a ball here once,” said Lady Amelia, “when Brotherton came of age. I can just remember it.”
“Has it ever been used since?’ asked Mary.
“Never,” said Lady Sarah. “Sometimes when it’s rainy we walk up and down for exercise. It is a fine old house, but I often wish it were smaller. I don’t think people want rooms of this sort now as much as they used to do. Perhaps a time may come when my brother will make Manor Cross gay again, but it is not very gay now. I think that is all, Miss Tallowax.”
“It’s very fine–very fine, indeed,” said Miss Tallowax shivering. Then they all trooped back into the morning-room which they used for their daily life.
Trollope explores, quite successfully, how George Germain is driven by family loyalty. He is repeatedly insulted by his brother the Marquis and takes more than any human being should be expected to swallow, but then when the Marquis goes too far, even George can no longer accept his brother’s behaviour. Trollope dabbles with the idea that the Marquis is insane, and underlying this is the idea that Mary Lovelace, from humble stock, will produce a stronger heir than the “so-called” sickly Popenjoy. Particularly enjoyable are the delightfully understated currents under all the polite behaviour: George doesn’t want to examine too closely exactly why he keeps Aunt Tallowax and the Dean in his life because to admit that Mary will inherit their money is to admit that he’s motivated by financial concerns–the very subject he finds vulgar and common. The Germains, who think themselves ‘above’ earning money through trade also think they are better people than the Dean and Aunt Tallowax. The Dean’s eagerness to prove that the son of the Marquis is illegitimate is, of course, self-serving, but the Germains are mostly offended because the Dean insists on talking about the subject and seeking legal advice, and this is bad manners as far as they are concerned.
Since this is Trollope there are several subplots including a strange one involving battling feminists–Baroness Banmann and the American Olivia Q. Peabody–both presented as particularly unattractive females. Trollope’s feminists are a rather motley bunch who hang out at the “Rights of Women Institute. Established for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females,’ caricatures really, and one almost wonders why they are written into the novel as they play a rather small role which includes a trace of Mary’s rebellious streak. It’s too simple to say that Trollope is making fun of these feminists–although he certainly has a good time with them. The novel subtly addresses the issue of women’s rights through the battling feminists, but the subject is also addressed through George’s treatment of his wife and how we see Mary stuck between obeying her father and obeying her husband. It would be easy to dismiss this feminist subplot with its peculiar females as evidence of Trollope’s misogyny, but the episode serves to show independent thought from Mary–something her husband doesn’t think he should tolerate. So while the battle between the feminists is seen as a comic episode, the real battle occurs between husband and wife as Mary asserts her right to be treated as a thinking human being and not as a decorative appendage. And then there’s the issue of money: Mary receives 1500 pounds a year income from her dowry. George has the sum total of 4,000 pounds (we’re also told 5,000 pounds) “and no means of earning a shilling.” With this vast imbalance, George is acutely aware that the family’s fortunes rest on money that he is ashamed of, so that perhaps explains why he overdoes it when it comes to how he treats his wife under the umbrella issue of ‘improvement':
But Lord George made out a course of reading for her–so much for the two hours after breakfast, so much for the hour before dressing–so much for the evening; and also a table of results to be acquired in three months–in six months–and so much by the close of the first year; and even laid down the sum total of achievements to be produced by a dozen years of such work.
Mary isn’t seen by the Germains as an individual in her own right or even as a wealthy heiress. She is required to sit and sew petticoats for the poor with her dreary sisters in-law for two hours every day. Mary does the mathematics in her head and offers to pay I pound 19 shillings if she can avoid the petticoat drudgery for the next year, and this incurs the wrath of Lady Sarah. Initially, the Germain family try to shape her character, but over time, Mary develops her own opinions and rebels….
Possibly the most delightful aspect of this book is the way that Trollope shows the growing maturity of several of his characters. Mary is a sweet, young girl who learns to gracefully say NO to people, and Lady Sarah, who began the book as a dragon becomes much more human as she acknowledges her own shortcomings and her tendency to judge people by her own tastes and choices. I wish we could have seen more of the dissipated Marquis and his strange Italian wife and poor sickly little Popenjoy, but their appearances are all too brief. There’s also a delightful subplot involving matchmaker Mrs Montacute Jones who believes “there are some men who never get on their legs till they’re married,” and while perennial bachelors Jack de Baron and Lord Giblet try their best to avoid matrimony, Mrs Montacute Jones has other plans.