Is He Popenjoy? by Anthony Trollope

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.

is he popenjoySo 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.


Filed under Fiction, Trollope, Anthony

20 responses to “Is He Popenjoy? by Anthony Trollope

  1. This sounds rather complex. So many subplots can be hard to follow and I suppose, it’s not one of the books for a Trollope novice.

    • It wasn’t hard to follow as there weren’t that many characters–there are more complex Trollopes out there. Once I finish Lady Audley’s Secret (which I love btw), I’m going to read one of the shorter Trollopes.

      • I’ve got Lady Audley’s Secret and would love to read that soon as well. Glad to know you like it.

        • I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and now that I’m actually reading it, I ask myself why it took me so long to get around to it. I suppose I saw it on the shelf for so long, it became a fixture.

  2. Sounds like a great book.

    Your allusion to the complex plot with lots of subplots remind me of a book that I am currently reading, Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. Summarizing that plot will be a nightmare!

  3. Sounds great and I admire your skills at writing about such a complex plot. Independence of thinking wasn’t part of the programs taught by governess, wasn’t it? It’s something we need to remind because it’s different from our view of education. For me, learning how to say no, stand for themselves and think by themselves are an important part of the things I want to pass on to my children.
    When will I find the time to read all the books I want to discover?

    • I want to read all of Trollope’s novels. I hope I do that but then there’s also Trollope’s mother and his sister in law too. We’ll probably never get to read all the books we’d like to, but I’m going to enjoy trying.

  4. It sounds fun, but I still plan to read the Barchester novels first. It’s interesting given I’m currently reading Pride and Prejudice how much the concerns of that book coincide with this. The importance of an income, the clash of romance and practicality in marriage with practicality generally the victor (and with dire consequences potentially where it’s not). The irony of snobbery about money in a world where that’s the key thing that matters.

    Interesting about the feminists. Perhaps he sympathises with greater rights for women, but considers those who advocate it to be unsympathetic. We see that still today for other issues – there are plenty for example who support gay rights in principle but dislike gay rights activists seeing them as shouty and demanding. Quite how people are supposed to get their rights though, without shouting and demanding for them, never seems quite to get answered.

    • I want to read all the Trollope novels–that’s the goal at least, but I’m switching them around as I’ve really enjoyed the comic novel category (which is really not comic in the sense we usually think of) and I don’t want to read all those in one go. The intro of my copy has a long piece about Trollope’s portrayal of feminists in the novel along with his general attitudes.

      Is it a first read of P & P for you?

      My personal opinion= activists have to be out there on the edge to get anywhere.

      • I agree with that opinion.

        It is a first read of P&P for me. It’s very good. A page-turner even.

        • Have you read any others? Austen is a great favourite of mine. P&P and Mansfield Park are my favourite Austens. Have you seen any of the adaptations?

          • That was my first (I finished it today). I’ve seen the BBC adaptation, which is excellent, and the first half of a stage adaptation (which was good, but in an open air theatre and rain stopped the play).

            What the adaptations had in common was they made it sweeter. In the book it’s quite explicit that Mr and Mrs Bennett don’t love each other, have indeed no great affection even for each other. Lizzie genuinely dislikes Darcy for at least half the novel too, which wasn’t quite how the tv version showed it.

            It’s a romance, among other things, but far from just a romance and the adaptations for me played up the romantic elements and played down heavily the absolute focus in the book on money (less so the focus on position). The BBC version is a classic series, but the book is better.

          • Max’s comment about arriving at reading Austen via television adaptations struck a responsive chord with me. I too had never read Austen (I imagine that comes from being a teenage guy) but after seeing screen versions of most of the books, I finally tried one (Mansfield Park, if I recall) and knew immediately that I had to read them all. Not a one disappointed — each would rank as the “favorite” at some point, depending on my mood.

            Inevitably, adaptations have to make things simpler (and in no way does that mean I am criticizing directors for their choices) and that usually means characters become “sweeter” (or more one-dimensional if they are meant to be mean). Only in the books can you find the true complexity that Austen captured.

            Back to Trollope — have you watched the UK Palliser series, Guy? There is also a Barchester one (which I thought gave rather short shrift to those novels), but they did go all out on the political novels — to good effect, I thought.

            And as much as I like Trollope, the prospect of trying to read all his novels would simply be too daunting for me. Then again, you are a completest when it comes to these prolific authors — I am quite content just to read the best and sample a few of the rest.

            • Kevin & Max:
              I’ve seen Barchester Towers, He Knew he Was Right and The Way we Live Now (the latter was my fav. of the three). I’ve also seen the Palliser series. How could I resist? It’s overdoing to read all of Trollope but I have yet to read one I dislike, so I can’t miss–even though, of course, some are finer than others.

              I spent a few months last year endlessly watching Austen on film. And you are both right, the films can’t show the complexities of the books. But there was an early P&P version televised, not available on DVD that remains my fav. P&P adaptation. It contains many of the salty nuances of the Bennets’ prickly relationship, including Mr Bennet’s shortcomings as a husband and father–his ironic detachment complicates matters. Unfortunate that Austen wrote a handful of novels but then they are all perfect. BTW, it took reading Gissing to appreciate how wealthy Darcy is.

              • Yes, excellent as the adaptations I’ve seen were, they’re much kinder on Mr Bennett than the book. The book’s affectionate, but it’s clear he holds a fair bit of responsibility for what goes wrong with Lydia and his behaviour to his wife at times verges on the cruel.

                • Yes, a Jane Austen scholar I knew took issue with Mr Bennet’s behaviour and placed quite a bit of the blame regarding Lydia on his shoulders as she thought he abdicated his responsibilities in favour of ironic treatment of his wife. Also the family members were in a very vicarious financial situation that he deliberately ignored.

  5. Maia

    I am a huge fan of Trollope despite all his literary flaws and endless errors within texts (eg stating someone has one elder brother at the beginning of a plot, only to forget and state that they have four elder brothers later in the plot etc!). However, these can mostly be forgiven if one understands that many of these great tomes were in fact written as weekly or monthly magazine serials over a period of months or sometimes even years and therefore Trollope, who was not the most assiduous note-taker, was given to making chronological errors (not as bad a Thackeray but, then again, I’m not sure ANYONE could be as bad as Thackeray who finally gave up and actually wrote apologies at the front of all his books on the ‘just in case I’ve made error’s basis!)

    Popenjoy is a strange novel in a way – the sub-plots are not terribly well thought out in comparison to many of his other works and Trollope seems to tire of characters easily and often early – he might start out giving the reader quite an in depth review of a new character but then, after a few chapters, he seems to lose interest and move along to new ones. His introduction of various frankly bizarre comedic characters in this novel is sloppy and borders on being parodic of his own writing (like some kind of author’s personal private joke). The plot is poorly developed and the text somewhat ‘Dickensian’ (dry, often inaccurate in pure historical terms – he lists one of the characters reading a novel at one point, a novel which, in fact, wasn’t published at the time the character is supposed to be reading it in the novel!). However, the novel DOES have merit, and it adroily enlarges upon Trollope’s obsessions of money and class.

    His over-use of Dickensian plot names which worked reasonably well in the Barchester Towers novels with the creepy, slimey and fautuous Mr ‘Slope’ and Mrs ‘Proudie’ do not work so well in Is He Popenjoy – once again, they are lazily chosen and do not well describe the characters (perhaps Trollope is laughing at Dickens whom he despised – and I’m with Trollope on that one!)

    Popenjoy is an interesting book but not one of Trollope’s best – it goes on too long, has poorly developed characters, the sub-plot is tired and weak and the main plot predictable, repetitive and somewhat disappointing. There are,however, moments of true Trollopian humor which, ALWAYS, in my opinion, makes it worth reading!!

  6. A nice summary. I don’t agree with many of Maia’s criticisms. All the subplots are handled adroitly and relate to each other. It’s not sublime Trollope, but well above average. Mary is good but not disgustingly so. There’s quite a bit of profound realism about class and money and marriage and gossip. One feels however a certain amount of padding or automatic piloting resulting from periodical publication . . . We must continually endure long tho beautifully written paragraphs chewing the cud of the situation almost by rote in the mind of each character every step of the way.

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