“The game is not worth the candle.”
Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage is the fourth novel in the Barsetshire series. It’s a return to old friends with some new acquaintances thrown into the mix. It’s also a return to some familiar Trollope themes: the mixing of classes, the insidious nature of debt, the power of the press and ecclesiastical inequities. The hero, if there’s a hero here, is Mark Robarts, who, as a young man, made friends with Ludovic, a young man who was destined to become Lord Lufton. Ludovic’s mother, Lady Lufton, took to Mark and so began an advantageous acquaintance.
Between Mark’s father, a doctor and Lady Lufton, it was decided that Mark should enter the church. Hardly coincidentally, Lady Lufton was then able to give the living at Framley to Mark which comes with the princely sum of 900 pounds a year. When the novel opens, Mark is married to Fanny, and while he loves his wife, he’s not exactly content with his lot on life. Could it be that the early exposure to wealth and position influenced Mark’s ambition to ‘get ahead in life?’ While Lady Lufton has been a marvellous patroness to Mark, he chafes, mildly, at her control, and perhaps that, along with some misplaced ambition, explains why he insists on visiting Chaldicotes even though he knows that Lady Lufton disapproves. Chaldicotes House, the seat of Mr. Sowerby, is, according to Lady Lufton, a veritable den of inequity, with the Chaldicotes set “gall and wormwood to Lady Lufton who regarded them as Children of the Lost One.” Part of her dislike resides in political differences and part in religious differences. Plus the Luftons reside in East Barsetshire while Chaldicotes is in the “Western Division of Barsetshire.”
Lady Lufton wishes her son to marry:
In her mind every man was bound to marry as soon as he could maintain a wife; and she held an idea–a quite private tenet, of which she was herself but imperfectly conscious–that men in general were inclined to neglect this duty for their own selfish gratifications, that the wicked ones encouraged the more innocent in this neglect, and that many would not marry at all, were not an unseen coercion exercised against them by the other sex.
Lady Lufton didn’t exactly arrange Mark’s marriage, but she organized it, let’s say, and she’s trying to ‘organize’ another marriage–this time it’s between her son, Ludovic and Griselda Grantly, the daughter of Archdeacon Grantly. Lady Lufton dislikes her son mingling with the Chaldicotes set as that old bachelor, one of the group, the Duke of Omnium “was the very head of all such sinners.” As it turns out Lady Lufton may not have a precise knowledge of why the culture at Chaldicotes is BAD, but her intuition is correct. It’s not a set for nice young men. Lord Lufton found that out the hard way and Mark Robarts is about to fall victim to the seductions of the loose company.
It’s at Chaldicotes that Mark finds himself aggressively befriended by Mr Sowerby, the owner of the house. Even though Mark knows Sowerby is a “dangerous man,” heavily in debt “and that he had already entangled Lord Lufton in some pecuniary embarrassment,” he can’t quite turn away from Sowerby’s society. Mark is persuaded to visit the Duke of Omnium at Gatherum Castle, and that upsets Lady Lufton even more. Framley Parsonage illustrates that patronage from the wealthy and influential is a great thing but it comes with a price.
Trollope tells us that “it is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing.” Mark Robarts is a man who finds himself a clergyman, and yet there is no evidence that this is a life that suits him or one that he would have chosen for himself. There is no evidence of him being any sort of spiritual advisor, and indeed Mark seems to find the clergy an ill fit, and he’s soon riding to hunt, buying an overpriced horse from Sowerby, and signing notes for Sowerby’s debts. The novel is very strong indeed in its depiction of Sowerby–a man who inherited wealth and an estate and has run through all of his money, and now he’s running through friends and acquaintances. Debt is a way of life for Sowerby, and he hops from one loan to another in stepping stone fashion. Yet since this is Trollope, his customary generous view of human nature reigns:
Let not anyone covet the lot of a spendthrift, even though the days of his early pease and champagne seem to be unnumbered; for that lame Nemesis will surely be up before the game has been all played out.
And if Sowerby runs out of friends to sign notes of debt for him, then no matter, he can always marry Miss Dunstable, the Oil of Lebanon heiress. But the problem with that plan is that Miss Dunstable is besieged by impecunious suitors and she has a very good head for money and business.
Sowerby lives like a rich man and seems to not have a care in the world, but inevitably his debts catch up with him and he can juggle them no longer. Trollope shows how a debtor is a veritable black whole in space sucking in anyone foolish, weak or soft hearted enough to sign for debts.
One subplot concerns Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, who comes to live at Framley Parsonage following the death of her father. She falls in love with Lord Lufton but is not considered a suitable bride by Lady Lufton. After all, Lucy is the sister of Lady Lufton’s “pet” clergyman. Another notable character is Mr. Crawley, a dour, impoverished clergyman whose joylessness infects everyone around him. Yet it’s through Crawley we see the contrast (and the injustice) of how one clergyman lives in such circumstances that his (large) family can barely survive (a great deal drop off like flies) while another buys horses and hunts with the gentry. And once again we see the insufferable Bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudie–a woman so thick-skinned and full of herself she even upends and coopts a lecture about South Sea Islanders. It’s an hilarious scene.
“It is to civilization that we must look,” continued Mr. Harold Smith, descending from poetry to prose as a lecturer well knows how, and thereby showing the value of both–“for any material progress in these islands; and –“
“And to Christianity,” shouted Mrs. Proudie, to the great amazement of the assembled people, and to the thorough wakening of the Bishop, who, jumping up in his chair at the sound of the well-known voice, exclaimed, “Certainly, certainly.”
A great deal of the humour comes from Mrs. Proudie; she’s as horrid as ever, and her acid comments lash many another inhabitant of Barsetshire. We see the marriage market through Griselda Grantly, Lucy and Miss Dunstable, and the machinations of parents who cannot, alas, insist that their children marry by decree. Mr Sowerby’s fall from respected landowner to total penury is a formidable study in human nature. He seduces Mark by his friendship and then squeezes him like a lemon. Yet Trollope makes certain that we know that this action is not personal, this is simply Sowerby’s Modus Operandi, and as long as there are innocents like Mark Robarts in the world, Sowerby will live to spend another day. The Duke of Omnium has made slight appearances in the earlier Barsetshire novels, but here we see a wolfish appetite under the seemingly benign, disconnected persona.