Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
on 6 July 2012
Is this Trollope's finest work? A silly question perhaps, certainly one without a definitive answer, but it is my favourite at any rate. I have read close to 20 of Trollope's novels, including the famous Palliser & Barchester sextets and The Way We Live Now, and was pleasantly surprised at just how good this lesser known work is.
The title of the book refers to an extended family, including the squire, Sir Hugh, and the hero of the book, Harry, Sir Hugh's cousin and the son of the indolent Reverend Henry Clavering, who as the second son of Sir Hugh's grandfather was installed as the rector of the parish, although he leaves all the work to his zealous curate, Mr. Saul.
Harry is a bright & attractive young man who at the start of the book is jilted by Julia Brabazon, the poor, debt-ridden but beautiful sister of Sir Hugh's wife. She has instead decided to marry the dissolute but wealthy Lord Ongar. Harry throws up a potential career in the Church to train as a civil engineer, and in the course of his training meets & proposes to the daughter of his employer, Florence Burton.
But Harry gets himself into trouble when Julia, now the widowed Lady Ongar, returns from Italy, and he falls for her again (with her wealth as well as her beauty affecting his judgement): `it was not that he had ceased to love Florence: but that the glare of the candle had been too bright, & he had scorched himself'. He also effectively proposes to Julia (who is ignorant of his earlier betrothal). The rest of the book is devoted to how this situation is resolved.
There are 2 main reasons why I rate this book so highly in Trollope's oeuvre. Firstly the plot is tightly drawn, without too many rambling sub-plots one sees in other novels. The only significant one is the dogged wooing of Harry's sister by Mr. Saul in the face of the determined opposition of the girl's father, and Harry himself, which compares & contrasts nicely with Harry's more complex love life.
Secondly, the characterisation is superb, with great psychological subtlety, which is the more impressive when one considers the constraints imposed on the author by Victorian morality. There are several memorable characters, including the ghastly Sir Hugh, Harry himself, and Julia Brabazon. Even the minor characters like Mr Saul, the Reverend Henry & Lady Clavering are well drawn. The only ones which don't fully work are Sir Hugh's brother Archie & his friend `Boodles', who are cartoonish buffoons.
Sir Hugh is the archetypal `hard man'. He is cruel and selfish, neglecting his wife who bores him and rarely visiting his estate at Clavering Park. However he is not the stereotypical Victorian villain, and shows his mettle in the way he dismisses Julia's venal companion Sophie Gordeloup when she tries to extort money from him by threatening to reveal details about Julia's marriage. He is even briefly sympathetic when his only son and heir dies, although that sympathy is quickly lost when he implicitly blames his grieving wife: `He was always poor and sickly. The Claverings, generally, have been strong'.
Harry is the `hero' of the story but he is anything but heroic. He clearly is not going to make a success of the tough life of a civil engineer he has chosen for himself, and it is because of his weakness and indecision that he ends up effectively betrothed to 2 women. His subsequent illness is never wholly convincing, as it conveniently allows him to be nursed at home in Clavering rather than resolve his problems. In the end he is saved from the consequences of actions more by good fortune than by his own resolve.
But Julia Brabazon is possibly the most memorable character. She certainly has not learnt from experience in marrying for money, given the loveless marriage of her sister, but she is clear-eyed and decisive, in contrast to the hapless Harry. Trollope can still evoke sympathy for her by having her explain the options open to a poor gentlewoman: `Harry, you can choose the world...but I have no choice- no choice but to be married well, or to go out like the snuff of a candle'. She is clearly marked by her year of marriage to Lord Ongar, who was probably dying when she married him. He was an alcoholic and there are dark hints of worse ailments (Trollope could obviously not make any explicit reference to syphilis given the mores of the time). She is shunned by society on her return, & has no other companion than the dreadful Madame Gordeloup. She cannot enjoy her wealth, being made to feel an unwelcome outsider on her visit to Ongar Park, and tries to give it away in the end. The most powerful scenes in the book are when Florence's sister confronts Julia, and then when the 2 rivals for Harry meet at the end. Julia acts honourably throughout most of the book, but she can never erase the effect of her fateful decision to make a cynical marriage: as Mrs [Henry] Clavering says to Lady Clavering, who of course has recently lost her son & her husband `She has lost what I'm sure you will never lose, her own self-esteem'.
As is inevitable with Trollope, the book is uneven, with a few longeurs, especially about 2/3 to ¾ of the way through. When we learn that Sir Hugh and his brother Archie are to go on a sailing trip in the North Sea, it is pretty easy to guess how things will turn out, but it takes a long time to get there. Maybe the serialisation requirements took precedence here, as so often with this author.
I read the Kindle edition. There are quite a few typos, but certainly not enough to spoil one's enjoyment. It would be churlish to complain anyway given that it is free, and this edition is perfectly serviceable.