Monday, 15 May 2017

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope.

Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton was published in 1870, three years after the final book of the Chronicles of Barset: The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). I would love, one day, to read all of Trollope's 47 novels but for now I'm just picking out the ones with the most appealing plot, and The Vicar of Bullhampton looked interesting for the similar themes of the Barset books which I loved so much, the feuding churches, problematic courtships, and a clergyman at the centre of it all.

The clergyman in question is Frank Fenwick, and in the novel there are three plots that surround him. Firstly, that concerning the Brattle family, the head of which is Jacob Brattle. His son Sam, having fallen into the wrong crowd, is, along with his friends, suspected of murder when a farmer is killed during a burglary (sure of his innocence, Fenwick acts as a bondsman). Jacob's daughter Carry, meanwhile, has become a prostitute having been denounced by her father for succumbing to the advances of her seducer. She is found by Fenwick and brought home, and Fenwick must encourage Jacob to forgive her. The second subplot concerns Mary Lowther, an old friend of Fenwick's wife. She accepts the proposal Captain Walter Marrable, however, owing to some very unfortunate circumstances, it appears that Marrable will have to return to India with his regiment. Because of his father's cruel actions, he will be a poor man and it is agreed that Marrable's life of poverty ought not to be inflicted on Mary. Instead, Mary considers the proposal of another suitor, Harry Gilmore, who loves her very much however she does not love him. She finds herself pressured by those who surround her to accept his proposal and live a comfortable life. Finally, the feuding churches: Fenwick is 'Broad church' or Anglican, and he finds himself pitted against Mr. Puddleham, the village's Methodist minister, by the Marquis of Trowbridge (himself a 'Low church' Anglican) who is angered by Fenwick's support of the Brattle family.

Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-82).
Trollope is excellent at these 'panoramic' novels which do not limit themselves to one plot: around Frank Fenwick we have a setting and a variety of characters with a variety of problems and religious practices, all linked up by this one central character, and we have a picture of a town or village, Bullhampton, the various goings on, a range of emotions, how the attitudes shown to the problems in it are reflective of society in general, that is Victorian England, and the effects of such attitudes on the individual. My problem is, however enjoyable, I know well that Trollope can do better, and though this is not Trollope's longest novel (my edition of The Vicar is about 530 pages) it does go on a bit, and the bones of it are stretched a little too thinly for my liking. What is interesting is the darkness to it (which we do see in his other works, The Last Chronicle of Barset springing immediately to mind) in the story of the Brattles. I dare say this is what motivated Trollope to write a preface for the novel (I don't recall ever seeing a preface in a Trollope novel) in which he justifies his "castaway" - Carry Brattle:
There arises, of course, the question whether a novelist, who professes to write for the amusement of the young of both sexes, should allow himself to bring upon his stage such a character as that of Carry Brattle? It is not long since,—it is well within the memory of the author,—that the very existence of such a condition of life, as was hers, was supposed to be unknown to our sisters and daughters, and was, in truth, unknown to many of them. Whether that ignorance was good may be questioned; but that it exists no longer is beyond question. Then arises that further question,—how far the condition of such unfortunates should be made a matter of concern to the sweet young hearts of those whose delicacy and cleanliness of thought is a matter of pride to so many of us. Cannot women, who are good, pity the sufferings of the vicious, and do something perhaps to mitigate and shorten them, without contamination from the vice? It will be admitted probably by most men who have thought upon the subject that no fault among us is punished so heavily as that fault, often so light in itself but so terrible in its consequences to the less faulty of the two offenders, by which a woman falls. All her own sex is against her,—and all those of the other sex in whose veins runs the blood which she is thought to have contaminated, and who, of nature, would befriend her were her trouble any other than it is.
She is what she is, and remains in her abject, pitiless, unutterable misery, because this sentence of the world has placed her beyond the helping hand of Love and Friendship. It may be said, no doubt, that the severity of this judgment acts as a protection to female virtue,—deterring, as all known punishments do deter, from vice. But this punishment, which is horrible beyond the conception of those who have not regarded it closely, is not known beforehand. Instead of the punishment there is seen a false glitter of gaudy life,—a glitter which is damnably false,—and which, alas, has been more often portrayed in glowing colours, for the injury of young girls, than have those horrors, which ought to deter, with the dark shadowings which belong to them.
To write on prostitution in Victorian England was fairly brave (but not unique) and Trollope does so in starkly, his characters exclaiming, "I am told that one of the daughters is a—prostitute", and a little later "Who can be surprised that there should be murderers and prostitutes in the parish?", finally "The family is very bad, one of the daughters being, as I understand, a prostitute." This darkness is alleviated by some comic relief in the conflict between Fenwick and the Marquis, and, together with Mary Lowther's 'rebellion' and the situation with the Marquis, one does feel it is all a little too much for our vicar. Is it all too much for the reader? No, but it does come close. Even so, The Vicar of Bullhampton is a good novel, and, for its themes, very interesting.



4 comments:

  1. I read this after I saw your reading update on GoodReads. The plot intrigued me not because of anything else, but I was kind of curious as to how Trollope, the very epitome of all Victorian Gentlemanly attitude would handle the concept of a "fallen woman" . On that account, I think he acquitted himself admirably...He managed to convey the unfairness of the system and the horrible life a woman particularly is condemned to and how while redemption may not happen, there may be some respite with right kind of support structure! I agree with you on the rest of the novel....it stretched and lagged quite a bit.....it began at a good pace and somewhere in the middle, I think the plot got really lost for a while.

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    1. It does have an intriguing plot - that's partly why I was drawn to it, to see how Trollope would handle it. I think he did well, too, but yes it did get a bit lost. An odd book, a third cut from it would have worked better I think.

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  2. My online Trollope group is reading this and I really need to get started, I'm way behind (I'm also listening to an audio of Doctor Thorne and don't know if I can manage two Trollopes simultaneously!) I've heard it's one of the better stand-alone novels and am looking forward to it.

    And thanks for the illustrations!

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    1. Two at once! That would be a feat - I always avoid doing that, though tempted right now with Hardy - want to read A Changed Man AND Jude. Trying to resist :)

      Good luck with it when you get to it, I'll be interested to read what you make of it and if you think it's a wee bit too long...

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