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Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope: Sharply Witty; Socially critical

Centuries before we’d even heard of payday loans and credit card debt, Anthony Trollope was writing about a society where living on credit is acceptable and loan sharks lurk in the shadows.

The critique of Victorian society found in The Chronicles of Barsetshire is one of the reasons I love the series so much. On the surface they are tales about love, marriage and religious rivalry. Pleasant enough but it’s the way Trollope criticises and mocks the “pillars of society” that makes them stand out for me. Church, aristocracy, government, politicians in general – it seems Trollope holds none of them in high regard.

In Framley Parsonage his scornful eye is turned on Nate Sowerby, a spendthrift Member of Parliament, and the men of power – politicians, socialites, the Duke of Omnium – in his network of acquaintances.

Anthony Trollope spends a good deal of the book demonstrating how these men he labels “gods” and “giants” connive and collude to advance their own interests, even if that is at the expense of the innocents.

Temptations of A Naive Man

The main plot concerns one such innocent. Mark Robarts is an affable man in his twenties who has been given a leg up in life by the mother of his schoolfriend Lord Lufton. Not only has Lady Lufton gifted him a wealthy living as vicar in her parish, Mark and his wife are regular dinner guests at her grand home.

But this is not enough for Mark whose ambitions lie beyond the small parish of Framley. He is flattered when Sowerby pays him attention and dazzled by the prospect that this acquaintance can lead to even more illustrious connections. Though he knows that Lady Lufton disapproves of the MP’s morals and lifestyle, he plunges on regardless, accepting an invitation to spend the weekend with Sowerby, the Dean of Barchester and another MP, Harold Smith.

His decision is partly an act of defiance against Lady Lufton, but he rationalises it as an essential step towards advancing his position in life.

I have no doubt that Harold Smith will be in the government some day, and I cannot afford to neglect such a man’s acquaintance.

In a naive attempt to mix in these influential circles, he gets persuaded by Sowerby to be a signatory to a bill of credit. Sowerby is an old hand at this kind of caper, deftly getting Mark to stand as guarantor for a £400 loan, considerable sum of money for the rather lowly parson. 

‘Allow me to draw on you for that amount at three months. Long before that time I shall be flush enough.’ And then, before Mark could answer, he had a bill stamp and pen and ink out on the table before him, and was filling in the bill as though his friend had already given his consent.

The MP makes no attempt to pay back the loan. When the due date materialises he simply gets Mark to sign another note (this time for £500) to buy his racehorse.

False Friends

In return, Sowerby helps Mark gain a prestigious post at Barchester Cathedral. But too late, Mark discovers that Sowerby is a false friend whose deviousness has brought him to the brink of disgrace, aided by a shady group of people whose business it is to speculate on unpaid debts. It proves to be a wake up call for the young cleric:

His very soul was dismayed by the dirt through which he was forced to wade. He had become unconsciously connected with the lowest dregs of mankind, and would have to see his name mingled with theirs in the daily newspapers.

Anthony Trollope said his intention in Framley Parsonage was to write “the biography of an English clergyman who should not be a bad man, but one led into temptation by his own youth and by the unclerical accidents of the life of those around him.”

It isn’t only Mark whose faults are laid bare. Sowerby is clearly the kind of parasitic person Trollope despises:

It is a remarkable thing with reference to men who are distressed for money… they never seem at a loss for small sums, or deny themselves those luxuries which small sums purchase. Cabs, dinners, wine, theatres, and new gloves are always at the command of men who are drowned in pecuniary embarrassments, whereas those who don’t owe a shilling are so frequently obliged to go without them!“ — 

In fact hardly any character (notable exceptions being Mark’s wife and sister) comes out of the story with any grace. They’re avaricious, acquisitive social climbers, driven by determination to get the status and wealth they believe is rightfully theirs. So they manoeuvre to marry their daughters off to someone with a title, get a position in the Cabinet, or acquire even more influence.

Mrs Proudie Returns

The mocking tone Trollope adopts towards many of these figures, makes the book hugely entertaining. Some of the characters from previous books in the series, make an appearance including the formidable Mrs Proudie, wife of the Bishop.

She’s her usual domineering self and still determined to exert her influence even beyond Barchester. There’s one memorable scene in which habing decided to play social hostess, she agonises over what kind of event would best “set the people talking” . Eventually she determines to hold a conversazione.

To accommodate with chairs and sofas as many as the furniture of her noble suite of rooms would allow, especially with the two chairs and padded bench against the walls in the back closet the small inner drawing−room, as she would call it to the clergymen’s wives from Barsetshire and to let the others stand about upright, or ‘group themselves’ as she described it. Then four times during the two hours’ period of her conversazione tea and cake were to be handed around on salvers. It is astonishing how far a very little cake will go in this way, particularly if administered tolerably early after dinner. 

Gems like this abound in Framley Parsonage. Trollope’s mocking tone had the ability to make me smile but there were some moments, of which this was one, that were pure laugh-out-loud. This is the fourth of the Barsester Chronicles I’ve read and the combination of social commentary and sharp wit has nudged this ahead of Barchester Towers in my list of favourites.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope: EndNotes

About the Book: Framley Parsonage was published serially in the Cornhill Magazine from January 1860 to April 1861 and in three volumes in 1861. It was the fourth of Trollopes’s six Barsetshire novels.

Elizabeth Gaskell was one of its many fans. “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to an end,” she declared.

About the Author: Anthony Trollope was working as a postal surveyor’s clerk in central Ireland when he began to write, using long train journeys around the island on postal duties. His early novels, which had an Irish settings, were not well received. Returning to England he was given responsibility for investigating and reorganising rural mail delivery in south-western England and south Wales. His investigation took him to Salisbury where he conceived the plot of The Warden, which became the first of the six Barsetshire novels.

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