Blog Archives

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope: Sharply Witty; Socially critical

Cover of Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope, part of The Chronicles of Barsetshire series

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.

Anthony Trollope

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.

What I’m Reading: Episode 28, July 2020

I completely forgot to do this update in June. I shall have to make this a bumper episode about what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Like many of you I’m finding it hard to focus while the word around me is in such chaos. I keep picking out books from my “owned but unread” shelves, reading a chapter and then losing interest. So I have five partially read books dotted around the house. None of them are badly written, they are just not suiting my mood at the moment.

Three have so far managed to retain my interest.

On my Kindle is a crime novel by an author who has chosen to make her home in Wales. Rather To Be Pitied is the second in a series by Jan Newton which features Detective Sergeant Julie Kite. They are all set in mid Wales which makes a refreshing change; so many crime novels have a city setting. I’m enjoying discovering the locations through the eyes of this DS who has moved to Wales from Manchester. Given Jan Newton’s current home is in Wales, and her book is published by Honno Press (A Welsh independent company) this novel more than fits the criteria for the “Wales” category in my 20BooksOfSummer reading project.

My project to read all of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, moved a little closer to the finishing line last month when I read Framley Parsonage. I’ve now moved on to book number five which is The Small House At Allington. It’s a lot more domestic in its focus than the previous books have been. While the previous books revolved around the political and religious worlds, this one concerns young woman of independent spirit who nonetheless longs to be loved.

Finally, a book I started reading in May but have only just reached the half way mark. I absolutely love The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel but find it takes a lot of concentration to fully appreciate and I don’t have that right now. So I’m reading it in small sections….

What I just finished reading

Back in 2019 I took out a monthly subscription with the Asympote Book Club, the only club I’ve found which is dedicated to world literature in translation. It’s introduced me to some fantastic new authors and books that I would never have discovered myself.

Love by the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik is a slim volume but for tension and intensity it knocks socks off novels that are double its size. It recounts the story of one icy night in the lives of a mother and her son. Though the book is called Love, it actually deals with emotional distance or the absence of love. Mind-blowingly brilliant in the way it weaves narratives from mother and child as they both venture out from the safety of their home onto the perilous darkened roads of a village.

What I’ll read next

I might return to one of those partially-read books I mentioned earlier. But I’m more likely to choose one of the novels that will be coming out in the next few months like Kate Grenville’s A Room Full Of Leaves and The Mission House by Carys West.

Also tempting me is They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell which was published in 1937 but is being reissued as a Random House Vintage edition. It’s a portrait of an ordinary American family struck by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and having read a review of it just this weekend, I know it’s going to be one I enjoy.

On top of that I have The Dutch House by Ann Patchett to read for the book club meeting in August. So, as always, I am not exactly lost for options.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What I’m Reading: Episode 27, May 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Given I have zero tolerance for heights, you might be surprised to learn that I’m reading a book about climbing. It won’t be my first either – many years ago I was fascinated by Regions of the Heart, an autobiography of the British climber, Alison Jane Hargreaves.  She reached the summit of Everest alone, without oxygen or Sherpas in May 1995. Later that year she died in a storm while descending K2.

I suspect what interests me in this kind of book is that they reveal levels of endurance and courage I don’t have myself.

My current read takes place closer to home; among the slate quarries of North Wales. Many of them were abandoned when the industry declined leaving behind enormous craters; just the kind of terrain to attract climbers.

In  Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene, Peter Goulding talks about his love affair with slate and the motley gang who join him in scaling the heights of oddly named landmarks like Orangutan Overhang. I’m on the blog tour for this book which is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on June 4.

I’m also making my way through Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope, number four in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It took a time to get going but the drama has now kicked up a gear with the bailiffs about to come knocking on the door of a vicar caught up in the financial schemes of a so-called friend. Some of the well known and well-loved characters from previous books make an appearance including the quite awful bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie.  

What I just finished reading

I managed to get to the library the day before all branches in our county were closed indefinitely because of Covid-19. By good fortune it meant I could pick up Actress by Anne Enright. What a delight that turned out to be; a book so good that I didn’t want it to end.

It’s a character study in which a daughter tells the story of her actress mother Katherine O’Dell in an attempt to answer the question she is most often asked “What was she like?” There is another question in the narrative: why did Katherine go mad?

The book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 but strangely never made the shortlist. Maybe she will be more successful with the Booker Prize when that longlist is announced in July – Actress is definitely on a par with The Gathering, the novel that won her the prize in 2007.

What I’ll read next

I’ve resisted the temptation to join in 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com again this year. I love the event even though I have never managed to complete my list but at the beginning of the year I made a decision to avoid any challenges which involve reading from a list. That won’t stop me feeling envious when I see all the other participants blogging about their reading plans

I do have a few books lined up already, the result of getting carried away with review copies. Plus I’ve been trying to support independent bookshops and publishers during these extraordinary times so my book buying has gone through the roof.

First for me to read will be The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith. It’s a debut novel taking place amid a health crisis in the world – a theme we have become all too familiar with in recent month. Smith’s novel is about one woman’s hunt for her birth mother at a point in the future when an antibiotic crisis has decimated the population. The ebook came out in April with the paperback version published by Orenda out on July 9.

There are some new books coming out I have my eye on. One is by the Welsh author Alis Hawkins. Those Who Know is the third in her Teifi Valley Coroner series. It’s out in ebook format but publication of the paperback (the format I’d prefer to read) is postponed until September. I’m waiting for my order of her novel set during the time of the Black Death – The Black and the White  – to arrive through my letterbox.

And I’ve just taken delivery of Nia by another Welsh author, Robert Minhinnick, published by Seren Books. It’s about a new mother who joins forces with two friends to explore an unmapped cave system. As events unfold, the strands of her life come into focus – her dysfunctional parents, the daughter she must raise differently, the friends with whom she shared childhood.


Those are my plans. I’ve only now realised that a number of the books I’ve mentioned have a Welsh connection. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Reading horizons: Episode 24

Reading Horizons: November 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to  bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves. 

A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.

This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.

I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.

By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.

It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.

After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”

The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.

What I’ll read next

A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.

That should keep me busy for a while.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Six Degrees from The Dry to Gaza

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.

 

 

The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly.  Whether you view him as  a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian,  won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.

 

Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces.  Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.

Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939.  I’ll  hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America  into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.

Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.

Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.

 

 

Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights.  But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”

 

 

Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s.  Her main character – a fugitive war criminal  discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is  modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.

 

Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.


And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes.  You can follow these on Twitter by searching for  the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.

Six Degrees from Atonement

six-chains-logo

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.

Emma

For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..

 

%d bloggers like this: