Monday, August 26, 2019

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

Orley Farm is the fifteenth Anthony Trollope novel that I have read. I decided to give this one a go for several reasons. Though a little less known then some other Trollope books, Harold Bloom included this on his Western Cannon list. Trollope himself also considered this his best work. I was not disappointed as I found this novel to be up there among the Trollope books that I liked best. It may have been as good as The Way We Live Now, which is often considered the author’s great standalone novel. In addition to the usual Trollopian strengths, I thought that this book’s characters displayed a special emotional intensity that tied into the book’s themes in ways that surpassed the author’s other works

At the center of the story is Lady Mason. Twenty years before the main events of this narrative, Lady Mason was married to the much older and wealthy Sir Joseph Mason. The elder man had a family from a previous marriage. Upon his death, an amendment to his will is found indicating that he left a valuable fraction of his property, known as Orley Farm, to Lady Mason’s and his infant son Lucius. The will is contested by Sir John’s elder son, Joseph Mason the younger. Though Lady Mason wins the first round of legal battles and gets to keep control of Orley Farm, twenty years later new evidence is discovered by the vengeful ex - tenant of the Masons, Samuel Dockwrath.

The fate of Orley Farm is once again in question, and Lady Mason is accused of forgery. The plot takes us through her trial. I am not giving too much away in saying that as that fairly early, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lady Mason did indeed forge the will. She did it to avoid a situation where her son would grow up penniless. Adding to the drama are additional characters. There is the now grown – up, headstrong but ethical Lucius trying to interfere in the legal battle. Mr. Furnival is Lady Mason’s lead attorney who is very attracted to her and who has his own familial complications. Sir Felix Graham is another attorney whose ethical dilemmas and romantic attachments could fill a short novel in and of themselves. The stately, chivalrous and emotional Sir Peregrine Orme, an elder aristocrat who falls in love with Lady Mason, becomes temporarily engaged to her and tries to assist her. 

As alluded to above, outside of the main plot there are multiple characters and plot threads that run concurrently and interact with one another. These threads are so numerous and complex it is impossible to summarize them in a single blog post. These threads involve friends and relations of the Masons as well as members of the opposing legal teams. They mostly involve romantic entanglements. Several critics have tallied characters and found that this book contains more major characters and plot threads than anything else that Trollope wrote. As he has done in other novels, the author has given us a complex world peopled by nuanced characters. 

Major themes here include ethics, guilt and loyalty. Trollope manages to interweave these themes with character development in a brilliant way and in many permutations. Lady Mason, in her forgery of the will, has committed an unethical act. Based on the conventions of Trollope’s time, this crime is considered more severe both legally and socially then it would be today. As her friends come to the realization of what she has done, they begin to agonize as to what to do and how to treat their friend. 

Many factors come into play. First there is Lady Mason’s personality and charm. Trollope loves complexity. Lady Mason is shown to be a decent person who committed one unethical act. Yet she still has a few flaws. She is worthy of friendship and loyalty. Several friends, who become aware of and condemn her crime, nevertheless still try to emotionally support her. At the same time, she is described as charming and still beautiful and able to use these attributes to her advantage. This makes her attractive to men who are some, but not all,  of the people who support her. She is described as follows,

Lady Mason was rich with female charms, and she used them partly with the innocence of the dove, but partly also with the wisdom of the serpent. But in such use as she did make of these only weapons which Providence had given to her, I do not think that she can be regarded as very culpable. During those long years of her young widowhood in which nothing had been wanting to her, her conduct had been free from any hint of reproach. She had been content to find all her joy in her duties and in her love as a mother. Now a great necessity for assistance had come upon her. It was necessary that she should bind men to her cause, men powerful in the world and able to fight her battle with strong arms. She did so bind them with the only chains at her command,— but she had no thought, nay, no suspicion of evil in so doing…She did wish to bind these men to her by a strong attachment; but she would have stayed this feeling at a certain point had it been possible for her so to manage it.

The above quotation is typical of Trollope at this best. First Biblical references, in this case about the innocence of doves and the wisdom of serpents, is something common with this author. Trollope’s books are filled with both Biblical and mythological references such as this. I think that this particular reference fits seamlessly fits into his description of Lady Mason. The entire passage encapsulates the complexity of people and the complexity of life. Lady Mason’s behavior could be described as manipulative. However there a lot more to it as her views and aims are tempered by other factors. Elsewhere in the book she is described as a loving and dutiful mother. She is not motivated by malice and tries not to do harm. I would also point out that unlike many other writers, Trollope, despite creating characters endowed with subtlety, tends to dig into his characters without subtlety on his part. His omnipotent narrator unashamedly analyzes and judges his creations. Some readers might consider this a flaw. However, I find that Trollope does this in a way that is both unique and effective. Finally, Lady Mason is simply a complex and great character.

There is a lot more exploration of these themes. Both Sir Peregrine Orme and Mr. Furnival are entranced and infatuated with Lady Mason. Both wrestle over what to do when they learn the truth about the forgery. As a result, Orme acquiesces to break his engagement. However, he otherwise sticks by her. At the same times he encourages her to make amends for what she has done by encouraging her son to return the property gained by fraudulent means. 

Felix Grahamis a young lawyer who is on Lady Mason’s defense team. He has a reputation of only taking cases where he believes he is in the right. He initially joins the defense team because he believes that Lady Mason is innocent. As he realizes the truth, he encounters a moral dilemma as to how to proceed. Other attorneys in the team could care less that she is really guilty. This relates to another related theme of the book involves corruption and lack of ethics in the English legal system. 

For her part Lady Mason is wracked with guilt and is described as having shouldered the burden of her act for twenty years. She seems to want to genuinely return the property and make amends as her friends encourage her to do. However, this would involve telling her son what she has done, and also depriving him of all his property and his home. The emotional turmoil that she experiences is both realistic and effective beyond anything else I have read in a Trollope novel. All old these characters and  their predicaments all intermix beautifully with Trollope's themes. 

I found this book among Trollope’s best. Though not my number one favorite, it compares well to all his other works. He did some things here better than in the other books that I have read by him. The book is full of complex characters and has an engrossing plot and interesting themes.  I highly recement this to fans of Victorian literature and of Trollope.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin is a survey of women’s role in the American Revolution. The author does a good job of chronicling this underreported aspect of the conflict. As folks who have read my blog in the past know, The American Revolutionary period is of particular interest to me. This work helped to fill in a lot of gaps and enhanced my understanding of The Revolution itself.  I wanted to read a book that centered on women and the Revolution and I had heard that this work, along with Women of the Republic by Linda K. Kerber, were the most respected on the subject. I may read Kerber’s book soon. 

Berkin covers multiple categories of women in this book. One thing that makes it difficult to write about this work is its survey nature.  It covers a lot of fairly unconnected topics concerning women who came from very different backgrounds and cultures. Segments are dedicated to women on the patriot side, loyalist women, black women, Native American women, camp followers, and women who engaged in espionage as well as actual combat. A lot of issues and trends are explored. A few main points involve: patriot women taking on male roles of household and farm management when their husbands went off to the war; persecution of loyalist women and their eventual displacement from their homes; women in actual combat; Native American women who sometimes held leadership roles in their societies; black women who were usually enslaved , many of whom took the opportunity to attempt to flee to the British side as British commanders had promised them freedom. The author tells of many personal accounts and relies heavily on diary entries and letters. 

The book concludes with an examination of the aftermath of the Revolution in regard to women. As a result of the revolutionary spirit and the fact that so many women took on important roles, many Americans, both men and women, argued for equality. The result was a major change in women’s education in America. In most places, girls were provided the same education as boys. Unfortunately, reform stopped there. Berkin explores the reasons for this. 

As I mentioned above, because this book brings up so many points and focuses on so many individual women, it is difficult to pin much down in a single blog post. For instance, there is a lot here about camp followers. Both American and British armies had a groups of thousands of women who followed them around. These consisted of a combination of women that provided laundry and other services, wives of enlisted men, and prostitutes. I had previously known a little bit about camp followers, but this work really dug into the details concerning the many different women who composed this group. Camp followers are just one among several groups that are focused on on in this book. 

Just one fascinating example of the many individuals covered in this work is Molly Brant. Most of the tribes of the Iroquois nation chose to side with the British. Thus, there was heavy and brutal fighting between American and Native American forces in upper New York State. The more I read about the Native Americans in the era when they came into contact with whites, the more I realize that there were a lot of people who fit into and moved between both white and Native American worlds. Brant was such a person. She was a Mohawk from a powerful family.  The Mohawks were one of several Iroquois tribes. Women held more power in Iroquois society as opposed to European and Colonial society. In this area, the Iroquois and some other tribes were more enlightened than the Europeans. Brant in particular held a position of power and influence within the Iroquois confederation.  She also married Sir William Johnson, who was a high British official involved in Native American affairs. Brant was supposedly very comfortable and mixed freely in booth Iroquois and European society.  As an important member of Iroquois leadership, Brant helped guide the tribe into an alliance with The British. Throughout the war, she served as a liaison and supporter of The British cause. Berkin writes,
Throughout the war, the British relied heavily on Molly’s influence with the Mohawks. It was Molly who persuaded the Society of Six Nations Matrons to press their men to fight for the king, and it was Molly who rallied these Indian warriors when they began to question their participation in the war . British officials never underestimated her importance.

This work is filled with similar interesting and important stories. 

This is very good book. Though it is not that long, it covers a lot of ground and shines light into lots of areas. It is full of interesting accounts, and I learned a lot from it.  Berkin is also a very good writer who manages to hold my interest throughout. I recommend this to anyone interested in the American revolutionary era, women’s’ history, or the social history of America.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants who settle in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. First published in 1913, this is a short novel and is the first book of what is known as the Great Plains Trilogy. I found the story and the characters compelling. The prose is beautifully written. Cather’s description of the Nebraska region that the book takes place in, known as the Divide, is a major feature of this book as the landscape practically becomes a character in and of itself. In some ways, this work reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, and that book’s incorporation of Egdon Heath in its narrative.

The novel is segmented into sections, each section jumps several years forward. The entire story encompasses the late nineteenth century and moves into the early twentieth century. The tale begins as John Bergson, the father of the family, is dying. His parting admonishment to his family is to leave his daughter, Alexandra, in charge of the family farm. At this point, the clan consists of Alexandra, her mother and her three brothers. Lou and Oscar are older and are basically competent farmers but are flawed people with limited imagination. Emil is the youngest sibling who is intelligent and sensitive. Carl Linstrum is a neighboring boy who becomes Alexandra’s romantic interest. Marie is a lively young girl who grows up alongside the Bergsons.

The Bergson farm, as well as the Bergson’s neighbors’ farms, are failing as a result of years of bad weather. Neighbors are abandoning the area. Carl and his family move away to the city. Alexandra comes under pressure to sell the property and vacate, but persistently resists and holds out. In a turn of events, as the years go by, the region starts to thrive. Alexandra’s management turns out to be competent and energetic, and the entire Bergson family eventually prospers. Alexandra helps Emil to get a university education. For his part, Emil becomes interested in the unhappily married Marie. The two initiated an affair and serious trouble ensues. There are other interesting characters and plot threads. 

Eventually, Carl returns to the area. He is penniless. An interesting but unfortunate role reversal starts to play out. Alexandra wants to marry Carl, but her family objects because he is broke. The independent Alexandra wants to go ahead anyway, but social pressure leads Carl to set off into the world to earn a fortune before he will marry a more prosperous woman. The social interactions involving gender and money are interesting. If the roles were reversed, a wealthier man would be able to marry a poorer woman, but it is the disparity of income combined with gender that keep the two apart. The fact that it is Carl who responds to the social pressure and declines marriage is interesting. 

The characters, plot and themes are well crafted and interesting. However, where this novel really shines is in Cather’s wonderful prose. The author weaves this prose to fit and connect with various characters and themes. 

For instance, Alexandra is tied to the land. When other pioneers are abandoning it and going back where they came from, Alexandra stubbornly hangs on. She does this in the face of even her two brothers’ opposition. In this passage, Cather pulls it all together,

When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

I find the fact that Alexandra may be the only person to look at The Divide with such a fascinating love and yearning. Thus, The Divide bends its will to her, and history begins.

Likewise, Cather uses her skill with prose, people and nature to illuminate Marie’s character and predicament. This young woman has found herself trapped in a bad marriage. She once seemed to have loved Frank her husband. However, not only has Frank allowed pessimism and depression to bring him down, but he has taken his bad feedings out on Marie. This is painful and stifling to her.  She looks for some way to escape, no matter how bad it is.

Marie stole slowly, flutteringly, along the path, like a white night-moth out of the fields. The years seemed to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain— until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released. Marie walked on, her face lifted toward the remote, inaccessible evening star.

There is a lot to the above passage. It is interesting that Marie flutters like a moth. She is a person on a chain, tied to the mundane. Symbolically, she is bleeding and weak. She still looks for release and gazes upon evening stars that seem equally inaccessible. Once again, I think that Cather’s language is superb.

This is a very good, short book. The characters are interesting and somewhat complex. The story is compelling and drives worthy themes. I simply love Cather’s prose, which is excellent and ties everything together. As I was impressed with this book, I am likely to read the remainder of the Prairie Trilogy soon.