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.
Good review, Brian. I have so many Trollope books and have only read two. I know I will get around to them, it just isn't the season.
I thought it was interesting your comments about Trollope's references to Biblical metaphors. Back then the Bible was used to teach reading so most contemporary readers would have understood the references. That can be seen in many writers back then, religious or not.
I wonder how many readers today would recognize the sources.
I need to look and see if I have this particular novel. Kudos to your for reading fifteen.
Thanks Sharon. This is a good one to read of one does not want to get hooked into a long series.
Yes, folks back in Trollope’s time would surely have been more likely to catch the Biblical references. But I would also guess that folks who read Trollope are probably more likely to catch them compared to the average modern reader.
I was thinking that as well.
Hi Brian, Before the year is through I will read The Way We Live Now and am eager to do so thanks to your excellent reviews of Trollope's novels.
Making out a will is no small matter. Family members can end up hurt financially and emotionally based on what the deceased decided to do with his fortune and it sounds like Lady Mason's husband left nothing to her and their son Lucius which was not right although it doesn't give Lady Mason a right to forge the will since that just brings on more trouble eventually.
As usual, another blog post of yours about a book I've never heard of has made me feel like I am missing out! This sounds so good, but I have never read any Trollope. I am not sure where to start?
Great review, Brian. This sounds like vintage Trollope. Complex, thought-provoking and perfectly executed.
Thanks Cathy. I think that you would like The Way We Live Now.
The ethical conflicts that you mention are at the heart of this book. It also is a slightly different approach from Trollope.
Thanks Laurie. One issue with Trollope is that he wrote such long series. The Way We Live Now is a great stand alone. Can You Forgive Her? is also one of the best and is the first in a series. My favorite is Barchester Towers but one should read The Warden First.
Thanks Jacqui. This indeed a great book that has many common Trollopian notes.
This sounds great. I always find it so interesting to know which books authors like best.
I’ve never seen this reviewed or mentioned so far but it sounds strong. Great review as always.
Thanks Caroline - Trollope wrote so many books and more then a few were outstanding. I guess that sometimes this one gets lost in the mix.
what an incredibly done post dear Brain
i am so thankful for detailed captivating review as i don't know when i will be able to read this wonderful novel
i am loving this author through your reviews and i have already enlisted him in my future reading list
this one sounds mighty and intriguing ,loved the lady Mason and specially the introductory passage you share can make anyone fall in love with her
story sounds to have all the essential ingredients that make it COMPELLING
thank you again :)
Thanks Baili - I think that a mark of a great character is that one can form strong emotions about them. Lady Mason is such a character.
I started to reply to this yesterday, but got distracted searching for my bookgroup's blog so I can add it to our Schedule Ideas list. We have in the List - "Trollope, one by him", and it's been there for a few years not. I think this one my be a good one to suggest. I have to admit that I've never heard of it. I did like The way we live now.
Hi WG - It is interesting and odd how this book slips under the radar for so many. I think that if you liked The Way We Live Now then you would likely like this one.
i've begun this several times but not carried through; don't know why not, really... sometimes i think T wrote himself into holes plot-wise, but he was a genius at making it appear that he planned it that way... at any rate your post is inspiring... i'll take another look... tx....
Thanks Muddpuddle. One thing about Trollope is that he did not like surprises or suspicious so he gives a lot away early. That and the fact that he tends to take his time might get in the way of enjoying his books too.
I totally commend your commitment to one author. Such a commitment informs my reading choices more than anything else. You have written an excellent review which shows how and why you admire Trollope so much. Sorry for my lateness in commenting. I am still catching up on my friends' blogs. Now I am only 6 days behind!
Thanks Judy - There is never a rush to comment.
I really do love Trollope. One reason that I have read so many of his books is that I felt that I wanted to finish each of his two big series once I started them.
Great review that once me to add this book to my long list. I especially like the idea of complex characters and an engrossing plot with interesting themes. Plus I have never been disappointed with a Trollope novel that I've read, although I'm still in the single digits.
Thanks James. I also have not read a Trollope novel that I did not like. He did write fifty four of them however.
This Lady Mason has sure put herself in a pickle. How will she tell her son & deprive him of the property etc. Yikes, but she must ... tell him! It seems Orley Farm should have been hers anyways despite the forgery. Grrr. I like these kinds of stories ... where there's a moral, ethical dilemma which is neither all black or white an issue ...
Hi Susan - Trollope did not write all that many moral dilemmas in his books. But hers he introduced a great one. This was a marvelous story.
This one sounds like a great courtroom drama, and Lady Mason sounds like a well-rounded, conflicted character. I've read a bit of Trollope years ago, but it was only a few of the Barchester Chronicles. I'm reminded how enjoyable they were, and how he builds awkward relationships and situations.
Well this is a new Trollope for me but since you believe it’s one of his best, it has to go on my reading list. It will be a while before I get to it since I’m slowly making my way through the Barchester Chronicles. Good to know that the elements I love in Trollope are evident here.
A fan of strong, feisty female characters Lady Mason sounds like a character I'd find interesting and would possibly enjoy, the very fact that the author (not a writer known for featuring moral dilemmas in his novels if what I know of his works is correct) features them here intrigues me.
Another insightful review, thank you. It never ceases to amaze me how you get to the nitty-gritty (as my nana was wont to say) of these novels.
Thanks for stopping by BookerTalk. This one is really under appreciated. I thought that the Barsetshire Chronicles were great. Barchester Towers is my all time favorite Trollope book.
Thanks Felicity. Lady Mason was a terrific character. The moral dilemma also made this a little different.
Goodness, that does sound like a dilemma - personally, I’d want to know why the husband didn’t leave her anything in the first place, and don’t blame her for looking after the kid, but Victorian literature doesn’t work like that, does it? ��
I had forgotten what a superb writer Trollope is. There is a book on my shelf. It is time to bring it down.
Hi Sue - The book does go into that a bit. Sir Mason’s second marriage to a young women was seen as a frivolous lark by his family. In some ways he also treated it as such.
Hi Susan - I love Trollope’s writing. This one was well worth it.
Excellent review, and the book goes on my to-read list. I like it when authors do justice to thorny ethical issues without trying to portray anyone as an angel or a black-hearted villain.
Thanks Hila - Trollope was very good at portraying people who were neither villain nor angels.
Brian Joseph, Orley Farm sounds incredible. How can you go wrong with complex characters, an engrossing plot, and interesting themes? Terrific commentary, once again! I've been away from blogging for the past week or so but now I am back and ready to blog and read again.
Thanks Suko. The book really does have the perfect elements. I look forward to your upcoming posts.
wow 15! Orley Farm sounds like a good one. Even though it's wrong to do, I can understand her forging the will to help her son from being penniless though. And I like the quote describing Lady Mason.
Glad you enjoyed another one by Trollope.
Hi Naida - The moral dilemmas in this book really work. With that, Lady Mason’s actions may be a bit more socially acceptable today then when this was written.
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