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.