Monday, 22 October 2012

The Law or Justice?

Sad as I was to reach the end of another rereading of Anthony Trollope's Palliser books, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  You see, last year I was lucky enough to win a Twitter competition run by Oxford World's Classics, and the prize was four more of Trollope's novels - and I was able to choose four that I hadn't previously read.  All of which means that there are plenty more Trollope reviews to look forward to in the months to come :)

The one I was most interested in reading was another of Trollope's bulky, two-volume, 800-page epics, Orley Farm.  In his Autobiography, the writer considered this one to be his best novel, and while that may be stretching things a little, it's certainly one of the better ones I've read.  The story revolves around a codicil to a will made twenty years before the main action, an addendum which leaves the titular farm to the baby boy of Sir Joseph Mason's second wife.  The old man's other children suspect that their step-mother has somehow been involved in the forgery of this document, but a court case clears her of any wrong-doing, and Lady Mason is free to claim the property and run it on behalf of baby Lucius until he comes of age.

Twenty years on, Lucius is an educated, intelligent (if somewhat grumpy) young man, and he has decided to turn his attention to farming his own land.  In the process, he antagonises one of his tenants, a lawyer who married the daughter of the attorney at the centre of the original court case - and a man who subsequently finds a document which casts a different light on the events of the past...

Court cases and mysteries have featured in other Trollope works I've read (Phineas Redux, The Three Clerks and The Eustace Diamonds are some which immediately spring to mind), but Orley Farm is a novel which is more closely concerned with the workings of the law than any other I've read.  Trollope himself talks about 'sensational' literature and compares his work with that of Wilkie Collins, but it is actually Dickens' Bleak House that we are most reminded of.  Like Bleak House, Orley Farm is a doorstopper of a book, peopled with a wide cast of personalities from all walks of life, set partially in London and partially in the provinces.

While Orley Farm is of similar length to Bleak House, it is, of course, the focus on the law and, in particular, the rather loose link between the law and justice, which connects the two novels.  Where Dickens criticised the archaic institutions which led to fortunes being squandered in legal fees, Trollope examines the gladiatorial trial system where winning is more important than finding out what actually happened.  The writer's dreams of barristers working together to uncover the truth sounds somewhat idealistic, but the alternative - trained bloodhounds savaging innocent, honest people in the hope of discrediting them and obscuring the truth - hardly sounds like justice either...

Besides the over-riding theme of law and justice though, what I enjoyed most about Orley Farm was the way in which the characterisation was a little less black-and-white than is often the case.  Lady Mason could easily be compared to Lizzie Eustace (The Eustace Diamonds), but she is a much more complex and nuanced figure than her pretty, young counterpart.  We learn more about her character as the novel progresses, making it just that little bit harder for us to judge her - and to decide if she really is guilty or not.

While there are the usual sweet, blushing maidens and nervous, but manly, suitors, even the romances in Orley Farm are more intriguing than usual.  A stay at a country house sets up two love triangles: sweet Madeleine Stavely is pursued by upstart lawyer Felix Graham and wealthy heir Peregrine Orme; Sophia Furnival, a barrister's daughter, catches the eye of both Augustus Stavely and our young friend Lucius Morris.  While in other Trollope books, both the ladies would be pure and chaste, and the preferred suitor would be obvious from the start, things are not quite so clear here.  All of the young men have their good and bad points, none really standing out, and as for Ms. Furnival - well, I'm not sure she's playing the courting game quite as she's supposed to...

All in all, Orley Farm is definitely one of Trollope's more ambitious books, and it deserves its high reputation.  However, I was left thinking that it could have been that little bit more impressive if Trollope had only been released from the restraints of the Victorian culture and his own conscience.  Despite the attempts at ambiguity, the ending has to be morally correct: the characters must look to God for forgiveness, the good are rewarded, and the nasty are (for the most part) punished.  It's what the people wanted at the time, but today it detracts a little from the more balanced tone that runs through the novel.

Still, it's not for me to pass judgement on Trollope's treatment of his creations; I'm not sure my version would have been any better really.  And this is the real moral of the story.  As easy-going Judge Stavely says:
"...judge not that you be not judged." Volume II, p.122
(Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
As Orley Farm shows, the danger in judging is that you're very apt to make mistakes...