Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'Lady Anna' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

Jane Austen taught us that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife - but what about a single woman about to come into a good fortune?  And what should be done if that single woman is planning to give her fortune to a man whose social status really doesn't warrant it?  Hmm, some tough questions there.  I think I'll need some help with this one, preferably from an expert on the delicate questions of nineteenth-century courtship...

Anthony Trollope's Lady Anna is (for Trollope, at least) a remarkably focused novel.  We begin with the plight of Josephine Murray, or Countess Lovel as she would prefer to be known.  Having married an Earl, she believes she has achieved her life's goals - until, that is, he laughingly informs her that he was already married to an Italian woman at the time of the wedding...  If the Earl is telling the truth, then the Countess would lose her title, and her daughter, Lady Anna, would no longer inherit anything.

We move on a couple of decades, and the wicked Earl has passed away, leaving lawyers to decide the truth of the matter.  With the question of the Italian marriage fading into the background, matters soon concern themselves with the contest between the two women and Anna's cousin, the new Earl.  It's a conflict that would easily be resolved if a marriage could be arranged between the two cousins - the problem, however, is that Anna's heart has already been given away elsewhere...

This is typical Trollope in many ways.  The first two chapters are all scene setting, discussing the events of twenty years and making sure the reader has a firm grasp of the nature of the court case to come.  However, once the writer has made sure everyone's up to speed, off we go at a gallop for five-hundred pages of melodrama.  Early in the novel, the Countess exclaims:
"Was it to come to her at last?  Could it be that now, now at once, people throughout the world would call her the Countess Lovel, and would own her daughter to be the Lady Anna, - till she also should become a countess?"
pp.72/3 (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
Call me a cynic, but I doubt it's going to happen on page seventy-three...

However, unlike Orley Farm, for example, Lady Anna places little importance on the court case, an anti-climax which disappoints the eager spectators who crowd into the court room.  Instead, the emphasis shifts to the battle for Anna's hand and heart.  Having grown up in straitened circumstances, it's only natural that Anna should have become attached to her childhood companion, Daniel Thwaite, and it will take a lot of persuasion to convince her to abandon a man who has loved her through thick and thin, merely to please her mother.

This is where Trollope comes into his own, gently unveiling the delights of the English upper classes, allowing both Anna and the reader to be seduced by the comforts of a sedate existence in the country, servants waiting to fulfil your every command and money as an abstract concept which is always somewhere if you need it.  You sense that the original readership would most definitely have been on the side of the gentry, particularly as Frederic, the handsome young Earl who is to marry Anna, acts so well in refusing to contest the case against the mother and daughter (a case which would make him fabulously wealthy).

This natural bias would also have been strengthened by the early appearances of the Earl's rival.  Thwaite is a radical, and while his father (who was the Countess' only supporter in earlier times) thinks it inevitable that the blue-bloods still rule the world, the son is much stronger in his desire to change the social order:
"The world is not ripe yet, Daniel."
"No; - the world is not ripe."
"There must be earls and countesses."
"I see no must in it.  There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, over-grown brutes roaming miserable and hungry through the undrained woods, - cold, comfortless, unwieldy things, which have perished in the general progress.  The big things have all to give way to the intellect of those which are more finely made." (p.39)
Definitely not views which will endear him to the Victorian moral classes ;)

However, as the novel draws on, even his opponents, the family and lawyers who oppose his interests, acknowledge that he is a good man (if not a gentleman), although they would prefer him to take some money and run.  Surprisingly, one of his biggest supporters turns out to be the chief lawyer for the Lovel family, Sir William Patterson, a man whose actions ultimately influence the outcome of the whole state of affairs, as the knight is one of those rare lawyers who seem to have the best interests of all concerned at heart - even when some believe that he's not really doing his job:
"The cause itself was no doubt peculiar, - unlike any other cause with which Mr. Flick had become acquainted in his experience; there was no saying at the present moment who had opposed interests, and who combined interests in the case; but still etiquette is etiquette, and Mr. Flick was aware that such a house as that of Messrs. Norton and Flick should not be irregular.  Nevertheless he sent for Daniel Thwaite." (p.222)
Flick should have no worries - in a Trollope novel, everything (usually) ends up for the best :)

Initially, I was a little concerned with the narrow focus of Lady Anna, thinking that the court case might become a little dull.  However, Trollope knows full well what he's doing, and the legal aspects soon fade into the background so that he can concentrate on what he really wants to discuss, which is the right of a woman to dispose of her own heart as she sees fit.  The legal obstacles soon melt away, leaving Anna to fight a moral battle against her overbearing mother and well-intentioned friends, all of whom believe it wrong for a young woman of her rank and fortune to marry below her station.

The mother is particularly harsh (reminding me of some of the strict mothers I've encountered in Korean fiction this year), resorting to psychological warfare in an attempt to bend her daughter to her will, and refusing to see her for long chunks of the story.  Unlike, say, Sir William, this lady is not for turning:
"Her daughter was all that she had to bind her to the world around her.  But she declared to herself again and again that it would be better that her daughter should die than live and be married to the tailor.  It was a case in which persecution even to the very gate of the grave would be wise and warrantable, - if by such persecution this odious monstrous marriage might be avoided." (p.228)
The Countess is playing a rather high-stakes game here, one in which, even if she wins, she's bound to suffer losses...

While Lady Anna starts a little slowly, and looks for a time as if it might be a little ho-hum, it actually turns into a ripping read, one in which the outcome isn't clear until the last fifty pages or so, and where the interest lies not only in what happens but why and how.  Trollope is limited by the conventions of the time (and the inevitable Victorian self-censorship), but he still does a good job in outlining the hypocrisy of the nobility and the intense pressure felt by young women who were seen to not be doing their duty.  The book might not quite live up to some of Trollope's best work (no matter what he might claim in his Autobiography), but it's certainly worth a few hours of your time - I'm certainly happy to have experienced another of the big man's efforts :)