Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Classics #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

I recommend this stand-alone novel, first published in 1867, as Trollope approached the height of his powers with He Knew He Was Right in 1869.

Harry Clavering has a belief common among educated talented young men. He wants to be different, to do the uncommon thing in his personal and professional life. His life is going swimmingly enough when he is jilted by the noble-born and attractive Julia Barbazon – delectably-named, too, isn’t she? She accepts what she -- and the rest of our scheming world -- regards as the better offer. She marries Lord Ongar for the usual reasons: £7,000 per annum, a country house, parties with the best people, carriages always, cabs never.

But Lord Ongar’s feeble constitution buckles under his dissolute habits. After only about a year and half, his debauchery does in the worn-out body of Lord Ongar, in Florence, Italy, comforted by his dutiful Julia and two callous spongers, slick Edouard Pateroff and his atrocious sister Sophie Gordeloupe.

While Lord O. is dying in his protracted way, Harry Clavering makes his way in the world. He becomes a student of civil engineering in the firm of Beilby and Burton. He bugs himself by doing the common thing: becoming engaged to Florence, the last unmarried daughter of his employer, Mr. Burton. Florence also bugs him by insisting on the common stipulation of no marriage until the husband can provide for the wife with more than living on a potato and getting one new dress every year.

Julia, the widowed Lady Ongar, returns to Merrie Olde. Her brother-in-law, Sir Hugh Clavering, is Harry Clavering’s cousin. Sir Hugh refuses to meet her on her arrival because tittle-tattle that Julia has been bad, though unfounded, may cause him trouble. Horrified that her sister Julia’s reputation will be tainted even more due to this snub of her tyrannical husband, Sir Hugh’s wife Hermione urges Harry Clavering to make himself useful in helping Lady O. get settled in London.

Julia and Harry meet numerous times. Harry, as wobbly males do, comes to feel unsteady. Indeed, he acts very unbecomingly, not telling her he is engaged to poor Florence. Harry feels torn and tormented between his first love and his second love and can’t extricate himself from the situation. Harry thus joins the line-up of Trollopian  males like Charlie Tudor, Johnny Eames and Louis Trevelyan. In his autobiography, Tony grants the insipidity of Harry but rightly defends his sketch of a fickle character and convincing probe of Harry’s vacillations.

Julia, being a rich widow, is beset with two avaricious suitors. Count Paterhoff blends smooth manners with hints of blackmail to persuade her into wedded bliss. Archie Clavering, Sir Hugh’s brother, bribes Sophie Gordeloupe to put in a good word for him. Sophie is a distinctive character in that I can’t think of any parasitical, detestable woman like her in any of Trollope’s other novels. Trollope handles Paterhoff’s menace believably and Archie’s blundering comically. Archie, by the way, is also aided by the advice of Captain Boodle, a billiard parlor habitué called Doodles. I think this monologue is brilliant at capturing what kind of character these people have:

"Well, now, Clavvy, I'll tell you what my ideas are. When a man's trying a young filly, his hands can't be too light. A touch too much will bring her on her haunches, or throw her out of her step. She should hardly feel the iron in her mouth. That's the sort of work which requires a man to know well what he's about. But when I've got to do with a trained mare, I always choose that she shall know that I'm there! Do you understand me?"

"Yes; I understand you, Doodles."

"I always choose that she shall know that I'm there." And Captain Boodle, as he repeated these manly words with a firm voice, put out his hands as though he were handling the horse's rein. "Their mouths are never so fine then, and they generally want to be brought up to the bit, d'ye see?—up to the bit. When a mare has been trained to her work, and knows what she's at in her running, she's all the better for feeling a fellow's hands as she's going. She likes it rather. It gives her confidence, and makes her know where she is. And look here, Clavvy, when she comes to her fences, give her her head; but steady her first, and make her know that you're there. Damme; whatever you do, let her know that you're there. There's nothing like it. She'll think all the more of the fellow that's piloting her. And look here, Clavvy; ride her with spurs. Always ride a trained mare with spurs. Let her know that they're on; and if she tries to get her head, give 'em her. Yes, by George, give 'em her." And Captain Boodle in his energy twisted himself in his chair, and brought his heel round, so that it could be seen by Archie. Then he produced a sharp click with his tongue, and made the peculiar jerk with the muscle of his legs, whereby he was accustomed to evoke the agility of his horses. After that he looked triumphantly at his friend. "Give 'em her, Clavvy, and she'll like you the better for it. She'll know then that you mean it."

It’s amusing in one way but grotesque in another. Selfish and greedy of money, these kinds of men, Trollope says, and disdainful of the feelings of all those with whom they came in contact. On the other hand, Trollope describes a family with approbation:

The Burtons were an active, energetic people who sympathized with each other in labour and success,—and in endurance also; but who had little sympathy to express for the weaknesses of grief. When her children had stumbled in their play, bruising their little noses, and barking their little shins, Mrs. Burton, the elder, had been wont to bid them rise, asking them what their legs were for, if they could not stand. So they had dried their own little eyes with their own little fists, and had learned to understand that the rubs of the world were to be borne in silence. This rub that had come to Florence was of grave import, and had gone deeper than the outward skin; but still the old lesson had its effect.

I like Trollope’s faith in resilience and indomitability as I do the stoicism of the Victorians, toughness still evident in the UK today. Also Victorian about Trollope is his earnestness – he is sincere in his opinions on the serious issues of love, money, profession, work ethic, the elements of good and bad marriages, and individual integrity (e.g. Priscilla Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right).

I must confess that in Trollope I tend to tolerate the love story and run with relief to other characters like Archie, Sophie, and Count Paterhoff. Lady Ongar, after her terrible mistake in marrying for money, holds her dignity and charm well. Sir Hugh is a portrait of a truly terrible husband with Hermione as his beaten-down wife who still manages to love him. Capt. Boodle, in his coarse advice given above, shows the hazards in the wake of marrying for money – to be the subject for such speculations can’t be comforting.

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