Monday, July 06, 2020

Castle Richmond by Anthony Trollope (1860)

Castle RichmondCastle Richmond by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Marked down severely for his complacency in the face of the totally avoidable Irish famine. Very disappointed that an author I really like and admire could have such a questionable response. Lots to say about this book, but I need to gather my thoughts.

Update 6/7/20

1) Famine
Trollope deserves credit as the only Victorian novelist to address this appalling catastrophe - the worst European famine since the middle ages and the only one in the modern era in Western Europe. The potato blight affected the whole of Europe but it was only Ireland that experienced starvation. Fully 25% of the population either died of starvation or disease, or left the country. Throughout this period Ireland remained a net food exporter. The British government refused to either waive import duty or ban exports, policies which had successfully been applied in the 1780s when the crops failed, and refused to feed the destitute without qualification on the grounds it would encourage idleness. Large "stupid work" projects were undertaken, which Trollope does satirize.

Trollope was stationed in Ireland for his work for the post office, and traveled extensively in the country, so he was writing from direct experience. He dramatizes the excruciating moral quandaries facing concerned wealthy individuals - direct alms-giving was officially discouraged; the wealthy were encouraged to donate via official channels only. He sympathizes with and praises individual good deeds. But he fails to understand that if the official response was adequate individual charity would not be necessary. Several times he explicitly claims the government was doing all it could in the face of an overwhelming natural disaster and could not be expected to do any better. This is untrue, however much the liberal Trollope clearly believed it. As a civil servant perhaps he was constrained to support official government policy. The Liberal Party, standard bearers for 'free market' thinking and policies, were in office at this time.

2) Writing
Trollope's first two novels had been set in Ireland and both had failed. Irish-themed novels were not commercial at this time. Trollope was aware of this (as he states at the beginning of the novel!) but says that as he was leaving Ireland this was his goodbye. The implication is that at some level he felt he had to address the famine and this was his last chance. The famine had occurred about 15 years earlier. Trollope was stationed in Ireland for about 20 years.

Suddenly, he was offered the chance to write the headline serial novel (his first) for the brand-new and heavily promoted Cornhill Magazine. Doctor Thorne had been Trollope's biggest success to date - it sold 700 copies. The Cornhill was to achieve a circulation of 120,000. This was the big time, placing Trollope on the same level as Dickens and Thackeray. However, the Cornhill refused the half-written Castle Richmond and instead wanted another Barsetshire novel. Their deadline for the opening installments was in 6 weeks. Trollope started writing Framley Parsonage immediately.

He juggled writing the two books, finishing Castle Richmond just a few days past his publisher's deadline, possibly the only time this notoriously conscientious writer missed a deadline.

Framley Parsonage is one of the jewels of the Barsetshire novels and made Trollope's name in Victorian Britain. Castle Richmond sank without trace; possibly his worst selling and least read book to this day.

3) Plot
Castle Richmond foregrounds the tangled and somewhat melodramatic romantic and economic affairs of an intertwined group of Ascendancy (ie Anglocentric and Protestant) aristocrats against the backdrop of the famine. Reading today, this juxtaposition jars; the aristo plot is just too obliviously isolated from the horror, as well as being creakily frivolous in itself.

But even on its own terms it fails. The romantic entanglements are really complicated, but Trollope makes the subsidiary characters far more charismatic and interesting than the hero Herbert and heroine Clara, both of whom are conventional and colourless. Herbert vies with his cousin Owen for Clara's hand - Owen is portrayed as handsome, super-masculine, honourable, impetuous and charismatic: in short, all the qualities of a traditional hero. Perhaps his bumptiousness needs a little correcting and this would form the basis of his character arc in a different novel. Not here. Owen is not the hero, no matter how much all the other characters (and Trollope) adore him, and he ends up unfulfilled (possibly), with the consolation prize of Clara's younger brother, Patrick Earl of Desmond.

Trollope is celebrated for his sensitive and psychologically penetrating depiction of unusual situations, relationships and characters, but in this novel these focuses overwhelm the core marriage plot. Clara's mother the Countess of Desmond is the villain of the piece, but she hankers after Owen for herself as well, which makes her situation compelling for the reader (and her struggles with Owen, oblivious to her devotion, much more interesting than anything Clara and Herbert get up to).

I won't discuss the inheritance plot at all, other than to say the melodrama lies largely here. Herbert's father dies very obviously only because the plot demands he does. As character, he is one of those Victorians who turn their face to the wall and decide to die - purely for the convenience of their authors.

4) Homosexuality
A queer academic has excitedly claimed Owen and Patrick as a gay couple. They end the novel travelling up to Norway on a fishing trip, and plan to visit Africa together to hunt big game (pleasingly, bringing to mind a later Irish writer's "feasting with panthers" line). Patrick is in his last year at Eton and Trollope clearly shows he has a schoolboy crush on Owen. Owen however only has eyes for Clara - whilst he is fond of Patrick my reading is he is as oblivious of Patrick's crush as he is of the countess's. The Patrick/Owen relationship seems to me a little plot-determined and functional. Trollope had been a schoolboy at Harrow and Winchester College so he would have been familiar with schoolboy homosexuality. To me Dickens is the Victorian novelist with an authentic queer sensibility.

5) Sectarianism
Trollope is free of conventional English anti-Catholicism to his credit, and satirizes religious sectarianism on both sides. But he presents sectarianism as comedy, which feels particularly hollow in the light of the subsequent history of Ireland. During the famine Irish nationalist struggles did continue, with British infrastructure subject to attack and British landlords killed. Some of the writings of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency from this time, as well as the British, have been cited by some historians as evidence of genocide.

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