Tuesday, May 28, 2013
The American Senator - Anthony Trollope
This is the story of a few families in the country town of Dillsborough. Contrary to the titles, none of the book takes place in America. As Trollope himself says at the end of the book, it should really have been called "The Chronicle of a Winter at Dillsborough". The Senator of the title is Elias Gotobed, who is visiting England as the guest of John Morton, a diplomat who has spent very little time in his home town for many years. Morton & Gotobed met in Washington, where Morton has also become engaged to Arabella Trefoil, an attractive but impecunious young woman who has arrived at the age where she really should marry. Arabella & her mother are in an uneasy alliance. They don't get on well at all but Lady Augustus knows that Arabella must marry money so they find themselves locked together doing the social rounds, squabbling incessantly. John Morton has now inherited Bragton Hall & returns to Dillsborough with his fiancée, her mother & the Senator in tow.
In Dillsborough, there's much speculation about the new Squire of Bragton Hall. There has been a long-ago breach between two branches of the Morton family & John's cousin, Reginald, decides to try to heal the breach when the new Squire arrives at the Hall. Reginald's aunt, Lady Ushant, is also keen to restore family ties but John's formidable grandmother will not budge, even when tragedy threatens. Local solicitor, Mr Masters, finds himself entangled in the Morton's affairs as his daughter, Mary, once lived at the Hall as companion to Lady Ushant. Mr Morton's second wife is not unkind to Mary but she is determined to see her well married & off her hands so she can concentrate on her own daughters. She pushes Mary to marry local landowner, Larry Twentyman, who loves Mary devotedly. Mary likes Larry but she is secretly in love with Reginald Morton & so refuses to become engaged.
Meanwhile, Arabella Trefoil is hedging her bets & refusing to commit herself finally to marriage with John Morton in case someone richer comes along. Hunting plays a large part in this novel - it was one of Trollope's passions - & at a meet, Arabella meets Lord Rufford, one of the most eligible & wily bachelors in the county. When the Morton party is invited to Rufford Hall, Arabella begins stalking her prey. She deftly manages to entice Lord Rufford while keeping Morton in reserve, just in case her plans fail. But has she met her match in Lord Rufford who has famously eluded every trap laid for him in the past?
Senator Gotobed, meanwhile, is observing English society & he's not impressed by what he sees. His function in the novel is to expose all the ills of society. The inequalities between the farmer & the lord who can send his hunt over another man's land without recompense or permission. The irregularities of the electoral system. The fine distinctions between families & their social position based on mistakes made by their ancestors years before. I admit, I found the Senator tedious & wished he would go back to America so I could get back to the far more fascinating adventures of the Mortons, Arabella, Mary & the Ruffords.
Mary's story is conventional & it wasn't too hard to see who she would marry. Arabella, on the other hand, is one of the most exciting heroines (or anti-heroines) I've come across in Trollope's novels. Trollope obviously disapproved of her. He wrote, "I wished to express the depth of my scorn for women who run down husbands, - an offence that I do fear is gaining ground in this country." However, even the author's disapproval can't prevent Arabella being the most vital character in the book. I genuinely wasn't sure until the end who she would marry. Arabella is like a more canny Lily Bart, intelligent enough to play the cards she has to win the prize she has set her sights on. Whether she will have her way with Lord Rufford kept me on tenterhooks throughout.
The American Senator is not one of Trollope's better-known novels but I loved it. The character of Arabella lifts it above the conventional country house novel with a romance plot. It's also quite short for Trollope, only 550pp, which isn't as daunting as some of his other novels. I've read 17 of Trollope's novels now - only 30 to go!