A surprisingly modern tale

Framley Parsonage is the fourth installment in Anthony Trollope's tales of clerical and rural life in Victorian England, the Barsetshire Chronicles. The previously reviewed Dr. Thorne moved us away from the clergy wars of the cathedral close to rural Barsetshire, and the family of the eponymous hero. Framley Parsonage is closer in spirit to earlier volumes with the reappearance of the frightful Mrs. Proudie, the Dean and Mrs. Arabin, and the Grantlys, along with all your favourite characters from Dr. Thorne, including Thorne, Mary, Frank, and the jovial quack-medicine heiress, Miss Dunstable.

At the centre of the novel are a new set of characters, Mark Robarts, the rector of Framley Parsonage, and his family, and the Luftons, the landed gentry who are responsible for Mark's position in life. Mark has a happy life, a secure job, a loving family, but through his generosity to a friend lands himself deeply in debt with what sounds rather like a Victorian version of a payday loan scheme. Faced with horrendous interest payments Mark can see no way out of the trap that he is ensnared in. Meanwhile the friend, Mr. Sowerby, faced with even greater debts, loses all.

Trollope writes movingly and incredibly honestly about debt; and captures all too accurately the way in which financial problems can take over and dominate a life. For the current financial climate this is salutary reading. I found it interesting to read this, compared with, say, the way in which Dickens deals with debt. Dickens' personal experience of debt was horrendous - his father sent to a debtors' prison, and young Dickens forced to work at a very young age to sustain the family. Debt as portrayed in Framley Parsonage is, in some ways, not as big a deal as it is in Dickens - no one is going to go to jail. But that almost seems to make it more modern, this doesn't seem like the Victorian way of dealing with financial collapse, but is a very modern (including visits from the bailiff and threats from those who have bought up the debt), and equally scary interpretation. I found the debt sections genuinely claustrophobic.

Another 21st century element is the dreadful vacuous, Grizelda Grantly, the original Bridezilla. Grizelda cares very little who she marries, as long as he has a title and she can have a wonderful trousseau. I had great fun imagining Grizelda and her new husband selling the rights to the wedding pics to Hello! magazine, and sorting out a reality-TV deal to follow them after their nuptials.

For all this Framley Parsonage is a Victorian novel. It is a product of its age, and remains firmly set within its period (although Trollope's attitudes towards women mark him out as a most un-Victorian gentleman). This is not the best of the Barsetshire novels, the central romance is less well worked out than in the other novels, and some of the characters remain firmly made of cardboard. But there are moments of extraordinary writing, and is one of the best fictional depictions of the evils of debt that I have ever read.


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