Dec 6, 2010

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage

Framley Parsonage tells the story of Mark Robarts, the parson of the small country parish of Framley. Mark is a childhood friend of Lord Lufton’s, the only son of the most distinguished local family, and he owes his livelihood, his house, and even the introduction to his wife to the patronage of his friend’s mother, Lady Lufton. Mark is quite happy in his mostly domestic, country existence, but he’s also a socially ambitious young man, and as such he begins to associate with one Mr Sowerby, a local MP - even though he knows Lady Lufton very much disapproves of the association. Framley Parsonage tells, among other things, the story of the results of this friendship, as well as the story of Mark’s sister, Lucy Robarts. Lucy goes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death, and she and Lord Lufton grow increasingly intimate, much to Lady Lufton’s disapproval. But can the fearsome lady’s concerns about social propriety separate the two lovers?

Framley Parsonage is the fourth book in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, a series of connected novel set in or around the fictional cathedral town of Barchester. I was told that it would actually make a better introduction to the series than the first book, The Warden, as it was an easier novel to warm up to, and indeed Framley Parsonage proved to be a great introduction not only to this series, but to Trollope’s writing as a whole. I had an extraordinary amount of fun with it, and by the end I couldn’t help but care deeply about all the characters, even Lady Lufton. I suppose I’d have had more of an interest in some of the side plots if I had been familiar with the secondary characters from previous books; but as I can always revisit this novel once I’ve read more of Trollope’s work, that wasn’t really much of a problem.

Another reason why I decided to make Framley Parsonage my first Trollope was because one of my favourite reads of the year, Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, was partially inspired by it. Tooth and Claw has often been describe as Jane Austen with dragons, but in fact Trollope with dragon is a much more accurate description. Having previously read Walton’s delight of a novel, I was already somewhat familiar with the plot of Framley Parsonage, but rather than spoiling it for me this helped me warm up to it more quickly than I might have otherwise. I was never really bored, but I will admit that the book has somewhat of a slow start, especially until the delightful Lucy Robarts is introduced about a hundred pages in.

But what, you wonder, is Framley Parsonage about after all? The answer to that would be love, social and political ambition, propriety, financial difficulties and how the gentry deals with them, class tensions, social mobility, community life, gossip, machinations – it’s about people being people, really. The scope of Framley Parsonage put me in mind of Middlemarch: I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Eliot’s novel, mostly because Trollope’s focus doesn’t match my own interests as closely as Eliot’s does (especially when it comes to gender issues), but the two books actually share many of the same themes.

Which brings me to something I’ve been wondering about: are there any contemporary macro or community novels along the lines of Framley Parsonage or Middlemarch or even Cranford? This is an honest question – I can’t think of any, but I don’t want to assume they just don’t exist. I realise that community life in the twentieth-first century is very different than it was in Victorian times; but personally I don’t think things have changed enough that we would no longer appreciate a piece of writing that analyses the ties that connect the members of a community to one another, and how these shape the kind of people they are. I suppose we do have novels that do this, but perhaps not in such convenient, manageable settings. I say this partially because of how absolutely fresh these novels feels: yes, they depict a kind of social world that no longer exists, but so much of their insight into human nature is still relevant. And part of what makes them so insightful is exactly their careful consideration of the social context in which the characters move.

And speaking of characters, they really are what makes Framley Parsonage. Especially Lucy Robarts, whose sense of humour completely won me over. How can I resist a heroine who says something like this?
“Lucy, I cannot understand you,” said Fanny, very gravely. “I am sometimes inclined to doubt whether you have any deep feeling in the matter or not. If you have, how can you bring yourself to joke about it?”
“Well, it is singular; and sometimes I doubt myself whether I have. I ought to be pale, ought I not? and very thin, and to go mad by degrees? I have not the least intention of doing anything of the kind, and, therefore, the matter is not worth any further notice.”
As I was saying earlier, Trollope doesn’t engage with gender as an explicit theme like Eliot does, but he still wrote a protagonist who is intelligent, sarcastic, a fully developed human being, and as far from a damsel in distress as she could possibly be. I know I need not tell you how much I appreciate that.

There’s a lot about Framley Parsonage I haven’t covered, namely the politics. This is the one aspect of the novel I did feel I’d have made better sense of if I had read the previous Chronicles of Barsetshire first. Still, the impression I got is that Trollope, like many other Victorian novelists, is ambiguous about the idea of progress, about class structure, about social mobility, about whether propriety should be observed or defied. His sympathy seems to be with the old, traditional way of life that Lady Lufton and her friends represent, but at the same time the warm, affable and very Victorian narrator goes out of his way not to dehumanize her political and ideological opponents. And the way things turn out (which I won’t give away, but which I know you’ll have no trouble guessing from early on) clearly signals that the old social order is far from infallible.

I read Framley Parsonage for the Classics Circuit Anthony Trollope tour, which begins today. You can visit Anastasia and Falaise for today’s other posts on Trollope, or click on the button below for a full schedule of the tour.

Anthony Trollope Classics Circuit Tour


  1. Ooh. I have never read any Trollope, but this makes me want to bump him way up my list.

    Re: the contemporary community novel. I don't know that this answer is either very specific or very contemporary, but it strikes me that the great inheritor of this tradition may be the American (often Southern) small-town (often gothic) novel. Along the lines of Winesburg, Ohio or Cold Sassy Tree. These are books that often have a vast interest in place-as-character and in intricacies of social connection and community, often over the course of generations. What do you think?

  2. I wonder whether the community novel has transmuted into the police procedural crime novel. That's where we meet up with a cross-section of people who all interconnect. Only in our individual-obsessed culture, community comes to be represented more negatively, as threatened by an evil force, or inhabited by one.

    But then there are some American novelists who retain an interest in community - I'm thinking of Richard Russo (something like Empire Falls) or Adriana Trigiani and that series of novels she wrote (whose titles escape me now!).

  3. Great post. And really good question. I have problems coming up with a contemporary community novel as well. Maybe "Olive Kitteridge", which is not really a novel and which is by far shorter than Trollope's or Eliot's novels, but as a portrait of a small Maine town from the perspective of several inhabitants it might count.

    Maybe "A fine balance" as well?

  4. I have yet to read Mr. Trollope as well, so it's encouraging to me to read that this book may be a worthy start. I am excited to see that his books are so well received -- I've found this year that the classics aren't quite as intimidating as I thought they would be. All that old twenty years ago high school fears are now becoming quite a thing of the past.

  5. Great review (as usual), Nymeth! I've wanted to try Trollope for a while but wasn't entirely sure where to begin. I tried to read The Warden a while back but didn't make it very far in as I found it rather dry. I wouldn't have though to start partway through the Barchester series as an introduction, so the fact that you found this a great jumping off point is a great tidbit!

  6. I have never even considered reading Trollope but you have defintely made it appealing. I find it amazing to read the third book rather than the first, but it seems to work.

  7. I have a couple of books by Trollope on my shelves. Namely, Palliser Novels and The Warden, but I have not yet read them. I have heard good things about Trollope and his work, but like many books, I just have never made the time for them. It's sad when I think about how poorly read I am. I have the greatest of intentions, but never seem to do the kind of reading that I want to. I am hoping to rectify this in the coming year by reading at least one classic a month. I also find it interesting that these types of books are not being written today. You are spot on with the impression that it the Victorian age was a very different society than ours is today, but it I also wonder why books like this can't be written about our day and age. Very interesting and thoughtful review.

  8. I'm really interested to read Trollope...I have The Warden already, which is great because I'm one of those people who MUST read everything in order, no. matter. what. It's a really good sign that this book worked so well on it's own, though!

  9. I'm working my way through the Barsetshire series in order (so far I've read The Warden and Barchester Towers and loved them both) so it's good to know that the later books in the series are great too. I'm really looking forward to this one after reading your review!

  10. I have to admit I'm a little scared of Trollope because of how much work he produced and how big many of those books are. I mean holy cow!! But I've been told many of them are very good and I want to try something. Just need to get over that intimidation.

  11. I've yet to read any Trollope as well, but I LOVED Cranford, and since you put it in the frame of a macro community, I totes want to jump on the Framley Parsonage train and read Trollope.

  12. I've been wanting to go back to Trollope, as I haven't read any for about 30 years, and I was thinking I should start again with The Warden, but your lovely, interesting post makes me think that I should start again with this, and leave the books I know for now. And I *have* to read Tooth and Claw, what a brilliant and risky idea *that* sounds!

  13. I'm reading Barchester Towers and I'm really enjoying it soon. I've only read The Warden from this series (my only other Trollope is The Way We Live Now) and I agree, it's not nearly as good. It seemed to take forever to get going, even though it's only about 200 pages. I'm excited about the rest of the series, though, I've heard Dr. Thorne is also very good. I'm hoping to finish the rest of the Barchester series next year. Then on to the Pallisers!

  14. I have three Trollopes sitting on my shelves but I've yet to pick one up for whatever reason.

    Like you, I would love to know of any contemporary novels which focus on a community. I enjoy stories which not only tell a story, but also paint a picture of a particular place and time.

  15. Interesting review, which made me think about reading a writer I've never been very attracted to for some reason.

    I recently read 'Ashes' by Matthew Crow, which is a contemporary portrayal of a dysfunctional housing estate in northeast England. It's probably a long way from Trollope, but it is about a community more than it is about individuals, which I agree is pretty rare these days.

  16. I can't think of any modern books along those lines either, which is strange, because it's a fascinating subject to read about.

  17. I'm a bit nervous of Trollope. I tried reading one of them, one time, and parts of it were funny, but nothing happened! And I got bored! But I was in England, and my brain was all crazy back then. What's the first Barchester book? Aren't there dozens and dozens of them?

  18. I've been planning to read some Trollope this winter but was struggling with where to start. Seems like you've made my decision that much easier!

    As for modern community novels, surely Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street would qualify? Novels that deal with a group of characters, heavily influenced by their surroundings and their neighbours?

  19. I don't have Trollope on my list yet for my classics project, mostly because I'm overwhelmed and not quite sure where to begin. If you say Framley Parsonage is a good intro, I shall add it to my list! Thanks!

  20. I find this idea that 'The Warden' is not a good first Trollope slightly puzzling - in my eyes it's the perfect introduction! It's the first book of his most famous series, it's fairly short, and it's a wonderfully heart-warming tale of a gentle man who refuses to act against his conscience.

  21. Sycorax Pine: That is an excellent point about Southern small-town novels. No wonder I enjoy them so much!

    litlove: You definitely have a point that we see community more negatively than the Victorians did. This puts me in mind of Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent Dancing in the Streets and her points about how the way we see collectivity over time. Russo has been on my list for some time, but I hadn't heard of Trigiani before, so thank you!

    Chris: I've been meaning to read Olive Kitteridge for so long. Thank you for the reminder!

    Coffee and a Book Chick: They really aren't! I remember that I used to think so as well, btu the more I read them, te more I realise they're as enjoyabl as any other books.

    Steph: That's what other people have told me as well. Hopefully my being familiar with the world of Barchester through this book will make it easier to get into.

    Vivienne: Fourth, actually ;) I know it sounds crazy, but they all do have independent plots! They're just set in the same world and share some characters.

    Zibilee: You are not poorly read! It's never too late to read a book for the first time, no matter how essential or classic it's considered. I love the idea of your project for next year, though. I'm sure you'll have tons of fun with it!

    Emily Jane: I have several friends like you :P I used to care about order a lot myself, but I've become a more haphazard reader over time :P

    Helen: I'm happy to hear you loved the first two in the series! I look forward to getting to them.

    Amanda: I know what you mean. It almost makes me scared to grow to REALLY like him, because it will add to many chunksters to my tbr pile :P

  22. April: Enjoy! This isn't quite as funny as Cranford, but it does have some of the same gentle, comfortable feel.

    GeraniumCat: I think you'd love Tooth and Claw!

    Karen: Like Amanda was saying, he has written SO much, hasn't he? When it comes to his non-Barchester books, The Way we Live Now is the one that intrigues me the most at the moment.

    Trisha: Yes! I love that as well.

    Andrew Blackman: I love the sound of Ashes - adding it to my list.

    Kathy: It is, isn't it? Like Syracox Pine was saying, I guess Southern small town novels do count to some extent.

    Jenny: Only half a dozen :P The first is The Warden, which judging by the comments here divides opinions!

    Claire: The only McCall Smith I've read to date was Dream Angus, but that series does sound lovely and like what I was looking for. Thank you for reminding me of it!

    Erin: It's hard to decide when an author has written so much, isn't it?

    Tony: I think that the person who told me not to start with The Warden found it dry, but I'm actually happy to hear you disagree!

  23. I haven't read any Tropolle but he is definitely on my to be read list. I can't wait to read him because I think I will loved his books. Great review!

  24. Thanks for the review. In have to confess that I'm a little bit anal about starting from the beginning of a series (both in books and TV!). I'd rather not get into something if I have to start in the middle. I have read the Warden and have Barchester Towers in my TBR box waiting for a Trollope mood to hit.

  25. I'm so pleased that there are some other people who have enjoyed their reading for the Circuit. Although it would have been lovely to have a spunky and smart heroine in the book I read (which goes up tomorrow), I loved my first Trollope.

    And I love your question about community in contemporary fiction! I am reading an early Thomas Hardy right now that is hinting at that coming loss of community. Quite interesting.

  26. When Claire mentioned the McCall Smith series, it made me wonder if that community-focus has now become the province of book series. I know I've heard of other series like that of McCall Smith's.

    Not quite 'contemporary', but 21st century anyway, Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Family Moskat (1969) follows an large extended family and their acquaintances through life in Warsaw's Jewish community. I forget when the book starts but it ends on the eve of Germany's invasion of Poland. It of course puts a sad cast on the book, as you know the community will soon cease to exist.

  27. Your post inspired my to borrow Can You Forgive Her? = The 1st Palliser novel. After The Woman in White I seem to be in the mood for mid-Victorian novels. :)


  28. ooo the comparison to Middlemarch caught my interest! I;m in the middle of my second trollope and I don't love his style: but it's satisfying and epic in bulk so it's a satisfactory read. I'm reading the Palliser series in order thus far. I don't think it's the best to start with -- and I"m looking forward to reading all the Barsetshire books after this one! (Is that odd, given that I am not LOVING it?!)

  29. I just finished Ford Madox Ford's The March of Literature-he states several times in this work that Framley Parsonage is Trollope's best work and possibly the best 19th century novel-thanks for your great post on this work-I will be posting on Cousin Henry for the circuit

  30. This sounds like one you could really develop an affection for the characters and get lost in the stories!!

  31. In addition to the excellent suggestions for novels about community (I love Olive Kitteridge), I would suggest plays. The Laramie Project, about the people of Laramie, Wyoming and how their attitudes led to the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, is the best example I can think of right now.

  32. also Our Town, by Thornton Wilder.

  33. I think Trollope is way, way underrated. I would encourage the people here reading him for the first time to stick with it, because what he specializes in is how things change slowly, but surprisingly, over time. He's the original author of The World Turns....

  34. So far I've focused on female authors because besides Dickens I don't really know of the Victorian male authors. This book sounds the perfect fit, especially if, as you say, you can read it without having read the others first.

  35. I'm reading Trollope for the first time myself, and it's interesting to hear your opinion that FP would have made a better intro to the Barset Novels than The Warden, which I read. Now, I'm eager to read FP as well.

    An author who makes you care about his character is to be treasured, and Lady Lufton sounds intriguing.

    Thanks for an interesting review.

  36. This is my next Trollope and you've made me want to start it right away. I started the Barchester Chronicles in order and felt that 'The Warden' is a good place to start - it's certainly the shortest which made it the least intimidating jump off point, and it made me laugh. Barchester Towers was even better and now I'm hooked. Reading Trollope has turned from being something of a project into a pleasure to be savoured.

  37. I've been meaning to read Trollope for exactly the same reason as you - namely, Tooth and Claw - and this sounds like a good place to start. It's already downloaded to my Kindle, now I just need to find the time to actually sit down and read it!

  38. Sadly, I've read no Trollope but I love books that explore the relationships between people and as you say are about "people being people". I have to say I've been a bit intimidated by Trollope for whatever reason but your review certainly encourages me to give him a try.

  39. Andreea, I do think you'll enjoy his work :)

    Falaise: Nothing wrong with that! Most of my bookish friends are actually a lot stricter about reading order than I am, so I'm used to being in the minority on this :P

    LifetimeReader: It does sound like your Trollope could have used a lucy Robarts!

    Christy: I do wonder about that as well. But this is in itself a book in a series, and Middlemarch is as long as 3 ordinary books, so I wonder how far back that trend goes! The Singer novel you mentioned sounds both fascinating and heartbreaking.

    Tiina: Looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Rebecca: I guess the fact that Trollope keeps you reading anyway says something about him!

    Mel U: It's interesting to know Ford thought that! I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Cousin Henry.

    Staci: Yes, exactly :)

    Jeanne, many thanks for the recommendations!

    Shelley: Even based on only this novel, I think I very much agree with that description.

    Charlie: It worked well for me that way! Also, may I recommend Wilkie Collins? By far my favourite Victorian male author!

    JaneGS: Not having yet read The Warden I can't quite say if this is a better introduction, but it does work perfectly as one. Lady Lufton makes the book in many ways - she could very easily being a traditional villian, but Trollope humanises her and therefore makes her all the more interesting.

    Desperate Reader: I'm actually happy that so many of you are telling me The Warden is in fact a great read - after Framley Parsonage, I very much want to like it. I'm so looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

    Fyrefly: I think you're going to enjoy it! And hopefully the things that are familiar because of Jo Walton will make you smile as much as they did me.

    Kathleen: There's nothing to fear - he couldn't be more acessible!

  40. I wonder if Charles de Lint's Newford books would qualify as contemporary community novels? I've only read DREAMS UNDERFOOT, the short story collection that most fans recommend as the best starting point, but I know the other novels and collections deal with the various denizens of Newford, who often interact in ways dictated not only by their relationships but by the common space they inhabit.

    Anyways, I also want to read this--and also because I enjoyed TOOTH AND CLAW.


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