A Monthly Book, #4: The Last Chronicle of Barset

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The Last Chronicle of Barset is a) 900 pages long in this edition, and b) the culmination of a highly involved and interconnected six-book series, Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century Chronicles of Barsetshire. Consequently, I am not confident that a standard review–even one that goes into great thematic detail–will be of much use to most of the people likely to read this post. Instead, I’d like to take a leaf out of the books of some other reviewers I rate (primarily Abigail Nussbaum) and simply make a few comments on the book, which might be more helpful for determining whether it’s the sort of thing you’d like to read.

  • It is just about possible to read this as a standalone novel. Trollope understands human attention spans, and he seeds enough plot reminders from his earlier Barsetshire books for the purposes of basic comprehension. Nevertheless, there are so many recurring characters, and such a large portion of their relationships with each other are callbacks to earlier interactions in the series, that it’s worth having read at least one or two of the preceding books. The catalyst of the plot in this volume is the supposed theft of a cheque by the principled and intelligent, but highly difficult, clergyman Josiah Crawley. Crawley’s guilt or innocence is the talk of the county, which allows Trollope to bring in most of the major characters from the past five books, in the guise of providing an overview of general society’s opinion. Crawley also has direct relationships, both professional and familial, with many of these characters, and most of the mentioned families are directly interrelated through marriage. Being able to follow these connections not only minimizes confusion, but makes it easier to appreciate the thematic richness of the novel in its relation to the other books in the series. (To take one example: Crawley’s daughter Grace is beloved of Major Grantly, the son of the archdeacon; the archdeacon’s wife is the daughter of Septimus Harding, a former warden of the city’s almshouse, who falls under similar suspicions of financial misconduct in the first book of the series, The Warden.)
  • Many elements of The Last Chronicle of Barset are reconsiderations or echoes of themes found in Framley ParsonageAlthough one of the novel’s subplots concerns the disposal in marriage of Lily Dale, whose disposal in marriage was also the primary plot of the preceding Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, it seems to me that The Last Chronicle of Barset is more interested in developing themes that recall Framley ParsonageFP is not the most interesting of the Barsetshire books, but perhaps it’s better in hindsight. Its subplot consists of a potential “inappropriate” marriage (inappropriate on the grounds of unequal social status and wealth, that is) between Lucy Robarts, sister of a vicar who has run into financial difficulties, and Lord Lufton, her brother’s childhood friend. Lufton’s mother prefers Archdeacon Grantly’s cold but higher-status daughter, Griselda, as a potential daughter-in-law, and Lucy must prove her worth through humility (she won’t agree to marry Lufton until his mother consents) and kindness (she provides charity to, amongst others, Josiah Crawley and his family. Do you see what I mean about the level of connectivity?!) There is an obvious parallel in the dilemma of Josiah’s daughter Grace, who, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, refuses several times to marry a man she loves and who loves her, out of fear that her family’s poverty and the very real possibility that her father will be convicted of a crime will “demean” her intended husband. In fact, there’s even a scene where old Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly talk about the situation, and Lady L gives advice from her personal experience. In the end the archdeacon yields, but it is the passive sweetness, seriousness and “nobility” of Grace Crawley’s bearing that wins him over. She is a Good Girl; he even tells her so, in so many words. It’s this element of Trollope’s female characters that I sometimes struggle with–the use of soft power through manipulation and performative femininity is highly praised, while what might be a more honest use of power, as typified by the aggressive Mrs. Proudie, is vilified.
  • The further subplot involving a high society painter is meant to be comic relief. Personally, I think it fails as comedy because none of the characters introduced in these chapters are in any way sincere. Mrs Dobbs Broughton, the wife of a millionaire, is actually something of a tragic figure: bored and shallow, she engages in little flirtations as a way of making herself feel alive. Conway Dalrymple, the painter, is simultaneously mercenary and dense; he’s clever enough to get into an entanglement, but not clever enough to get out again without having work hard at it. Dobbs Broughton is an unsympathetic drunkard, and Mr Musselboro, Dobbs Broughton’s business partner, is initially introduced as vulgar (though it’s hard to shake the conviction that Trollope paints him thus simply because he’s a money man, a City trader), and subsequently proves himself to be scheming. It’s hard to laugh at the romantic and financial misunderstandings of characters who seem themselves to feel as though they’re merely acting.
  • “Honour” is the key to everyone’s behaviour, and also one of the most frustrating elements of this book for a modern reader. Trollope delights in establishing situations for his characters from which they cannot extricate themselves with both happiness and honour intact, and then creating an escape route, usually through death, money, truth, or all three. In this he is hardly alone–Dickens is notorious for implausible dei ex machina–but for Trollope the motivating factor of a gentleman, or a lady, is the maintenance of honour, and honour frequently requires misery. In some characters, an adherence to honour is their defining good quality: Grace’s refusal to injure a man she loves by marrying him is a twisty piece of logic for a twenty-first century reader to follow, but every character in the book approves of her for it (even those who think she should marry her lover anyway), and the narrating voice certainly never censures her for her decision. Where Trollope does like to complicate the honour ethos is through characters whose actions negatively affect others, not just themselves. Josiah Crawley refuses many kindnesses from friends and neighbours out of a sense of honour, among them the use of a horse to get to Barchester and deliveries of fresh food from Framley Parsonage. What this means, in effect, is that the strain of maintaining good relations in the community–as well as the strain of being able to feed and clothe a large and possibly disgraced family on a small income–falls to his wife. She mostly gets around her husband’s refusals, and accepts the assistance that is offered them, but she is forced to do so, to some degree, behind his back, which presents another moral difficulty in a society where wives (not least clergymen’s wives) are to be subordinate to their husband’s wishes. Trollope is a true believer in honour, I think; his good characters are good in part because the moral standards they choose are utterly inflexible. But he is also a subtle enough thinker, and writer, to understand that an honour society is one that often values appearances over the possibility of human suffering. The fact that he wrestles with that is one of the things I prize most about his writing.
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A Monthly Book, #2: The Five

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The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.