One of the best things about Anthony Trollope is that he wrote 47 novels. It's also one of worst things about Trollope, because now I want to read all of them, which could seriously take me the rest of my life.
Anyway, I'm in an online group that wanted to read one of his novels, which is always great, but the book they selected was The American Senator. Sadly, it's not one of the many Trollope novels languishing on my bookshelves. If you've heard of The American Senator, you're probably a pretty hard-core Victorian lit lover (actually, if you've even heard of Trollope you're probably a hard-core Victorian lover!!) Compared to Dickens or even Thomas Hardy, Trollope's books are barely a blip on the radar. And that's a real shame, because they are just wonderful. I loved this book.
The name of this book is really misleading, because the senator himself is actually a minor character. This is the story of two cousins, John and Reginald Morton, and like many Trollope novels, it's full of love triangles, class conflict, and some jabs at the British aristocracy. It's set against the backdrop of English country life, particularly the fox hunting season. John Morton, the heir, has been living abroad in America while working in the British foreign office, and returned to his estate, Bragton, with a party that includes his grandmother; his fiancee, Arabella Trefoil; her mother; Lady Augusta, and a visiting American Senator, Elias Gotobed.
John Morton is estranged from his second cousin Reginald, since Reginald's father married below his class to the daughter of a Canadian shopkeeper (gasp!) John's grandmother would not receive Reginald's mother, and was furious when Reginald inherited a small part of the estate. Reginald is close to his aunt, Lady Ushant. Years before, Lady Ushant had taken in a companion, young Mary Masters, daughter of the Morton's solicitor, Mr. Masters, a widower. Masters eventually remarried, and now Mary is back living with her father, stepmother, and half sisters, and is being courted by a local landowner, Larry Twentyman. Mrs. Masters is eager to settle Mary with Mr. Twentyman, though Mary is hesitating, because she's secretly in love with Reginald, whom she's known her entire life. As a Jane Austen devotee, I could see parallels between their relationship and Emma and Mr. Knightley. Mary's stepmother also reminded me an awful lot of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, though Mr. Masters is a much better father than Mr. Bennet.
Meanwhile, Arabella is jockeying for position between her suitors, and her strategy would make any politician proud. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that the fox hunt is sort of a metaphor for Arabella's search for a rich husband. She'll have to make bold moves to win the big prize, but if she's not careful, she could get left behind or thrown from a horse. The book actually reminded me a lot of the first season of Downton Abbey, when Lady Mary is trying to make the best possible match since she can't imagine marrying her cousin Matthew, heir to Downton -- especially the episode where they go fox hunting and she meets the ill-fated Mr. Pamuk. (If you haven't seen it, go out and watch it right now. Seriously!) The American Senator is set about forty years before Downton Abbey, but some of the themes are really familiar.
This story starts out slowly, giving background about the village and the county, and the complicated history of the Morton cousins, to which I had to refer several times since I couldn't get into the book at first and sort of lost the thread of all the characters and their relationships. But once I got going I was hooked and could hardly put it down. The plot really takes off and I think I read most of it in about three days, which is pretty fast for a Victorian triple-decker.
It's one of Trollope's comic novels and Arabella is a fascinating character, probably one of Trollope's most distinctive females. She makes no pretense about her social climbing, and she and her mother are just an awful pair. And they're funny. The way they snipe at each other is pretty hilarious.
I really enjoyed this book, but it's not my very favorite Trollope because I did find the beginning rather slow to get into, and also, I didn't really like the actual American Senator character. Trollope uses him to get up on a soapbox and has the character spout off about some the appointments of the clergy, the British Parliament, and also about some of the stuff that the members of the aristocracy get away with. I understand he wanted to make social commentary but sometimes it just felt awkward and forced, not very organic to the plot. Despite these minor flaws I just loved it and now I want to put everything else aside and just read more Trollope.
Anyone else out there reading Trollope? Which is your favorite? Besides this one, I've read The Barchester Chronicles and The Way We Live Now. Which one should I read next?