When the Classics Spin randomly selected my next classic read, Orley Farm, I was both delighted and (slightly) dismayed. Delighted, because I'm always looking for an excuse to read Trollope, and this one has been on the to-read shelf for several years, ever since I went on a Trollope-buying binge after falling in love with The Way We Live Now.
However, I was slightly dismayed by the fact that it is 825 pages long. Now, compared to many Victorian writers (ahem, Dickens!) Trollope is actually a pretty easy read, though he does sometimes digress and get a little preachy in his asides to the reader. This book selection was also complicated by the fact that in September I recently read a couple of other doorstoppers, started a new job and attended the 2013 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. I have no one to blame but myself for the tardiness of this posting it's been nearly two weeks since I was supposed to have written about my Spin selection.
Nevertheless, Orley Farm awaits! One of Trollope's best-regarded stand-alone novels (that is, not belonging to the Barchester or Pallisers series), Orley Farm is not so much about a farm as it is about a legal case regarding the possession of said farm. Here's the setup:
A wealthy man, Sir Joseph Mason, a widower with grown children, remarries a much younger woman in his dotage. His country estate in Yorkshire is already settled on the oldest son, John Mason, but his new wife gives birth to a boy, Lucius. While Lucius is still a wee thing, his father dies, and it is revealed that at the last minute, Mason added a codicil to his will, leaving a smaller property near London, the eponymous Orley Farm, to his infant son. There are questions about the legality of the codicil, the veracity of the signature, and about the witnesses, one of whom is Marian Usbech, daughter of Mason's lawyer, who is also left a legacy of two thousand pounds. Mr. Mason, the heir, fights his stepmother in court, and loses.
Twenty years later, young Lucius Mason comes of age and now has the rights to his farm. Part of the farm has been rented out to a Mr. Samuel Dockwrath, a lawyer who married Marian Usbech, with whom he now has a passel of children. The lease is up and Lucius decides to try his hand at farming, thus denying Dockwrath the renewal of said lease. Dockwrath decides to get revenge on Lucius by stirring up trouble -- he claims to have new evidence which implicates Lady Mason of forgery. He trots off to Yorkshire to Lord Mason, who's still holding a grudge, offering his services so both of them can give that upstart what-for.
Mason and Dockwrath are equally unpleasant characters, and they join forces. I was confused as to how they could charge Lady Mason for the same crime twice, i.e., double jeopardy, but in fact, they decide to charge her with perjuring herself at the previous trial. So, the case is trotted out again, causing great pain and suffering for the Masons.
However, this wouldn't be a Trollope novel without some star-crossed lovers. In fact, there are whole bunch of marriage proposals, some between the main characters, and some peripheral. The Masons are friendly with their neighbors, Sir Peregrine Orme, his widowed daughter-in-law, and grandson Peregrine, Lucius' former schoolmate; also, the young men spend the holidays at the estate of Judge Staveley with a bunch of other young people, and various love triangles ensue. There are also some proposals and love triangles among the older generation as well, which was rather refreshing -- it's not just those young whippersnappers who fall in love in a Trollope novel.
The intertwining stories of the trial and the love affairs are mostly strung along until the end of the 825 pages, though there are some big reveals relatively early in the book. I have to admit that some parts of this book dragged for me. As in The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope spends quite a few chapters with people agonizing -- is X guilty or isn't he? Should X reveal this big secret to Y? More than once, parts began to feel like filler. I love Trollope, but there were a couple of chapters that I ended up skimming.
Overall, though, I really did enjoy this book. The characters are mostly well-developed, the bad guys are deliciously evil, and we have the requisite comic side characters. Love stories are resolved, some happily and some not so happily, which I find realistic and satisfying. I also enjoyed most of the legal aspects of the novel, and Trollope gets in some good shots about the class system and people marrying up.
Among Trollope novels, I doubt that Orley Farm will ever be as popular as Barchester Towers or The Way We Live Now, my two favorites. But it was an excellent read, and I only wish I'd had more time to finish it sooner. It's definitely on my list of top reads for 2013.