Apparently, 2018 is my Year of Trollope. I've now completed five of his works this calendar year (though to be honest, four of them were really quite short). The longest thus far was Is He Popenjoy? which also has the honor of Oddest Book Title of the Year; also, the honor of Most Irritating Title to Type Because It's Constantly Autocorrected to Popinjay, which is not the same thing at all. (I have since learned that Popinjay is a kind of Scottish archery game.) Popenjoy was chosen for a readalong by my Facebook Trollope group, and though the group read was scheduled for late September through November, I started it early and was so involved in the story I sped through the 655 pages in a week.
So. The Popenjoy referred to in the title is not a thing, but a title -- specifically, the title of the heir apparent to the Marquis of Brotherton, a fictional aristocrat. When the novel begins, the current Marquis, fortyish and unmarried, has been residing in Italy for some years, and is estranged from his family: his mother, the Dowager; his four sisters, three of whom are unmarried; and his youngest sibling and only brother, Lord George Germain. Lord George is young and good-looking (if somewhat serious), but cash-poor, as he basically lives off the management of the estate while his brother has all the capital. George is aware that if his brother ever returns, he will have essentially nothing. However, the slim chance exists that the Marquis may never marry, and that George might eventually become the Marquis. Therefore, any future son could be the heir to the estate, Manor Cross.
Lord George is desperately in love with a Miss De Baron, but as neither of them has any money, she rejects his proposal of marriage early in the first chapter, marrying a wealthy older man instead. Lord George is brokenhearted, but eventually, is persuaded to consider another potential bride -- young Mary Lovelace, daughter of the Dean of Brotherton. Mary's father is from humble origins but worked his way up through the Church hierarchy -- and though Mary is young and pretty, she has the added attraction of 30,000 pounds, inherited from her late mother's father, who made a fortune in candles.
Mary is just nineteen and Lord George is thirty-three, but the marriage takes place, with some stipulations: the couple will have a House in Town (aka London) and spend four months of the year there, paid for with the Dean's money. The Dean feels that since Mary has spent virtually her entire life in the country, she deserves a little society for at least part of the year instead of being shut up in the Brotherton Estate, Manor House, with George's older sisters -- who are rather petty and judgmental. And the season spent in London is where the trouble begins. Mary doesn't know a soul in London and makes a new frenemy of the former Miss De Baron, who is now Mrs. Houghton. Mrs. Houghton likes Mary but has an ulterior motive -- she thinks Mary needs taking down a peg or two for the sin of marrying Lord George only a year or so after she herself rejected him. (Apparently it was the duty of Lord George to pine away for her forever). Mrs. Houghton introduces Mary to her cousin, the dashing Captain Jack De Baron, who loves to dance and ride and shoot pool, all things that Mary's husband does not.
Things are further complicated by an announcement from Italy that the Marquis is getting married to an Italian woman, quickly followed another announcement that the marriage has taken place, and has quickly produced a son. Naturally, this sped-up timeline raises some eyebrows, particularly with the Dean, who has a vested interest in any future grandson becoming a future Marquis. Eventually the Marquis shows up with his Italian bride and sickly son, though they're mostly kept hidden away from view.
|I love this cover, from an inexpensive "yellow back" edition from about 1881.|
It's from a collection at the Philadelphia Athaneaum.
So, most of the plot centers around tension between the newly married George and Mary, due to the interlopers (honorable or dishonorable); and between the Dean, George, and his brother, about the legitimacy of this little boy, known to all as Popenjoy, though presumably he has an actual first name, though it's never mentioned. (I only learned the Marquis' given name is Augustus in one of the final chapters, so presumably, the little boy is named after his father). There's tension between George and his brother, who's never had much interest in the family in England; tension between the Dean, who is pressing the case with his own lawyers, and George, who would rather let it lie; and tension between the Dean and the Marquis himself, who is a really unpleasant git.
There are also some fox hunting scenes (of course) and a weird sub-plot about women's rights activists which, frankly, did nothing much to advance the plot. But this was starting to be a subject of discussion in the 1870s when the book was written, so I guess Trollope was trying to be timely. There's a German and an American activist, both women, and I'm not sure if Trollope was poking fun at these two countries, or to women who have the nerve to want rights. He does make the point that there is a double standard regarding the reputation of women after some unpleasant gossip about Mary and Captain De Baron starts circulating.
This isn't one of Trollope's most complex novels, but I really enjoyed it. The plot about the jealous husband has been repeated a couple of times in other Trollope novels (specifically Kept in the Dark and He Knew He Was Right) but I suppose it's tough not to repeat yourself if you've written 47 novels. The question of Popenjoy's legitimacy was inspired by the Titchborne case that fascinated the public when it came to trial in 1871.
This is the 32nd work I've read by Trollope -- 31 novels and his autobiography! That leaves only 16 novels left. I'll be sad when I've finished them all, I guess I'll just have to start reading them all over again!