Lady Mason may or may not have altered her husband’s will, but the dispute was resolved in her favor twenty years earlier in “the Great Orley Farm Case” (Ch. I). Her stepson, nursing his wrong, receives new information that causes him to try the court system again, this time accusing his stepmother of forgery. That is more or less the big story at the core of Orley Farm.
Lady Mason has an adult son, and some sympathetic neighbors, and then there are all of the lawyers, so that almost but not quite gives us a cast that can fill 825 pages. The son plus two of the attorneys and also one of the neighbors are young men of marriageable age, but by the middle of the book we only have two eligible young women, which gives us a romantic plot and the certainty that not every character will be happy in the end.
Two examples of the basic character arc of the novel: Mr. Furnival defended Lady Mason’s position in the first trial and won the case. Although now “his hair was grizzled and his nose was blue” (Ch. X) he is irresistibly attracted to the still-handsome Lady Mason, more, it seems, than to the “stout, solid” Mrs. Furnival. So of course Furnival will assist Lady Mason when her legal troubles revive, and of course he thinks her innocent. As time passes, though, he begins to have doubts – what if Lady Mason is, in fact, guilty? – and his story changes.
Or: A gentleman – Sir Peregrine Orme, an elderly baronet, a neighbor – is obligated, given Lady Mason’s fine character and social status (and innocence), to be publicly supportive against her vulgar enemies. But what if he begins to have doubts, too? And what if he has doubts only after he has fallen in love with her? Sir Peregrine’s story is about as moving as anything I have read in Trollope, but it is only one variation on the theme.
All of this re-positioning happens gradually. Much of the repetition in Orley Farm comes from characters thinking and re-thinking, changing their ideas by inches. The pace and psychology is admirably realistic. Realism can at times be awfully dull. As can blog posts about Trollope novels.
Trollope’s point, stated plainly in Chapter LXXIX, all the way at the end:
I may, perhaps be thought to owe an apology to my readers in that I have asked their sympathy for a woman who had so sinned as to have placed her beyond the general sympathy of the world at large. If so, I tender my apology, and perhaps feel that I should confess a fault. But as I have told her story that sympathy has grown upon myself till I have learned to forgive her, and to feel that I too could have regarded her as a friend. Of her future life I will not venture to say anything. But no lesson is truer than that which teaches us to believe that God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
And then that of course goes on for a while, but what is interesting to me is how sympathy for Lady Mason grows in Trollope, how it moves from being taken for granted, from being shallow, to being earned and meaningful. The multiple positions and points of view, each narrow and partial, allows the reader, me, to change in ways that the characters cannot since I can see the narrowness and know everyone’s argument. The big clumsy omniscient narrator is powerful, and perhaps not actually all that clumsy.