Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Agriculturists will gain nothing from my present performance - disappointed by Trollope's Orley Farm

France, check; Spanish, check.  Back to England for a while.

Some time ago I promised Rohan Maitzen a three-part series on manuring techniques in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1861-2) but that was just a joke – you can’t hold me to that!  And anyway, here is how Trollope begins the novel, with an assurance to the suspicious reader:

I say so much at commencing in order that I may have an opportunity of explaining that this book of mine will not be devoted in any special way to rural delights.  The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure.  No such aspirations are mine.  I make no attempts in that line, and declare at once that agriculturists will gain nothing from my present performance.  (Ch. I)

So an opportunity has been missed here, but by Trollope, not by me.  If anyone knows of a good Victorian novel about cream-cheeses and small-boned pigs, please let me know.  As it is, Orley Farm may well hold the Victorian novel record for the use of the word “guano” (fifteen occurrences).*  No mention of mummified cats as fertilizer at all.  Oh well.

Instead, Orley Farm is a legal – I was about to say thriller.  Ha ha ha ha!  No, that is the wrong word.  Orley Farm climaxes in a trial, and Trollope creates a reasonable amount of tension about the result, although it was clear enough that one verdict was ethically more interesting than another, and Orley Farm, like every Trollope novel I know, is fundamentally an exploration of an ethical problem.  Or several, really, all spun out from the one that kicks it off, a dispute over an inherited property.

When the novel is not about property it is about love and marriage.  Somewhere, long ago, I read an anecdote in which Trollope, descending to breakfast, declares that he has just written his fiftieth proposal scene.  Perhaps I should replace “fiftieth” with “Xth,” where X is some absurdly high number.  Not as absurd as I thought, though, since Orley Farm alone contains six (6) marriage proposals!  One is purely comic; one is necessary to the plot and meaning of the novel.  One pair of proposals, both to the young romantic heroine, I am apparently supposed to care about (I do not, not much); the final pair, again to one woman, serve as ironic counterweights.  Orley Farm is a standard 20 part Victorian serial, 835 pages in the Oxford edition I read, which meant I got a marriage proposal every 140 pages or so, which was plenty for me.

Orley Farm is comparable in quality to the six Barchester novels.  To be clear about the post's title, I am disappointed that it contains so little about the latest mid-19th century advances in scientific manuring (it admittedly has more on the subject than any novel I have ever read).  The book's length likely encourages Trollope’s slackness and sometimes maddening repetition, but also gives him room for a big yet intricate story.  In some sense I wish the novel had been 200 pages shorter, but the least essential pages of the novel were exactly my favorites and I am glad Trollope had room for them.  But they belong in another post.

* No, wrong - The Prime Minister has seventeen! See comments.


  1. Guano is obviously a common theme for Trollope. There are numerous mentions in 'The Prime Minister', and I suspect that it also comes up in 'The Way We Live Now'. Insert excrement-based gag at Trollope's expemse here...

  2. You're right! This is exactly what is for. The Way We Live Now was a bust, but the word "guano" appears in The Prime Minister 17 times! A new champion!

  3. I'm just about to post on Doctor Thorne, and I don't remember any guano, but there's a great let's-put-Doctor-Fillgrave-under-the-pump scene. V satisfying.

  4. Poor Dr. Fillgrave. Nothing but a punching bag. Someone should write a novel in which he is the hero. A Victorian medical drama of some sort.

    Agriculture plays a role in Doctor Thorne, but only as a Profession of Last Resort for the young hero, who of course should not have to do anything but supervise a kennel-master and stable-master.