Catherine Pope at Victorian Geek (who has read her way through all of Trollope’s considerable oeuvre – which I think is more than I will ever do) has recently done a couple of posts on her top ten, and ten terrible Trollope’s. I’ve read eight of his forty seven novels so far, none of them obscure titles and am beginning to know what to expect – when he’s good he’s the best thing since Jane Austen, the rest of the time he’s nowhere close. Catherine has Rachel Ray in her top ten and I can see why, but for me it’s the perfect example of everything I love about Trollope and everything I really don’t.
The plot of ‘Rachel Ray’ is a simple enough boy meets girl affair – Rachel lives with her widowed mother and widowed sister in genteel poverty on the outskirts of Baslehurst. Mrs Ray is a woman in need of a husband support if ever there was one with the result that she leans rather heavily on her eldest daughter Dorothea Prime. Dorothea has a tragic sort of past – married in her teens to a young curate who survives a mere 6 months before Dorothea is left to go home with only £200 a year, a taste for low church preaching, and a penchant for good works to sustain her. She’s a woman who’s inclined to see the worst in people and find sin everywhere.
Between these two Rachel’s life has been extraordinarily sheltered – hot buttered toast and cream for tea is the height of debauchery and aside from country walks with the local brewer’s daughters she sees nothing of society. The boy is Luke Rowan who’s come into a share of the brewery much to the dismay of his partner Mr Tappitt who had come to consider the concern all his own. Luke is a coming young man determined to have everything all his own way and with all sort of new fangled ideas about brewing decent beer (Tappitt doesn’t), he’s also new to the area. Luke and Rachel fall in love in quick order and despite Mrs Ray’s fears that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing come after her lamb, and Mrs Prime’s conviction that he’s the worst type of godless fiend, it’s eventually decided that he probably isn’t that bad and is allowed to pay his addresses to Rachel. She accepts him and all looks set to be happy ever after when sundry complications ensue.
Mrs Tappitt had designs on Luke for one of her own daughters and isn’t prepared to let Rachel walk off with the prize without a fight, Mr Tappitt also wants a fight, he’s convinced that brewing good beer will be the ruin of them all and isn’t prepared to be taught his business by a boy half his age. Mrs Rowan senior isn’t happy either, she wants her son to make a more advantageous match and is quite happy to let the Ray’s know it. Mrs Prime is determined to put a spanner in the works whilst at the same time juggling a proposal from Mr Prong (her preacher) who seems as interested in the lady’s money as the lady, and finally Mrs Ray is bought to such a state of doubt that she forces Rachel to break with Luke. How will it all end happily?
The best of Trollope is that his villains are rarely too villainous, or his heroes to heroic – they are all eminently human and in this case it’s very easy to sympathise with the Tappitt’s as well as wondering if Luke really as a steady enough character to be suitable for Rachel. There’s nothing sensational about the plot but it’s a definite page turner, there are times when it seems quite doubtful that there can be a happy ending (though of course we still know there will be).
Trollope is also excellent on the nuances of class and social position which is particularly fascinating here where he deals almost exclusively with the bourgeoisie and their politics as they relate to the everyday workings of a small rural town. Broadly speaking nothing much has changed in the way these places work in the last 150 years and I do think that it’s his eye for these details that are a great source of Trollope’s strength as a writer. The love story is nothing special, his empathy for his characters is and raises this quite above the ordinary.
That’s the good – next time I’ll tell you why Trollope is sometimes the most frustrating writer I think I’ve ever read.