Review Post 15 – Five Weddings and a Couple of Elections

April already? Then it must be time for Framley Parsonage, the fourth in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles series and one of my favourites. By now, the reader is beginning to reap the rewards of reading the earlier novels, with the major players in the first three parts reappearing in this installment – some more foregrounded than others. It’s a joy to encounter some of our old friends again: Septimus Harding and the Grantly family from The Warden; Dr. Arabin and Bishop Proudie (and, of course, his ambitious wife) from Barchester Towers; and Miss Dunstable, Dr. Thorne and the Greshams from Doctor Thorne.

In Framley Parsonage, we meet Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley and a good friend of Lord Lufton, the young lord of the manor and owner of most of what he surveys. Robarts is not your average impoverished clergyman, his schooling and friendship with the nobility having prepared a comfortable path for him in life; however, tempted by society and the possibility of promotion, he allows himself to be drawn into circles which devout young churchmen shouldn’t really frequent. Before long, events conspire to see him in debt and in the grips of London moneylenders, leaving him despairing as to how he will ever find his way back (both financially and spiritually).

Naturally, being a Trollope novel, Framley Parsonage also has its fair share of romantic byplay. Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton, has selected Griselda Grantly (amusingly described by the blurb writer on my edition as “the original dumb blonde”), daughter of our old friend the Archdeacon, as the wife she would choose for her eligible bachelor son. But wait! Who is the pretty young girl Lufton is talking to in the corner? Lucy Robarts, the vicar’s sister?! No, he couldn’t…

I don’t think that I’ll be giving too much away when I say that Lord Lufton forms one half of one of the four weddings in the last chapter of this book. One of those nuptials may come as a little surprise though, involving as it does one of our old friends. You’ll just have to read it to find out…

After the (comparatively) slightly disappointing Doctor Thorne, this novel is a welcome return to form. Trollope deals with the romantic side with a lighter and more believable touch than previously, and his knowledge of debts and bills (later to be seen again in the Palliser series) enables him to paint a stark picture of the dangers of putting your name to any paper with sums of money written on it. In the form of Nathaniel Sowerby, a habitual debtor who, as Trollope so neatly puts it, has finally been overtaken by Nemesis, he has also created a wonderful story of the perils of wasted opportunities. A man, born with everything, ends up with nothing – his money gone, his property mortgaged and then lost forever: and all through his own hand. The pathos is increased by the narrator’s forgiving description of Sowerby’s downfall, painting him as a man who knew better but was unable to behave as he knew he should.

It is though as a scene writer that Trollope excels. Yes, he can be over-dramatic, but nobody writes a good confrontation like our Anthony (I’m already looking forward to one in particular next month…). The chance encounter at Miss Dunstable’s London party of Lady Lufton with the Duke of Omnium is, in reality, ten seconds of cold politeness; through the magic of Trollope’s pen, it is transformed into a page of shock and awe, a mute gladiatorial contest to rival anything in the Colliseum. I love it 🙂

In finishing today, I’d like to mention that as well as alluding to the past, Framley Parsonage also looks to the future. The Reverend Josiah Crawley, the key figure of the concluding part of the chronicles is introduced here as a counter figure to the well-to-do, quasi-aristocratic Mark Robarts. You’ll get to know him better in June. Finally, politics, Trollope’s great love, makes its first real appearance with the election in West Barsetshire. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find the details of nineteenth-century electioneering fascinating, and there’s more of that to come in the Palliser series. Of course, for those of you back in the U.K, it’s actually quite relevant…

*****

An election is also at the heart of my second choice today, Yukio Mishima’s sumptuous novel After the Banquet (don’t you just love how expertly I tie the books together?). Set in 1950s Tokyo, it lays out the rise and fall of a relationship between Kazu Fukuzawa, the proprietress of an elegant, traditional restaurant, and Yuken Noguchi, a former cabinet minster. The two become acquainted during a party at Kazu’s Setsugoan restaurant, and the vivacious middle-aged woman quickly becomes entranced by the dry, intellectual Noguchi. Despite a twenty-year age gap, their relationship progresses, but they have widely differing ideas of their life together: while Noguchi is preparing for a quiet retirement, Kazu is in the prime of her life. And then comes the election…

The Tokyo Gubernatorial (governor) election is the central pillar around which After the Banquet revolves, and it serves to bring out the true colours of Kazu and Noguchi’s characters. Kazu throws herself into electioneering, in spite of her husband’s instructions, both tacit and explicit, to remember her position, and it is the woman of the people who is preferred by the crowds to the old, doddery politician. In a whirlwind of slush funds, dirty tricks and scare tactics, the tireless Kazu feels at home.

It would be easy to read this book in a feminist light, condemning the attitudes keeping women out of the public arena and ridiculing the (admittedly easy to ridicule) Noguchi. Kazu is certainly a sympathetic and intriguing character, and the reader feels for her in her efforts to support her husband. However, glimpses of humanity do shine through the politician’s facade from time to time, and it is clear that Kazu is not without her faults. She lies constantly to Noguchi and is quick to go behind his back without a shadow of remorse whenever it suits her – in fact, she’d make an excellent politician…

As mentioned, it is the election which forces the couple’s true characters to the surface, revealing their utter incompatibility and the absurdity of their relationship. Kazu discovers that she is unable to fade away into old age and attempts to rediscover her old life; Noguchi does just the opposite. The end sees them back where they started; but can we ever go back to where we once were?

It’s a lovely book, if not on the grand scale of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but it does hold one last surprise. I only just found out that Mishima was (successfully) sued over the writing of this book as Noguchi was apparently based on a famous Japanese politician who had committed adultery with a Ginza nightclub hostess, one of the first cases upholding the right of a politician to a private life in Japan. How ironic that a book detailing the sleazy methods of successful politicians should end with a sleazy politician coming out on top. Truly life imitating art…

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2 thoughts on “Review Post 15 – Five Weddings and a Couple of Elections

  1. Such extreme geographically polarised and wonderful selection of books you featured here!

    I have been eyeing “After the Banquet” for a good while now, unfortunately my local libraries do not stock up the rest of Mishima's books. Thanks for sharing the surprise.

    Like

  2. I would like to call it comparative literature, but it's more a case of reading a couple of books and finding tenuous links to post about(oh wait, that is comparative literature…).

    Like

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