The weather’s been a bit miserable here in Melbourne, and with no end to winter in sight (that’s right, winter…), one way to make it through the short, cold(ish) days is to curl up with an old friend. For me, a go-to author in this situation is Anthony Trollope, and despite having read and reviewed a fair amount of his work here, I still have a few up my sleeve for rainy days. Today’s journey, then, takes us from Melbourne to Devon. The location may be new, but for Trollope aficionados, the story is rather similar 😉
The eponymous heroine of Rachel Ray is a young woman living just outside the small town of Baslehurst in the south-western English county of Devonshire (as Trollope calls it). Life with two widows (her mother, Mrs. Ray, and her elder sister, Mrs. Prime) is rather sedate, yet Rachel is happy enough with her lot, attending church on Sundays and going for evening walks with her friends the Tappitts, the three daughters of the local brewer. Her isolation, and the evangelical tendencies of her elder sister, mean that Rachel has rather a fear of behaving improperly, and it seems as if the little household will remain together for a good many years yet.
However, this tranquil situation is to be shattered unexpectedly by a couple of very different outsiders. Mrs. Prime’s hand is requested by the local low-church minister, Mr. Prong, but it’s the arrival of Luke Rowan, the nephew of Mr. Tappitt’s late business partner, that really sets the cat among the pigeons. While he soon makes an impression on Rachel, his brusque manner makes him powerful enemies in his new home. Will the two lovers ever manage to overcome their difficulties? Well, what do you think? 😉
As you can probably tell, Rachel Ray contains your standard Trollope fare, but I wouldn’t say this is up there with his best work. It starts rather slowly, and even for big Tony T., the first chapters contain a lot of exposition:
Mrs. Tappitt did not hear all this, but nevertheless, she began to entertain a dislike to Rachel. It must not be supposed that she admitted her daughter Augusta to any participation in her plans. Mrs. Tappitt could scheme for her child, but she could not teach her child to scheme. As regarded the girl, it must all fall out after the natural, pleasant, everyday fashion of such things; but Mrs. Tappitt considered that her own natural advantages were so great that she could make the thing fall out as she wished. When she was informed about a fortnight after Rowan’s arrival in Baslehurst that Rachel Ray had been walking with the party from the brewery, she could not prevent herself from saying an ill-natured word or two.
p.31 (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)
At which point, it’s hard to stifle a yawn or two… In addition, much of the early action is dominated by Mrs. Prime, and she can be simply annoying for the most part. Trollope is rarely a fan of ‘low’ churchmen and their followers, and his creation here is once again a caricature rather than a character, showing hypocrisy that grates immensely.
The story only improves when the scope broadens to include the wider cast. Luke Rowan is headstrong and slightly selfish, but never likely to give Rachel up, so it’s the other obstacles which make the plot. Having inherited a half-share in Tappitts’ brewery, the young man comes to blows with the owner and manager, and in a classic battle of the generations, the two men are unable to come to terms regarding the company’s future direction (with part of the battlefield the issue of producing expensive good beer or cheap bad stuff…). Mrs. Tappitt shares her husband’s antagonism, but for different reasons. You see, she was hoping Rowan would opt for one of her three girls as his chosen wife – a woman scorned…
The novel is enlivened by some of the usual entertaining Trollopian scenes. There’s no fox-hunting this time around, but we do get a low-level ‘ball’ held by the Tappitts, where Luke gets closer to Rachel. The novel is also set against the background of a local election, without which no Trollope book is complete. As the writer gets into his stride, his trademark good-natured humour becomes evident, whether in the form of Mr. Tappitt and his doomed attempts to dominate his family or Luke’s inability to be the perfect lover. You see he’s far too business-minded to be overly romantic:
“But this is a nice love-letter, – is it not? However, you must take me as I am. Just now I have beer in my very soul. The grand object of my ambition is to stand and be fumigated by the smoke of my own vats. It is a fat, prosperous, money-making business, and one in which there is a clear line between right and wrong. No man brews bad beer without knowing it, – or sells short measures. Whether the fatness and the honesty can go together; – that is the problem I want to solve.” (p.206)
It has to be said that Rachel’s first ever love letter doesn’t quite live up to her expectations 😉
P.D. Edwards’ enthusiastic introduction attempts to put the book in context, yet I’m not convinced Rachel Ray is as polished as he makes out. It’s true that there’s an interesting focus here on the middle classes over the usual landed gentry or more genteel folk, but Edwards’ claim that Baslehurst is one of Trollope’s “…most detailed – and certainly his most compact – study of middle-class life in a small provincial community…” (p.viii) seems dubious. Despite the fascinating glimpses into the life of a small community, in truth it all appears a little thin. There’s a mention of George Eliot on the first page of the introduction that puts the book into perspective. Middlemarch this isn’t, and it’s Eliot’s wider focus on the community that Rachel Ray lacks.
Quite beside this lack of detail, there’s a fairly disturbing issue with the novel, and that’s the open racism. A Jewish tailor comes down from London to contest the election, and this section of the book is full of anti-semitic comments. It’s not uncommon for Jews to be insulted and put down in Victorian literature (the whole genre comes with a trigger warning in this regard), but where many works stick at the odd mention of a hooked nose or a shifty demeanour, Rachel Ray seems determined to have its characters slander the Jewish candidate relentlessly. At times, it is obviously Trollope’s intention to reflect the real attitudes of the time, but there are also several narratorial intrusions where the writer’s opinions are more personal:
English country gentlemen are not to be classed among that section of mankind which speaks easily in public, but Jews, I think, may be so classed. The men who speak thus easily and with natural fluency, are also they who learn languages easily. They are men who observe rather than think, who remember rather than create, who may not have great mental powers, but are ever ready with what they have, whose best word is at their command at a moment, and is then seviceable though perhaps incapable of more enduring service. (p.329)
Damning with faint praise, or something more sinister? I’d certainly advise caution for anyone who may be upset by these views.
Overall, while enjoyable enough in parts, Rachel Ray is certainly not up there with Trollope’s best work. Even though it runs to just over 400 pages, it never seems as if there’s enough time to tell the story that should be told, and I suspect most readers will end up wanting to hear more about the town and less about the couple (the story is certainly more interesting when it moves away from the main action). It was all a little disappointing, which leaves me wondering whether there are any more good Trollope novels out there to discover. It’s a sobering thought for someone who has enjoyed so much of his work that I may only have the scraps left to try…