Wednesday, September 5, 2012

No EVOO necessary

Hmm, you say to yourself as you pick up this book.

Is this the heartwarming tale of a brash young woman who wins her true love through tasty Italian-inspired cooking and learning not to shout so much, all against the background of a feud between high and low churchmen? Or perhaps it's a cookbook of 30-minute recipes inspired by a certain nineteenth century British Civil Servant and novelist?

No, it's neither of those things. Rachel Ray is the heroine, living with her weak-willed widowed mother and strong-willed (and very Evangelical) widowed sister. Rachel is modest and good, and willing to be obedient to her mother, but totally unwilling to be bossed around by her sister. The hero is Luke Rowan, a headstrong gentleman-entrepreneur who wants to become a brewer in Rachel's small town. They fall in love, of course; he gets embroiled in a business dispute; her mother and sister try to convince her that her little romance is sinful; there's a local election; it all works out. I liked Rachel and Luke, and I liked the book.

I think it's a mark of the book having been written by a man that Luke starts out as kind of a jerk and ends up as a jerk vindicated. He figures he has every right to do as he pleases, and hurt feelings will shake out later. Luke inherits a partnership in a brewery, and when the current brewer refuses to let him act as a true partner or take any of his suggestions, Luke decides he'll either offer a settlement that involves the old brewer leaving, or he'll just take his money and start his own brewery on the other side of town. His impetuousness is what gets him in trouble with Rachel and her family too, since he's quite straightforward about calling her "Rachel" and paying her "particular attentions" which scares her a bit and her mother and sister a lot. He doesn't seem to have any notion of what their objections or worries might be, nor does he feel any particular need, it seems, to find out. We, the readers, know he's well-intentioned and so on, but it's hard not to sympathize with his enemies. I kept thinking that Jane Austen wouldn't let him get away with it. If Luke Rowan were an Austen hero, he have learned by the end to be less arrogant in pursuing his rights.

There's a parliamentary election in the story, and the two candidates are a rich Jewish tailor from London and the son of the local squire and Hoo Boy. Indeed, the title of this plotline could be "Anti-Semitism in Action". This bit is saved from being totally unreadable by virtue of Trollope's close attention to all the many ignorant reasons various voters have for disliking the Jewish candidate. He's always interested, I think, in satirizing the way two people can hold the same strong opinion but for opposite reasons. So, for instance, Luke's mother and his spurned boss's wife visit Rachel in order to break them up; the boss's wife because she thinks Luke is worthless, and Luke's mother because she thinks he's too good for her; so the two women are just on the edge of insulting each other even as they pursue their common cause. I think that same dynamic is in evidence in the election passages: Trollope likes showing how the small town voters' professions to hate or love the Jewish candidate based on some noble principle actually boil down to some petty local rivalry or ignorant superstition, and therefore people's attachment to "noble principles" is pretty thin. That being said in defense: yeah, it's kind of a yucky subplot, and it's unpleasant to have your various characters taking part. For me, at least, given when the book was written and given what I wrote above and given that of course Trollope is going to like the local squire, it wasn't a book-ruiner.

Hilariously, according to the introduction, Rachel Ray was originally supposed to be published as a serial in an Evangelical magazine, but the magazine cancelled their contract after a couple of installments. Hm! Mysterious! Perhaps because the book is unrelentingly negative about Evangelicals?? Oh Trollope, what were you thinking?

Let's have some quotes. A long one, since this book is available on Project Gutenberg:
I venture to assert that each liberal elector there would have got a better dinner at home, and would have been served with greater comfort; but a public dinner at an inn is the recognized relaxation of a middle-class Englishman in the provinces. Did he not attend such banquets his neighbours would conceive him to be constrained by domestic tyranny. Others go to them, and therefore he goes also. He is bored frightfully by every speech to which he listens. He is driven to the lowest depths of dismay by every speech which he is called upon to make. He is thoroughly disgusted when he is called on to make no speech. He has no point of sympathy with the neighbours between whom he sits. The wine is bad. The hot water is brought to him cold. His seat is hard and crowded. No attempt is made at the pleasures of conversation. He is continually called upon to stand up that he may pretend to drink a toast in honour of some person or institution for which he cares nothing; for the hero of the evening, as to whom he is probably indifferent; for the church, which perhaps he never enters; the army, which he regards as a hotbed of aristocratic insolence; or for the Queen, whom he reveres and loves by reason of his nature as an Englishman, but against whose fulsome praises as repeated to him ad nauseam in the chairman's speech his very soul unconsciously revolts. It is all a bore, trouble, ennui, nastiness, and discomfort. But yet he goes again and again,—because it is the relaxation natural to an Englishman. The Frenchman who sits for three hours tilted on the hind legs of a little chair with his back against the window-sill of the cafĂ©, with first a cup of coffee before him and then a glass of sugar and water, is perhaps as much to be pitied as regards his immediate misery; but the liquids which he imbibes are not so injurious to him.
Here's the nasty Evangelical sister:
"I've taken tea, thank you, two hours ago;" and she spoke as though there were much virtue in the distance of time at which she had eaten and drunk, as compared with the existing rakish and dissipated appearance of her mother's tea-table. Tea-things about at eight o'clock! It was all of a piece together.
This made me aww. Rachel goes to Mrs Sturt, the farmer's wife next door, for comfort when her mother, in consultation with Mr Comfort, her pastor, forbids her to correspond with Luke.
     "It's little I think of what clergymen says, unless it be out of the pulpit or the like of that. What does they know about lads and lasses?"
     "He's a very old friend of mamma's."
     "Old friends is always best, I'll not deny that. But, look thee here, my girl; my man's an old friend too. He's know'd thee since he lifted thee in his arms to pull the plums off that bough yonder; and he's seen thee these ten years a deal oftener than Mr. Comfort. If they say anything wrong of thy joe there, tell me, and Sturt 'll find out whether it be true or no. Don't let ere a parson in Devonshire rob thee of thy sweetheart. It's passing sweet, when true hearts meet. But it breaks the heart, when true hearts part." With the salutary advice contained in these ancient local lines Mrs. Sturt put her arms round Rachel, and having kissed her, bade her go.

1 comment:

  1. I love your insight about a male writer letting his protagonist get away with being a jerk. Very astute. I've read a couple of Trollope's Barchester Chronicles books and liked them well enough although it failed to sustain my interest beyond the first two books.