Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite
by Anthony Trollope
I wanted to read Trollope's Barsetshire novels, a highly-recommended series of six books satirizing the diet and habits of the upper classes mid-19th-century Britain. But when I sought audio-CD editions of Trollope's works among the holdings of the Saint Louis County Library, I found only this book. I reckoned one must start somewhere, so I let this book initiate me into the vast writings (47 novels!) of an author who influenced, and was admired by, George Eliot, W. H. Auden, and other writers down to the present day. I came to it expecting a piece of lacy-collared satire featuring rich and genteel folk of character ranging from endearingly silly to contemptible, curled around a romance in which the happy couple lives (more or less) happily ever after. Ye gods, was I in for a surprise!
This 1871 novel is, in fact, a piece of tragedy whose ending, if you don't mind my spoiling it for you, may leave you desolate. Forewarned is forearmed. Author Trollope (1815-1882) carries his dramatic argument forward with single-minded intensity, unrelieved by subplots or comic relief—unless the reader chooses to take the caricature of a Jewish moneylender as an outlet for pent-up feelings and nervous laughter. The whole business seems to unfold with dreadful inevitability. And though the main characters are driven by a variety of motivations and priorities, as the situation develops between them their thoughts always seem to be turning over the same handful of problems, caught between the same dilemmas, until even these people—though they may be ever so rich, powerful, clever, or good—seem trapped in a doom from which they can do nothing to escape.
The problem begins when Sir Harry Hotspur and his wife Elizabeth bury their only son, who was to inherit both the family title and its considerable property. Now the estate must go to their lovely but strong-willed daughter Emily, while the title (if it will go on at all) will pass to a young second-cousin named George Hotspur. Sir Harry can't resist the idea that it would be nice to keep the land and the family name together, even if it means marrying Emily to her cousin George. But inviting George to Humblethwaite proves, in the long run, to be the fatal step from which the extinction of the noble house of Hotspur must finally result. A vague suspicion that Cousin George might not be quite respectable grows, the more Sir Harry and his lawyer discover the facts, into a conviction that Emily must never marry George. But by this time, she has given her heart to him as an irrevocable gift. She swears that she will never love or marry anyone else, and sticks to her vow even as the evidence against George's fitness to marry her becomes overwhelming.
Although a "happily ever after" ending seems at least remotely possible almost to the last, no such ending comes. When George is first described, he is observed to be still savable; but he isn't saved. He isn't saved, even though Emily Hotspur exerts all of her considerable power to save him, and cows her doting father into making the effort himself; but each time the young rascal seems to be almost within reach of a rescuing hand, he falls deeper into degradation. It isn't just that he has gotten into debt by betting on horses and playing at cards; nor is it just that he has obtained fraudulent credit by selling his army commission to two moneylenders at the same time; nor is it just that he has already promised to marry an actress from whom he has also accepted money as a last resort; the tale of George's iniquity goes even deeper than that. His style of living might have gone over all right on the American frontier of that period, but where the honor and happiness of a young gentlewoman were concerned—to say nothing of the Hotspur family name and fortune—finally, nothing can be done except to squirm in agony of heart while the hopes of Emily, her parents, George, and his actress friend fade and finally die.
It is such a cruelly, bitterly tragic book that I do not scruple to spoil its ending for you, because I would sooner discourage you from reading it than tamper with your mood. Some people I know and care about might become a danger to themselves after reading such a book. But it is worth reading, if you are up to it. Trollope's narration is full of compassion for its characters, yet it looks with unflinching honesty at such issues as some people's deep, psychological need to survive after death by handing down property and an honorable family name to their heirs; the virtuous woman's sometimes mistaken conviction that a fallen man can, and at any cost must, be raised up again; the responsibilities of a landowner towards his tenants, of wives towards their husbands and vice versa, of parents toward their children and vice versa, of hosts towards their guests and vice versa, and of noblemen toward the honor of their family name; the chances of a dissipated scoundrel being reformed by redemptive love; and whether welcoming a black sheep into the family can lighten his prospects, or darken theirs. What makes Trollope's treatment of these issues so very striking is the fact that he restrains himself from falling into sentimentality, and rather corrects the romantic view of those issues with a brutally bracing realism. And if that doesn't cure one of wanting to read more of Trollope, it will at least cure the idea that he is a literary lightweight.
I can forget about reading more of Trollope's works via audio-books, since the County Library neither holds them nor is interested in buying them, and I can't afford to buy them either. On Kindle, however, I can get loads of them in e-reader format, for free. I foresee myself making much more use of my Kindle the than I have done so far. If you too are interested in more by this author, some noteworthy titles include The Warden (the first of the six Barsetshire novels); Barchester Towers (the second and best-known of ditto); Can You Forgive Her? (the first of the six Palliser novels); and The Way We Live Now (widely regarded as Trollope's masterpiece).
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 13+
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