- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

The Lost Word

Summer is always the season for getting caught up on your reading. Maybe you're one of those worthy souls who each year when vacation time rolls around tries valiantly at last to finish "Remembrance of Things Past," giving it up yet once again for some bestseller of the moment.
Consider Anthony Trollope, the author of so very many novels 40 to be exact by the time he died in 1882 at age 67 in an age when every writer indeed seemed singularly prolix. Of course you could decide to do his clerical "Barchester" series again or re-read those books devoted to the ducal Pallisters or finally decide to compare the original "The Way We Were" with the PBS series last winter.
But let me turn your attention to one of his somewhat less popular novels: "Castle Richmond." Set it in Ireland in the 1840s, Trollope developed a passionate and disturbing tale of the fortunes of the Desmonds and the Fitzgeralds, two upper-class Irish families in the south of the island.
The twists and turnings of two love stories and a vast inheritance hanging in the balance are set against the great potato famine of the 1840s devastating the country. Starvation is rampant. The workhouses are full, and all the soup kitchens have to dole out is thin, barely digestible corn meal gruel. Trollope, having worked for the British postal service, living in various areas of Ireland from 1841 to 1857, writes with the immediacy and observation of a man experiencing the events himself.
Describing Irish working men: "They were wretched-looking creatures, half-clad, discontented, with hungry eyes, each having at his heart's core a deep sense of injustice done personally upon him," Trollope makes the reader feel as if he were experiencing the misery personally. His descriptions of a mother and shrunken, listless children in a dirt-floor cottage are utterly convincing.
The setting rings true, and if anything adds credibility to the plot where lovely, youthful (still in her teens) Lady Clara Desmond, daughter of the widowed and still beautiful Countess of Desmond, is beloved by dashing, handsome (think Mel Gibson or Peter O'Toole in their prime) Owen Fitzgerald. But as Owen possesses neither wealth nor rank, despite his considerable charm, there can be no match with the daughter of an earl.
Enter Herbert Fitzgerald, cousin of Owen, a decent enough fellow if on the dull side (think Colin Firth) but who is heir to both a title and a vast estate. With pressure from her mother and younger brother (heir to his family title), Lady Clara unhappily rejects Owen and accepts betrothal to Herbert.
There are however shocking skeletons in the Fitzgerald family closet that threaten ruin and misery for the would-be heir and his betrothed. While dashing cousin Owen pines after Lady Clara, we discover that Clara's mother yearns after Owen, not without feeling distressed at being jealous of her own daughter. The Countess is all of 38 virtually an old woman judged by the standards of Trollope's day but still very beautiful, and Owen is in his mid-20s. The countess convinces herself it really would not be a disgraceful mismatching, should Owen only desire her and not her daughter.
Trollope in his autobiography written near the end of his life makes some trenchant if rather curious remarks on "Castle Richmond." He found its plot "fairly good, and is much more of a plot than I have generally been able to find." He goes on to observe "that English readers no longer like Irish stories. I cannot understand why it should be so, as the Irish character is peculiarly well fitted for romance."
He sums up his plot thusly: "The heroine has two lovers, of whom one is a scamp and the other a prig. As regards the scamp, the girl's mother is her own rival. The girl herself has no character; and the mother, who is strong enough, is almost revolting." So spoke an author rigidly set in the mores of the Victorian age.
Actually looking at the Countess of Desmond from our vantage point of the beginning of the 21st century, a contemporary reader may well find her the most interesting and complex character in "Castle Richmond." The last chapter but one in the book is a wonderfully clear-eyed, painful and very moving look into a woman's soul.
Trollope's own evaluation is worth noting. "The dialogue is often lively, and some of the incidents are well told. I cannot remember that it was roughly handled by the critics when it came out; and I much doubt whether anything so hard was said of it then as that which I have said here."
An author is surely entitled to his own opinion of what he has written, but readers are just as surely allowed to disagree strongly with the writer which I do most strenuously. Give "Castle Richmond" a try. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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