[Mr Scarborough’s family] – cynical, and for its period, daring – shows the power of sustained and dexterous raillery.
Michael Sadleir ‘Trollope: A Commentary’, 1927
So the question is… who is laughing at who?
Mr Scarborough, the largely self-made owner of Tretton Park in Staffordshire, is dying… somewhat slowly and painfully. His eldest son and heir Mountjoy has gambled away his inheritance to opportunistic money-lenders who hold ‘post-obits’ to the entire value of the estate. The novel opens to the astonishing revelation by Mr Scarborough that his elder son Mountjoy is illegitimate. Mr Scarborough claims that he only married his wife shortly before the birth of his second (remarkably unattractive) son Augustus, thus making him the real heir. Mountjoy’s creditors threaten law suits against the estate; and the unpleasant Augustus assumes his place as heir.
Meanwhile, Harry Annesley, the son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, is the heir to his uncle Peter Prosper. Harry is also in love with Mr Scarborough’s niece Florence Mountjoy. Florence’s mother had always intended her daughter should marry Mountjoy Scarbororough. But Florence has never loved him, and tells him of her affection for Harry. A drunken brawl between a furious Mountjoy and Harry in a London street leaves Mountjoy sprawled, seemingly seriously injured, on the pavement; and next day he mysteriously disappears. Harry fails to help the police with their inquiries: a situation Augustus exploits, telling the police and society that Harry has lied, and was the last person to see Mountjoy before he vanished. These serious allegations reach Mr Prosper, who promptly decides to disinherit Harry and begins to think that perhaps he could sire an heir after all….
The action then moves to Mr Scarborough’s long-suffering lawyer, Mr Grey, a widower now wedded to the law and supported through life by his daughter Dolly. Mr Grey is astounded by his client’s complete disregard for law, ethics and propriety, but he needs to do his job and travels to Europe to prove Mr Scarborough’s claim that Augustus is the true heir. With proof in the form of marriage certificates, he manages to persuade Mountjoy’s creditors to withdraw their bills, thus freeing the estate from any potential claims after his death. Mr Scarborough is not happy: he is bitterly outraged by Augustus’s cruel and unthinking impatience for his demise. Mr Grey is called to see Mr Scarborough, to discuss a new will. After all Augustus is not really the heir to Tretton after all…
The concerns of old age had caught up with Trollope when he wrote Mr Scarborough’s Family, his penultimate novel completed in 1882. It is larded with references to inheritances, pioneering operations, surgeons, medicines and lawsuits. At the centre of this neglected tale is the unique and complex character of Mr Scarborough, a schemer, a pagan (so we are told), a man who considers himself clever, hates the law of entail, and is indifferent to the opinion of the rest of the world.
Saying that he is deeply concerned about doing the right thing for his family. Much like Lear-like, he searches for true signs of love from his children. Trollope’s prose is an extended lament, wrapped around a genuinely surprising plot that recounts an old man’s struggle with the increasing pace of change in Victorian England with its trains, telegraphs, advancing medical treatment – and women that are starting to demand equality with men.
There is wry humour though… largely relating to the various love sub-plots. We also see – what to us is – anti-Semitic commentary about a stereo-typed Jewish money-lender; and descriptions of some very feisty ladies. We travel to the gambling clubs of Monaco and the ambassador’s residence in Brussels. There is even a hunting scene.
Mr Scarborough’s Family, Trollope’s 45th novel, was serialised in All the Year Round from May 1882 to June 1883, six months after his death. It was subsequently published in three volumes in 1883: his first posthumous novel. The manuscript, half in his neice Florence Bland’s handwriting, is held in the library of Cornell University. The critical reception was mixed.
Like other novels, such as Orley Farm, the law forms the plot of this tale and also flavours his writing with almost religious intensity . Mr Grey describes laws as Holy Writ… a pun in itself… and Augustus thinks ‘… that the making of all right and wrong in this world depends on the law’.
The law also permeates the main sub-plot (there are nine others… a record I think)… Harry Annesley’s inheritance from his uncle Squire Prosper. Believing that Harry had murdered his love rival Mountjoy, Prosper sought to find himself a wife and possibly beget an heir for the property. He chose the oddly-named Miss Matilda Thoroughbung of the brewing dynasty described as ‘.. fat, fair and forty to the letter … who had a just measure of her own good looks of which she was not unconscious’.
She was also very conscious of her £25,000 fortune, and love of ponies (a joke here as a pony was slang for ten pounds in Victorian times), fine dining and her ‘companion’ the suggestively named Miss Tickle. She has strong views about women’s rights and scorn for the way that legal arrangement are made in favour of ‘… the fathers and the brothers and the uncles and the lawyers. After being mocked by Miss Thoroughbung, Prosper is ready to accept Harry as heir.
We also meet other feisty ladies: Dolly Grey reluctant to marry her father’s partner Mr Barry (nobody could match her father in her view…) and Florence who manages to get rid of the slimy Belgian diplomat M. Grascour and the hobbledehoy civil servant Mr Anderson.
We see many themes in the novel. Money and debt is a crucial plot element. We are presented with a vivid and believable account of how Mountjoy’s debts continue to add up; discovering how easy it is to lose money at the gaming tables. We may be shocked by the idea of post-obits… essentially gambling on death. We may also be shocked by the characterisation of the Jewish moneylender Mr Hart, and perversely charmed by the professional gambler Captain Vignolles.
Ageing, pain and poor health are described in greater intensity than in Trollope’s other novels… much is made of Mr Scarborough’s pioneering treatment. At least chloroform and morphine would have been freely available by that time.
This is essentially a novel about families and their disagreements. We see rivalry between the two brothers caused by their father’s views; squabbling between Dolly Grey and her cousins the Carroll sisters; and Florence’s disagreements with her mother, aunt and uncle. Only Mr Grey and Dolly seem to get on well, or do they? The intensity of their relationship is somewhat unsettling.
But above all we need to suspend our disbelief throughout the novel… can we really believe in this convoluted plot? Would anyone really have two marriages in the expectation of needing to fiddle with an entail a couple of decades down the line? Is Mr Scarborough really evil? Or just a stickler for what he regards as right? Trollope’s novel is indeed – as Sadleir described – both cynical and daring.
By Lucia Costanzo