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Introduction by Max Hastings
First published: Chapman and Hall, 1860
The scene is laid in Ireland , during the famine…. This novel … is of itself a weak production. The characters do not excite sympathy. The heroine has two lovers, one of whom is a scamp and the other a prig…. The dialogue is often lively, and some of the incidents are well told; but the story as a whole was a failure.
An Autobiography, Anthony Trollope
Today, Castle Richmond, the third of Trollope’s novels to have an Irish background, is widely admired, even featuring in lists of neglected masterpieces. Yet the author himself almost disowned it: as usual, his judgement was erratic. It is notable not only for its skill, but also for the moving glimpses of the Irish famine which pervade the background.
As the story opens, we soon learn that Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, the owner of Castle Richmond in County Cork, has descended into a long-lasting depression. The cause, one can guess, is a guilty secret. It is embodied in the persons of a pair of blackmailers, the Molletts: a drunken father and an unscrupulous son. They are trying to extort money from Sir Thomas in return for their silence on the subject of the revelations they threaten: about his wife, specifically, which if published will disinheirit his children in favour of his relative, Owen Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, in nearby Desmond Court lives the proud, cold, Lady Desmond with her two children Patrick and Lady Clara. Owen Fitzgerald loves Lady Clara, and considers himself engaged to her, a situation which Lady Desmond refuses to acknowledge, ostensibly because she disapproves of Owen’s wayward bachelor lifestyle: in actuality she is herself in love with Owen, and jealous of her own daughter. Castle Richmond turns on the central question of whether Sir Thomas Fitzgerald’s wife Mary was legitimately married before she met Sir Thomas; the outcome of the plot hangs on a typical Trollopian irony. If Mary Fitzgerald’s first husband was already married when he ‘married’ her, then her own marriage to Sir Thomas is legal, therefore legitimizing his children, though this in turn makes Lady Mary the victim of a gross deception.
Trollope increases the tragedy by killing off Sir Thomas before the debate over legitimacy has been resolved. And in Lady Desmond, he paints a marvellous picture of a cold, loveless woman who has married young for position in society, yet is saddled with a huge estate without money to maintain it. An alternative title might well have been An Irish Tragedy.