Mr Scarborough’s Family


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Introduction by Richard Mullen
510 pages

London, Chatto and Windus, 1883. 3v.
Originally published in All the Year Round, May 27, 1882-June 16, 1883.

Mr Scarborough, wealthy owner of Tretton Park in Staffordshire, is dying. His eldest son and heir Mountjoy has gambled away his inheritance to avaricious money-lenders who hold post-obits to the entire value of the estate.

As the story opens, Mr Scarborough astonishes society by declaring Mountjoy illegitimate. He 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 vain law suits against the estate; and the odious Augustus assumes his place as heir.

Meanwhile, Harry Annesley, the son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, is the heir to his foolish uncle Peter Prosper. He 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 the disinherited Mountjoy and Harry in a London street leaves Mountjoy sprawled on the pavement; and next day he disappears. Harry fails to help the police with their inquiries: a situation Augustus exploits, making it known that Harry has lied, and was the last person to see Mountjoy before he vanished. Word of this reaches Mr Prosper, who promptly decides to disinherit Harry.

A pace or two behind this imbroglio comes Mr Scarborough’s long-suffering lawyer, Mr Grey. He is appalled by his client’s complete disregard for law or propriety, but out of a sense of duty goes to great lengths to prove Mr Scarborough’s assertion that Augustus is the true heir. With this proof, he manages to persuade Mountjoy’s creditors to relinquish their bills, thus freeing the estate from any potential law suits after his death. But Mr Scarborough, outraged by Augustus’ callous impatience for his death, summons Mr Grey to see him once more. He has yet another new will to make, because Augustus is not really the heir to Tretton.

Problems of old age had finally caught up with Trollope when he came to write this, his penultimate completed novel in 1882. It is suffused with preoccupations about inheritances, operations, surgeons, medicines and lawsuits. At the centre of this hugely entertaining and strangely negelected mystery is the complex character of Mr Scarborough, a schemer, a pagan, a clever man, hating the law of entail, indifferent to public opinion, yet consumed with a desire to do the right thing for his family. Lear-like, he searches for some true sign of love from his sons. There is an elegiac tone to much of Trollope’s prose here, wrapped around a constantly surprising plot, a sourness of outlook, and an old man’s distaste for the ever-increasing pace and avarice of 1880s Victorian England.