This novel, the fourth of the Barsetshire series, was brought out in the newly launched Cornhill magazine. Edited by William Makepeace Thackeray, it was an immensely popular success. Anthony Trollope’s focus is on the social milieu and on the moral choices that confront his characters. Two clergymen are juxtaposed in the novel; both are good men, but one is too easily lured by worldly ambition, and the other is too proud to accept help. Mark Robarts learns painfully that he is essentially too naive to cope with the accomplished chicanery of people like Sowerby and to engage in the political sophistries of the circle surrounding the Duke of Omnium.
He ultimately retreats to the security of Lady Lufton’s patronage and the knowledge that his brush with the vultures of the larger world enables him to appreciate the felicities of his position at Framley Court. It is Trollope’s particular genius that this resolution is made to seem fulfilling rather than defeatist. In contrast, the Reverend Josiah Crawley is unworldly to the point of excess. His selfless dedication to the ministry represents a type of clergyman that Trollope sees as becoming regrettably obsolete in the increasingly materialistic society of the nineteenth century; nevertheless, Crawley’s asceticism and his refusal to seek worldly advancement (or even to accept it when offered) brings needless suffering to his poverty-stricken family.
The women in the novel similarly confront moral choices. Lucy Robarts is no meek ingenue; a young lady of spirit, Lucy loves young Lord Lufton but is willing to give up both love and social position rather than be accused by his mother of social climbing. Griselda Grantly, however, has no such scruples. She coldly sets about using her great beauty and imposing manner to capture Lord Dumbello and succeeds despite the absence of real affection between them. Lady Lufton represents the kind of mixed character that is Trollope’s special accomplishment: she is both domineering and kindhearted, both arrogant and willing at last to bend. She most nearly illustrates Trollope’s thesis: that those are happiest who can adapt to social change.