Anthony Trollope considered his lengthy novel Orley Farm to be one of his most ambitious undertakings. This work incorporates more central characters than do any of Trollope’s previous novels, and it has a more complicated plot and offers deeper insights into social and legal hierarchies. It was met with praise from novelist George Eliot and critic G. H. Lewes. In its day Orley Farm was a popular work, one that Trollope considered possibly his finest.
The effect of Orley Farm depends largely on irony; often, characters are not as they seem to be, and the plot frequently takes unexpected turns. For example, Lady Mason seems to be a model of fragile innocence and is found innocent of the charges brought against her by Samuel Dockwrath and Joseph Mason, but she is unquestionably guilty of the crime she is accused of committing and displays incredible strength, rather than ladylike fragility, in the middle of the adversity she has brought upon herself. Although she has committed a crime by forging a codicil to her late husband’s will, Trollope would have the reader consider Lady Mason to be anything but a criminal, because she forged the codicil only out of love for her son. Furthermore, although she is guilty and is acknowledged as being so by most of the attorneys involved in her trial, she is treated far more sympathetically than her accusers, Dockwrath and Joseph Mason. Although they are clearly in the right concerning the charges they bring against Lady Mason, they prove to be two of the most contemptible characters in the novel. In a final ironic twist, after she is found innocent, Lady Mason agrees with Lucius’s decision that she should follow her conscience and turns Orley Farm over to its rightful heir, Joseph Mason.
The fact that the court ultimately finds for Lady Mason is not merely an ironic defense of the woman’s character; it is also an indictment of the corruption and inefficacy of the English legal system. Trollope’s purpose in writing Orley Farm goes beyond the telling of a story of guilt and innocence. The ultimate ironic point of the novel is that the execution of justice in the English courts of the first half of the nineteenth century bore little relationship to the Christian worldview on which the laws of those courts were supposedly based.
Trollope’s belief in the working out of divine justice, and in the importance of the related virtues of repentance and forgiveness, is made clear throughout the novel. For example, Mrs. Orme quickly forgives Lady Mason after she learns of her sin. Mrs. Orme remains Lady Mason’s best friend during the trial and repeatedly encourages Lady Mason to repent and ask forgiveness from God. Other examples of forgiveness are provided by Mrs. Furnival, who forgives Mrs. Mason for becoming too familiar with her husband, and Sir Peregrine, who at one point asks Lady Mason to marry him and is devastated when he learns that Lady Mason is guilty of the crime of which she is accused. When the trial is over, Sir Peregrine forgives Lady Mason and makes a statement regarding the adversity Lady Mason has had to suffer that the narrator reinforces: “No lesson is truer than that...
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