Critical Evaluation

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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 which teaches us to believe that God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb.” In other words, the trials that Lady Mason has had to endure have been allowed by God for the spiritual strengthening of her character and have brought her to a point at which she asks God’s forgiveness and forgives those who took her to court. At this point,...

(This entire section contains 1308 words.)

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and even earlier in the novel, the narrator asks the reader to sympathize with—and therefore forgive—Lady Mason, comparing her to the biblical character of Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, who deceived her husband to secure a blessing for her son, Jacob.

Trollope emphasizes the importance of forgiveness again in the final scene of the novel, as Felix Graham and young Peregrine Orme nearly part from each other as enemies because Graham has won the heart of Madeline Stavely, whom Peregrine also loves. In a movement away from the animosity that has characterized many of the relationships in the novel, Peregrine overcomes his bitterness toward Graham, acknowledges his wrong, and shakes his friend’s hand. The two young men then separate on a note of reconciliation.

Trollope’s belief in a system of justice, in a code of ethics that transcends the dealings of the English court, is made clear through the characters of Felix Graham and Madeline Stavely. An attorney, Graham conducts his career in line with the Ten Commandments of the Bible. The point is made early in the novel that Graham, in his determination to be guided by his conscience, is not following the standards of most attorneys and therefore, monetarily at least, will not be rewarded in this world. For conducting himself during Lady Mason’s trial according to the dictates of his conscience and of the Bible, for sympathizing with witnesses who suffer character assassination simply because they attempt to tell the truth about the Orley case, Graham earns only the scorn of the top criminal defense lawyer, Mr. Chaffanbrass. Graham does, however, receive a reward of sorts: He is to be married to Madeline Stavely, the woman whom the narrator extols as the most interesting of the novel. Madeline spends her spare time caring for the poor, is not at all concerned about wealth or associating with the rich and famous, and, in her relationship with Felix Graham, goes beyond the young man’s rather plain surface to discern his truly noble and moral character. Part of the couple’s reward is that Judge Stavely will provide his daughter and her husband with an income sufficient to support them in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.

One should not conclude that Orley Farm is simply an eight-hundred-page novel about the rewards for good behavior. Trollope’s vision is more complicated than this, for he makes it clear that almost no one involved in the Orley Farm Case is concerned with carrying out justice. Most of the characters—from the most base to the most seemingly noble—act primarily out of self-interest. For example, Joseph Mason agrees to proceed with the trial against his half sister not to right a wrong but chiefly to get even. Ironically, when Lucius offers him the lands of which he has been deprived, Joseph first rejects the offer and seeks legal help to sue the lawyers who represented him as well as those standing for Mrs. Mason. He simply wants to see Lady Mason—and everyone else associated with her defense—punished. The lawyer Dockwrath, initially deprived of his land when Lucius reaches legal age, is a small, mean-spirited man who derives far more enjoyment from bullying others than he does from seeing justice done. Mr. Furnival initially agrees to represent Lady Mason not because he is concerned that justice be done—indeed, he deduces that Lady Mason is guilty of the crime with which she is charged—but because he is attracted to her. To emphasize that the English courts are not at all about the carrying out of justice, Trollope introduces the characters Aram and Chaffanbrass, two criminal defense attorneys whose reputations are built on their ability to destroy witnesses and gain verdicts of not guilty for people who are unquestionably guilty.

Orley Farm is a good, possibly great, novel. Unity of design as well as shrewd and ironic conceptualization of character and plot enable Trollope to depict an English court system that protects the guilty and punishes the innocent. Trollope emphasizes the need for change through his indictment of the English courts and his revelation of the types of characters that the courts sustain.