The Vicar of Bullhampton

by Anthony Trollope

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747

First published: 1869-1870, serial; 1870, book

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Frank Fenwick, the Vicar of Bullhampton

Harry Gilmore, the Squire of Bullhampton

Janet Fenwick, Frank’s wife

Mary Lowther, her friend

Walter Marrable, Mary’s cousin

The Marquis of Trowbridge, a wealthy landlord

Jacob Brattle, a mill owner

Sam Brattle, his son

Carry Brattle, his daughter

The Story:

The town of Bullhampton was a typical English country parish. Although the Marquis of Trowbridge owned most of the land, he had no residence within ten miles of it. The rest of the land was owned by Squire Harry Gilmore, a good friend of the Vicar of Bullhampton. The Squire had recently become a daily visitor at the vicarage, for the Vicar’s wife had a guest, Mary Lowther, with whom Squire Gilmore was in love. Mary, however, could not bring herself to become engaged to the Squire, because, as she told Janet Fenwick, she simply was not in love with him. Janet and the Vicar tried to persuade her that her views would change for the better after marriage. Despite their well-meant advice, Mary still would not give her consent.

One evening, as the Squire left the vicarage, he saw three men loitering in the orchard. He recognized one of them as Sam Brattle, the son of Jacob Brattle, the mill owner. Jacob was a crabbed, hardworking old man who had reared a large family. Most of the children had turned out well, except Sam, who consorted with low companions, and Carry, who had gone away to the city and had become a woman of the streets. No one ever spoke of the wayward daughter at the Brattle home, for she had broken her father’s heart. The chief desire of Jacob’s life was to have his old mill repaired, and he finally succeeded in obtaining the necessary money to finance the project from Squire Gilmore.

Because Mary could not bring herself to accept the Squire and her presence disturbed him greatly, she finally left for home. She lived at Loring with her aunt, Miss Marrable, an old spinster who was interested in Squire Gilmore’s devotion to Mary.

Back in Bullhampton, the Vicar tried to find out if Sam Brattle had been in his orchard with the other men that night, but the most he could learn was that two men, one a former convict and the other a complete stranger, had been hanging around the town and that Sam was well acquainted with both of them. A few days later, one of the farmers of the community was found murdered and his secret strongbox emptied of its contents. The only person who had known the location of the strongbox was a servant girl who was a good friend of Sam Brattle. Sam was arrested and was to be released a short time later because the magistrate could find no real evidence against him. Nevertheless, the Marquis of Trowbridge thought he should be held in custody, and sharp words passed between the Marquis and the Vicar on the subject. Sam returned to the mill because the Vicar stoutly defended him.

Meanwhile, at Loring, Mary Lowther had fallen deeply in love with her cousin, Walter Marrable. Walter, a soldier returned from India, was trying to regain an inheritance from his father, who had cheated him out of it. If this repossession were possible, Walter would be a wealthy man and would not have to return to India to make his fortune. During their walks together, Mary was a sympathetic listener to his troubles. Soon they were in love with each other. This situation worried Mary’s aunt because Walter’s attempt to regain his money was not proving successful. Before the end of the month, Walter and Mary were engaged.

In Bullhampton, the head constable was investigating the home of the former convict in an attempt to secure evidence concerning the murder. The suspect’s mother and a young woman, supposedly his wife but in reality Carry Brattle, his mistress, refused to tell the constable anything. In the meantime, the Vicar had another stormy interview with the Marquis, who insisted that Sam was guilty and should be put in prison. The Vicar, however, proclaimed Sam’s innocence, for he had faith in the young man. The upshot of the matter was that the Marquis threatened to write to the bishop in complaint of the Vicar. At last he did so, but the bishop merely sent his letter along to the Vicar with a friendly note advising him not to cross the Marquis too often.

Love was not going smoothly at Loring. Happy over her engagement to Walter, Mary Lowther wrote to Janet and Squire Gilmore, telling them her news. The young Squire went into a decline; for weeks, he stayed at his home and refused to see anyone. The marriage plans of Mary and Walter had to be broken off, however, when it was discovered that Colonel Marrable, Walter’s father, had spent every cent of the inheritance. Walter, now penniless, was forced to apply once more for service in India.

When Janet and the Vicar heard the news, they asked Mary to return for a visit in Bullhampton; they hoped, during her stay, to renew her romance with the Squire. Furthermore, the Fenwicks needed diversion at the time, for they were plagued by the erection of a new Methodist chapel across the street from the vicarage. The new chapel was the work of the Marquis of Trowbridge and the Methodist minister, both of whom disliked the Vicar intensely. In their eyes, one of his latest offenses was a visit to Carry Brattle, the fallen woman living at the former convict’s house. The Vicar had taken her from this wretched place and found a home for her with a farm family, since her father would not permit her living at the mill.

When Mary arrived again in Bullhampton, Squire Gilmore’s spirits immediately improved. He continued to woo Mary, and at last, she resignedly became engaged to him. Although she was never really in love with him, she merely attempted to play the part of being happy; but she was a bad actress.

The Vicar sought legal advice on the building of the chapel so close to the vicarage. When he discovered that the land was really his, he went to interview the Marquis. Although the Vicar could have insisted that the chapel be torn down at once, he suggested to the Marquis that it be allowed to stand for the present time with the understanding that someday it would have to be removed. Both the Marquis and the Methodist minister were greatly upset by the news.

Before his departure for India, Walter Marrable went to visit his uncle, a wealthy baronet. He was in poor health, as was his only son. When the son died, the old gentleman made his will in favor of Walter. He hoped that Walter might marry his ward, but Mary Lowther was still in Walter’s heart.

Through the workings of the Vicar, Carry Brattle at last returned home. Her mother and sisters joyfully welcomed her back, but her father remained stubborn. Because Carry tried everything in her power to please him, her father was finally reconciled to her. At the trial of the former convict for murder, Carry and Sam were summoned as witnesses. Then it was revealed that Sam had been trying to arrange for a marriage between Carry and the suspected murderer and for that reason had been with the two men before the crime was committed. Sam was cleared entirely.

When Walter’s uncle died, the young man inherited his money. Mary broke her engagement with Squire Gilmore and married Walter, her real love. The Squire was crushed, and in their sympathy for their good friend, the Vicar and his wife regretted that Mary had ever come to Bullhampton.

Critical Evaluation:

Anthony Trollope has often been viewed suspiciously by critics because of his rapid rate of composition. Could a man who produced forty-seven major novels in his late-starting career be a genuinely first-rate talent? Trollope’s reputation has fluctuated and although he is still not considered one of the greatest English novelists, he is judged to be a highly gifted, professional, and sometimes even brilliant writer.

THE VICAR OF BULLHAMPTON embodies some of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of his work. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is a patchwork affair; there are two strands of action, and the one concerning the relationships between Mary Lowther, Harry Gilmore, and Walter Marrable, has little to do with the core of the novel: the figure of Carry Brattle. Trollope himself was aware of this deficiency. In fact, he remarks in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY that his purpose in writing the novel was to explore the situation of a “fallen woman” and to expose and remedy some of the terrible attitudes to which such a woman is exposed. He did not expect his readers, so he said, to look very carefully at his nominal heroine.

It should also be noted that Trollope was not interested in the process of Carry’s “fall” or in the feelings that led to it. Instead, through the opposing attitudes of the Vicar and Carry’s father, the reader is led to an understanding of another moral dilemma: How should others react to Carry’s “crime”? The unbending, destructive, unforgiving prejudice of Carry’s father is clearly not good, and Trollope takes pains to reject it. The Vicar, who is absolutely willing to forgive and even to excuse, represents an opposite but not necessarily superior position in Trollope’s eyes; for the logic of the Vicar leads him to deny that Carry is responsible for her actions at all, a patronizing and perhaps dehumanizing viewpoint.

Apart from the treatment of his theme, which is the main interest of THE VICAR OF BULLHAMPTON, Trollope displays ingenuity and perception in his portrayal of characters. His description of Walter Marrable’s father, for example, is a small masterpiece. Despite its outcome, however, the atmosphere of the novel is not a happy one; there are too many unpleasant characters who give a depressing tone to the work as a whole. If Carry has been brought to “decency,” as Trollope intended her to be, the reader is still left to wonder whether the rest of Bullhampton has been.

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