Monday, September 9, 2013

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

The small-town perils of innocent love
Rachel Ray, a novel by Anthony Trollope, was originally published in 1863. The title character, a young woman of 19, lives with her mother and elder sister, both of whom are widows, in a cottage outside the rural town of Baslehurst, in Devonshire, England. Rachel is beautiful, bright, and well-intentioned, but naive in the ways of love and somewhat defiant or perhaps ignorant of social conventions. A minor scandal erupts when she is seen walking alone with a young man in the town churchyard. The person most upset by this error in judgment is Rachel’s sister, Dorothea Prime, a puritanical Christian who, though having once been married herself, feels it is improper for young ladies to interact with young men when their time would be better spent sewing clothes for the poor. The young man in question is Luke Rowan, who has inherited a share of the local brewery from his departed uncle, and has come from London to learn the ways of hops and malt. Rowan pursues a romance with Rachel, all the while conducting himself in a respectful manner, but when he has a falling out with his bosses at the brewery, rumors are spread which tarnish the reputations of the couple and threaten to stifle their young love in its infancy.

Trollope does a brilliant job of capturing the complex social interactions of everyday small-town life. He details Baslehurst and its environs so vividly the reader soon feels like a resident, and the trials and tribulations of Rachel and Luke assume the importance of the affairs of kings and queens. The supporting cast of characters are as familiar as caricatures and yet as unique and original as the people one might meet in their own hometown. Interesting subplots include a feud between rival ministers, a contentious lawsuit, and a local parliamentary election. It’s all handled in a relatively lighthearted manner. This is not a book to be read with a furrowed brow. Trollope delicately walks a tightrope between acknowledging the magnitude of everyday crises and simultaneously winking at their insignificance. His keen sense of humor is pervasive throughout the book, particularly when he is describing the foul brew produced by the local brewery.

Trollope makes the two young lovers so likeable, the reader can’t help but root for them. At times, however, the opposition to their courtship comes across as more frivolous than formidable, to the point where the incessant quibbling over Rachel’s alleged improprieties or Luke’s rumored debts begins to grow tedious. The circumstances don’t seem to bear enough gravity to merit the book’s 30-chapter length. It runs long in the middle, and could have used a little trimming of the fat. When all is said and done, however, and the covers are closed, the reader will look fondly on the time spent in picturesque Baslehurst, and will miss its quirky inhabitants.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Trollope, and it certainly won’t be the last. At times I wondered if Balzac had relocated to England and adopted a pseudonym. Like his French contemporary, Trollope combines compelling drama with keen social insight and an intelligent wit. Rachel Ray is a fun and entertaining read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet it’s skillfully crafted and substantial enough to transcend the typical Victorian romance.

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