From what I understand, Fanny Trollope made Widow Barnaby into something of a franchise. The widow, who is a bit of an archetype of the brash, sometimes vulgar, and always clueless social climber, apparently features in other of Mrs. Trollope’s novels (although sitting here in jury duty right now, I can’t really confirm that). I assume it is for this reason alone that the novel is actually called Widow Barnaby. In sentiment, sympathy, and even narrative focus the novel would more aptly be called Agnes Willoughby after our anti-heroine’s orphaned niece. In these two characters we have the classic set-up between the wicked, controlling aunt and the virtuous, obedient niece. Throw in a pious, spinster of a great aunt, a few pretenders and charlatans and more than one possibile Mr. D’Arcys and you start to get the feel of this particular story.
There are very few instances in this 542-page book where one feels even a pang of sympathy for the extravagant Widow Barnaby and her clumsy machinations to marry her way into higher society and live beyond her means. Of course the converse is true of the beautiful, level-headed and studious Agnes who has the singing voice of an angel. As much as I enjoyed the book, it is a little hard to understand while you are reading it why Trollope made Widow Barnaby the focus of the book. She is definitely a humorous character at times and one can understand how her travails could provide fodder for multiple books, but the whole arc of the story so clearly focuses on Agnes that I kept checking the cover to see if the title had somehow changed. And the widow is not so fantastically humorous and wicked that one starts rooting for her despite her nefarious ways. It would take a far more cynical mind than my own to turn against the lovely Agnes.
Which brings up another question: would it have been too much of a stretch to ask for an ugly heroine? Or maybe one without talent? I mean this Agnes really is the total package. You know she is going to come up smelling of roses. Still, there are enough twists and turns to keep one wondering just what is going to happen. And, at least for my taste, Agnes and her virtues never become cloying or annoying. Just don’t expect this one to challenge your world view.
Not having previously read anything by the great Anthony Trollope’s mother I wasn’t sure what to expect. One area where Mrs. Trollope does not disappoint and certainly foreshadows some of her son’s work is in her seemingly endless references to money. If there are two themes in period British literature that I can’t get enough of, it is housekeeping details (this includes cleaning, trousseau-gathering, travel arrangements, letter writing, tea making and consuming, etc.) and money talk. He has 400 a year, she has 5,000 a year, he has 15,000 a year…bills to be paid, fortunes to be amassed and spent and bequeathed. I must admit though I much prefer the parsimonious over the profligate. In life and art I like the savers over the spenders.