This is the first cross-posted post from the original Other Stories blog.
As I said a few days ago, I approached Rachel Ray (1863) with a certain amount of apprehension. I was picking it up for a very specific reason, i.e., that I read in The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Trollope (now sadly out of print) that Mr Prong fitted the bill of zealous clergyman. I had managed to get through a whole term of Victorian literature during my undergrad degree without going near a Trollope (*ahem*) and I was frankly nervous that he would fit the idea of him that I had in my head: that he would be Dickens without the humour, that he would be uber-religious, churchy, and dry. Oh, how wrong I was. How wrong.
The first thing I noticed was how readble it was. I started it early one Saturday morning, sitting – aptly – in a draughty old church in London. The Union Chapel in Islington is a working church which doubles as a well-respected music venue. They have a well-attended set of “daylight music” gigs at lunchtimes, one of which was by Iona Leigh, a contemporary folk singer. And, oh yeah, Boyfriend is her guitar-and-sometimes-piano-player. I’d finished my roadie bit (i.e. helping carrying gear from Iona’s house to the church) and was idling in a pew while they were setting up and sound checking, etc. That I managed to “get into” the book really quickly and easily while there was all sorts of music and clattering and talking around me is testament to how accessible Rachel Ray is. As a general rule, I need quiet to read, unless a book really grabs me. This book really grabbed me.
The eponymous Rachel Ray is the younger of two daughters to Mrs Ray, who was widowed early in life. The elder daughter is also a young widow – Mrs Prime – who lives back at home with her mother and sister. Mrs Prime is in thrall to the aforementioned zealous clergyman – Mr Prong – a low church Evangelical minister who preaches that all wordly things should be foresaken and that, essentially, mirth and happiness are sinful. So, when Rachel meets Luke Rowan, Mrs Prime is disgusted that their mother would allow them to go for walks together in the evening. Running parallel to this is the story of the Bungall and Tappitt Brewery, of which Rowan has inherited a portion of through his great-uncle Bungall, and which he wants to modernise. Tappitt determines to fight him and there is a protracted wrangle over the concern which even impacts the local elections. And so the community of Baslehurst shows itself to be deeply factious and bitchy, with allegiances being drawn on every matter possible, right down to whether Rachel Ray should marry Luke Rowan or not. Mrs Ray is a nervous woman who changes her mind constantly, depending who she is listening to at any particular time, and only lets her own opinions be known when backed tightly into a corner.
Despite there being important and serious themes running through the novel – the political, religious, commercial, and class warfare that permeates the community – it is also a funny book. Many of the characters have that slight Dickensian caricature about them, and many have wonderfully evocative names that would in no way be out of place in a Dickens story: Mr Prong, Miss Pucker, Mr and Mrs Tappitt (the brewers), Rev Comfort. Rachel Ray is a book rich in descriptions, and rich in characterization. As I mentioned briefly in my last post, there are shades of grey in everyone; everyone has good and bad qualities (don’t we all?) and there is hardly a character that doesn’t evoke both sympathy and frustration at various points (except Prong. I had no sympathy for Prong. I doubt I was meant to).
In short, I shall be reading more Anthony Trollope. I don’t know when, because I seem to be tied up, reading-wise, from now till the end of time, but the intention is there. The thing is, with nearly 50 books to his name, where on earth do I begin?