Orley Farm (1861)

by Anthony Trollope

Orley Farm was Anthony Trollope’s favorite among his 47 novels. His contemporaries admired it; George Eliot considered it one of his best. George Orwell praised it for containing “"one of the most brilliant descriptions of a lawsuit in English fiction."

A codicil to Sir Joseph Mason’s will left Orley Farm, a part of his property, to his infant son, Lucius. But was the codicil legal or a forgery by the boy’s mother, Mary, Sir Joseph’s young second wife? The oldest heir, also named Joseph, who was left more than enough property to live comfortably, contested the codicil two decades before and lost. Now a tenant of Orley Farm with a grudge against Lucius has found new evidence that Lady Mary Mason may have committed a crime, and he prods Joseph Mason into another prosecution.

Rather than waiting until the ending to reveal Lady Mason’s guilt or innocence, as a lesser novelist would have done, Trollope lets us know midway through the book. The revelation heightens the tension surrounding the trial and the moral dilemmas of the characters. Should her friends stand by Lady Mason? What is Lady Mason’s duty, considering that her son might be ruined?

Trollope raises many pointed questions about the legal system. Should lawyers be loyal to their client or the truth? Is it admirable for a lawyer to intimidate innocent witnesses who are only trying to be honest? Does a jury’s finding make a person innocent?  

Orley Farm is a long, complex book with several subplots involving the personal lives of Lady Mason’s lawyers and friends. For those who aren’t sure about attempting the six-part Barsetshire series, it is a good choice with which to begin reading Trollope.


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