Everyman's Reviews > An Old Man's Love

An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope
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Feb 22, 2012

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Trollope is one of my favorite writers, so it's hard to give one of his books only three stars, but I can go no higher, and even considered two stars.

An Old Man's Love is Trollope's last novel, published posthumously. It has a thin plot, little action, and a very limited cast of characters. The interest in the novel comes from the internal struggle of the Old Man of the title, William Whittlestaff, a single man of 50, disappointed in love earlier in his life, who gives a home to Mary Lawrie, whose father, an old friend of Whittlestaff's, has died, leaving her, at 25, penniless. Mary has also been disappointed in love; several years before she had fallen in love with John Gordon, but given that he was also penniless after his father's bank failed, they were unable to marry, and he left for the diamond fields of Kimberley without their having made any commitment to each other.

Whittlestaff finds himself falling in love with Mary, and eventually asks her to marry him. She discloses that she still loves John Gordon, but that there was never a promise made to or from him, and, after a week's reflection on her future, accepts the proposal with the clear understanding that she still loves John Gordon, but will be a good and faithful wife to Whittlestaff, which we know from her character to be true.

The very afternoon after Mary agrees to marry Whittlestaff, John Gordon returns to claim her, having made his fortune in the diamond mines. If he had returned a day earlier, Mary would have joyfully accepted his proposal, but she has made a promise, and will keep it. John Gordon, in one of the more memorable scenes of the novel, lays out before Whittlestaff his right to Mary's hand, contending that she will be happier as his wife than as Whittlestaff's.

The bulk of the book is Whittlestaff's internal conflict on what he should do. He argues with himself that Gordon's wealth is unstable whereas his is secure, that he will give Mary a more stable and certain comfort and wealth, and that his entire future happiness rests on not releasing Mary from her commitment to him. Mary is steadfast in her commitment to keep her word to Whittlestaff, believing that as long as he wishes to hold her to her promise, this is her duty to him and to his past generosity.

And so the conflict turns on a simple question: will Whittlestaff, already in old age (as Trollope was when he wrote the novel), give up the possibility of his future happiness, release Mary to marry the man she truly loves, and return to the lonely life he was destined to live before Mary entered his life? Or will he assure his future happiness -- and there is no doubt in the reader's mind that if he holds Mary to her promise she will provide him with all the happiness she can -- at the cost of Mary settling for a marriage of respect but not love?

The outcome is predictable, and I found the path to it painfully slow. I seldom find myself skipping pages in a Trollope novel, but once the conflict had been well set in motion, I confess to proceeding with considerable rapidity and diminished attention as Whittlestaff dithered.

The strength of the novel is the well drawn characterizations and the internal conflict between securing one's happiness at the expense of another's, or providing one you love with her chance for happiness at the cost of your own. If the novel had been reduced in length by a third or so, it would have been a much stronger book, and would have received at least four stars. But as the situation drags on and on, it loses the drama and impact it had carried for the first two thirds of the novel. After awhile, one is just begging Trollope to get on with it.

It is still a book with some interest, worth a quick reading. But it is far from Trollope's strongest work, and is probably best read only by those who have already basked in his stronger works, particularly his Barchestshire and Palliser novels and his best standalone novels, Orley Farm, He Knew He was Right, and The Way We Live Now. If you want to read Trollope, read those first, and then if you find you enjoy his work and have some reading time to spare, spend a bit of time with these characters and ponder whether you would make the same decision that Whittlestaff does.
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