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  • “I Wrote Them All”: Forgery and Forms of Classification in Trollope’s Orley Farm
  • Katherine Gilbert (bio)

Anthony trollope’s Orley Farm (1862) depicts the consequences of a forgery undertaken in the dead of night by Lady Mason, the second wife and widow of Sir Joseph Mason. In the opening pages, we learn that immediately after Sir Joseph’s death twenty years before, his first-born son by an earlier marriage, also named Joseph, unsuccessfully contested his father’s will. He did so because an unexpected codicil, one secretly forged by Lady Mason, left Orley Farm to Sir Joseph’s younger son with Lady Mason, Lucius. Orley Farm opens just as Lady Mason’s two-decade cover-up is beginning to receive renewed scrutiny. With the emergence of new evidence that undermines the legitimacy of her original testimony, Lady Mason is eventually to be put on trial for perjury. What underlies this charge is the suspicion that Lady Mason forged the codicil and then maintained her deceit for twenty years. In the end she is cleared of all charges, but Lady Mason is, in fact, guilty of both forgery and perjury.

A transgressive woman, a forged will and codicil, perjury, and an old secret on the verge of exposure: Orley Farm has all the makings of a sensational plot. Published in the same moment as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862), Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Orley Farm shares many of the features of sensation fiction, and we might expect reviewers of Orley Farm to have expressed surprise at Trollope’s foray into the popular 1860s genre. Yet early reviewers of Orley Farm refused to deviate from descriptions of Trollope’s work as consummately realist; instead, the reviews discuss Orley Farm as another novel that carefully portrays the quotidian in the lives of characters whom readers might recognize as neighbours.

These early reviews draw distinct borders around Trollope as a realist and allude to sensation fiction only to insist that Orley Farm does not belong in that category. The Spectator claims that Trollope writes “with the manner of a distinct witness who wishes to give the most perspicuous evidence.” The characters feel so familiar that readers may have to remind themselves that they “are the creatures of Mr. Trollope’s imagination and not the mere objects of his observing eye” (147). An essay in the London Review makes similar claims. [End Page 307] Referencing the supposed effects of sensation fiction, the reviewer writes that when reading Orley Farm, “no one” will be “wrought up to any high pitch of feeling; no enthusiastic young lady will sit up shivering through the livelong night over Mr. Trollope’s pages.” Instead, Orley Farm “derives its main attractiveness from its close and studied similarity to the domestic life of the nineteenth century” (153). Finally, a review in the National Magazine suggests that while Orley Farm had the potential to cross genres into sensation fiction, it does not: Lady Mason, “a lady forger, and a perjurer to boot, is a character which might well become a ‘sensational’ feature in other hands; but the author, who disdains all clap-trap or stage trickery” avoids such pitfalls (164). Such reviews remind us of the stakes in literary classification. Sensation fiction was often written by and for women. It was considered dangerous because of its depictions of women characters who, like Lady Mason, reject legal authority, challenge social traditions, and often do so while pretending to be someone they are not. In opposition to realism, sensation fiction was decried as “clap-trap,” a lesser genre that employs “trickery” and corrupts easily excited readers. Reviewers drew a firm border between sensation novelists and Trollope, and rejected the possibility of genre crossing in Orley Farm.

While reviewers policed genre boundaries to claim Orley Farm as realist, critics of sensation fiction were also unsettled by the genre because of its tendency to challenge classifications altogether. Patrick Brantlinger notes that “[s]ensation fiction emerged in the midst of controversies about gender, class, and race” and that early critics identified novels as sensational in part...


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pp. 307-323
Launched on MUSE
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