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As explained in chapter VIII, 'It was the glory of Ontario Moggs to be a politician;—it was his ambition to be a poet;—it was his nature to be a lover;—it was his disgrace to be a bootmaker', therefore he clashes with his father, for the radical beliefs Ontario stands up for could ruin the lucrative business he had intended his son to carry on. And further dissension arises between the breeches-maker Mr. Neefit and his daughter Polly, whom he's bent upon marrying to Ralph (presumed to be rich, although Ralph has borrowed and failed to repay large sums of money from Mr. Neefit as well as from Mr. Moggs senior), notwithstanding how much she despises her father's snobbishness and endeavours to attain this object (he wishes to raise her to the rank of a lady by harrassing and embarrassing Ralph into taking her for his wife as they had accorded, even after Polly has refused him twice already). Nevertheless, Mr. Neefit's obsession that Polly should not degrade herself by falling for a tradesman (yes, a fellow tradesman like himself, as Polly always remarked with not a hint of shame whatsoever) when she could have a squire instead (regardless of whether that distinction he yearns to confer on his daughter has to be purchased by cancelling Ralph's debts), only serve to show the extremes to which doting yet pretentious parents may go in order to fulfill their own vanity (indeed, Mr. Neefit's obstinacy matches only that of Reverend Crawley's against accepting any sort of assistance to forfend the ruin of his family in "The Last Chronicle of Barset"), while Polly's reluctance to acquiesce on grounds of dignity upturns every convention and resolution that women abided by two centuries ago and which still rule some nowadays. Hence, as she regards Ontario Mogg's simple but ardent spirit as more precious than Ralph's estate, I am one with him when he declares that he'd sooner have a kiss from her than be Prime Minister.
In fine, it is for people like Ontario and Polly that I keep scouting the harvest of Trollope's pen in search of entertainment and enlightenment. Forsooth, what a blessing that Trollope begot and bequeathed such a sweet drama to posterity!
There are two Ralph Newtons: sons of brothers who quarreled and never spoke again. City Ralph, spendthrift and scapegrace, legal heir to his family's estate in Hampshire, has already exhausted the legacy left by his father, and has never been out of debt. He has declined to take up a profession, since he expects to become a landowner when his uncle dies, and his only occupations are hunting and making himself pleasant to others. His cousin, country Ralph, an only son born out of wedlock but loved by his father and raised to be the perfect squire, is prohibited by law, because of his birth, from inheriting the estate on which he has lived most of his life. He sympathizes with his frustrated father, but has himself become weary of all the controversy. Gregory Newton, his father, will have nothing to do with nephew and heir Ralph, but tormented by guilt and the impossibility of son Ralph's inheriting, does everything he can to amass an alternative fortune in order to provide for him. City Ralph and country Ralph have not even seen each other for many years, since squire Gregory refuses to let his nephew on the property.
Somewhat unusually for Trollope, two of the more important characters are middle-aged fathers of marriageable daughters. Sir Thomas Underwood is one of Trollope's most complex and enigmatic creations, inspired partly by memories of Trollope's own life as well as that of his father, Thomas Anthony Trollope. Sir Thomas has abandoned a successful legal career and become disillusioned with politics after a brief term in office. Still, for him, the most important thing in life is work, or the illusion of work. Even though he owns a pleasant villa on the Thames, where his daughters Patience and Clarissa live, he spends most of his life, including nights, in his dismal, dreary London office, where, surrounded by books, he does practically nothing. His daughters. feeling abandoned, wish he would spend more time at home, but he prefers being alone and they cannot change him. Nevertheless, he can be generous and kind, bringing his orphaned niece Mary into his home as a third daughter.
Mr. Neefit, the prosperous maker of breeches for sporting gentlemen, is also much happier at work, where he stays busy and feels important, than at his suburban home. He is, however, devoted to and proud of his spirited daughter Polly, who will be an heiress, and takes a hands-on approach to getting her settled in life. Polly, her father believes, deserves to be married to a gentleman, and the pleasantest gentleman he knows is Ralph the heir, despite the fact that he orders so many more pairs of riding breeches than he ever pays for ("What does he do with them?" everyone wonders). Polly and her father understand each other very well, however: she knows he only wants the best for her, and he knows she will ultimately and inevitably choose for herself.
Sir Thomas, former guardian of Ralph the heir, hoping to make one last effort to put him on his feet, conceives, with help from squire Gregory, a plan that just might rescue Ralph from his debts, and at the same time save the Hampshire estate for the squire's son. But, of course, complications ensue, and nothing goes as planned. Sir Thomas also makes an effort to revive his own career by running again for Parliament, an undertaking which echoes the author's own expensive, humiliating experiences as a Parliamentary candidate. Trollope of course had a lifelong love/hate relationship with politics, and this book is considered to be his strongest expression of his own feelings on the subject.
Meanwhile the young ladies of Popham Villa (Patience, Clarissa, and Mary) and Alexandrina Cottage (Polly) have important decisions of their own to make, all of which must wait, however, until the Newton family difficulties can be resolved. There are other young men vying for their affections than just the two Ralphs. Yet another Newton, parson Gregory, who, unlike his debt-ridden brother, has held on to his father's legacy and has a profession as well, and poet/politician/bootmaker Ontario Moggs offer themselves as well. The young ladies have their romantic dreams, but must also face a tangle of issues that pull them this way and that. Trollope permitted his young men a number of false starts and wrong turns, but to his young ladies he allowed a much narrower margin of error. A father himself, he was not willing to lead his young female readers astray.
My feeling about this novel is that it is slightly darker than the average Trollope novel. Maybe that is what keeps it from being as popular as some others. Many of the characters experience serious disappointment or disaster or endure bouts of depression or despair. There is almost a catchphrase throughout: "Stick to it." And most characters manage to do so, finding their way out of their lowest periods to something better. But it doesn't always work, and almost no one gets everything they hoped for. The strongest and wisest characters are two of the young ladies, Polly and Mary. Polly knows her own worth, and insists that others acknowledge it as well. Mary, having never enjoyed any real security in her life, is cautious and stoical, but also able to chart her own path into the future.