For Love and Money: Doctor Thorne

Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne (1858)

Illustration by Millais, found here.

In the third of his Barsetshire Chronicles, Trollope departs from the clerical characters and themes that occupied him in the first two volumes, and takes a look at another segment of Barset society. The novel introduces us to a once-wealthy squire who is down on his luck, the worthy doctor who is his friend, and the county families who form their network of relationships. The main plot has to do with the squire’s son and the doctor’s illegitimate niece, whose love for each other causes outrage and distress to their relatives, and not a little anguish to themselves. Meanwhile, the doctor has to keep a painful secret regarding an inheritance that might — or might not — change everything.

Questions of rank, birth and “blood” are explored through ironic contrasts. There are characters of ignoble birth but the highest moral purity, blue-blooded aristocrats with not a speck of human consideration, and every variation in between. Money, sadly, can erase faults on either end of the spectrum in the eyes of most members of this society, a fact that Trollope is not shy to point out.

There never was a fox yet without a tail who would not  be delighted to find himself suddenly possessed of that appendage. Never; let the untailed fox have been ever so sincere in his advice to his friends! We are all of us, the good and the bad, looking for tails — for one tail, or for more than one; we do so too often by ways that are mean enough: but perhaps there is no tail-seeker more sneakingly mean than he who looks out to adorn his bare back by a tail by marriage.

My very favorite character was Miss Dunstable, the no-longer-young heiress of a commercial fortune, who keeps a humorous yet unjaded attitude as she deftly eludes the suitors who throw themselves at her. It’s refreshing that her healthy bank balance doesn’t cause her to lose sight of the true worth of a human being. Along with a few other characters, she reminds us that it is possible not to be a “tail-seeker.”

Overall, I found the satire in Doctor Thorne to be gentler than in Barchester Towers, and the characters more congenial. This was both positive and negative; though it made Greshamsbury a more pleasant place to be than Barchester, it was at times somewhat dull, lacking the exuberant awfulness of a Mr. Slope or a Signora Neroni. There were also times when I felt Trollope was going over the same ground repeatedly, and wished he would just move on to the crisis and happy resolution that I knew would be coming eventually. Was he trying to fill pages in a serial publication? The novel’s construction could have used some tightening up, but despite this I still read with interest and amusement throughout its 500+ pages.

I enjoyed my latest sojourn in Barsetshire very much, and can’t wait to read Framley Parsonage, in which I understand Miss Dunstable makes a welcome reappearance. Thank you to Karen of Books and Chocolate for the incentive to read this in April for her Trollope Bicentennial Celebration! Be sure to check out this event if you’re interested in the author and his works. Books as Food is also doing a #6barsets readalong, one book every two months; I’m a bit ahead of schedule with this one but I look forward to the discussion next month.

Back to the Classics challenge: Classic with a Name in the Title


Delighting in Absurdities: Barchester Towers

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)

Barsetshire novels classic TrollopeFor me, the key to Barchester Towers was found near the end, in this passage:

The sorrows of our heroes and heroines, they are your delight, oh public! Their sorrows, or their sins, or their absurdities; not their virtues, good sense, and consequent rewards. 

Indeed, Trollope’s gift lies in creating errant and uncongenial characters who nevertheless delight us, making us laugh in recognition of follies and foibles that persist to this day — in our neighbors, at least, if we be not honest enough to see them in ourselves.

I don’t necessarily agree that virtue and good sense can never be interesting in fiction, but it’s certainly true that the sympathetic and right-minded characters in this novel — noble Mr. Arabin, poor misunderstood Eleanor Bold, humble Mr. Harding — form only a rather drab background against which the others — slimy social-climbing clergyman Mr. Slope, crippled femme fatale Signora Neroni, the spineless Bishop Proudie, and the immortal, indomitable Mrs. Proudie, to name but a few — play out their comedy composed of “sorrows, sins, and absurdities.”

The main plot of Barchester Towers can be told fairly briefly. When a new bishop is appointed in the cathedral town of Barchester, and brings new notions to town along with his attendant chaplain (Slope) and a wife who is the real power behind the throne, it quickly leads to “war” with the established clergy. In his efforts to gain more power and influence in the diocese, Slope starts to wangle a choice appointment for a crony of his — but he discovers that Eleanor Bold, daughter of the man who formerly held the place* and has a moral right to it, is a rich widow as well as a lovely young woman. He abruptly shifts tactics, trying to woo the widow by soliciting the appointment for her father, which leads to further complications and his own inevitable downfall.

It takes about 500 pages to get there, though, and readers with little patience for drawn-out character histories, conflicts based in long-outdated social hierarchies, or frequent authorial digressions, will not make it far into BT. If you lack such patience, however, what are you doing reading a nineteenth century novel? Trollope’s novel rests comfortably within the conventions of the day, and he knows them well, even halting his narrative periodically to poke fun at them. He reassures us that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope, and advises us that creating suspense is not a proper function for a novel; in the passage just following the one quoted above, he tells us that happy endings are really terribly boring, but he’s going to give us one, because that’s what we demand of him. This meta-fictional touch may amuse or annoy you, depending on your temperament, but it also is part of what gives the reassuring sense that normality is going to return to Barchester in the end. There’s an author in charge of it all, and he won’t let us down.

Trollope’s observant eye, which captures the perfect bit of dialogue or action to reveal a character’s inner essence, is what makes reading all those pages worthwhile. He’s particularly good at portraying the clash of different personalities, as when Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie memorably come up against one another. In between the bits of action, with wickedly delicious turns of phrase, he skewers various aspects of human nature:

No experience of what goes on in the world, no reading of history, no observation of life, has any effect in teaching the truth. Men of fifty don’t dance mazurkas, being generally too fat and wheezy; nor do they sit for the hour together on river banks at their mistresses’ feet, being somewhat afraid of rheumatism. But for real true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that “will gaze an eagle blind,” love that “will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped,” love that is “like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides” — we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy; up to that, men are generally given to mere flirting.

Still, I wonder if Trollope ever succeeded in creating a sympathetic character who was as fascinating as the subjects of his ridicule. I confess to feeling somewhat distanced from the comedy of Barchester Towers — though I found it entertaining, it didn’t touch me deeply, or move me with more than a mild interest in the fates of most of its characters. This is perhaps a judgment on me rather than the book, but Trollope and I haven’t quite made the connection yet. I’m willing to give the other Barsetshire novels a try, though, and see where they may take me.

* See Trollope’s previous novel The Warden for more information.

A few links of note:
Essay on Trollope and the Clergy from the Trollope Society
Review from Catherine Pope 
Reading Barsetshire at The Captive Reader

Review copy source: Print book from library
Classics Club List #11