Reviewed by Harriet
Anthony Trollope was born in April 1815, which makes this year his bicentenary. I assume that this is why Oxford World’s Classics is reissuing his novels in attractive new editions. This offers a chance for those of us who are already familiar with his work to take a fresh look, and for those of us who aren’t, an opportunity to get started on one of the most brilliant, though sometimes underrated, novelists of the Victorian era.
The most celebrated, and best loved, of Trollope’s 47 (yes, really) novels are undoubtedly those that he came to classify as his Chronicles of Barchester. These six novels revolve around the imaginary cathedral city of Barchester and the surrounding county of Barsetshire, and mostly concern the doings of the clergy of the area. There are recurring characters, of course, but also recurring themes — the rivalry between different factions of the Church of England, as well as the uneasy relations between old and new wealth, town and country, and the aristocracy and the gentry, as this series’ introductory note puts it. If you think that sounds as if it might be a little dull, think again. Trollope makes these issues the basis of the most delightful, heart-wrenching, even nerve-wracking stories you could ever hope to read.
Dr Thorne (1858) is the third of the Barchester novels. The eponymous doctor is a middle-aged gentleman of modest means, who lives in the village of Greshamsbury. Twenty or so years before the story begins, he adopted the illegitimate baby daughter of his ne-er do well brother, who had been murdered by the brother of the village girl he made pregnant. The child’s mother has married and gone to America, the brother has served his sentence and subsequently become stupendously rich, but the doctor and his beloved adopted Mary have gone on quietly with their lives in domestic peace and comfort. Mary has become very close to the daughters of the neighbouring squire Mr Gresham, with whom she has shared lessons throughout her teenage years. Now, as the novel begins, the Gresham’s only son Frank has reached twenty-one, and the whole neighbourhood is sharing in the celebrations. As we soon learn, Frank and Mary have fallen in love, but from this seemingly innocent fact springs the whole convoluted and often nail-biting plot.
Money, social class and “blood”. To these and their complex interactions are owed the trials and tribulations of poor Mary and Frank. For Frank’s father has managed to get himself into deep financial trouble, and that part of his estate that he has not sold is heavily mortgaged. Thus it is that, certainly as far as his mother and her aristocratic relations are concerned, Frank has but one duty — to marry money. Mary has neither money nor that second prerequisite, “blood” (of the blue variety), and indeed her illegitimacy puts her beyond the pale. Of course, Martha Dunstable, the immensely wealthy heiress who the family would like Frank to marry, is the daughter of a tradesman, but her riches overrule what would otherwise be an absolute barrier.
As anyone who is familiar with Trollope will know, these are his common concerns. But that does not make this novel any less appealing. Trollope satirises the worst excesses of the appalling aristocrats and the dreadfulness of their lawyers in a way that is both funny and horrifically convincing. But he also manages to create characters who have undoubted faults and yet make them surprisingly sympathetic. And then of course there is Mary, the most admirable heroine, intelligent and feisty as well as pretty, who suffers dreadfully through a great part of the novel but bears it with great courage, and dear, good-hearted, loyal Frank, and the delightful doctor himself, very human and not always right but always having at heart the best interests of those he loves.
Dr Thorne was followed three years later by Framley Parsonage. One of the many many great joys of the Barchester novels is that characters you have met elsewhere pop up again, often in quite minor roles. Here we encounter again Dr Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and Miss Dunstable, as well as the Proudies and the Grantleys, who figure in the earlier novels. But the central characters here are a country vicar, Mark Robarts, his wife Fanny, and his sister Lucy. Mark’s living has been conferred on him by Lady Lufton, whose son Ludovic has been Mark’s friend since childhood. In fact Mark has been more or less brought up with Ludovic, although his social standing and financial resources are markedly lower than those of his friend. This is, indeed, an important contributory factor to the troubles that Mark encounters during the course of the novel. Although by no means a bad man — he is a loving husband, father and brother and a relatively adequate vicar – Mark has acquired a taste for high living which is to lead him into trouble soon after the novel begins. Not only does he enjoy hunting, and owns several fine horses, but he accepts an invitation to stay at the grand country house of an MP, Nathaniel Sowerby, although he knows that Sowerby is a compulsive gambler who has earlier had some unfortunate and dishonest dealings with Ludovic. The whole thing backfires terribly, as Mark kindheartedly agrees to sign a bill for Sowerby and soon finds himself up to his ears in debt with the bailiffs at the door.
This is only one of several interwoven strands of the plot. The other primary one concerns Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister. Quiet and shy, but with a sharp intelligence, she draws the attention of Ludovic and soon they fall in love. But Lady Lufton is completely opposed to the match, having much grander ideas about who her son should marry. She cannot imagine Lucy becoming the next Lady Lufton, and does everything she can to prevent it, and Lucy refuses to consider accepting Ludovic unless she is asked to do so by his mother, which seems like a total impossibility. All this is totally absorbing, and an added bonus is the reappearance of Martha Dunstable, a plain-spoken, witty, and wholly sincere woman who is constantly being proposed to because of her money. She vows she will never marry until she finds someone who is completely indifferent to it, and that seems to be an impossibility. But happily just the right person does come along in the end…
I thought I knew these novels pretty well, but I learned a lot from the introductions to these two editions. Simon Dentith’s introduction to Dr Thorne discusses, among other things, Darwinism, and Trollope’s politics (‘ a kind of sentimental Toryism’, despite his later standing as a Liberal candidate), and sees the novel as ‘conducting a debate about the meaning and worth of England as a commercial country’. Katherine Mullin and Francis O’Gorman’s introduction to Framley Parsonage sets the novel in the context of its composition – it was published in instalments in the new Cornhill Magazine, the first time Trollope had written to order in this way – and sees an overriding theme of the novel as ‘romantic substitutions’. If this sort of thing appeals to you, there’s great food for thought to be found here. If it doesn’t, just read the novels for their stories. You won’t regret it.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Read Harriet’s Five Fascinating Facts about… Anthony Trollope in our BookBuzz section too.
Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, edited with an introduction by Simon Dentith (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014). 978-0199662784, 544 pp., paperback.
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage, edited with an introduction by Katherine Mullin and Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014). 978-0199663156, 528 pp., paperback.