Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Reviewed by Harriet

thorneAs I’m sure you know, Dr Thorne has recently been serialised in three parts and shown on ITV in the UK. The adapter was Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, and presumably the project was designed to fill the yawning gap in the lives of Downton fans. This is not the place to rage against the crassness of the adaptation, some aspects of which made me downright angry, though I could. The good thing is that hopefully it will have encouraged people to read the original, which they can now do in the newly reissued Oxford World’s Classics paperback, complete with a cover picture of the attractive actors who play the central couple.

Dr Thorne is the third of the series now known as the Barchester Novels, though there’s no indication that Trollope knew at this stage that he was writing a series. All the novels take place in and around the fictional town of Barchester, though Dr Thorne is set in the surrounding countryside. 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 often 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 just 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 Miss 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 manages to satirise 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. On the credit side there are 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. Also of great interest are the Scatchard family – Sir Roger, once a humble villager and the man who was imprisoned for the manslaughter of the doctor’s brother, now a self-made millionaire, his poor downtrodden wife Lady Scatchard, once Frank’s wet-nurse and still devoted to him, and their appalling son Louis, who has inherited his father’s alcoholism and dies a similarly horrible, and graphically described, death. Sir Roger is particularly interesting, having so many faults and yet also some goodness of heart: it’s his will, which includes a bequest to his sister’s eldest child, which lies at the heart of many of the later developments of the novel. I must add that he is superbly played by Ian McShane in the recent adaptation.

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. Here are her thoughts when she is challenged by Frank’s angry mother, who is completely opposed to their marriage:

‘You who have nothing to give in return!’ Such had been Lady Arabella’s accusation against her. Was it in fact true that she had nothing to give? Her maiden love, her feminine pride, her very life, spirit and being. Were these nothing? Were they to be weighed against pounds sterling per annum?

Trollope was greatly undervalued in his own day: he was mistrusted for his prolific production of novels, and not much liked for his most delightful way of suddenly addressing the reader, or, in more contemporary parlance, drawing attention to the act of writing, as he does here towards the end of the novel:

But it will be too much, perhaps, to tell the reader what she wore as Beatrice’s bridesmaid, seeing that a couple of pages, at least, must be devoted to her marriage dress, and seeing, also, that we have only a few pages left to finish everything…

Even today, though he has many admirers, I think he still deserves to be better known. The new Oxford edition, which has the usual intelligent introduction and a wealth of useful endnotes, would be a good place for new readers to make his acquaintance.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne (Oxford World’s Classics, 2016). 9780198785637, 500pp., paperback.

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