Monday, April 1, 2013

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Well, here we are with a rather more extensive blog redesign than I originally planned, but I must say I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. There are still more changes in store for Vintage Novels, but most likely the look will remain the same—I hope!

Today I bring you another review sponsored by the lovely Mrs Margaret, who was so keen for me to continue reading Trollope (I had in the last twelve months collected all the Barchester Chronicles except Doctor Thorne, the next one I had to read!) that she very generously bought this one for me.

Doctor Thorne is the third book in a series of novels set in and around the fictional cathedral city of Barchester Towers. But it’s the first book not following the fortunes of the Barchester precentor, Mr Harding, and his family.

Instead, the book is about Doctor Thorne of Greshamsbury, his adored niece Mary Thorne, and Frank Gresham, the nephew of the local squire. As Trollope informs us in Chapter 1,
He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may so regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.
Mary Thorne is our heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one.” As Frank Gresham comes of age, his aristocratic mother Lady Arabella Gresham and her even more snobbish sister-in-law, the Countess De Courcy, decide that certain truths are self-evident; and foremost among these, “Frank must marry money,” his father Squire Gresham having been well-nigh bankrupted by Lady Arabella’s aristocratic standard of living. But Frank is already in love, with the penniless and illegitimate Mary Thorne. As Lady Arabella does her best to paint Mary as a sly and conniving social climber in her effort to disrupt the love affair, Doctor Thorne finds himself compelled to keep the secret that Mary is about to inherit a fortune from the man who now owns half of Squire Gresham’s property.

Doctor Thorne is a wonderful book, full of all the fun I’ve come to expect from Trollope. There are the three-dimensional, complex characters, the lovable good people, the despicable bad people, and the gurglesomely chatty authorial asides. There were a few flaws, more noticeable in this book. Frank Gresham, although he improved over the course of the novel, retained his character flaw of flirting with girls not named Mary Thorne to the end. Trollope’s view on saying grace before meals is also one I can’t agree with. But otherwise, I loved the book.

Being set in Greshamsbury, not Barchester Towers, means that Doctor Thorne has a low number of clergyman characters, although a few of them do have walk-on parts. I did miss them. Still, I was interested to note that the vicar of Greshamsbury, a minor character, is mentioned as being part of the Oxford Movement (like Mr Arabin from Barchester Towers):
Mr Oriel was a man of family and fortune, who, having gone to Oxford with the usual views of such men, had become inoculated there with very High-Church principles, and had gone into orders influenced by a feeling of enthusiastic love for the priesthood. […] He delighted in lecterns and credence-tables, in services at dark hours of winter mornings when no one would attend, in high waistcoats and narrow white neckties, in chanted services and intoned prayers, and in all the paraphernalia of Anglican formalities which have given such offence to those of our brethren who live in daily fear of the scarlet lady.
It’s fascinating to pick up these little references to that interesting movement in Trollope’s series, and it’s a thread I’ll be following in the rest of the Chronicles as well.

Comedic highlights of this book would include the chapter in which Frank horsewhips a man who jilted his sister; the chapter in which Doctor Thorne’s ward, an alcoholic baronet from a blue-collar family, dines at Greshamsbury and commits every social faux pas in the book; and most of all, the chapter in which young Augusta Gresham corresponds with her unbelievably snobbish cousin Lady Amelia De Courcy on the propriety of contemplating marriage to an attorney. (Gasp!)
His manners are quite excellent, his conduct to mamma is charming, and, as regards myself, I must say that there has been nothing in his behaviour of which even you could complain. […] He came to me yesterday just before dinner, in the little drawing-room, and told me, in the most delicate manner, in words that even you could not have but approved, that his highest ambition was to be thought worthy of my regard, and that he felt for me the warmest love, and the most profound admiration, and the deepest respect. You may say, Amelia, that he is only an attorney, and I believe that he is an attorney; but I am sure you would have esteemed him had you heard the very delicate way in which he expressed his sentiments.
Trollope’s sense of humour is just wonderful, and on full display here: subtle, satirical, but warm-hearted.

Naturally the main theme of the book is about the interplay of blood, class, and money. The De Courcys have all three, but the Greshams only have blood and class, the Thornes only have blood, and the Scatcherds only have money, while their newly-bestowed class of baronet sits very ill on their blue-collar roots. Mary Thorne, ill-born to Doctor Thorne’s dissolute brother, does not even have blood. But if she had money, would she be eligible? (Not, of course, to Lady Amelia De Courcy, who believes it well-nigh criminal to marry a commoner, however well-off.)

A quick look around convinces me that Doctor Thorne is often read through today’s Marxist lenses, and elicits a gamut of responses running from militant proletariat disgust with the rampant snobbishness of the cast and the Thornes’ capitulation to classist oppression, to enthusiastically misguided approval of that spirited Mary Thorne’s triumph over the bourgeoisie.

Of course, Trollope really means neither thing. The book is not about social warfare disrupting the outdated class system of aristocratic England; it’s more of an affectionate criticism. Lady Scatcherd is a wonderful character—a former wet-nurse and the wife of a stone-mason—who, though a very nice woman, is simply out of place as a baronet’s lady:
[H]er ladyship was amusing herself by pulling down and turning, and re-folding, and putting up again, a heap of household linen which was kept in a huge press for the express purpose of supplying her with occupation.
Her husband Sir Roger Scatcherd is in an even worse case, if possible: he can no longer associate with his old friends, but he’s no fit companion for his social peers, either. He and his family are fish hopelessly out of water, and Trollope’s unspoken conclusion is that although Sir Roger might have been poorer as a stone-mason, he would certainly have been happier.

At the same time, Trollope doesn’t simply shore up the status quo. And this was something which pleased me, because when I read Barchester Towers I objected to the Quiverful family, whose chief misfortune seemed to lie in having ten children who, as a gentleman’s sons and daughters, appeared to be incapable of earning their own keep. In Doctor Thorne, however, Frank Gresham, faced with having to support a penniless wife on a bankrupt estate, is quite willing to work. Of course Frank’s mother Lady Arabella immediately envisages a particular kind of “work”:
If he would not marry money, he might, at any rate, be an attachĂ© at an embassy. A profession—hard work, as a doctor, or as an engineer—would, according to her ideas, degrade him; cause him to sink below his proper position; but to dangle at a foreign court, to make small talk at the evening parties of a lady ambassadress, and occasionally, perhaps, to write demi-official notes containing demi-official tittle-tattle; this would be in proper accordance with the high honour of a Gresham of Greshamsbury.
Frank, on the other hand, is quite willing to farm, if that is necessary.

With its wit, charm, and trenchant criticism of some regnant upper-class hypocrisies, Doctor Thorne is lots of fun. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and look forward to reading the rest of the series in time.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The plight of the Scatcherds reminds me of the old saying: "Money doesn't buy happiness."

No doubt it was precisely that kind of predicament for which the saying was coined in the first place.

Nicholas Clifford said...

Somewhere -- and I wish I remembered where -- I read that Tolstoy praised Trollope for his ability to make good people interesting. I think the reference was to Doctor Thorne,, which Tolstoy thought a good and strong novel (and thus presumably he admitted that perhaps not all happy families are alike, as he suggests in Anna K. I wish I could run down the quotation.

Suzannah said...

Making good people interesting--I like that. It's a good description of what Tolstoy does, yes!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the book. Can anyone tell me what the reference "Scarlet Lady" is to?

Suzannah said...

Anonymous, glad you enjoyed Doctor Thorne! In this context the "Scarlet Lady" is a reference to the Roman Catholic Church. In Revelation 17, John the Evangelist sees a vision of a scarlet lady named Babylon seated on a beast, "drunken with the blood of the saints." Various Christians have at various times identified this as a representation of some notoriously wicked city, and in Protestant tradition this has sometimes been applied to Rome on account of the unpleasantnesses during the Reformation. And now you know :)

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