Those of you who've been following Vintage Novels for a while know that since a friend introduced me to the under-appreciated Victorian author Anthony Trollope several years ago, I've been reading him with slow relish at the rate of one per year. It seems like every year, my appreciation of his work grows, and this year is no different.
My Trollope for 2015 was The Small House at Allington.
In this novel, we meet a very diverse cast of characters. The central character is Lily Dale, who lives at the Small House at Allington with her sister Bell and their mother, right next door to the Large House, where her uncle, the crusty but kind-hearted squire, lives. When the story begins, Lily and Bell's cousin Bernard Dale, heir of the Large House, brings his friend Mr Crosbie to stay, and within a short time the worldly and urbane Mr Crosbie astonishes everyone by falling in love with Lily and asking her to marry him--much to the anguish of John Eames, a callow and naive young man from a neighbouring town, who has been in love with Lily for years. Meanwhile, Bernard languidly pursues Bell, the dreadful Amelia Roper pursues John, and--bad news for Lily Dale--Lady Alexandrina de Courcy determines to find out if Mr Crosbie, be he ever so affianced, is really impervious to the lure of blue blood and a title...
As always when I read Trollope, I didn't get through this book very quickly. Not because it's a slow read, but because he seems both to demand and to merit it. Trollope's dry humour kept me chuckling out loud. And when it comes to the temptations, bad decisions, and sins his characters struggle with, Trollope has the gift of treating such things so seriously, so realistically, so that we not only see ourselves in the erring characters, but also fully understand the danger and destruction of such temptations and sins. Like Jane Austen, he keeps us in genuine suspense over the dangers of such things as lies and backbiting and petty ambitions.
I found myself becoming reacquainted with other things that strike me as being particularly Trollopian. The temptation of Crosbie is a temptation of ambition much like that in Framley Parsonage, though with a slightly different slant--and in his Autobiography, which I have not read in full, Trollope explains that the sins of ambition were the ones he was most concerned to preach against, if I may use that term, in his books. Then, as always in Trollope, the characters are wonderful. All of them are a complex mixture of good and bad--though he goes easy on his heroines--and some of them absolutely steal your heart.
There's the Earl de Guest, who despite never marrying himself gives all sorts of hilarious and not-quite-right advice to John Eames on how to win his lady.
There's the loathsome De Courcy clan, who are every bit as horrible as they were in Doctor Thorne, and yet we cannot but feel sorry for Lady Alexandrina in the end--though her unhappiness is of her own making.
There's Mr Crosbie, who suffers so much with such poetic justice for his villainous behaviour, and yet we cheer for him in his plucky efforts to revenge himself on his tormentors.
There's the curiously restrained amours of the ultra-phlegmatic Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Dumbello, whose flirtation consists of occasionally exchanging views on the weather, but nevertheless set the whole of London society chattering in scandalised outrage. I don't know which is funnier--the fact that the pair of them are so undemonstrative that one or two exchanges of small talk constitute a flirtation--or the fact that everyone immediately understands what's happening.
And there's my very favourite character of all, Christopher Dale the squire of Allington, who is a legitimately unpleasant old fellow to be around...but whose harsh and uncompromising exterior we see behind by the end of the story, to the sensitive and loving person underneath. Oh, that sounds so corny. In fact, I had better admit to a sneaking hope that he would wind up having a whirlwind romance with Mrs Dale or someone, though I suppose I should be grateful that Anthony Trollope is much too sensible and subtle a writer to do any such thing. Suffice it to say that this bit of characterisation, in addition to yanking the heartstrings, impressed me with its depth and maturity.
The ending of The Small House at Allington surprised me--it's by far the most ambiguous, even unhappy ending, that I've yet read in a Trollope novel. Two characters in particular find a resolution which, while poetically just, seemed the most horrible and dreary fate in the world. They thoroughly deserved it, and yet it seemed hard.
Looked at from another perspective, though, I really appreciated this ending--for these characters. A common refrain in the novel concerns another of the characters wishing that these could be more thoroughly punished for wrong-doing. And yet Trollope shows us that they are being thoroughly punished for wrong-doing. To outer appearances, they are doing well; to walk in their shoes, however, is to understand how thoroughly their lives have been destroyed. You could see it as a rather fascinating meditation on Psalm 73: "For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked...They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men." And yet, you should see their in-laws!
To sum up, The Small House at Allington is another splendid Trollope novel. If you've never read Anthony Trollope before, I'd highly recommend dipping in with The Warden and Barchester Towers, which are the first two books in the Chronicles of Barset, of which The Small House at Allington is the fifth. You'll love them.
Or, if you want to skip directly to the Small House at Allington, find it at Amazon, the Book Depository, Librivox or Project Gutenberg.