04 May 2012
Book Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope
Doctor Thorne is the third of the Barchester novels, and it actually digresses quite a bit from the familiar characters of the first two novels. (Bishop and Mrs Proudie do make an appearance at one point, but apart from Trollope's apparent delight in lampooning Mrs Proudie for one brief moment these two have no real purpose in the story.) But this digression makes the story no less enjoyable, and the characters who are introduced become almost as beloved than the characters in The Warden and Barchester Towers.
Truth be told, Doctor Thorne has a slow start: a snail's pace would be a kind description. And if not for the fact that Trollope recognizes this, and points it out, the beginning pages would be pretty yawn-worthy. But they are important in setting up the larger events of the story, in that they establish the context for what happens. The introductory elements may be said to explain everything that follows -- the reader just has to get through them.
The introductory pages also serve the purpose of introducing most of the primary characters: Doctor Thorne (of course), his niece Mary Thorne (who is also the heroine of the story), Mr Gresham (senior) of Greshamsbury, his wife the Lady Arabella (late a de Courcy and the sister of the Earl de Courcy), their son Frank Gresham (something of the hero of the story), and Sir Roger Scatcherd (a low-born local man who rises through society in both position and wealth by becoming a contractor for the railroad). All of these characters are ultimately, in some way or another, bound together by the end of the story, and I fully appreciate Trollope's reason for setting things up as he did. Once again, the reader needs to plow through and trust that there's gold at the end.
So what's all of this about? In essence, Greshamsbury is an ancient seat of the noble Gresham family. The current squire Mr Gresham married Lady Arabella quite young. They had a number of children (really, far too many to remember), the eldest of which is Frank. Lady Arabella, being well-connected and fully aware of her position in society, is determined that her husband will make something of himself in politics, and she pushes him, again and again, to run for office. She is also determined to keep up appearances, at home in Greshamsbury and among the finer set in London. The result is that Mr Gresham, who started out his adult life with substantial wealth, is now reduced to near-ruin through constant expense. When his son comes of age, Greshamsbury is being picked apart, and there is every chance that Frank will have little to live on upon succeeding his father. So, of course, Frank must "marry money," as he is told again and again.
But Frank is in love with Mary Thorne, and Mary Thorne hasn't a penny to her name. She's the doctor's niece, as mentioned above, and her background is more than a little sketchy. As it turns out, poor Mary is in the unfortunate position of being illegitimate. Doctor Thorne's brother Henry was a bit of a blackguard, and he seduced a village woman who later gave birth to his daughter, Mary. Meanwhile, the village woman's brother, Roger Scatcherd, avenged this wrong by killing Henry Thorne. While he was in prison, his niece was born, but once he was released from prison he was told the child died. Mary's mother ultimately married another local man and moved with him to America. He declined to take her illegitimate child, so Doctor Thorne stepped in to take responsibility for his niece and allow the poor woman to move on. For what it's worth, she strongly opposed the idea at first, but given the expectations in society at that time the decision wasn't the worst one she could make. And frankly, Mary Thorne gets a fairly good life out of this, with an education she might not otherwise have received.
This education included daily interaction with the Gresham family, as Mary (whose background was not made public, since she spent her first few years in the care of kind people in another village and wasn't brought back until tongues no longer remembered what to wag about) was welcomed into the school room and among the Gresham children. They grew up together, and when they were grown there was something other than friendship between Frank and Mary. But it was impossible, you see: Frank had to marry money. The Gresham estate was already mortgaged to Sir Roger Scatcherd (who was, by this time, a baronet), and without money the estate would likely be lost. So Frank's mother and aunt set out to find him an heiress, but with little luck. Frank made it clear that he would marry Miss Thorne or no one.
There's a lot in this story that might lack context for a modern audience. I mean, who really cares about Mary's background. It's the person she became that matters, right? Not in Barchester, it would seem. The thought of Frank marrying a low girl, with questionable origins and no money, was absurd. When the truth of Mary's origins became known, it was even more absurd -- an illegitimate child?! Never. The objection to this grows and grows as the story proceeds, and there is no clear way around it. Until there is, of course.
So what happens? Sir Roger Scatcherd dies and leaves his wealth first to his dipsomaniac son who surprises no one by expiring within a couple of years. Sir Roger was careful with his money and left it in trust until his son's twenty-fifth birthday. Should young Sir Louis Scatcherd die before this important day -- and he does -- the money will revert in full to his sister's eldest child.
And that's Mary Thorne, of course.
This is a rather simple turn of events, but believe me it takes a while to get there. Trollope definitely works every moment out of the story, but to good effect. For one, Doctor Thorne becomes such a fascinating character. He's a truly good man who loves his niece as his own child and wants the best for her. But he's also a very good doctor and an even better friend. Sir Roger Scatcherd makes Doctor Thorne the executor of his will, knowing by this time who Mary Thorne is, but also asks him to promise to take care of his son Louis. So Doctor Thorne is in a truly unenviable position. Ensuring Sir Louis Scatcherd's health and well-being means that Mary may never receive anything. But what else is Doctor Thorne to do? So he puts his finest efforts into caring for Sir Louis, however futile this may prove to be, and he can live with himself when the inevitable end arrives. It certainly isn't easy, so much of the story is about Doctor Thorne's struggles to deal with the information with which he has been entrusted -- never able to tell Mary about any of this, never able to assure the Greshams that Frank will be able to marry money after all, never able to do anything but his very best and wait.
Such a good story. And highly recommended.
Year of publication: 1858
Number of pages: 638 (in print; I actually read the Kindle edition)