I cannot tell you how much I love Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. Have I ever had more fun reading a book? If you want to read a charming, lightning-fast comedy, this is your novel.
Trollope’s brilliant six-book Barsetshire series (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) was tremendously popular in the 19th century, and is, I would imagine, still his most popular series. I enthusiastically recommend beginning with Doctor Thorne, the third, because Trollope is always better when he writes long than when he writes short, and you don’t have to read them in order. (Of course some of you will read the short just to cross him off your list.) Doctor Thorne is light, bright, and entertaining, and though the novel has its serious, even dark, moments, it is not grounded in darkness like two of his masterpieces, He Knew He Was Right (which I wrote about here), or Phineas Redux (which I wrote about here).
Trollope had reservations about the best-selling Doctor Thorne. He wrote, “The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot,–which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale,–is that which will raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment.”
Well, it is true he has a good plot, but character is the most important element. Get past the opening melodramatic pages, which provide background, and the characters are brilliantly-drawn, the dialogue scintillating, the satire of the aristocrats is hilarious, and the writing much more sophisticated than Trollope is ever given credit for. David Skilton wrote, “…one of the most remarkable things about Doctor Thorne is how little he exploits the sentimental or sensational possibilities…”
The book revolves around marriage, as so many of Trollope’s books do. The strong-minded, plainspoken Doctor Thorne has a successful medical practice, and a happy home life with his orphaned niece, Mary Thorne, the daughter of his dead ne’er-do-well brother, Thomas. Years ago Thomas seduced a beautiful lower-class woman, Mary Scatcherd, whom he despicably pursued after he learned she was engaged to a tradesman. When Mary’s stonemason brother, Roger Scatcherd, found out she was pregnant, he killed Thomas in a rage. Doctor Thorne felt some sympathy for Roger, and arranged for his defense: Roger served six months in prison. And Doctor Thorne has raised their niece, not thinking it prudent to tell Roger that his sister’s baby lived.
Mary does not know her own identity, though, as Doctor Thorne’s niece, she assumes she is good enough to marry anyone. When Frank Gresham, the 21-year-old heir of a great estate, flirts with her and says, at first half joking, in a spontaneous moment while walking with her at his coming-of-age party, that he loves her, one of his sisters, Augusta, overhears him and tattles to their aunt, Countess de Courcy (a ridiculous woman right out of Jane Austen). Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, agrees with the countess that Frank must marry money. Why? Because her husband, Squire Greshem, is in debt, partly because of Lady Arabella. He has sold much of their land, has borrowed huge amounts from Sir Roger Scatcherd, and the estate is mortgaged.
Mary meditates on whether or not she should marry Frank. He repeatedly asks her. Of course she loves him; of course she knows that Lady Arabella opposes the match. And so she ruminates,
If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualised quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?
And she answered the question. Absolute, intrinsic, acknowledged, individual merit must give it to its possessor, let him be whom, and what, and whence he might. So far the spirit of democracy was strong with her. Beyond this it could be had but by inheritance, received as it were second-hand, or twenty-second-hand. And so far the spirit of aristocracy was strong within her. All this she had, as may be imagined, learnt in early years from her uncle; and all this she was at great pains to teach Beatrice Gresham, the chosen of her heart.
Mary is such a good soul!
The more adamantly Lady Arabella opposes the match, the more Frank is determined to stick to Mary. He is ordered on a visit to his Aunt de Courcy’s castle to woo one of the most comical, intelligent characters in the book, Miss Dunstable, a thirtyish heiress to the” Ointment of Lebanon” business. Frank believes she must be 40, and doesn’t find her attractive, but she is a smart conversationalist. She teases him out of his flirtation–she is used to everyone trying to marry her–and becomes one of his best friends. She reminds him throughout the book that love of Mary Thorne is worth more than marrying an heiress he doesn’t love. Without Miss Dunstble, it is probable that he might not have married Mary.
There is not just a marriage plot; there is a potential in-law plot. It is not uncommon for potential in-laws to oppose a marriage. In-law problems are usually treated as comical, but very often they are not comical at all. And Lady Arabella is especially vicious in her treatment of Mary: she bans Mary from the house, and prevents her daughter Beatrice from meeting Mary even at other people’s houses. Beatrice and Mary, educated together, have been inseparable for years. This is very painful for Mary and angers Doctor Thorne. The whole village knows Mary is no longer welcome at Greshamsbury.
Sir Roger Scatcherd also plays a big role in this novel. After six months in prison, he manages slowly to get on in life and eventually makes a fortune building railways. He does not know that Mary is his niece, but he knows Doctor Thorne. And his sweet wife, very uncomfortable as a “Lady,” has Mary over on a visit and loves her, not knowing the relationship. And their sickly son, Louis, is like a shadow figure of Frank, drinks hard, has no morals, but also likes Mary and proposes to her.
As for Trollope’s writing, Adam Gopnik put it well in his article, “Trollope Trending,” in The New Yorker (May 4, 2015):
Yet, beyond saying that his writing feels like life, it’s hard to say just how he works his magic—and a little digging shows that a sense of Trollope as a slightly guilty pleasure has been around since people started reading him.
Trollope is a pleasure, but I don’t regard him as a guilty pleasure. I think he is a better writer than most people admit. I promised yesterday I would point out some of his high-flown (!) rhetorical figures of speech. Trollope was a great fan of Cicero the orator, whom he wrote a life of, and Cicero had an influence on his prose.
The two sentences below illustrate parallelism: the elements of the sentence are repeated in the same order.
There, in one big best bedroom, looking out to the north, lay Sir Louis Scatcherd, dying wretchedly. There, in the other big, best bedroom, looking out to the south, had died the other baronet about a twelvemonth since, and each a victim to the same sin.
And here is an example of chiasmus, a reversing of the order of words in corresponding pairs of phrases.
“I hope so. I have had much doubt about this, and have been sorely perplexed; but now I do hope so.”
Trollope is not as flamboyant as Dickens, whose knowledge of rhetoric astounds all of us, but he is clever, consistent, and positively Ciceronian at times.