This is my review of Doctor Thorne (Classics) by Anthony Trollope.
Telling that more than 150 years after its publication, no Amazon reviewer to date has given this less than 4 stars.
In this entertaining soap opera of life amongst the Victorian upper classes, Trollope creates what is still for the most part a page turner through his detailed exploration of the thoughts and motives of characters who come alive on the page, his realistic, lively dialogues and creation of ludicrously comical situations offset by occasional scenes of real pathos.
It is interesting to learn from Ruth Rendell’s introduction to the Penguin Classic version, that Trollope cared only for creating “personages impregnated with traits of character which are known…..in a picture of common life”. For him, the plot was of lesser importance, merely providing a vehicle for the cast of players.
The plot is straightforward, apparently suggested by his brother: the Greshams are proud of their “ancient lineage” but the current Squire has managed his finances badly, aggravated by the extravagance of Lady Arabella, the mixed blessing of a wife from the aristocratic De Courcy family. The heir, Frank Gresham, is expected to save the situation by “marrying money” and duly sent off to court the heiress of an ointment manufacturer, but Frank has fallen in love with his childhood playmate Mary Thorne, the penniless niece of Dr. Thorne, with the added guilty secret of being the bastard daughter of his renegade deceased brother.
This is the framework for a social drama which exposes the snobbery and hypocrisy of the Victorian middle and upper classes. It was vital to have “good blood” to be accepted, but a bootmaker’s daughter could marry into an aristocratic family if she brought enough money with her. Ironically, their extravagance and parasitic lifestyle made many “great” families dependent on the very lower class people whom they despised for making their money from industry or trade.
Although the characters often seem very modern in their expression of emotion, we see how the now largely neglected concepts such as honour governed their lives. Dr. Thorne knows that his niece will inherit great wealth if a certain young man dies before he is 25, but is bound both to conceal the fact, so that Mary may be loved purely for herself and to do everything in his power to keep that young man alive, thus possibly denying Mary of her route to happiness.
You may criticise Trollope for ultimately accepting the values of his society, yet it is clear that he questions them.
This third novel in the “Barchester Chronicles” is distinctive in having few clergymen as characters, and forms a bridge between “The Warden” with its parochial focus on the lives of a small circle of people, and the later “Palliser novels” which present a more glittering world of aristocrats and public life. I find Trollope most compelling when he is describing the trials and dilemmas of ordinary people, like Septimus Harding and his little band of almsmen in “The Warden” or in this case Dr. Thorne, full of integrity, down-to-earth, but proud to a fault, scandalising foolish snobs by mixing his own medicines like a “common apothecary” and pragmatically charging a fixed fee for a visit, struggling to manage the alcoholism of his old friend Roger Scatcherd and his pathetic son Louis, or engaging in affectionate and surprisingly frank and equal exchanges with his niece Mary – although, being at heart a man of his time, he does not take her into his confidence over the truth of her social position, in its good or bad aspects.
The opening “scene-setting” chapters of this book are needlessly heavy going: Trollope apologises for them without seeing the need for a simple rewrite. The happy ending is never really in doubt, although we know Trollope is capable of occasional harsh fates for essentially good people. However, it is the development of the story outlined above that carries you through a book which you may feel a little sad to finish. I for one prefer Trollope to Jane Austen – perhaps because he had more experience of life, his characters seem more real flesh-and-blood.