Anthony Trollope was a new discovery for me last year and has now become one of my favourite Victorian authors. I read The Warden last April and Barchester Towers in November and then I swore I wouldn’t wait another six months before reading my next Trollope. And that’s exactly what I have done! Maybe it’s a good thing that I’ve waited so long though, because I love Trollope’s books so much I don’t really want to rush through them too quickly.
In this third volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope takes us away from the cathedral town of Barchester (the setting for the previous two novels) to Greshambury, a small town in another part of the county. Here we meet Dr Thorne, and his beloved niece, Mary. Mary’s birth was surrounded by scandal and she has been brought up by her uncle unaware of her mother’s family and the fact that she is related to the wealthy baronet Sir Roger Scatcherd, the doctor’s friend who is slowly drinking himself to death.
Another friend of the doctor’s is Squire Gresham, whose son, Frank, falls in love with Mary. Unfortunately the Greshams are having money problems and Frank’s family are determined that he must marry a rich woman, which Mary is not. The squire’s wife, Lady Arabella, does her best to keep Frank and Mary apart but will she succeed – or will something happen to change Mary’s fortunes?
As well as the class divide and the social stigma of illegitimacy, other themes include the corruption involved in Victorian politics and the effects of alcoholism. None of the Trollope books I’ve read so far could be described as having an enthralling plot and this one even less so. After reading the first few chapters, although I did enjoy them, I was starting to wonder when the story was going to begin. But although Trollope’s books may initially appear to be about very little, his plots are deceptively clever and intricate, and he has a way of pulling the reader into the story so that you become completely absorbed in the moral dilemmas of his characters. And he does apologise for the slow start too…
I feel quite an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course… It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise. I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy. I cannot bring my doctor speaking his mind freely among the bigwigs till I have explained that it is in accordance with his usual character to do so.
I mentioned in my review of Barchester Towers the habit Trollope has of telling us in advance what’s going to happen and he does it again in this book. The outcome of the novel is completely obvious from the beginning, so if you prefer your books to be full of suspense and surprises then Trollope is maybe not the author for you – although I do usually prefer suspense and surprises myself and yet I still like Trollope. I love his warm, witty writing style so much that I don’t at all mind the number of pages he spends introducing us to his characters and describing their backgrounds, appearances and personality traits. This is something that often bores me in books by other authors, but Trollope’s characters are so interesting that I really enjoy getting to know them all.
I was slightly disappointed that our old friends from the previous two books, Mr Harding, his daughter Eleanor and son-in-law Archdeacon Grantly didn’t feature in Doctor Thorne (although the Bishop and Mrs Proudie from Barchester Towers do make a brief appearance), but the new set of characters made up for it. In fact, the relationship between Dr Thorne and his niece Mary reminded me very much of Mr Harding and Eleanor. With the exception of Frank himself, I didn’t really like any of the Greshams or their relatives, the de Courcys (how much sympathy can you have with characters who are constantly saying things like, “If you marry a girl without a fortune, Frank, how are you to live?”) I did like Frank, Dr Thorne and Mary, and I also enjoyed all the scenes involving the two baronets Sir Roger Scatcherd and his son Louis, both unforgettable characters!
Next in the series is Framley Parsonage. I won’t make any promises this time about how long it will be before I read it, but I’m already looking forward to another enjoyable visit to Barsetshire.