Source of book: I own this
This book is the 5th in Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels, a set of loosely connected books set in the same imaginary place in England.
Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors, and I have read and reviewed several of his works previously. I am currently reading one book per year, alternating between Barsetshire and other novels.
Trollope was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and, in my opinion, a more subtle writer. In particular, he writes far better female characters, and makes his people human, rather than caricatures. This is not to detract from Dickens, but to praise Trollope’s skill and psychological insight.
The Barchester Chronicles (BBC Series)
As with most of the books in this series, there some overlapping characters with other books, but the main focus of the plot is on persons who are, at most, background characters in other books.
In this case, there are several links. First is Griselda Grantly, daughter of the Archdeacon (from The Warden and Barchester Towers), now the married Lady Dumbello. Her mother and father also appear briefly in this book. Second is the De Courcy family, the snobbish and shallow aristocrats familiar from Dr. Thorne. A third link is the appearance of Plantagenet Palliser, who is introduced in this book, but becomes the central character in Trollope’s other series, the Palliser Novels.
The Small House at Allington features the Dale family. Christopher Dale is the squire, a lifelong bachelor. His widowed sister lives at the “Small House” on his estate, essentially rent free, with her two daughters, Bell and Lily. He lives in the “Great House” with his nephew, Bernard.
As is common in Trollope’s novels, love and marriage drive the plot. Bernard’s friend Crosby, a shallow and ambitious young man, falls in love with Lily. She returns his feelings, and they become engaged. However, Crosby’s financial hopes are disappointed when the squire informs him that he will not be leaving Lily anything. (He means no malice, but he is gruff and set in his ways.) Crosby, against his better judgment, is then persuaded to jilt Lily and marry the cold and calculating Alexandrina De Courcy. Lily is heartbroken, and cannot bring herself to stop loving Crosby, even though he has done her wrong.
Johnny Eames, a good hearted, but awkward young man (Trollope calls him a “hobbledehoy”) has long been in love with Lily, but she finds him more desirable as a friend than as a lover. As the novel progresses, Johnny saves the Earl De Guest from his pet bull, thus earning a helpful ally - even if the Earl lacks common sense much of the time. Johnny’s journey from his clumsy youth to maturity is a major theme of the novel.
Illustration of Johnny Eames and Earl De Guest
by John Everett Millais from the 1864 first edition.
Meanwhile, the Squire wishes that Bernard and Bell marry, so that he can leave them his estate, and thus unite the branches of the family. Bernard dutifully attempts to woo Bell, even though he isn’t much of a romantic. Bell isn’t interested, and tells him so. She is in love with Dr. Crofts, but she either doesn’t know it, or hasn’t admitted it to herself.
Other minor plots include Plantagenet Palliser’s attempt to have an affair with Lady Dumbello, Crosby’s trials and tribulations after his faithless abandonment of Lily, and the drama at the boarding house where Eames resides in London.
This book is a bit darker than the other Barsetshire novels. Happy endings are rare in this one, and there is a good bit more grit and grime. Trollope was no fan of London, from what I can tell, and his view in this novel at least, is that the city corrupts the purity of the country. Not that all country people are pure, but that those who are struggle to maintain their morals when in contact with corrupting influence of urban life.
Another facet that makes this novel less sunny than the others is that Trollope refuses to let his characters change in ways that would increase their happiness. Lily, clearly, would be better off without Crosbie, but she has loved once, and continues to love blindly. Her refusal to see him accurately is frustrating. Perhaps more so because I have seen such things too often in real life. It remains a puzzle to me why both men and women cling to spouses or lovers that do not really care about them.
Likewise, Crosbie tries to have it all, but, because he is blinded by his ambition, he fails to see ahead to the consequences of his actions. A little common sense would have told him that marrying into the De Courcy family would bring him neither fortune nor happiness, but he sees only what he wants to see until it is too late.
The one relationship that ends with a degree of hope is that of Squire Dale and his sister. The two of them have lived for years in a state of, well, something less than affection. His late brother married beneath himself when he chose her, and she never felt fully accepted on equal terms. She lives where she does by the charity, if you will, of the squire, and she knows it. The only reason she stays is that she believes it will be better for her daughters. For his part, the squire wouldn’t dream of seeing what he does as true charity. He does it because he believes it is the right thing to do, and a good thing for everyone. After all, the house would be vacant otherwise. On the other hand, if Mrs. Dale would just push Bell to marry Bernard…
In some ways, then, the détente between them as the story ends is surprising. A lesser author would have neatly wrapped it up so that there could be a happy ending. Trollope understands the psychology of each, so nothing comes easily or completely. The thaw is precisely as one would expect from the characters, and is fully human.
As always, Trollope’s characters are memorable both because they are true to life and because they are complex.
A good example is Earl De Guest’s sister, Lady Julia.
She was as proud of her position as was the earl her brother, but her pride was maintained with more of outward show and less of inward nobility.
She is a bit of a prude - particularly in public. When Lily becomes engaged to Crosby, they visit her.
Lady Julia made a very elaborate curtsey, and expressed a hope that her young friend might be made happy in that sphere of life to which it had pleased God to call her.
I’m afraid I know a few people like this. Still, she has her human side, and finds herself struggling not to show too much pleasure after Eames knocks Crosby down.
Trollope is by no means irreligious, but he has a keen eye for hypocrisy and folly. Like Lady Julia, Rosina De Courcy (Alexandrina’s spinster sister) has a form of religion that primarily serves to make her odious to others.
The Lady Rosina was very religious...It was of Lady Rosina that the servants were afraid, especially with reference to that so-called day of rest which, under her dominion, had become to many of them a day of restless torment. It had not always been so with the Lady Rosina, but her eyes had been opened by the wife of a great church dignitary in the neighbourhood, and she had undergone regeneration. How great may be the misery inflicted by an energetic, unmarried, healthy woman in that condition, - a woman with no husband, or children, or duties, to distract her from her work - I pray that my readers may never know.
I tend to agree with Trollope here. There is no person so troublesome as she who has no end of time to spend trying to reform other people.
In addition to his insights on piety and hypocrisy, Trollope also understood issues of gender and class remarkably well for his time. As noted above, the “moral” reforms of aristocrats often burdened the servants. Likewise, as Hopkins, the squire’s gardener notes, when Mrs. Dale claims to have a headache to avoid an uncomfortable interview, he notes:
“What lies gentlefolks do tell! If I said I’d a headache when I ought to be out among the things, what would they say to me? But a poor man mustn’t never lie, nor yet drink, nor yet do nothing.”
Likewise, the importance of keeping up appearances is the guiding principle for the De Courcys. As Crosby comes to understand, he will be expected to pinch pennies when it comes to comfort for himself in order to afford visible luxuries. “[E]very shilling must be saved the spending of which would not make itself apparent to the outer world.” They may be relatively poor, but no one should be able to tell that.
When it comes to women, Trollope gently but pointedly notes the fundamental unfairness of society. In one case, he invites us into the psyche of Bernard, who is determined to keep his job, even though he doesn’t need to work, and his uncle would prefer that he stay home and keep him company. Bernard reflects that he could not abide the dullness of an idle life. However, “Women are more accustomed than men to long, dull, unemployed hours; and therefore Mrs. Dale and her daughters bore the tedium courageously.”
In another telling episode, Lily and Crosby have their first real disagreement, over whether Lily can remain friends with Eames. Lily honestly notes that Eames holds no romantic charms for her, but he is an old family friend, so she insists that he will be welcome at their future home. Crosby isn’t comfortable with this, but even more than that, he wishes to have the upper hand.
Had Lily yielded to him and confessed that he was right, he would have made himself at once as pleasant as the sun in May. But this she had not done. She had simply abstained from her argument because she did not choose to be vexed, and had declared her continued purpose of seeing Eames on his promised visit. Crosbie would have had her acknowledge herself wrong, and he would have delighted in the privilege of forgiving her. But Lily Dale was one who did not greatly relish forgiveness, or any necessity of being forgiven.
Point made, without a lecture like many authors might have offered. But it is clear what is happening here. Crosbie must have dominance, and Lily is unwilling to yield it. While Crosbie is vexed here, he has no idea how much worse his life will actually be when he is caught by the De Courcys.
Trollope’s books have their share of designing women, to be sure, and the De Courcys hardly have the upper hand here. The “affair” between Palliser and Lady Dumbello is hardly anything other than imagination at the beginning. Dumbello gives him a slightly longer conversation than the others in the party. He thinks he sees an opening, and allows himself to be flattered by the idea of a glamorous mistress. The fact that his uncle and benefactor objects only strengthens his resolve. Lady Dumbello, though, has no intention of sullying her own reputation. When her mother writes her concerned about the rumors, she leverages that letter into an apology and jewelry from her husband. From this sort may we all be preserved.
One final conversation struck me particularly. After the jilting and an illness for Lily (this is the Victorian era, after all…), she and Bell banter about novels.
The practical Bell isn’t enamoured of the currently popular ones, because they are too unrealistic.
“It is always right in the novels. That’s why I don’t like them. They are too sweet.”
“That’s why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.”
“If so, then, I’d go back to the old school, and have the heroine really a heroine, walking all the way up from Edinburgh to London, and falling among thieves; or else nursing a wounded hero, and describing the battle from the window. We’ve got tired of that; or else the people who write can’t do it now-a-days. But if we are to have real life, let it be real!”
“No, Bell, no! Real life sometimes is so painful.”
Bell is referencing Sir Walter Scott, of course: The Heart of Midlothian (reviewed here) and Ivanhoe, respectively. This is also a great summary of major debates about novels. (And sermons…) Should novels be escapist? Or realistic? And what does “realistic” mean anyway? For Trollope, one could argue that his are both realistic and escapist at the same time. They do not always end happily, and they are based on realistic emotions and human drama. No dragons to slay, shall we say. On the other hand, they take place in a society that many - most perhaps - of his readers would never experience first hand. After all, even the minor gentry and white collar middle class had it made compared to the blue collar middle class which kept Trollope’s bills paid. Even for himself, these circles were aspirational when he started writing. He was a successful postal worker, but he earned his living. The idea of worrying about whether 1000 a year was enough wasn’t real to him or his readers. But, like many forms of literature, human nature is often best understood and illuminated with an unfamiliar situation or world. Although I will never be a Victorian British aristocrat, I can recognize humanity when I see it, and ponder my own foibles.
Lily Dale has been called one of Trollope’s best heroines. I tend to disagree. I find her personality to be a bit grating, but that probably is just an indication that she isn’t my kind of woman. If I were to pick a favorite heroine from this series, I would go with Lucy Robarts from Framley Parsonage, although Eleanor from The Warden and Barchester Towers gets serious points simply for having the good sense to slap Obadiah Slope.
But the point of a Trollope novel isn’t that you personally like the characters. They are not, as Lily put it, “the way you want them to be.” Rather, they are the way they are, and the plot is always driven by that essence of who they are. However much we may want Lily to see that Crosby is a cad, or how much we wish that Eames wasn’t such a clumsy lover, they simply are who they are, and the plot follows their personalities to the inevitable conclusion.
Regular followers of my blog know that I am a partisan for Trollope. I believe he is one of the underrated novelists, undone by his unpopular confession that he viewed writing as a job, not as a random inspiration. It shattered the then-in-vogue vision of the artist as suffering savant rather than careful craftsman and patient observer - a vision which today continues to entice too many would-be writers without the discipline and determination to put in the hard work of mastering a craft.