Friday, September 21, 2012

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own complete Barsetshire books.
Date originally published on Facebook: August 15, 2010

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of Anthony Trollope. Here is my first full-length review of one of his novels: 

Marriage! Money! Blood! Psychological Analysis! It must be another Trollope.

One of my goals in life is to introduce my friends to this underrated Victorian author. During his lifetime, Trollope was popular, on the same level as Dickens and Collins. However, he made a fatal mistake near the end of his life, and his reputation never recovered. Trollope was unfortunately honest in his autobiography when he admitted that he diligently wrote a certain number of words and pages each day. This, of course, flew in the face of the preferred narrative: The Brilliant, Moody Artist is suddenly struck by Inspiration, writing furiously while the muse is with him. The idea that art might be produced by hard work was too much for the romantic to bear, and Trollope's reputation fell.

Not only did his books lose much of their popularity, his other contribution to the world also was forgotten. Trollope spent his early career working for the Post Office. He invented the postal drop box, the one found on most city corners in England.This was one of several innovations that can be traced to his efforts. He probably deserved some renown on the basis of his work in this area alone. However, he also enjoyed writing, and had some considerable success. With 40 or so novels and a number of non-fiction works, he was fairly prolific – a considerable advantage to an avid reader.

As to the subject book, it is one of a series, The Barsetshire Chronicles, which follows the stories of the residents of an imaginary cathedral town and the surrounding area. There are a total of 6 books in the series, starting with The Warden, an early success for Trollope. Dr.Thorne is number 3.

As with most Trollope novels, the book examines the themes of love and money, as applied to the minor gentry. Dr. Thorne's illegitimate niece Mary falls in love with Frank Gresham, the son of the local squire. The Gresham estate has been largely impoverished by Frank's parents, through the poor management of his father and especially the profligate spending of his mother, Lady Arabella.

The solution is, of course, that Frank must marry money. Frank has other ideas, and is determined to marry whom he chooses.

As is typical with Trollope, he refuses to let the plot drive the book. The reader will generally have a good idea how the book will end because Trollope deliberately defuses the suspense. His craft is shown in how he works out the motives and actions of the characters in the process.

If I were to list the two best things about Trollope, it would have to be this: he writes realistic characters, and he is subtle and gentle in his satire. These two things work together. All of Trollope's characters refuse to fall into categories. It is rare to encounter a true villain, and the protagonists are all flawed and complex. This is not to say that there are no admirable characters. There are, and such characters are in many ways more admirable and sympathetic because of their humanity. Likewise, the less likeable characters are complex and understandable. Trollope recognizes that there are few truly evil persons but many flawed, selfish, frustrating persons.Trollope strikes me as writing the best female characters of any male author I have read to date. The big weakness of Dickens, for example, is his inability to write a female character that was not a caricature. Although Dr. Thorne does not have a female quite on the level with Caroline in The Bertrams, one of his best novels, this novel is primarily driven by the female characters. It is their thoughts that occupy the bulk of the pages.

The second strength of Trollope's writing is his subtlety in satire. He refuses to take the obvious shot straight on, but instead, with understated language, allows gentle wit to have its devastating effect. The key here is to read carefully so as not to miss the jewels hidden in the language. The advantage of Trollope's gentle approach is that the reader is forced to see himself and his own weakness and cannot simply laugh at the pathetic straw man set up by the author.

Dr. Thorne has all of these elements, particularly the devastating deconstruction of class, money, and hypocrisy. Particularly good is his portrayal of Lady Arabella, who cannot fathom that she herself has ruined the Gresham estate. For the best of motives (as she sees it), she is eager to sacrifice her son's heart to restore his wallet.

The weakness of the book is the plot, which counts on certain legal facts which are at best doubtful. (Lawyer quibble here) Trollope himself recognized this, and was a bit embarrassed that Dr. Thorne was one of his most popular books. However, despite this minor defect, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

As an additional note to prospective Trollope readers: Dr. Thorne, though part of a series, need not be read in sequence. This book would not be a bad introduction to Trollope for the reader who is unsure if he or she is willing to commit to reading several books.

Anthony Trollope, another contestant in the Victorian Facial Hair Pageant.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Thorne is one of my favorite Trollope characters (after Septimus Harding). I usually tell people to start with The Warden if they are new to Trollope. I try not to take it personally when people don't like Trollope because I know he's very slow for modern tastes, but I can't help feeling sorry for them.(!)