Spoiler alert – not that it really matters. The plot is an old one: boy meets girl, there is an insurmountable obstacle to their love, the obstacle is mounted by an incredible last minute stroke of luck. Ta dah!
Further spoiler alert. Same thing with names. You can skip these next two paragraphs if you want to. This is the plot – the squire’s son, Frank Gresham, wants to marry Mary Thorne, the doctor’s niece, despite her lack of money and “blood”. Mary is the illegitimate daughter of the doctor’s wastrel brother who was murdered by the wronged woman’s brother and has been brought up by her bachelor uncle. Mary is of course, despite her deficits, a lovely and wise young woman well aware of her maidenly propriety and duties. Henry is of course a handsome and manly young man well aware of his position and duties as the heir apparent. Henry’s snooty relatives, the de Courcys of Courcy Castle, insist that Frank must “marry money”.. That is because Squire Gresham has mortgaged his property to the hilt and spends his days sighing and moping at the thought of the poor patrimony he is leaving his eldest – and only- son. The squire does a lot of that sighing to Dr Thorne, who for some reason, manages the squire’s depleted estate, obtaining loans for him from Sir Roger Scatcherd.. Sir Roger is none other than Mary’s mother’s brother, who – once a simple stonemason and then a convicted murderer – has become an immensely wealthy railroad mogul.
When Sir Roger dies of alcoholism, his son Louis Philippe (Sir Roger was a radical) starts to put the screws on the old squire. The pressure on Frank to marry money becomes relentless. Henry insists that he will marry Mary, no matter what – indeed he might even work for his living (!) – but. like his father, he does nothing – simply declaring his undying love to anyone who’ll listen, while flirting incessantly with any woman he meets. Unfortunately Mary stands to inherit very little and worse still her birth (and ergo her “blood”) is base. Oddly, no one in the county seems to twig that she must be the illegitimate child of the doctor’s brother. Luckily Sir Louis dies – also of alcoholism because he is so very very dissolute -it would have been AIDS, had Trollope written this in the 1980s. It seems to the modern reader that Sir Louis and his vile manservant are sexual partners, even if Trollope is not aware of it. Anyway, he has to die so that Mary inherits her uncle’s fortune, which Sir Louis didn’t live to inherit, and now she can marry Frank – which keeps everyone happy.
So there it is. It’s a simple and entirely predictable story, which Trollope draws out to 624 pages. As the redoubtable Walter Allen says….”[Trollope’s] failings are obvious. His style is commonplace, so that he relies wholly on the interest of his subject-matter; when the subject-matter is dull Trollope is dull. He has no sense of form: he was content to produce a story that would, somehow, fill three volumes of a novel, a novel moreover, that was to appear as a magazine serial before publication. As he realised himself he had little skill in plot construction, which was both an asset to him and a liability. Everything conspired to make him a superb improvisator; one reads him from chapter to chapter with little sense of the whole.”
Trollope is known for his characters, rather than plot. His characters are varied, real and consistent – save and except when Frank whips a suitor who jilted his cousin but then proposes to the wealthy Miss Dunstable with no intention whatsoever of marrying her. There is no hint that it is Frank who is inconsistent (Trollope would surely have pointed that out over ten or so pages) but it seems to be Trollope who slips – in the interests of a humorous lesson. And we get a lot of lessons – proposing to one whom you do not love is bad (unless you are both rich), drinking is bad and rising above your station is very bad. Lady Scatcherd likes to sit in a small room sorting linen with her housekeeper, throws her apron over her head when upset and certainly cannot be taken out in polite society. Obviously she doesn’t need more than the £1,000 pounds per annum which Sir Roger leaves her.
“‘Have you not left the house to Lady Scatcherd?’
‘No; what the devil would she do with a house like this? She doesn’t know how to live in it now she has got it. I have provided for her; it matters not how…”
The best characters are the grand Duke of Omnium, so aristocratic that he can’t bring himself to speak to his dinner guests, the ghastly hypocrite Lady Amelia, the irascible and always drunk Sir Roger and the independent and witty heiress Miss Dunstable (too plain and assertive to be married, despite her money). Dr Thorne himself is decent, kind and sensible, but could almost be excised from the book, until his rather astounding activities after Sir Roger’s death (more of this later). Sir Louis is an Unworthy Heir straight from central casting – small and weak in body and mind, dissipated, cold, profligate, grasping and crafty. “At one and twenty he was that most odious of all odious characters – a close-fisted reprobate”.
Trollope says testilly that, “[I]t has been suggested that the modern English writers of fiction should among them keep a barrister, in order that they may be set right on such legal points as will arise in their little narratives, and thus avoid that exposure of their own ignorance of the laws, which now, alas! they too often make…But as the suggestion has not yet been carried out, and as there is at present no learned gentleman whose duty would induce him to set me right, I can only plead for mercy if I be wrong in allotting all Sir Roger’s vast possessions in perpetuity to Miss Thorne, alleging also, in excuse, that the course of my narrative absolutely demands that she shall be ultimately recognized as Sir Roger’s undoubted heiress.” So, never let the facts get in the way. In his laziness and for the purposes of a doubtful plot, Trollope ignores issues which a first year law student would spot. Firstly, he slides over the small problem of a potential beneficiary’s illegitimacy when that beneficiary is not specifically named (it is not clear but probably Sir Roger’s Will referred to his “his sister’s eldest living child”. That sister has taken off to America with a kindly man who married her despite all – provided she left her bastard behind – and they have children). Second, his Doctor Thorne acts as executor of a Will pursuant to which his ward stands to inherit a vast fortune if his ailing patient, the son of the testator, dies before he turns 25. Does anyone see a problem here? Trollope doesn’t, The many lawyers who scrutinise the Will don’t. Dr Thorne doesn’t. Sir Louis doesn’t – but then, Dr Thorne does not seem to have enlightened him as to the identity of the reversionary heir – the executor/doctor’s niece who considers herself to be engaged to the heir to an estate which is heavily encumbered by debts due to Sir Roger’s estate (which are being actively pursued by Sir Louis).
Of course it is trite to say that Trollope is all about money and class. As Billy Preston says…. “you gotta have something, if you wanna be with me“. Or, as Walter Allen put it rather more elegantly – “He was, more than any other English novelist of his time, completely at one with his age, critical of it in comparatively small details but in the main accepting it as he accepted the air he breathed.”
In answer to the inevitable, “is Trollope worth reading today?” Again, Walter Allen said it best :-“…Trollope’s is an art of the cumulative. ‘His great, his inestimable merit,’ wrote Henry James, ‘as a complete appreciation of the usual…he felt all daily and immediate things as well as he saw them; felt them in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable meanings.’ A complete appreciation of the usual: this can only be rendered at length for the usual is usual because it is repetitive, its effect cumulative. The aim of most novelists is to heighten, to intensify. In a way…Trollope’s is the opposite of this; and this is why one cannot in the end even condemn his dullness and longeurs, for, wittingly or not they help his purpose. At first the rhythms of his novels seem intolerably slow; they end by wearing us down to their own pace, as time does in life.”