Review: Dr Thorne, Anthony Trollope

I am only just about old enough to remember how much people laughed at John Major when he said he liked to go to bed with a Trollope but until now that was not something I had ever done, either of the Anthony or Joanna variety.  So a new experience.  One of Trollope’s better known creations are the Barchester novels and around a decade and a half ago I heard a bit of Dr Thorne on the radio so though it is number 3 in the sequence, it was this that I actually picked.  Also – the earlier ones seemed suspiciously like church politics which, let’s face it, there’s enough of in real life.  

This is a classic Cinderella story – and actually I was interested by the plot origins, as a lot of the fiction I read from Victorian era is written by women who don’t tend to deal with business law or indeed family scandal.  The basic plot goes like this: Dr. Thomas Thorne is from a very good family but despite being a very good sort, he also treats poor people and sticks with his ne’er-do-well brother Henry despite everyone advising him against it.  Henry Thorne however gets himself into deep, deep trouble because he drugs and rapes Mary Scatcherd, sister to Roger Scatcherd, a stone-mason.  Roger Scatcherd is furious and he murders Henry in a fit of rage.  Roger is sent to prison for manslaughter for six months (I know, it’s as if nobody cares), meanwhile Mary S is pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, also called Mary.  Dr Thorne advises her to marry her old fiancé, move to America with him and leave her baby behind under his care since the fiancé refuses to take on another man’s child.  And that’s the last we hear from the first Mary.

Flash forward twenty years – Dr Thorne has raised his niece as Mary Thorne even though she has no right to that last name.  Mary has grown up sharing lessons with the daughters of the local Squire, Mr Gresham.  Now, the Greshams of Greshambury are the Very Good Sort of Family except that they haven’t a bean to bless themselves with.  Mr Gresham married the daughter of an Earl, Lady Arabella, and he has been forced to spend the rest of his married life trying to keep her in the style to which she is used, slowly bankrupting himself in the process.  Strangely enough, Roger Scatcherd has made his fortune through railways since leaving prison and has been made a baronet along the way, but is still as common as muck and a total alcoholic.  It is to him that the Greshams are heavily indebted, with Dr Thorne acting as intermediary.  When the eldest and only Gresham son Frank comes of age, he is told very firmly by his mother that he Must Marry Money.  Unfortunately, Frank has already fallen in love with Mary Thorne.

The Greshams haven’t a bean in the world.

Mary in the mean time has grown up to be a funny and passionate woman – this really impressed me given how even a great writer like Dickens can be so utterly useless at writing convincing sympathetic women.  So good for Mr Trollope.  The central dilemma of Dr Thorne is the conflict between birth and money.  Do you marry someone rich because they have money or do you marry someone poor who has breeding?  It’s a dilemma I find very difficult to relate to but even the illegitimate Mary is very firm in her own view of what is right and wrong.  The Scatcherds have lots of money, yet their true lineage shows through the son Louis, who has had the best of educations yet still has no breeding and is an alcoholic like his father.  When Lady Augusta decides to marry Mr Moffat, her family are supportive despite his low connections because he has money.  When Frank suggests marrying Mary, they are appalled because she has neither breeding nor money and they pack him off to his cousins’ to meet a rich heiress, Miss Dunstable.

Miss Dunstable was actually my favourite character in the whole novel – even over Mary.  She patiently bears with all of the young men who pay court to her despite her being plain and an Older Woman, writing pleasant and polite notes of refusal that make her intentions clear.  She and Frank hit it off splendidly and become fast friends – and that is all.  Knowing what is expected, he does timidly propose and Miss Dunstable firmly rejects him and gives him a rousing speech about the importance of remaining true to his Lady Love.  Indeed, she continues to give Frank inspirational speeches throughout the novel whenever the pressure of his family looks like becoming too much and that is why I adored her as a character.  The two keep in touch via letters, having quite the opposite effect on Frank’s love for Mary than his mother intended, Miss Dunstable constantly reminds him of the sacred nature of his love, that he has made a promise to which he Must Hold Fast.  It’s not unreasonable for a young man in his early twenties to wobble in his resolve with so much riding on his prospects and it’s wonderful that Trollope does not make that make him unheroic but instead gives him a good and independent friend to inspire him to be the best of himself.

Frank and Mary have a lovely courtship because again, Trollope allows them to be woefully inarticulate.  It’s funny, I saw this Guardian articles which feature the worst proposals ever and they were all pretty public, we are not all of us brave enough to bare our hearts to the world and it was lovely to see that recognised in fiction.  Frank first shows his interest in Mary by holding her hand for a few seconds longer than necessary and then seals the deal a year later by pushing his hand into hers while she was overwhelmed with emotion.  Another recurring theme in this novel is about consent.  The Thornes’ maid breaks the nose of Louis Scatcherd’s valet with a rolling pin when he tries to seduce her but allows her fiance even further liberties than the valet had attempted, so the omniscient Trollope narrator notes that had Frank been wiser, he would have known that Mary loved him because had she not then she would have had no difficulties in getting him away from her.  I loved that, too often in Victorian fiction does it seem that women are powerless creatures but here it is made explicit that women are strong creatures in their own right.

Sir Roger on deathbed, consulting with ‘t doctor

Dr Thorne’s dilemma comes when Sir Roger, dying of his alcoholism, decides to leave his property to his worthless son Louis in the first instance and then after that to his sister Mary #1’s eldest child.  Diffidently, Thorne explains that would be Mary Thorne, whose origins he had deliberately kept ambiguous.  Oddly enough the fact that Sir Roger had killed Dr Thorne’s brother and that Dr Thorne’s brother had raped Sir Roger’s sister resolved itself between the two of them with very little difficulty – Dr Thorne judged that Sir Roger had been within his rights to kill him and Sir Roger deemed the matter closed.  Anyway, Sir Roger leaves his will so that Sir Louis cannot access the capital of the estate or leave it to someone else until he reaches 25 and should Sir Louis die before that age, it goes to Mary Thorne.  Dr Thorne is then left with the situation that should Sir Louis succumb to addiction, Mary will be rich and can marry Frank with ease, so naturally he feels he has to work twice as hard to keep Sir Louis alive as otherwise he will feel like a murderer.  

This could have felt like a completely hackneyed plot device – Sir Louis does indeed die on schedule – but it works because Sir Louis himself is a very well-drawn character.  By this I do not mean that he was very original but rather that his ghastliness was vividly described.  Sort of like how nobody was surprised when Amy Winehouse et al failed to make old bones, it does seem regrettably inevitable that Sir Louis dies.  He is a truly loathsome individual and his visit to Greshambury for dinner is hysterically funny as he manages to insult everybody present and they all scuttle away to avoid him.  

Initially, I did not expect to make it through this novel – reading Trollope is like being caught in conversation with someone who goes off on many, many tangents while you’re hopping from foot to foot trying desperately to make your excuses so you can get on to more important things.  And I say that in full knowledge that I can be that kind of person from time to time – when I get talking to the girl I used to live with who is somewhat similar then we frequently lose the thread of conversation because of the number of side-tracks we get caught on.  But it’s something else to be trying to keep track of that kind of a mind in print.  Additionally, I was really glad that I read a lot because otherwise I’d have been completely lost with all of Trollope’s classical references.  Dr Thorne is not just a doctor, he is ‘a true son of Asclepius’ – Trollope is just making his loyalties clear but it’s kind of tiring at times wading through it all.  

Another thing is the way that Trollope is just such a Tory.  I actually have nothing against Tories individually, some of my best parents are Tories.  Given that I work in education, it is a bit rough that they represent the majority shareholders in the government but on the whole, I try to maintain an open mind.  The ideas of right and wrong are so inherently conservative – Sir Roger slays the man who dishonoured his sister and is utterly forgiven by society, Dr Thorne may have turned against his noble forbears who disowned his brother but he still has a ‘proper regard’ for the claims of blood, Frank gets organised to give a good beating to Mr Moffat after Augusta has been jilted.  Etc, etc.  Personally, I think that blood is meaningless – particularly since this seemed to be a rule people were willing to relax where large amounts of money were concerned.

I liked though that it was made clear that if you truly loved someone then you would not mind if they had no money.  Augusta is jilted by Mr Moffat who has quibbled long and hard over her dowry while when Rev. Oriel proposes to Beatrice, when he is told she will have a small marriage portion, he waves the concern away and talks no more about it.  Similarly, Frank finally puts his foot down, having jumped through every hoop in the book for his family he will have no more of it, he insists on marrying Mary even if it means taking up a trade and it is at this point that Louis dies and Mary inherits the lot, something only Dr Thorne was aware of as a possibility.

I actually loved this book, it was just a nice, comforting read.  Everybody got what they deserved, everybody was happy.  One of my favourite lines was the one when Frank proposed to Mary for the second time, Trollope said that although he had officially come of age the year before, ‘nature had postponed the ceremony’ until that year, as it often did and indeed for some people it came not at all.  Frank is an endearing but very silly boy when he first proposes to Mary but the struggle for their relationship and the way in which he remains steadfast makes him a better person and into someone worthy of his object.  Mary on the other hand is freed from her insecurities and the pity of society by her love for Frank and so that made the resolution in their favour a pleasure to read.

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Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope, Ruth Rendell
Published by Penguin Books on November 5th 1991
Pages: 592
ISBN: 0140433260

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2 thoughts on “Review: Dr Thorne, Anthony Trollope

  1. Just watched excellent TV drama tonight with the fab Tom Hollender and this review helped a lot to fill in the dots….

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