I will warn you now – there’s a very high chance of plot spoilers in the following post, but one of the things I find I really like about Trollope is that plot isn’t really important; it’s simply a device to explore a moral dilemma with. In ‘Dr Thorne’ that issue is legitimacy and class. Briefly the Dr Thorne of the title stands as guardian to his niece Mary – she is the illegitimate daughter of his dead brother and is in every way an exemplary young woman. In her uncle’s eyes she is not only an angel incarnate but absolutely his niece, but legally she has no real right to the name she bears, no recognised position in society, in short (and crucially) she has no ‘blood’.
Dr Thorne is himself a connection of the Thorne’s of Ullathorne – a family that has made a cult out of blood, he is also near neighbour, friend, and doctor to the Gresham’s of Greshamsbury (the foremost family of commoners in Barsetshire) who have also made a cult out of blood (can you see where this is going?). Almost accidentally Mary has been bought up with the Gresham children on terms of near equality and by the time the action starts the Greshamsbury heir (young Frank Gresham) is coming of age, something he celebrates by proposing to Mary Thorne. To complicate matters further the Gresham’s are bankrupt; Squire Gresham married an earl’s daughter and has spent his marriage paying for her idea of a supportable lifestyle – not something even his once very respectable fortune has been able to keep up with.
Now young Frank is a decent sort, young but true and once he’s plighted his troth he’s determined to keep his word, Mary is a young woman of integrity and principle and equally determined to do the right thing so as she becomes aware of the reality of her situation she tries to release him from his promises. Frank must marry money to do his duty by his family but how can he do this and remain a decent sort? And indeed what if Mary was to acquire money, would that make her lack of position acceptable to the rest of the Gresham’s?
Well it just so happens that Mary is a possible heiress to an unlikely but vast fortune, her uncle is aware of this but is determined that she will be accepted on her own merits and so the scene is set. What’s more important money or birth, and what actually makes someone a lady or for that matter a gentleman? So much for the moral dilemma, now for what makes this such a good read; it’s a book full of Trollope’s gentle humour, there are some exquisite character sketches, and there’s something of a culture shock. I also get the sense that Trollope really cares about his characters; the young man destined to die so that Mary can inherit twists and turns off the page, caught between being a villain in the piece, and a man deserving all our sympathy. I really feel that in a different book he might have been reformed into the hero - of all the characters in the book he’s stuck with me the most as a compellingly real personality up to and including the unfortunate and eventually fatal predilection for liquors.
And evidence that the Victorians really felt differently to us? Mary’s mother is left pregnant and alone after the man who seduced her (Trollope alludes to drugs and rape) is killed. A previous beau offers to marry her despite her fall, but he won’t take on the child. The mother has the stark choice of child or husband – she chooses a husband (though in all fairness she knows that her child will be cared for as well, or better than she could care for it herself), but what shocked me is that the man in the case is presented as a hero for contemplating taking her on at all. Had she been a widow it wouldn’t have been an issue but sex outside of marriage has to be punished, and the sins of the mother will be visited on the child...
I’ve only scratched the surface here, I have a long set of notes and questions attached to ‘Dr Thorne’, and am extremely hopeful that someone out there will not only share my enthusiasm for this book but challenge some of my ideas about it. Trollope so exactly fits my reading needs at the moment that I want to shout about him from the roof tops, but mindful of how long it’s taken me to get to this point I’m trying to be restrained. With other Victorian writers I’m generally looking for something sensational or nostalgic, I find myself turning to Trollope because he makes me question and think, and so far it’s proving to be a very rewarding relationship for me.