Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope
I had planned to join in the #6Barsets reading of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series, which Audrey has organized for this year celebrating the bicentennial of his birth. And I was looking forward to re-reading The Warden and Barchester Towers, which were my introduction to Trollope over twenty years ago now. (I first read them in a combined Modern Library paperback, and I still think of them as one book.) But reading C.P. Snow's biography of Trollope, excellent as it was, threw me off. When I started The Warden, I found myself thinking about Trollope rather than his creations, and I could never lose myself in the story, so I set it aside. Then I missed Karen's bicentennial reading event in April, partly because Charlotte M. Yonge's Heartsease gave me a strong aversion to all things Victorian. Fortunately, it wore off in time for me to join the third of the #6Barsets read-alongs, with Doctor Thorne.
I had only read this book once, several years ago now, so while I remembered the basic plot - or maybe I should say the main plot, this being Trollope, Man of a Hundred Subplots - I had forgotten so much of it. And I'm not sure I even appreciated it properly the first time I read it. I remember being disappointed at the shift from Barchester to the surrounding countryside, to Greshambury in West Barsetshire. I missed Mr. Harding, and Dean Arabin, and even Mrs. Proudie. I think it wasn't until I read Framley Parsonage that I really appreciated the Barsetshire setting, and by then I had also discovered Angela Thirkell's 20th century Barsetshire. This time I could give this book its due.
I won't say much about the plot(s), since people are still reading or planning to read (though Trollope enjoys dropping his own spoilers along the way). I do want to say how much I came to love Doctor Thorne himself. As I said elsewhere, he is the perfect uncle and the perfect doctor. His only real rival is Uncle Doctor, Alec Campbell, from Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and A Rose in Bloom (though Doctor T isn't concerned about dress reform, nor does he make his ward exercise as much as Rose has to.) My only complaint about this book is how often the title character is absent from the action!
I was amused to come across what I now recognize as some of Trollope's favorite hobbyhorses, which he regularly rides into his stories. One enduring theme is what exactly makes a gentleman, or a gentlewoman - a particularly important question in this story, concerned as it is with Blood, Family and Money. He also manages to work a parliamentary election into this book, which may not appeal to certain readers at this particular moment. But in writing about it, Trollope gets to repeat another favorite theme: the glory of serving as a Member of Parliament, despite the ugliness of campaigning. It reads a little poignantly, knowing how much Trollope himself longed to win a seat, and how much his loss in his one candidacy hurt (in 1867, almost ten years after this was written). And at a particularly fraught moment, Trollope the postal surveyor stops his story to trace a very important letter as it moves slowly through the West Barset postal system. I was surprised to read that Trollope was traveling (on postal business) in Egypt and the Holy Land while he was writing this book. He must have had England's green and pleasant land so clearly in his mind's eye the whole time.
A final familiar theme: the difficulties of young women, who are not supposed to fall in love first, but wait for their true love and then follow his lead. Trollope frequently points out the proper pattern, but his characters just as frequently flout it, usually to a happy ending (though not always). He also takes the proper line about how a woman in love must have "acknowledged him to be the master of her spirit; her bosom's lord; the man whom she had been born to worship..." He can say that, and does repeatedly, but the characters he creates are so far from clinging vines, are so often stronger than the men around them, that I can never quite see them sinking into a completely passive role. They are too alive and active for that, and they often see all too clearly the clay feet of those they're supposed to worship, and accept them anyway. I'm trying to think of one woman character in Trollope who has to be brought down and humbled, like Charlotte Yonge's Theodora in Heartsease, and I can't, off-hand [Edited to add: I haven't of course read all the books]. Maybe they have to curb their behavior, but never break their spirit.
When I finished this, I was strongly tempted to start Framley Parsonage, but I resisted. I'm really looking forward now to re-discovering The Small House at Allington, another of his books I have only read once. And The Last Chronicle of Barset may be my favorite Trollope of all.
N.B. This reading project and the Trollope Bicentennial may help me fill up several years of my Century of Books. The 19th century section is looking very Trollopian!