On Rereading Doctor Thorne Half a Century Later

Dr Ellen Moody’s introduction to the final ten chapters of Doctor Thorne, given at the Zoom BIG READ on 15th March 2021

For a video of the talk click here

So it’s my delightful task to go over with you our last eleven chapters of Dr Thorne while providing some general statement about the book as a whole. Dominic mentioned that I feel I have a special relationship with this book: it’s the first one by Trollope that I remember reading. I was 18 and it was assigned in a American college novel class. I just loved it and still have my original copy with Elizabeth Bowen’s fine introduction. The professor had deprecated Trollope: Trollope told when he should have showed; he was “a mirror of his age,” which meant he was conventional; we were “bogged down” in detail; and Trollope was “repetitious.” Nonetheless, I wanted to write that term’s paper on Trollope but was persuaded to write about Dickens.

Still I remembered the book for a long time afterwards: the alcoholic Sir Roger Scatcherd, the scene where Frank courted Mary sitting on a donkey, and near the end of the book her final plangent cry: “Oh, Frank, my own Frank! My own Frank! We shall never be separated now” (chapter 46, p 607). My feelings were somewhat renewed while in hospital in the 1990s I read The Vicar of Bullhampton for the first time.

So here 56 years later, did the book stand up? Yes. It’s a masterpiece of a novel. I’m again glad I finally followed my instinct and joined a Trollope listserv here on line in 1994 and found myself leading groups of people to reading and emailing to one another about Trollope. I thought for this talk I would go back and trace changing attitudes, if any towards the novel, briefly describe them as a framing device, and then go over our chapters.

In short, over more than a century and a half since the novel was published, although emphases and particulars differ, readers have responded to this novel very favorably, sympathetically and with insight. In the very first notice, dated 29 May 1858, an anonymous reviewer in fancier language than we have used here, writes: “there is a good deal of shrewd and pleasant malice in the great debates on questions of blood and treasure” (Smalley, Trollope: Heritage, No 22, p 68). Fast forward, in the 1970s, James Kinkaid says “many of the old comedy-of-manners premisses are here overturned:” In curiously similar language, that Trollope “disguises the violence of the primitive myth of blood transfusion, and reintegration, and the very dark implications of class conflict” (The Novels, p 115). A family of hitherto privileged people are in need of a large transfusion from a “new world of money” to keep up their pleasant way of life. Where shall they get it? From some “very disagreeable” people it seems (Chapter 37, p 491). Kinkaid singled out “poor Augusta” who does sacrifice herself to “preserve Greshambury. ” In the denoument in a series of letters dipped in layers of irony we, with Trollope alongside us, watch the treacherous Lady Amelia manipulate and bully Augusta into rejecting a man whom Augusta likes, thinks she could know a happy useful life with, because Augusta cannot make up her mind to forgo rank, i.e., blood, and disobey familiar precepts (Chapter 38).

In the most recent of the Oxford classic editions, Simon Dentith bestows the accolade that it was in the writing of Dr Thorne that Trollope realized he was writing a roman fleuve. It’s in Dr Thorne that Barsetshire suddenly subdivides like some zygote and we have an East and a West Barsetshire, one side Whig, the other Tory, and he begins to place the houses of people in relationships to one another. Also very recently Jerome Fellowes declares that Dr Thorne is one of “my favorite novels, with [Trollope’s] mercifully cynical take on the vagaries of human life.” We like its “happy ending,” “even if it comes at the cost of the death of a lost man.” I’d say there are at least two lost men.

So to our 11 chapters. In Chapter 37, Sir Louis having inflicted as much misery on the Greshams as is in his power until he reaches the age of 30, and faced the reality that Mary Thorne will not have him, departs, much also to the relief of all. Trollope’s problem at this point is to maintain a carefully paced narrative, meant to make us feel we are experiencing some simulacrum of lived-through time — without boring us. After all we know Sir Louis is to die, that Mary will be Sir Roger’s heir, so marrying her will solve Frank and the Greshams’ money problem. Trollope achieves this by writing brilliant variations on his theme which make us anxious lest after all Frank and Mary might be parted. In each turn Trollope characters honor “blood,” innate status, and the resort to violence that put the hierarchical order there in the first place, at the same time as we move through psychological events that make us prefer individual merit, and remaining true to the inward human bonds we have formed over time. One of the powers of this third Barsetshire book as opposed to the previous two, is how it relies over and over again on the direct encounter between two opposed (or loving) presences in one-on-one scenes. The novel is just loaded with these. Note that at the same time this is not a multi-story, multi-plot or patterned novel as so many of Trollope’s later novels would be.

So Chapter 38, Augusta fails the test: she pleads very hard, at length and “for a moment [did] think of rebellion” (p 503), but it was no go: the unmarried Amelia cannot empathize, and Augusta cannot throw off the shackles that have been forged around her all her life. Chapter 39, “What the world says about blood,” after Lady Arabella reads to Frank the list of guests coming to his sister’s wedding, Frank heads for Beatrice to demand she invite Mary to be a bridesmaid; he insists he will marry her (I here mention Harry Windsor – who also probably insisted), so now we must have another scene between Beatrice and Mary. But Frank is not finished. He proceeds to his father, and we have an intense scene between the squire and Frank, which ends on a draw. The squire concedes all Frank’s arguments: e.g., “were she an heiress, the world would forgive her birth on account of her wealth” (p 514), but becomes so dismayed at Frank’ s “thoughts” on earning a living, all he can say is Frank must go to London to deal with “the disagreeable” lawyers, and he will speak to Mary and Dr Thorne to get them to agree to bring an end to this engagement. Chapter 40 opens with a reminder Sir Louis is dying: Louis returns home and, now estranged from Dr Thorne, calls Dr Fillgrave who comes hesitantly, but the scene is not one of comic rejection: if Fillgrave is inadequate, what matter, since no one can save Louis now.

I’ll now hasten across this thicket of scenes. Lady Arabella has given in to her medical need of Dr Thorne, but when he arrives, they go to it over Mary and Frank once again. Her thought is “they are all in a conspiracy to rob her of her son,” while Dr Thorne tells himself what he cannot yet speak aloud, “there is my niece … this girl of whom you have been talking for the last twelve-month, indifferent to what agony of mind you may have occasioned her, there she is, a probable heiress” (p. 529). Chapter 41 opens with Lady Arabella versus her husband who says he will not and cannot break Frank’s spirit: as to cutting him off, he hasn’t “a shilling to cut Frank off with” (p 531). They come together on a plan: he’ll see Dr Thorne; she, Mary, and then Frank again; and they’ll send for Oriel. In Dr Thorne’s house, the squire encounters Mary, is reminded of how much he likes her, but against Dr Thorne’s “coolness,” refusal to intervene, and enigmatic refusals to admit rank and money preclude any thought of Frank marrying Mary, Frank’s father re-aligns himself with his mother. Those of us who do not tire of these scenes are deeply engaged by the imagined personalities, the issues raised, and especially how they all profess how much they care for one another. Not one hater or hateful person among them.

The back-and-forth comes to an end finally when in a long Chapter 42 of Lady Arabella one-on-one with Mary, Lady Arabella is able to reach Mary where she hurts badly – “what can you give in return?” Mary maintains her pride throughout: she is engaged, she certainly cannot go to Beatrice’s wedding, but she already worn down, she is broken further. Our (if I may call him so) heartless epistolary narrator has some new rope for our characters to hang themselves with. Upon being left alone again, Mary bursts into “bitter tears” and writes Frank a letter offering to give up the engagement — precisely what Lady Arabella asked of her. In Chapter 44 Mary’s letter is not picked up by Frank at Greshambury since he characteristically neglects his mail (“Who ever got a letter that was worth waiting for?” p 558), and leaves for London. We are then left to worry what will happen to the letter.

Only a writer who has been a postman could have thought of the adventures of this letter. When it arrives at the breakfast table, Beatrice sees her mother take it, and she and we worry Lady Arabella will not send it on. Might destroy it. Lady Arabella does not, but sends it on after enclosing it in one of her own. When it arrives in London, Frank is with the family lawyers, Slow and Bideawhile – their names tell us enough about how time-consuming they are. What matter if Sir Louis has died in the intervening chapter (43), for until Frank replies, we do not know whether he will at long last give in. Oriel had tactfully suggested Frank be prudent (Chapter 39, p 519); the sincere Harry Baker was blunt: “such a marriage would be very foolish for you both … “ Why Frank ought not to marry any woman for another ten years” (Chapter 44, pp 579-81). Harry wouldn’t. Our narrator tells us it was a very good thing that just before Frank read Mary’s letter, he had read one of Miss Dunstable’s urging him to be faithful.

But when Frank writes his beautiful answer on Friday, the letter still does not get to Mary until Saturday morning. How many times in this novel has she waited for him? As a female reader, I am jealous for her that she does not (like him) get to mature through travel; Mary’s agon reminds me of Austen’s Anne Elliot in Persuasion who says of herself and women like her parted from a lover, “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us” as opposed to a male who is “forced on exertion” and better off for it (Persuasion, II:11, p 219).

But wait there is something else that could keep them apart, something I didn’t take seriously when I first read the book and became impatient with Dr Thorne’s ditherings. Yes I felt for Lady Scatcherd, but Mary’s need is so much more pressing. Upon Louis’s death, Dr Thorne does not make a beeline to the Squire’s house; Chapter 45 he’s off to London to consult with more lawyers. I realize now, what Trollope was worrying about when his narrator talks of lawyers objecting to his novel’s end, is in this 19th century milieu even if Sir Roger left his vast wealth to “his sister Mary’s eldest child,” that does not mean the money is automatically Mary’s. She is a bastard, and in families where an illegitimate child was claimed as heir by one branch, another branch went to court and could drag things out and win. The Austens found inheritance by adoption very costly. Think of Bleak House. Trollope’s hesitation is meant to offset the complaint that in reality it would have been most unlikely some other person in the Scatcherd family would not go to court. How about Mary’s mother’s eldest legitimate child? He would in probable real life hear of this, and doubtless take the long trip to England for such fantastic wealth.

So here we come to the fairy tale element enabling the anxiously hoped-for love match. Without specifying, but by waiting the time out for Dr Thorne to consult with those respected authorities, Sir Abraham Haphazard, Sir Rickety Griggs, “old Neversay Die,” not to omit Mr Snilam who concedes they shall have to pay a “very heavy sum for the tax; for she cannot inherit as a niece you know” (Chapter 46, p 603), Trollope persuades us to accept his ending. I don’t object to faery myself; as someone in our group has said, there is much fairy tale in this novel.

What I do still object to is how the doctor does not tell Mary first. How she is left suffering in ignorance, and then is to be told by Frank, who demures and allows the doctor the gratification. This infantilizes Mary; it makes of her a passive abject woman who is probably not going to be told how the law worked. One of my present objections to the novel is that Mary is not given enough agency; she has the strength to say yes in the face of adamant objections, to hold out, to maintain her pride; she has the humanity to love Lady Scatcherd. But she is not trusted with information and any power on her own from her author.

I end on Dr Thorne, for Trollope tells us he is the hero of our tale. He did not desert his amoral brother, Mary’s mother or even Sir Roger; he took the child, rescued her from a probable early death or hard destiny, had her educated, and brought her to live with him as a cherished daughter. His quick-wittedness has functioned to prevent the squire from going to far more rapacious creditors. There is a similar figure in The Vicar of Bullhampton: the Rev Frank Fenwick. But Thorne is a quieter fighter who has imposed his values on this world. Recent scholarship on Thorne (2006) talks about medical training and medical practice (Ziegenhagen, Studies in the Novel, 38:2). But I’m with the 1970s Robert Polhemus who says the “moral core” of the book can be found in a conversation between Mary and Dr Thorne, where Thorne says “money is a fine thing” and he would be a “happier man” if he could “insure her against all wants.” Mary interprets this as “that would be selling me, wouldn’t it, uncle? … No, uncle; you must bear the misery of having to provide for me — bonnets and all. We are in the same boat, and you shan’t turn me overboard.”

He: “But if I were to die, what would you do then?”

She: “And if I were to die, what would you do? People must be bound together.

They must depend on each other” (Chapter 11, p 153; Polhemus, The Changing World, pp 56-57)

Ellen Moody
Independent scholar

The pagination for the novel is taken from Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, ed, introd. David Skilton Oxford, 1980.

Dr Moody holds a Ph.D in British Literature and taught in American senior colleges for more than 40 years. Since 2013 she has been teaching older retired people at two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning, one attached to American University (Washington, DC) and other to George Mason University (in Fairfax, Va). She is also a literary scholar with specialties in 18th century literature, translation, early modern and women’s studies, film, nineteenth and 20th century literature and of course Trollope. For Trollope she wrote a book on her experiences of reading Trollope on the Internet with others, some more academic style essays, two on film adaptations, the most recent on Trollope’s depiction of settler colonialism:  “On Inventing a New Country.”   Here is her website:  http://www.jimandellen.org/ellen/

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