Friday, February 13, 2015

Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne (1858)

Right.  So there were these two brothers, Thomas and Henry Thorne (distantly related to the Thornes who were minor characters in Barchester Towers).  Thomas, the responsible one, becomes the doctor of the title, while Henry, the fuck-up, seduces a poor girl named Mary Scatcherd; when she gets pregnant, her brother, Roger, murders him, as one does.  She’s in luck, though: an old beau agrees to marry her as long as she gives up the child; she agrees and they go off to Ameri-cay (and if this seems like a rough deal, note that she still gets off far easier than a woman in a Dickens novel would’ve under the same circumstances).  The daughter, also Mary, is left to be raised by the doctor; her background is kept a secret.  She grows up and becomes beautiful and well-beloved by everyone and all that.

Meanwhile, there are the Greshams, an aristocratic family in financially difficult straits due to various imprudences on their part.  Their last, best hope hangs on getting their only son, Frank, to marry money.  This is VERY VERY VERY important to them.  If you’ve ever read a novel before, you can probably venture a guess as to whom Frank would rather marry.

And finally, there’s Roger Scatcherd (Mary Thorne’s uncle without knowing it), who only received a light sentence for the murder, everyone having agreed that dude had it coming, and who subsequently became massively rich as a contractor, even receiving a minor title of nobility.  However, as the story opens, he’s just about succeeded in drinking himself to death, and his ne’er-do-well son Louis seems poised to do the same.

So that’s that.  Obviously, the novel is basically about how Mary and Frank will get together, and isn’t it bad the way people feel compelled to marry for money or social position?  As social criticism, though, it’s really not up to much: sure, we’re against all these things, but this is the way it is, so like it or not marriages WILL marry for these reasons, so let’s try to make a delightful comedy out of it, shall we?

I would have no objections to this, if the novel did a better job of following through on the “delightful” part.  In the early going, I was really enjoying it, but as I got to the mid-section, I realized, man.  This is really starting to drag.  Here’s the issue: it pretty quickly becomes apparent what’s ultimately going to happen.  Roger sets up his estate such that if his son dies before the age of twenty-five, his fortune should go to his sister’s eldest child.  He doesn’t know that this is Mary, but he helpfully stipulates that only Doctor Thorne knows who his eldest child is, and if that sounds both contrived and legally questionably, well…

(there is a bit near the end where Trollope admits that in the real world there might be problems here, but that he really, really needs it to work like this for his story to function, so that’s what it’s gonna do, dammit.)

So we know what’s going to happen, or at least what Trollope wants us to think is going to happen, early on: Louis bites it, Mary inherits the money, all objections to Frank marrying a poor girl are forgotten, WHOO.  That’s not the problem, though.  The resolution of a novel like this may be predictable, but the fun lies in seeing what twists and turns the author puts in the way, and in spending time with appealing characters.  Hey, it worked in Barchester Towers.  The problem here, though, is twofold: firstly, Mary and Frank really aren’t that appealing, as characters go.  They’re not actively unappealing, but after promising starts, they both settle into a kind of blandness, where their main traits are being feminine/masculine in the appropriate ways, and being into each other.  This reader did not actually have all that much invested in their eventual marriage.  Secondly, there really aren’t any twists and turns.  Things go exactly as you’d expect them to; the back half of the novel consists mainly of seemingly endless exhortations by Frank’s mother for them to give up this marriage idea, and you really have to think, seriously, why do we need to read all this?  We know it’s not going to do or mean anything.  It’s just monotonous.  There is simply no good excuse for this book being a hundred-odd pages longer than Barchester Towers.  Also, after Louis’ death, Trollope has the doctor drag out the delivery of the exciting news about the inheritance to a truly excessive degree; clearly, this is to heighten readers’ alleged vicarious delight at his characters’ direct kind, but at that point, I was mostly just thinking, fercrissake, Anthony, get on with it already.  And then, we still have to have more blahdy-blah about the wedding than I ideally would have wanted.

I think I may be being harder on the book than I want to; I did enjoy the first half quite a bit, it’s just that the second made more of an impression on me.  My favorite character in the book—and, for that matter, my favorite thing in the book—was Miss Dunstable, a thirty-ish-year-old woman who is independently wealthy owing to her late father having manufactured some sort of unguent called “oil of lebanon.”  for that reason, hordes of men see her as a desirable wife (remember: in this time and place, if she married, all her money would be her husband’s), but she has an ironic, humorous manner, and she’s used to batting down their proposals in appropriate style.  However, she realizes the difficulty of her situation, and there’s real pain behind her facade.  I thought this was a sensitive portrait, and really shone a light on the difficulties of even very fortunate women of the time.  Of course, I also thought briefly that Trollope might pair her up with the doctor.  How young we were then, and full of love and light…


Well, at any rate, this blog is a merciful blog, so we’ll see if Framley Parsonage gets him back out of the doghouse.  But you’re on THIN ICE, Trollope.

You Have Never Before Seen That Word Used That Way dept.:

But young Scatcherd did not fail to find companions at Cambridge also. There are few places indeed in which a rich man cannot buy companionship. But the set with whom he lived at Cambridge were the worst of the place. They were fast, slang men, who were fast and slang, and nothing else.


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