The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Third and Fourth Volumes
By Anthony Trollope
All Posts Contain Spoilers
As I have mentioned before, I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s six-volume ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, reviewing volume by volume. However, I have decided to combine the reviews of these two books, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, the third and fourth Chronicles respectively, because they are essentially the same novel.
Both novels are stories of marriage: tales of love-matches made between young people of different classes. In both cases, the mismatch disfavors the female: a lovely, honorable woman of spotless character but unfortunate circumstance will find herself loved by, and in love with, a man of higher class. The young man’s family and peer group will be shocked, outraged, by the proposed marriage, and the young woman will be too virtuous to marry against the wishes of his family. But he, persevering in love and no less honorable than she, will not be shaken off. The novels tell how these difficulties are overcome.
‘Doctor Thorne‘ is the story of Mary Thorne, a lovely but illegitimate young woman raised by her uncle, the eponymous Doctor. Because her uncle is himself respectable, and because he takes pains to hide the tragic circumstances of her birth from the neighbors (and from Mary herself), Mary grows up among the local gentry, the Greshams of Greshambury, beloved by and welcomed among them. However, as they all reach adulthood, Mary becomes the beloved object of the heir of Greshamsbury, young Frank, and when he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family and all of Barsetshire is brought down upon them.
‘Framley Parsonage‘ is the story of the Robarts family. Mark Robarts is the Vicar of Framley (a village in Barsetshire). He has a young wife and the friendship and patronage of his local gentry, the Luftons. Troubles visit the Robarts in the form of two main plots: one financial, and one romantic. Mark Robarts runs in a set a little too fast for a vicar; in a moment of social aspiration, he signs a note guaranteeing a loan for a friend, a completely insolvent Member of Parliament, which note will bring shame and near-ruin upon him. At the same time, his sister Lucy, virtuous and lovely but, alas, without a cent in the world, catches the eye of the unmarried young Lord of Lufton, Ludovic. When he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family etcetera, etcetera, you know how this ends.
The English novel of marriage is a highly stereotyped genre, and people usually love them or hate them. I love them. They are a particular sub-genre of the novel of manners, arch and unsuspenseful. Everyone knows how they’re going to end; the joy of them is in getting to the foregone conclusions, in witnessing the subtleties, absurdities, minor foibles of this particular set of characters. These two novels are both totally true to type (with the possible exception of an illegitimate heroine – that seems like a brave choice for its time). Everyone is good; everyone ends up happy. Love is requited and virtue is rewarded. Snide and ungenerous relatives suffer, but only within the tight confines of their world.
But just because two novels have the same plot doesn’t mean that they are equally good. ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are by the same author, written two years apart (1858 and 1860, respectively), about almost exactly the same thing. But you know what they say: practice makes perfect, and the latter, ‘Framley Parsonage’, is a much better book.
First of all, despite the similarities in premise, there are differences in execution. ‘Doctor Thorne‘ is clunkier; there are enormous and convoluted machinations of plot involved in solving the marital difficulties of ‘Doctor Thorne’ (secret family, sudden and untimely deaths, unlikely inheritances), while the troubles of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are solved only by the intrinsic kindness and gentle maturation of its protagonists. It is truer and more likely, and everyone in it is more plausible, less caricaturish. In order for Frank Gresham to marry the woman he loves, two very rich men in the same line of succession must drink themselves to death within a matter of months; they must also then leave their enormous wealth to a stranger. These are unlikely events. In order for Ludovic Lufton to marry his lady, all it needs is for his mother to realize that she wants her son to be happy.
The writing of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is better, too: it’s tighter, and wittier. When I read, I put sticky notes over passages that I want to remember, either because they are lovely or funny or wise. ‘Framley Parsonage’ has eight passages so marked; ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has none.
And there is a difference in tone between the two books. Both novels make moral points: good birth is not virtue; debt is vice, as is drink. However, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ makes its points more by showing: Mary Thorne is a lovely young woman, and the treatment of her due to her birth is meant to anger the reader. ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is more didactic, and normally, as the adage goes, it is better to show, not tell, but I think Trollope is an exception to this rule. He is often at his best, most pithy, most elegant, when he is telling you the moral of the story, or summing up a character, and the best passages of ‘Framley Parsonage’ hew to this:
‘When a man gets into his head an idea that the public voice calls for him, it is astonishing how great becomes his trust in the wisdom of the public.’ (p. 87)
‘A few words dropping from Mr. Sowerby did now and again find their way to his [Mr. Smith’s] ears, but the sound of his own voice had brought with it the accustomed charm, and he ran on from platitude to truism, and from truism back to platitude, with an eloquence that was charming to him.’ (p. 69)
‘One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it. For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing.’ (p. 110)
‘Such companions are very dangerous. There is no cholera, no yellow-fever, no small-pox, more contagious than debt. If one lives habitually among embarrassed men, one catches it to a certainty.’ (p. 44)
These are lovely descriptions, wise words beautifully said. And ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has no equal passages, which is a shame. A reader would feel better if the two volumes were more even, better matched; instead, it feels as though Trollope tried an idea, published it, saw the flaws in his work, and took another run at it.
And mediocrity is not the only way in which ‘Doctor Thorne‘ stands alone among the first four volumes of ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’: it is also the only book so far whose major protagonist is not a clergyman. This might seem like a silly point (doctor, clergyman, these really are minor phylogenic differences in the family of English Rural Gentlemen), but, once you’ve bought into Barsetshire, this difference doesn’t seem minor. The ‘Chronicles’ have been about how these men of the cloth make good lives surrounded by the petty problems of the English gentry – that’s the project of these books, and the further Trollope wanders from that mission, the less well the books hang together.
However, frankly, Trollope is a joy to read even when he’s mediocre, and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, at least, was wonderful. It was witty and warm. But one of my favorite things about Trollope is that, despite being kind to his characters, he doesn’t at all see the world through rose-colored glasses. For all the basic and mundane humanity of its story, one gets flashes of steel, and darkness, behind all the Barsetshirian goodness. And a sharp-eyed realist lurks behind those happy endings, formulaic as they seem. After all, no fairy tale ends like this:
‘But it was October before Lord Lufton was made a happy man – that is, if the fruition of his happiness was a greater joy than the anticipation of it. I will not say that the happiness of marriage is like the Dead Sea fruit – an apple which, when eaten, turns to bitter ashes in the mouth. Such pretended sarcasm would be very false. Nevertheless, is it not the fact that the sweetest morsel of love’s feast has been eaten, that the freshest, fairest blush of the flower has been snatched and has been passed away, when the ceremony at the altar has been performed, and legal possession has been given?…When the husband walks back from the altar, he has already swallowed the choicest dainties of his banquet.’ (p. 468)