Doctor Thorne is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire; set in Greshamsbury, a rural town many miles away from the cathedral city the was the setting for the first two novels.
Mr Francis Gresham is the squire of Greshamsbury, and as he story begins he is celebrating the coming of age of his only son, Frank, with his family and friends. The squire is rightly proud of his son, who is handsome, good-natured, and popular; and his great hope is that Frank will marry a wealthy heiress and restore the impoverished and debt-laden family estate.
Sir Roger Scatcherd has underwritten the debt. He was a man with humble roots who had survived a terrible scandal and achieved great success through his own labour; only to learn that he lived in a land where birth and bloodlines meant much, and where lesser men would look down on him and his family. And so when he could work no more he took refuge in drink, even when his good friend Doctor Thorne told him that was killing him.
Frank understands his father’s wishes, but he is besotted with the lovely Mary Thorne, who is the niece of the local doctor, and who grew up alongside Frank and his sisters. He would happily marry her, hope for the best, and, if the best didn’t happen, live a simpler life.
When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified. She was a De Courcey, she had been born into a family much grander than the Greshams, she understood the importance of doing the right and proper thing, and so she set about separating the young pair. It wasn’t simply a matter of money, it was also a matter of bloodlines.
When Frank made a declaration of love, Mary turned him away. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him; indeed she probably had deeper feelings for him than he had for her. She had just learned that she was illegitimate and, because she was young and idealistic, she told herself that she could not – would not – lower her young man and his family.
Doctor Thorne had made a promise, many years earlier, to keep Mary’s origins secret, and he kept that promise. He knew that if he spoke out there would be consequences for The House of Gresham and The House of Scatcherd, as well as the niece who he knows is a great lady in every way that is important. The secret is a great burden that many men would struggle with, it weighs heavily on him, but he believes that carrying it alone is the right thing to do.
Trollope spins his story around the three households – the established household of Mr Francis Gresham, the newly elevated household of Mr Francis Gresham and the professional household of Dr Thorne, caught between the two – wonderfully well; and that speaks profoundly of the workings of society and its failure to allow men and women to rise or fall, and of the wisdom and foolishness of those men and women.
The secret is fundamental and Trollope – who I am quite sure was a man could never keep a secret – sets out all of the facts for his readers early in the book, allowing them to empathise with Doctor Thorne and wonder if he really is going to be able to sort this one out satisfactorily by the end of the book.
He did – just about.
Along the way he presented some wonderful characters, relationships and situations.
I was particularly taken by Miss Dunstable, who was a wealthy woman with an independent spirit and a great deal of worldly wisdom. Frank set about courting her, to please his family, but she saw that his heart wasn’t in it, she got the truth out of him, and told him that they should be friends and that he really should follow his hear and pursue Mary Thorne.
Many authors would have made Frank the hero of this story, and Trollope acknowledges this in a wonderful aside:
“He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.”
I liked Frank, but the village doctor made a much better hero. He raised his niece as his own child, and he did it wonderfully well; he did what he felt was right as a doctor, while many of his contemporaries thought rather too much of their fees and their social standing; was a good friend to both Sir Roger and Mr Gresham; and he even stood up to Lady Annabel in full sail in a wonderful scene that shows Trollope at his best.
That is not to say that he was a paragon. He was something much better – a real and fallible man.
I found much to love in this book, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I had hoped I might. I think that was because the whole story was spun around one central romance that was drawn out a little too much, leaving quiet periods where I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in Barsetshire.
That’s not to say that I didn’t love the country. I did, and I would happily go back there again. But I can’t say that this book is a particular favourite, or that it is more than the sum of its parts, and I think that the next book – ‘Framley Parsonage’ is rather better constructed.
I can say that I love the memory of this book; and that it has grown on me since I finished reading.
I’m happy that I remember watching the story unfold, watching Mary and Frank mature, and reaching the ending that Trollope told me was inevitable at the start if the book.