The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (1864)

I don’t think that I have ever found two consecutive books in a series as different as ‘Framley Parsonage’ and ‘The Small House at Allington’.

‘Framley Parsonage was bursting at the seams with everything that Trollope loved and did well – church and parliament, town and country, romance and finance – and it was a wonderfully vibrant book that built a world that I could have happily gone on living in after the final page was turned.

I explained the structure and the appeal of that book like this:

Consider a Christmas tree. A fir tree in its natural state is lovely, but when it has been adorned with a lovely mixture of old familiar and shiny new ornaments it is something else entirely …

‘The Small House at Allington’ has a great many of the same things things, but they are a much smaller part of the whole and it has a quite different character.

I might explain it like this.

Consider the same fir tree, left in its natural state, but its loveliness enhanced by an artist who has captured the beauty of its natural setting and the life that surrounds it ….

Quite lovely of course, but it took me a while to realise that I was in a different kind of environment and to settle into this book.

The Small House at Allington concerns the Dale family, who live in the Small House at Allington, a dower house in the grounds of the Great House. Christopher Dale, the Squire of Allington lived alone in the Great House and he had granted the Small House rent free, to his widowed sister-in-law and her daughters Isabella (Bell) and Lilian (Lily).

The love affairs of two sisters, of Lily in particular, are at the centre of this story.

Lily will become engaged to Adolphus Crosbie, a close friend of her cousin Bernard Dale, who is their uncle’s heir. Crosbie knows that Lily’s mother is a poor widow but he hopes that her uncle will provide a dowry to help them establish themselves in the world. He discovers that he won’t just before a visit to Courcy Castle; and when he mixes with high society he sees his future with Lily, living on his small salary as bleak.

The Countess de Courcy hasn’t heard of the engagement and she sees  him as Crosbie as a good match for her Alexandrina, her only single daughter still of marriageable age. Crosbie is steered toward making a proposal, and he leaves Courcy Castle with a second fiancée …..

When Lily’s heart is broken there is no weeping and wailing, she does not collapse under the emotional weight of her broken engagement. She carries on playing her part in family life, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness, and not allowing a word to be said against the man she says will always be the great love of her life.

Only her mother saw the small signs that showed her daughter’s depth of feeling.

I really don’t know what to make of Lily Dale. On one hand I admired her fortitude, her devotion to her family and friends, and her willingness to plan for a future quite different to the one she had hoped for. But on the other I suspected that she was one of those people who listened to everything you said to her without argument and then did something that showed she hadn’t taken any notice at all. I think that I like her, but I don’t think I came to know her well enough to say that I love her.

I didn’t expect to feel as much sympathy for Aldolphus Crosbie as I did. He was young and ambitious, he was foolish and weak; but he was not a villain and he wished no harm to anyone.  He was punished for his foolish marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the de Courcy family; and he had seen enough of what love and marriage with Lily could have been to know what a terrible mistake he had made.

There are other stories in the background, and they made me think of this as Trollope’s ‘marriage’ novel as many different aspects of marriage were considered.

I was well entertained by Lily’s other suitor, young Johnny Eames; and by the residents of his London boarding house and his unintended entanglement with his landlady’s daughter. I was delighted to meet the young Plantaganet Palliser, appalled that he was besotted with Lady Dumbello, but pleased to understand him and the Duke of Omnium and the foundations of the Palliser novels a little better. I was happy that Mr Harding and the Grantleys made appearances, but I was sorry that they were brief. That made me realise that I like the Palliser books a little more that the Barchester books, because they gave me more time with the characters I love most.

That’s not to say that I’m not loving my time and Barchester, and it’s not to say that I didn’t like this book.

I have yet to read a book by Trollope that I haven’t enjoyed, because I feel so at home with that author’s voice, because his prose is always smooth and readable; and because his characters all live and breathe. I loved spending time with the family at the Small House in Allington, and I came to share their concerns and to care a great deal about what would happen to them.

This is not my favourite of his books, and it’s not my favourite of the Barchester books.

I found some of the loveliest and some of the most heart-breaking moments I have found in Trollope’s work, but I also found some of his most dull scenes. That was in some part because the de Courcy family – who I don’t think have any redeeming features – were given a great many pages; and I did wonder if the arrival of Plantagenet Palliser was a sign that the author was thinking of his other great series, or of how he would finish this series in ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’.

I can understand that. I’m eager to move on to The Last Chronicle and I wish there were enough reading hours in the day for me to revisit the Pallisers ….

Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1864)

Sometimes a sensation novel is just what you need.

I read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s two most famous novels – ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ and ‘Aurora Floyd’ many years ago, and I have them on my shelves, in green Virago Modern Classics editions, because I’d love to read them again one day. You see, in those days I didn’t look as far for books as I do now – I just looked in the library and bookshops and found more that enough to read – and nothing else caught my eye.

More recently though I noticed that in this world where so many Victorian authors are readily available online and in cheap printed editions, interesting publishers were printing lovely editions of different titles by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

That said to me that there had to be something about the books and their author that made them particularly interesting.

After reading one of them I can say that I think there was.

‘Henry Dunbar’ was the book that I reached for first, because it was the earliest, because I always like a full name in a book title, and because I saw that it would account for another year in my 100 Years of Books.

It’s a wonderfully readable book, and it illuminates Victorian views of  class and gender, of crime and punishment, wonderfully well.

I could say more but I don’t want to say too much; and that reminds me to say that the additional material in the Victorian Secrets edition is fascinating, but the introduction gives away key plot points and so you should read the story before you even glance at anything else.

9188130As a young man Henry Dunbar, heir to the London banking house, Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, was spoiled and arrogant. When he fell into debt he convinced his friend Joseph Wilmot, a clerk at the bank with a gift for reproducing handwriting, to help him create forged bonds that he could use to pay off his creditors.

When the bank uncovered the fraud and he was confronted, Henry Dunbar denied responsibility and blamed Joseph Wilmot for everything. His uncle banished him to the firm’s Indian office and summarily dismissed his accomplice.

The story opened thirty years after those events.

Henry Dunbar was coming home. He would be senior partner of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, as his father and his uncle were both dead, and he would be reunited with his daughter, Laura, who he hadn’t seen since he sent her home many years earlier, after the death of the wife he met and married in India.

Joseph Wilmot, with no character from his employer, had been unable to secure another position without a reference, had fallen into bad company had been transported after a criminal conviction. He was back in England, living with his daughter, Margaret, who knew nothing of his past, when he learned from his brother, still an employee of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, that his nemesis was returning to England.

And so two men set off to welcome Henry Dunbar. One who was sent by the bank and one who was determined to call him to account for the downward spiral that his life had taken.

Only one of those two men would meet Henry Dunbar.

Only one of the three would return to London; much later than he had been expected, and not quite freed from his entanglement in a criminal investigation that had baffled police.

The plotting is very well done, but I’d be giving too much away if I said more.

What makes this book particularly interesting is the two young women – Laura and Margaret. Their stations in life are very different, but each has a suitor and is very close to marriage, and each must come to terms with their father’s past and the fact that there is much to his character of which they were unaware. And of course one has a father who is present, and who is behaving in ways that they can’t quite understand; and the one has a father who has not come home and who she will do all that she can to find.

The joy of this book comes not from the revelation of its secret – which is easy to work out, not least because the author herself drops such heavy hints – but from seeing the reactions to the revelation and watching the drama unfold.

The plot continues to intrigue. There’s a mysterious stranger; there’s a jewellery theft; there’s blackmail; there’s a dramatic chase across country with a police inspector determined to get his man; and there’s a good dash of love and romance.

Everything a sensation novel could want!

Mary Elizabeth Braddon manages her plot very well, she writes engagingly, and if her characters are not quite so finely drawn, her plots not quite so innovative, and those of her contemporaries …. well that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book, because she did all of the things that she needed to make it work.

If you enjoy sensation novels this one is well worth reading; for the story and for its view of the period.