Enduring a more than usually depressing election campaign, I consoled myself by listening to Doctor Thorne, all 20 hours and 51 minutes of it, and a very good painkiller it was. There’s nothing like a good long Barchester book when you need this sort of cure (and it was free in the Audible Plus catalogue).
Doctor Thorne is the story of the excellent doctor and his niece Mary, the illegitimate daughter of his rakish brother. I won’t be spoiling the story for you – in fact, you can skip a bit if you like – if I tell you that the rake was killed by the brother of the girl he had seduced, and that Doctor Thorne took responsibility for her to save her and her mother from the workhouse. In those enlightened times, however, the killer got off with six months because he had only intended to give the seducer a beating and it was an unlucky blow that killed him. And in the twenty or so years since, he has made a fortune in construction and is now Sir Roger Scatcherd. Mary has never been told who her mother was and knows only that she is a penniless girl with an ugly secret over her birth. In spite of this, she is welcomed by the family at nearby Greshamsbury Hall because of their friendship with her uncle, and wouldn’t you know it, she and the young Gresham heir Frank fall in love. But “FRANK MUST MARRY MONEY!” is the daily refrain of the Gresham family, because his father has frittered away his inheritance and the property is heavily mortgaged to Sir Roger.
You’ll already be able to predict how the story winds its way to a happy ending and the predictability of course is part of its charm. On the way we’re treated to a powerful critique of the cynical snobbery of the so-called “upper classes” who are haughtily proud of their blood but still willing to marry down if the price is right. Miss Augusta Gresham is engaged to an unpleasant rich man whose father was a tailor. Frank is urged by his family to pursue the wealthy Miss Dunstable, whose father made his riches from “Oil of Lebanon” – but Miss Dunstable is a great character who has learned to view her suitors with a sad wisdom and she knows exactly where Frank’s coming from. There’s a funny but sad story of one of the Gresham daughters who turns down a proposal because her snobbish cousin tells her that the man, a lawyer, could not possibly be received among them – only for the snobbish cousin to marry him herself later on. Money smoothes away all social evils, even that of low birth, and those who have it can do whatever they like without being excluded from society, as we see with the loathesome Louis Scatcherd, inheritor of the Scatcherd fortune. Timothy West does a great job of bringing this pathetic but obnoxious character to life, as he does with Miss Dunstable, and I must give a special mention to his rendition of the aristocratic drawl of Lady De Courcy, the aunt who presides over the Gresham family like the word of God. In fact I think listening to a good reading is the best way of enjoying books of this kind that depend so much on character and on the wise narratorial voice that takes the listener into its confidence.
It’s easy for us now to be shocked by the mores of a society that cared so much about “blood” and made illegitimacy an absolute barrier to a good marriage (unless you had a lot of money). What’s interesting is that Trollope was very popular in his time, so clearly his views were not so shocking. I assume that reflects the growing influence of middle-class readers who could enjoy the skewering of an an aristocratic world that even then was losing its power. I certainly did enjoy it and heartily recommend it in the words of George Eliot:
[Trollope’s books] are like pleasant public gardens, where people go for amusement and, whether they think it or not, get health as well.
I certainly got health in these trying times. And if you’re interested in the outcome of the election – yes, the good guys won.