“You lawyers never like to give an opinion without money.”
Doctor Thorne, the third novel in the Barsetshire series, follows on the heels on the marvellous, Barchester Towers. While the first two novels in the series focused on the ecclesiastical “aristocracy” of Barsetshire, Doctor Thorne is a complete change of pace. In Barchester Towers, we met the Thornes of Ullathorne, an elderly brother and sister who are unwilling to be dragged into the nineteenth century. The Thornes pride themselves on their breeding, and although the hero of this novel, Doctor Thorne is a “lesser cousin” of the wealthy branch of the family, he is, nonetheless, very proud of his blood. In the first chapter, Trollope gives the background of the Gresham family, and explains how Frank Gresham, a heir with 14,000 pounds a year, married Lady Arabella de Courcy and became seduced by the grandeur of his snooty in-laws. He ploughed money into politics and lost big-time. Then tragedy struck the Gresham nursery repeatedly, which brings Doctor Thorne into the picture as he attends the sickly children.
There’s a back story with Doctor Thorne. Doctor Thorne’s brother, Henry, seduced the beautiful Mary Scatcherd, and she became pregnant. When Roger Scatcherd, a stonemason, with a teensy drinking problem discovers his sister is pregnant, he kills Henry in a drunken rage. Roger goes to prison and Mary gives birth to a girl. A local man offers to marry Mary and whisk her off to America, but only if she will leave her child behind. The doctor offers to raise the child, also named Mary, but he keeps her parentage secret. Roger is told by his sister that the child is dead. Poor Roger’s wife lives in horrendous poverty while her husband is in jail, but later, Doctor Thorne recommends her as a wet nurse for the sickly Gresham heir. So we have connections between The Greshams, the Scatcherds and the Thornes.
So that’s the back plot. Fast forward … Mary has grown up, lives with her uncle Doctor Thorne, and is a frequent companion to the Gresham children at Greshamsbury Hall. Squire Gresham inherited a fortune but managed to lose most of it, and this has resulted in debt gradually built up against the estate. Doctor Thorne, who attends the squire’s wife, Lady Arabella, is in the awkward position of helping the squire broker loans, and these loans are held by … none other than Sir Roger Scatcherd, who is now, post prison, a phenomenally wealthy railway tycoon. Problems arise when Mary and Frank Gresham fall in love. Since the estate is heavily in debt, Lady de Courcy, Frank’s snobbish aunt, declares that Frank “must marry money,” and Lady Arabella leaps eagerly into the scheme. Soon Frank is invited to Courcy Castle to meet Martha Dunstable, “the oil of Lebanon” heiress, a woman who is considerably older than Frank. Snobbery and pride are rife in these pages: it’s perfectly acceptable to marry a person of ‘low birth’ as long as here’s a high bank balance in view. So it’s acceptable for the nauseating Mr Moffat to marry Lady Augusta Gresham, but Frank must not cast his eyes towards Mary. Frank isn’t much of a hero. He chases too many women to carry much weight as a earnest lover.
Trollope asserts that Doctor Thorne is the hero of this story, and he is indeed. While this is essentially a love story between Mary Thorne, Doctor Thorne’s niece and Frank Gresham, the focus here is on the actions of Doctor Thorne, a man of principle. Mary and Frank, must, according to his mother and aunt, be kept apart, and Mary bears the burden of blame–and she doesn’t deserve it.
At several points in the novel, Doctor Thorne makes moral choices, and he does this regardless of other incentives. There is some humour here in the rivalry between the local doctors. Doctor Thorne is disapproved of by other members of his profession as he is also an apothecary, and this ‘taints’ him with the stain of trade rather than a profession. Thorne is not well-off at all, and although his fees are much lower than those of Dr. Fillgrave, nonetheless, Thorne is seen as:
always thinking of his money, like an apothecary. […] A physician should take his fee without letting the left hand know what his right hand was doing; it should be taken without a thought, without a look, without a move of the facial muscles; the true physician should hardly be aware that the last friendly grasp of the hand had been made more precious by the touch of gold. Whereas that fellow Thorne would lug out half a crown from his breeches pocket and give it in change for a ten-shilling piece. And then it was clear that this man had no appreciation of the dignity of a learned profession.
In spite of the fact that the plot forms around a love story (and a rather drippy one at that) I enjoyed this tale a great deal. IMO, it does not match the quality of Barchester Towers, but there are some great characters and many wonderful scenes: the riotous elections, the snobby De Courcy family and their dreary, pretentious ‘castle,’ the larger-than-life Roger Scatcherd (“When money’s been made, the next thing is to spend it. Now the man who makes it has not the heart to do that.”), Louis the drunkard Scatcherd son and heir, Joe, Louis Scatcherd’s dreadful valet who meets his comeuppance at the end of a rolling pin, and the hilarious dinner party scene at Greshamsbury in which Louis Scatcherd gets drunk. Trollope recreates this robust period and shows the reader how industrialization changed not only the face of commerce, but also the ‘gentry.’ Trade is marrying into the landed gentry: Mr. Moffat, the son of a tailor is considered a good match for Lady Augusta Gresham, Martha Dunstable’s wealth from the ‘Oil of Lebanon’ guarantees she will be welcomed in the ‘best’ homes, and then there’s Louis Scatcherd… whose money was made by his railway building tycoon father murderer/baronet. Yet… with all these inroads of the trade classes into the gentry, they are still expected to behave, and Louis Scatcherd’s dinner invitation to Greshamsbury is ill-conceived and therefore great entertainment.
While there’s a lot drama and various romantic relationships, the book is also a character study of Doctor Thorne, a man “who had within him an inner, stubborn, self-admiring pride, which made him believe himself to be better and higher than those around him.” While this sounds unpleasant, this pride mainly manifests itself in setting a certain standard of behaviour and sticking to it. In Trollope’s autobiography, he said this was “the most popular book that I have written.” The love affair between Mary and Frank goes on a bit too long and with many bumps along the way. Trollope presents a rather rosy, generous view of human nature, but that’s part of Trollope’s great, enduring charm.
How frequent it is that men on their road to ruin feel elation such as this! A man signs away a moiety of his substance; nay, that were nothing; but a moiety of the substance of his children; he puts pen to the paper that ruins him and them; but in doing so he frees himself from a score of immediate little pestering, stinging troubles: and therefore, feels as though fortune had been almost kind to him.