Doctor Thorne is the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. In some ways it’s a bit of a departure from the first two (The Warden and Barchester Towers), which mostly told the highs and lows of the clergy in the area. Doctor Thorne is, naturally, about one of the local doctors, and his illegitimate but well-brought-up niece Mary. The central knot of the story explores the notions of birth and rank as they vie with money, and both of those things with love. Mary Thorne, doctor’s daughter, has neither birth nor money, but she has fallen in love with the squire’s son, Frank Newbold, and he with her. Frank’s father, the squire, has disastrously mortgaged his estate; the only hope of saving it is for Frank to marry money — rank if possible, but money for certain.
I’m beginning to realize that it’s quite usual for Trollope to come at an idea like this from twenty different points of view before breakfast, and barely break a sweat. In this novel, we have the immensely rich Sir Roger Scatcherd, who was once a stonemason, and made his money on the railways. Sir Roger is vulgar in the extreme, and a late-stage alcoholic, but he has a good heart; his son, Louis-Philippe Scatcherd, is weak, tyrannical, sly, and stingy. Is this what comes of working-class people getting money? Sir Roger’s widow thinks so:
“This comes of their barro-niting,” she continued. “If they had let him alone, he would have been here now, and so would the other one. Why did they do it? why did they do it? Ah, doctor! people such as us should never meddle with them above us. See what has come of it; see what has come of it!”
But there are other opinions on the topic, of course, that permeate the novel. There is the wonderful Miss Dunstable, who made her immense fortune from selling the Oil of Lebanon. Miss Dunstable has such a wonderful sense of humor, and such clear intelligence, that no one could accuse her of meddling with those above her. There is no one above her to meddle with; certainly not the patronizing de Courcys, who would like to get Frank Newbold to marry her fortune.
Then there is poor Augusta, Frank’s sister. She falls in love with Mr. Gazebee, an attorney who is managing her father’s affairs, and meekly asks her de Courcy cousin (in an astonishing epistolary chapter) whether it would be so dreadful, after all, to marry below her station. Having received the chilling reply, she makes up her mind to do her duty and refuse Mr. Gazebee’s offer. But the chapter has a little sting in its tail.
The heart of the matter, of course, is the question of Mary Thorne and Frank Newbold. All the questions of money, birth, rank, and love come into play here. The squire tells his son, helplessly, that he is against the world:
“You must take it as you find it, Frank. I only say that such is the fact. If Porlock were to marry the daughter of a shoeblack, without a farthing, he would make a mésalliance; but if the daughter of the shoeblack had half a million of money, nobody would dream of saying so. I am stating no opinion of my own: I am only giving you the world’s opinion.”
We are not in doubt as to the outcome. As Tom said at Wuthering Expectations, it is a race to the finish: we know from the beginning that Mary and Frank get married. But will it be satisfying? We see the complications throughout the book: pride, contempt for the low-born and the nouveau riche, the power of personal attraction, the tilting match of work versus inheritance. (All this book is missing is an American, right out of Edith Wharton.) Will Mary and Frank get to the true love ending before the money ending falls in their laps? The structure — the how, not the what — provides the tension and the fun.
And, of course, can anyone beat Trollope for sheer entertainment value? You might expect that in a book of this kind, the hero would be Frank Newbold, but it’s named after Doctor Thorne, and some of the best scenes feature the good doctor, whose honesty, integrity, and pride cannot be bested. One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the doctor is attending Sir Roger Scatcherd, who is dying of alcohol poisoning. Sir Roger, in a fit of pique, has called in a rival doctor, Dr. Fillgrave (!), and regrets it immediately. But Dr. Thorne assures him that Dr. Fillgrave can do him good if he will only submit to his advice. Enjoy the scene, and then read the whole book:
‘That depends on yourself. He will do you good if you will tell him the truth, and will then be guided by him. Your wife, your servant, any one can be as good a doctor to you as either he or I; as good, that is, in the main point. But you have sent for Fillgrave now; and of course you must see him. I have much to do, and you must let me go.’
Scatcherd, however, would not let him go, but held his hand fast. ‘Thorne,’ said he, ‘if you like it, I’ll make them put Fillgrave under the pump directly he comes here. I will indeed, and pay all the damage myself.’
This was another proposition to which the doctor could not consent; but he was utterly unable to refrain from laughing. There was an earnest look of entreaty about Sir Roger’s face as he made the suggestion; and, joined to this, there was a gleam of comic satisfaction in his eye which seemed to promise, that if he received the least encouragement he would put his threat into execution. Now our doctor was not inclined to taking any steps towards subjecting his learned brother to pump discipline; but he could not but admit to himself that the idea was not a bad one.