Oh, Anthony Trollope! Just when I thought I knew what the Barsetshire formula was about — marriage proposals under the difficult circumstances of class and money troubles, among various levels of society, with generally happy endings — you do this to me! Yes, I’d gathered hints that The Small House was not the favorite Barsetshire novel of some faithful Trollope readers, but I’d never suspected such a twist: marriage proposals under the difficult circumstances of class and money troubles, among various levels of society, with blighted lives at the end! Oh dear, oh dear, never get over it mutter mutter my heart mutter mutter.
Not that The Small House doesn’t have a tremendous amount to offer. The squire at the Great House at Allington is very tender-hearted toward his nieces Bell and Lily Dale, but his behavior is cold, domineering, and severe, so that he is always misunderstood. The Dales at the Small House, despite their long relationship with him, misunderstand him like anyone else, and hurt him deeply with their apparently ungrateful behavior. Yet change and redemption is still possible: love can conquer the most ingrained habits.
And habits — habits of mind and body — are a force to be reckoned with, as Trollope (always such a student of human nature) will tell you. All the characters have taught themselves to behave in certain ways, whether it is a question of the income Adolphus Crosbie has learned to expect (and will not have if he marries Lily), or a question of the love Lily has learned to give Crosbie once they became engaged, or a question of the habits young hobbledehoy Jonny Eames falls into at his not-terribly-reputable rooming-house. It takes a great deal of effort and conviction to root out old habits, and not all the characters are successful at doing so. Those who find themselves able to try new ways of doing things, find themselves moving in new and happier circles by the end of the book. Those who cannot, out of cowardice, sloth, or moral conviction — well!
That rooming-house of Jonny’s was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in Trollope, barring the marvelous Miss Dunstable. It was like turning the corner, walking into Mrs. Roper’s establishment, and finding it was straight out of Dickens:
“Miss Spruce,” continued Lupex, “there are moments when the heart becomes too strong for a man.”
“I dare say,” said Miss Spruce.
“Now, Lupex, that will do,” said his wife.
“Yes, that will do, But I think it right to tell Mr. Cradell that I am glad he did not come to me. Your friend, Mr. Cradell, did me the honour of calling on me at the theatre yesterday at half-past four, but I was in the slings then and could not very well come down to him. I shall be happy to see you both any day at five, and to bury all unkindness with a chop and glass at the Pot and Poker, in Bow Street.”
“I’m sure you’re very kind,” said Cradell.
“And Mrs. Lupex will join us. There’s a delightful little snuggery upstairs at the Pot and Poker; and if Miss Spruce will condescend to –”
“Oh, I’m an old woman, sir.”
“No — no — no,” said Lupex, “I deny that.”
I believe that several of the reviews I’ve seen of The Small House have complained about it because of Lily Dale’s behavior (as well as the unresolved, or rather resolved but not entirely happy ending that one had been led to expect from Trollope’s Barsetshire novels.) Well, I’m not complaining. She doesn’t waft about, saying one thing and doing another. On the contrary! This young woman knows exactly what she wants and what she doesn’t want. And perhaps we, as readers, know better than she does, or we think we do: that guy was a jerk! You wouldn’t have been happy with him, Lily! You’d be better off with someone else! Get over it! But that’s not to the point, is it? If we’re going to let our female characters have agency, we have to let them have all the agency. If she chooses to live her life single and (eventually) cheerful, then that’s what she gets to do. I, for one, admire her for her forthrightness. She’ll be the aunt who always has gum, that’s for sure.
Trollope wrote fifty novels, or maybe more. He has to have written some clunkers, some that are boring, some that are no good at all. But this one — this one was a pleasure from first to last, from the earl escaping the bull to Plantagenet Palliser being saved from his own bull-headed behavior. All the strands are there, and Trollope, too, laughing as he pulls the strings. I look forward very much to reading the Last Chronicle, and seeing how it all comes out.