Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

[Warning: for those who have yet to read this novel I dwell on what might be considered spoilers here]

This fifth novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, published 1862-64, is different from its predecessors. Anthony Trollope refrains from giving his central female character the happy ending enjoyed by the romantic ladies in the previous marriage plots. There are some satisfactory matches made, but here he seems more interested in other matters.

Lily Dale is that unfortunate young lady. In Trollope’s now familiar authorial voice he says as early as p. 14 that she’s ‘dear Lily Dale’ –

For my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him [sic] if he do not love Lily Dale.

The narrative goes on to portray her on first meeting Adolphus Crosbie, the morally slippery and caddish London visitor to their idyllic rural ‘small house’, shrewdly identifying him as a ‘swell’ – then promptly falling in love with him. Although the narrator quickly assures us he is not ‘altogether a bad fellow’, it’s clear he’s not good husband material for her:

He was not married. He had acknowledged to himself that he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money. He had put aside from him, as not within his reach, the comforts of marriage…

Lily has no money. Crosbie has just £700 and a small patrimony – not enough for him to marry a dear, delightful but penniless girl and carry on living the lavish bachelor life he enjoys in swanky London society. It’s not hard to figure where this is going. Lily is not destined, like some earlier versions of her in Trollope, to find herself conveniently a wealthy heiress in the final act, thus rendering her eligible to handsome, weak-willed predators like Crosbie.

Clues were given a few pages earlier:

I do not say that Mr Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments…among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen – to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action.

Those other ‘young gentlemen’ are neither heroic nor very interesting, and Trollope predictably provides them with bad first choices for wives, then most of them see the light and marry the right young ladies. In resisting the temptation to do this with Crosbie and Lily he darkens the tone that had threatened to become twee and formulaic in the earlier Barsetshire novels.

I found the non-romantic, older characters the most engaging, especially truculent Squire Dale. He’s the owner of both the Allington houses, having inherited his estate with £3000 per annum (Trollope as usual tells us exactly what his main characters are worth; with the younger ones in particular this has important consequences for their marriage prospects – see Crosbie above).

Trollope is getting better at creating complex conflicted characters like Dale. Earlier examples were also among the most interesting in the novels they appeared in, from henpecked Bishop Proudie representing the clergy, and sottish Roger Scruton among the uncultured rich, to Lady Lufton, of the more cultured but imperious variety.

It’s with Christopher Dale, squire in the big house at Allington, that the novel opens, and this is an indication of the importance of the role he’s going to play. In some respects he can be seen as the nearest thing to a true (if imperfect) ‘hero’ in the novel. He’s described at such length in the opening pages and subsequently that I can’t quote much here. It’s clear that he’s a flawed individual, having annoyed his fellow squires by flirting with politics (and failing) as a Liberal, even though he’s as Conservative at heart as they are (this political factionalism had become increasingly prominent in the earlier novels). More importantly, he’d suffered from an unrequited love:

In his hard, dry, unpleasant way he had loved the woman; and when at last he learned to know that she would not have his love, he had been unable to transfer his heart to another.

Not only does this help account for his irascible behaviour towards his dependent, impoverished relatives in the small house (and most other people), it foreshadows the bad choices and cynical or more judicious ‘transfers of heart’ that are to come in some of those fickle young ladies and gentlemen mentioned above. The portrait continues:

A constant, upright, and by no means insincere man was our Christopher Dale, – thin and meagre in his mental attributes…but yet worthy of regard in that he had realized a path of duty and did endeavour to walk therein. And, moreover, our Mr. Christopher Dale was a gentleman.

A ‘gentleman’ marks him as potentially good; Trollope doesn’t use this term lightly. And ‘duty’ is a key theme in all the novels in the series so far – usually seen in the context of penniless young ladies or gentlemen ensuring that they marry well and thereby keep their families financially buoyant, while ‘transferring their hearts’ without being too mercenary.

There follows a long description of his appearance – Trollope often gives an almost phrenological portrait, as here. Dale’s face is ‘destroyed by a mean mouth with thin lips’, and so on. These features

forbad you also to take him for a man of great parts, or of a wide capacity.

All of this helps explain his contrariness and petulance with others. When he drives away his nephew, who is effectively a son to him, he complains sorely, “He cannot bear to live with me”, without examining how he’d alienated the man. Similarly he treats Lily’s family so high-handedly that her mother can’t bear to dine with him, though she encourages her girls to do so; he is largely responsible for causing Crosbie to jilt Lily by refusing to settle the dowry on her that would have satisfied his swell’s need for a wife with money. So the narrator’s remark that he treats his nieces

with more generosity than the daughters of the House of Allington had usually received from their fathers – and they repelled his kindness, running away from him, and telling him openly that they would not be beholden to him…

is really an insight into how he perceives himself – it’s a bit of free indirect thought, not objective narrative comment. Unable to stop himself treating them imperiously, he then feels let down when they react as they do.

These ‘bitter thoughts’ reflect his maudlin tendency to see his relationships as doomed, because

he accused himself in his thoughts rather than others. He declared to himself that he was made to be hated, and protested to himself that it would be well that he should die and be buried out of memory, so that the remaining Dales might have a better chance of living happily; and then as he discussed all this within his own bosom, his thoughts were very tender, and though he was aggrieved, he was most affectionate to those who had most injured him. But it was absolutely beyond his power to reproduce outwardly, with words and outward signs, such thoughts and feelings.

This subtle psychological probing is where Trollope is gaining in prowess as a novelist. We get too little of it in his depiction of the central, supposedly most interesting characters (ie those in the romantic plots). His half-serious declarations, in the earlier novels, that he had little interest in plotting, are now not so openly stated; instead he just goes ahead and creates rounded characters like Dale. Lily, Crosbie and the rest of them play their parts to fill out their scenes; the public demanded such romantic comedy of him, and he churned it out. But he also wrote characters like this one, showing where his true authorial interest and skill lay.

Dale’s self-pity and wallowing in the consequences of his gruffness are reflected in Lily’s bizarre loyalty to the man who callously breaks her heart. It might annoy or upset readers who want a nice neat ending for the heroine, but thematically and psychologically it’s more like reality and less like the novels that Lily and her sister discuss in a revealing metafictional scene. Such novels are ‘too sweet’, says the more sensible Bell, who doesn’t like them; they’re not ‘real life’.

Lily takes the opposite view:

That’s why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.

She’s just ghost-written her own sad future and shown her fatal flaw. Like her uncle the squire, she’s too much of a Dale – unswerving to the point of rigidity once she’s decided something, but not good at analysing her own or other people’s characters. Unfortunately for her that decision was to give her heart to Crosbie. She’s a self-created victim, like her uncle.

 

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4 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

  1. Saving this for whenever I eventually get to this read. Will I’m sure have Illuminating Things to say then (or possibly not). I feel like just getting through him all on our autumn trip to the Scillies but that might be an odd thing to do.

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