Property and human quality: Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 2

In Dr Thorne the dangers threatening the pastoral, idyllic, conservative world of Barsetshire appear not in the ‘clerical aristocracy’, as in the first two novels in the Chronicles, but in ‘the old, feudal and now so-called landed interests’. The novel poses the question, What makes a gentleman (or woman)? It’s another way of asking, What makes one person another’s superior? The answers he provides are more complicated and ambivalent than might have been suspected of a novelist with the reactionary reputation of Trollope.

Raymond Williams (in The English Novel: From Dickens to Hardy) concedes that assessed against certain ‘abstract criteria’ Trollope is George Eliot’s superior as a writer, but lacks the perception she shares with Hardy of the ‘creative disturbance’ of that ‘unprecedented time’, that capacity to question ‘in a profoundly moral way’ the ‘real and assumed relations between property and human quality’. Trollope, I’d suggest, shows that it’s not a sufficient or even necessary qualification just to be nobly born, and does attempt to explore ‘human quality’. Trollope is assuredly no George Eliot, but he’s not entirely blind to the corruption and venality of the inheriting classes he portrays; neither does he idealise the rising moneyed middle classes.

In the first chapter it’s the Greshams of Greshambury who largely represent this imperilled upper class, facing ‘[s]uch changes’ that ‘had taken place in England’ since their estate was founded that they find themselves having to ‘protect themselves like common folk, or live uprotected’. In other words, there’s not much to distinguish them from these ‘common folk’; their sense of superiority is deluded. Our narrator continues:

But the old symbols remained and may such symbols long remain among us; they are still lovely and fit to be loved. They tell us of the true and manly feelings of other times: and to him who can read aright, they explain more truly than any written history can do, how Englishmen have become what they are. England is not yet a commercial country…and let us hope that she will not soon become so. She might surely as well be called feudal England or chivalrous England.

He goes on to concede that in fact England has become ‘a commercial country’ but only in the sense that Venice was –

yet it is not that in which she most prides herself, in which she most excels. Merchants as such are not the first men among us; though it perhaps be open, barely open, to a merchant to become one of them. Buying and selling is good and necessary…but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

Trollope appears to side then with the forces of conservatism and against the hostile invasions of the newly rich. Typically, though, he goes on in the rest of the novel to show that some of these dangerous invaders are in many ways morally and personally superior to the effete and atrophied aristocracy and the traditions they represent that he’d defended so stoutly here. His vision of a restored, revitalised rural gentry involves an injection of new blood from a more robust class – as I hope to show next time – and a severe self-examination as their faults are exposed and exploited by smarter and more morally and personally robust characters.

He resorts frequently to the imagery of battle and warfare, as he had in the power struggles among the clergy in the first two novels, to dramatise this social-economic-political shift; it’s a battle between an uneasy alliance of the ‘high blood and plenty of money’ of the haughtily aristocratic but morally deficient de Courcy class – we met the Countess of that ilk in all her supercilious arrogance in Barchester Towers — and their allies by birth the Greshams (albeit they’ve impoverished themselves, and lack the noble title, and who represent the pastoral gentry), and the rising, irresistible, ambitious bourgeoisie – the professional and merchant-commercial classes.

Ch. 26 is entitled ‘War’ – the conflict between stubborn, proud, middle-class professional Dr Thorne and Lady Arabella Gresham, Frank’s mother, sister of Earl de Courcy, ‘full of the de Courcy arrogance’. The chapter shows Trollope at his serious-comic best: Arabella had earlier defeated the upstart doctor by banishing his daughter from her intimate friendship with the Gresham household because Frank had proposed to Thorne’s daughter Mary, illegitimate and dowry-less, and therefore not a suitable match for the heir to the heavily mortgaged Gresham estate; he’d had his orders – to ‘marry money’ and restore the estate to its own family out of the hands of their creditors.

Encouraged by this apparent victory, she’d come to ‘despise the enemy she had conquered, and to think that the foe, once beaten, could never rally.’ She’s condescended to make a rare visit the doctor’s own house to broaden her anti-Thorne campaign by insisting that ‘all confidential intercourse between [her daughter] Beatrice and Mary’ be ended; the two young women had grown up together in the Gresham household and become close friends, but Arabella fears this intimacy will fortify Mary in her betrothal to the foolish ‘boy’ Frank.

It’s a wonderful scene, consisting mostly of fizzing, sparring dialogue almost as sharp and subtle as any in Jane Austen, as Thorne refuses to acquiesce to her imperious, insulting demands. Lady Arabella is routed this time, ‘not destined to gain any great victory’:

It was not the man’s vehemence that provoked her so much as his evident determination to break down the prestige of her rank, and place her on a footing in no respect superior to his own. He had never before been so audaciously arrogant…

This brilliantly depicted defeat problematizes Trollope’s snobbish assertion in Ch. 1 that the landed gentry represent the highest form of civilisation. The way in which the narrator focalises through Arabella in Ch. 26 serves to highlight her own arrogance; the doctor’s lèse majesté is her perception; Trollope’s ironic narrative voice ensures his readers are on Thorne’s side. The class struggle represented in Dr Thorne is more nuanced and complicated than the simple, polar struggle between good and evil that he appeared to present at the novel’s start.

This post is becoming too long, so I’ll stop there, and continue next time with the portrayal of the flawed hero and not-so-awful villains, and examine this notion of ‘human quality’ further.