Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 1: narrative voice

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne. Oxford World’s Classics, 1994. First published 1858: the third of the ‘Barsetshire Chronicles’.

Trollope’s fiction has often been dismissed as commonplace, conventional and pedestrian, from his own Victorian period to Leavis and after, of ‘low literary worth’ (as David Skilton points out in this OWC edition Introduction). As Henry James sniffily suggested, ‘With Trollope we are always safe’; sinking into one of his romantic comedies of manners is like ‘sinking into a gentle slumber’; he provides ‘a complete appreciation of the usual’. Virginia Woolf wrote that he provides ‘assurance’: a Valium comfort-novelist who provides a cosy, undemanding warmth. This is unfair. After my uncertain start with The Warden and the superior second Barsetshire Chronicle, Barchester Towers, (links to posts here) I’ve come to value his unconventional, idiosyncratic ironic narrative approach, his slippery,  sometimes over-reactionary moral stance, and the duality/complexity of narrative voice and approach. This might take a few posts to show what I mean.

I’ll start with that narrative voice – more subtle in its intrusions and comments than in the first two in the series, and therefore more insidiously suggestive of that unconventional, disruptive, maybe even pre-modernist inconclusiveness, that draws attention to the artificiality of the novel’s own structural and generic nature in order to justify focusing on richness of characterisation and seriousness of theme.

Trollope Thorne cover

Charity shop price sticker damaged the cover when I peeled it off. It’s a detail from a painting by Richard Redgrave, ‘The Walk from the Church’, 1846

The novel’s first three chapters consist of complicated, and frankly rather tedious introductory back-story, in which the narrator begins by ironically insisting that handsome young gentleman Frank Gresham, heir to the large but financially precarious country estate that his father has dissipated, is not the hero of ‘our tale’. That place is occupied by ‘the village doctor’ – an unusual choice; there aren’t many Victorian fictional heroes from the medical world. Like Dr Watson, they tend to be bit-part players. Those who prefer, our knowingly genial narrator concedes, may choose to favour callow Frank; but as far as this narrator is concerned, Frank serves as window-dressing:

It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshambury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger’.

This ambivalent refusal to admire the genre to which he’s required to conform signals its real focus. He goes on to extol Frank’s creakily stereotypical credentials for this role as romantic pseudo-hero: vigour, good looks, and a ‘pleasant, aristocratic, dangerous curl of the upper lip which can equally express good humour or scorn’. But Trollope is just going through the motions of starting a romantic novel with its familiar ‘inheritance plot’. As EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, ‘oh dear, yes’, the novel must tell a story. That’s Trollope’s view, too. He tells his story, but as early as p. 7 has indicated there’s a happy ending. He deliberately disrupts the mystery element of the plot of this sprawling 600-page triple-decker by giving the game away at the outset. He’s not terribly interested in whether the vapid young heroine, illegitimate and therefore a social pariah, not a suitable match for a young scion of the gentry who must ‘marry money’ to save the family estate, will become a wealthy heiress and enable the lovers to marry and save the family estate (who cares?). Trollope knows his readers expect a teasing plot of that kind, so with grudging irony provides it. But don’t expect him to relish the task; his disdain is palpable. His real interest lies elsewhere.

This is not the conventional Victorian approach to writing the ‘cosy’ realist novel his detractors accuse him of, even the popular light comedy kind; Trollope is more concerned with exploring (admittedly with limited subversive intentions) the social conditions and tensions in his changing, doubt-filled, unstable world of landed gentry and rising middle classes; I’ll consider this aspect in another post. Back to that disruptive narrative voice:

As Dr Thorne is our hero – or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to my readers – and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner.

Really? He knows this is not ‘necessary’. Trollope chooses to get this tedious, predictable plot and character-introduction (preamble to the ‘necessary’ inheritance plot) stuff out of the way so that he can return to his more pressing themes and interesting characters. To counteract the potential tedium he makes a joke of it by foregrounding that shift of possessive pronouns from the grandly inclusive ‘our’ to more personal ‘my’ (ironic echoes perhaps of Jane Austen’s proprietary ‘my Fanny’ in Mansfield Park), thus highlighting the relative frivolity of this conventional aspect of the narrative, and thereby implicitly accusing the superficial romance-loving reader of demanding such undemanding material. This is neatly done, for like all the best ironic-satiric humour, it’s incontestable by the accused reader who demands her/his page-turner and pining lovers. Trollope rolls his eyes and provides that plot, but signposts his (not entirely sincere) distaste for such dross:

I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognized by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages: but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise…This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling – that, indeed is very doubtful.

I’ve quoted most of this opening to Ch. 2 so you can savour that double-edged self-deprecation, deployed here with feigned ingenuous artlessness that wittily draws attention to its rhetorical artfulness.

Near the end of these ‘dull chapters’ he makes another such joke, by saying he needs to say ‘[a] few words more’ about ‘Miss Mary’ before ‘we rush into our story’ (back to that inclusive ‘we’ again; again he makes a show of suggesting he’s got the reader back on narrative board) with an audaciously inappropriate, romance-deflating metaphor:

…the crust will then have been broken, and the pie will be open to the guests.

Those who want the meaty innards of the suspense-filled rom-com ‘pie’ will just have to put up with the dry, crusty serious stuff. The joke isn’t on the posing-as-humble-and-inept-jobbing author, but on the low-brow reader who demands instant gratification.

He used a similar ironic narrative technique to delightful comic effect in Barchester Towers when he reassured his worried readers early on that Eleanor wasn’t going to marry any of the awful suitors.





7 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 1: narrative voice

  1. Lovely post! I enjoyed this one the most out of all of the novels so far, and I think you’ve caught up with me now, haven’t you? I look forward to your follow-up posts first, though.

    I got stupidly excited reading an Angela Thirkell to read that a character was descended from Mary Thorne!

    • Thanks, Liz. I’m take a break between Trollope novels to change the tone and style of reading, so I’ve started another Vita Sackville-West. Dr T is perhaps the best of the three I’ve read so far; there’s a more sophisticated deployment of the narrative devices he’s fond of (I mention a few in this and previous posts), and more of a concrete sense of impending threat to the old, aristocratic-genry-ecclesiastical establishment from social developments. But he’s careful to avoid some of the polarities and partialities I found distasteful in The Warden in particular; Miss Dunstable, for example, is low-born and rich, but a character of considerable moral fortitude and integrity, while most of the titled characters are despicable, consummate hypocrites and morally corrupt. Moffat, on the other hand, is rich but selfish and shallow. He deserves his thrashing by the brother of his jilted fiancée, dropped for what he thinks will be a richer prize. I hope to write about the characters and themes a bit more in the next post.

    • Once again, Tom, I stand corrected. I just consulted his index, without checking the Appendix where, as you rightly point out, he includes all the Barsetshires, Pallisers and a couple more. But there’s no discussion of the works in the body of the text, as far as I can see. But of course he only considers 26 or so in detail. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  2. I love the meta-fictional side of Trollope, and miss it when, not so long after Thorne, he gets it out of his system. All of that commentary of his is my kind of fun. I found Dr. Thorne especially fun to write about.

  3. Wow, very impressive review ! I’m afraid great critics don’t always get it right and some of them did in fact quite a bit of damage ! I’m thinking of Leavis about Dickens, and especially Nabokov about Jane Austen: “Miss Austen’s is not a violently vivid masterpiece as some other novels in this series are. Novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin are delightful explosions admirably controlled. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak of marvelous genius in that child”. Much as I love Nabokov’s lectures, I could never forgive him this misogynistic belittling of such a great author. I’m glad Bloom corrected that injustice.
    I’m also glad that contemporary criticism began 30 years ago to offer more complex and appreciative readings of AT’s work with a structuralist approach. Feminist criticism has suggested new possibilities and a number of his texts are considered explicitly feminist, like He Knew He Was Right while Dr Wortle’s shows that he could take a subversive moral view of marriage.

    • Thanks, Izzy, and that’s a pertinent point about Nabokov and the like. I’ve not read much recent critical work on Trollope, but I’m not surprised that his reputation has been rehabilitated in more recent times. I’m just about to post again on Dr Thorne and hope that Trollope’s broad spirit and depth of insight comes out even more. He’s not beyond reproach for some of his judgements (I didn’t like the ending of The Warden, for example), but he manages to redeem himself by showing most of his characters have good points – even the apparent villains – while the ‘heroes’ have flaws.

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