Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 3: to purify the blood of the tribe

One of Trollope’s greatest strengths is that his good characters are far from perfect, his villains not just all bad. When Dr Thorne was first presented in Ch. 2 he was described ambiguously for the man proclaimed the novel’s hero, preferred over the handsome young squire’s son who loves the doctor’s niece Mary:

No man plumed himself on good blood more than Dr Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree.

‘High blood’ is a relative or illusory concept, then, and possession of wealth without ‘family’ not necessarily a barrier to the highest station or moral probity – as the rise of Sir Roger Scatcherd from stonemason to plutocrat shows – another richly drawn character, part drunken oaf, part genius, with a generous heart, morally sickly son, and fatal addictions (so much for blood). Here’s how the narrator carries on his portrait of the hero:

Let it not be thought that our doctor was a perfect character. No, indeed; most far from perfect. He had a pride in being a poor man of a high family; he had a pride in repudiating the very family of which he was proud; and he had a special pride in keeping his pride silently to himself.

Here it must be remembered that the doctor’s brother raped the village girl, ‘of good character and honest, womanly conduct’, Roger Scatcherd’s sister, who resulted in becoming Mary’s mother – even the doctor’s pride in his family isn’t entirely merited.

The novel can be seen, then, as a dramatization of the ways a symbolic blood transfusion can serve to revitalise a decadent and atrophied upper class; blood and money can mingle. Sort of reverse vampires. There are frequent repulsive images of upper-class ‘blood’ being ‘diluted’, ‘sullied’ or even ‘polluted’ by upper class types marrying beneath them, ‘paving the way for revolutions’, as the Lady Amelia de Courcy – a ‘consummate hypocrite’, we learn later, when she betrays her cousin despicably – puts it to her cousins Augusta and Arabella.

Trollope shows throughout the novel that the aristocracy and gentry, intent on preserving their blood’s supposed “purity”, are prepared to ‘marry money’ if they can’t marry each other. Ch. 39 is called ‘What the World Says About Blood’ (no prizes for guessing what that might be), and it ends with besieged Frank proclaiming: ‘Will my blood ever get me a half crown?’ He represents the new generation of gentry, rejecting the snobbery and hypocrisy of his elders and embracing change, ‘human quality’ rather than rank.

Wealthy, spirited Miss Dunstable – one of Trollope’s most appealing female characters so far – urges Frank after his half-hearted proposal (forced upon him by his mother, Lady Arabella) not to ‘sell [himself] for money!’ It’s she who encourages him to follow his heart and persist with his love for Mary, rather than to submit to the edicts of his rank-obsessed, gold-digging mother (his father, the squire Gresham, is a far kinder, more decent example of the gentry; Trollope doesn’t praise or dismiss social groups, but individuals, as we saw with his first two in this series about clergy). Wealthy people without ‘family’, that is, can be virtuous, unselfish and morally stalwart.

The status quo can be maintained, however, and stability restored, without a revolution. That inoculation of better blood is provided by the truly ‘perfect’ Mary — a much more significant role for her, as Trollope presents it, than that of her father’s ‘angel who brightened his own hearthstone’, the romantic heroine, the ‘base born’ and ‘nameless’ protagonist of the inheritance plot mentioned last time. Her importance resides in her purity of spirit and moral integrity, inherited from her father, but divested of the pride, pretensions, arrogance and contrariness which prevents him from effecting such a social change himself. He can challenge the aristocracy, force it to regroup, but not defeat it definitively.

That’s Mary’s role – and she does it by sticking to her own principles to win her battles against the snobs. She’s ultimately able to ascertain what her own ‘rank’ might be – a question she often asks herself since she only learns about the true identity of her parents at the novel’s end – and that discovery neatly resolves all the class conflicts that have occupied the rest of the narrative:

On one point Mary’s mind was strongly made up. No wealth, no mere worldly advantage could make anyone her superior. If she were born a gentlewoman, then was she fit to match with any gentleman…If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualized quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

The narrator calls the characters who think like this (Dr Thorne is the other main example) ‘democrats’. Not entirely an insult from this conservative writer: he’s learning to show latitude.

So instead of this ‘bastard child’ potentially infecting what ‘the world’ calls her social ‘superiors’ like the Greshams with her ‘ill blood’, as even her own father worries at one point, bringing about ‘poverty’ and ‘sullied’ offspring, tainting or defiling the family line, she will reinvigorate it, restore its dwindling vitality.

Not ultimately a particularly revolutionary novel, then. But it’s not an entirely reactionary one.

8 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 3: to purify the blood of the tribe

  1. I like a good villain, I must admit – in fact, I always prefer Dickens’ villains to his good characters, who can be so saccharine at times. But it sounds as if Trollope is being a little more nuanced, which has to be a good thing!

  2. Trollope almost doesn’t believe in villains. Few of his novels have villains in the Dickensian, Rogue Riderhood sense. Some of his novels from the 1870s have characters who could be called villains, I guess.

    • Slope, perhaps, comes close: rascally is perhaps a better term than villain for him. I haven’t got to the Pallisers yet, so will look out for more Dickensian types there. I quite like that his world view allows for people who do bad or selfish things, often just to advance their own cause, without much concern for the impact on others. Not villains, then, but reprehensible. Same goes, I suppose, for heroes and heroines, in which again he seems to show little interest. Saintly types like Harding are sort of negative heroes. Dr Thorne is a much more interesting ‘hero’, with his irascibility, arrogance and morally blurred vision. I’m getting to really like Trollope’s world. It resembles the one I know: flawed but striving, at its best.

    • Even in those later novels, “Dickensian” probably gives the wrong idea. What am I trying to say?

      Perhaps what I mean is that in the earlier novels, the Barchester books, it is not clear that Trollope believes in evil. Or he is not interested in it. As you say, Slope, perfect example. In some later books, there are some evil deeds.

      But even there, evil in Trollope’s world, on his imaginative and ethical terms, not Dickens’s.

  3. Bravo, this splendid book deserves its 3x posts! I did two posts on it when I read it: it was highly enjoyable, and full of fascinating aspects and ways of looking at the world. I (of course) had one post on a lovely discussion of how much bonnets cost… but, as you say, he never comes full down on the side of radicalism, but he certainly sees some of the grim unfairnesses and paradoxes of class.

    • Moira: AT seems acutely conscious of the cost of most things, even telling us exactly the annual income of many of his characters. I’m reading the next Barsetshire, Framley Parsonage at the moment, which is even more to do with money matters, debts, dodgy loans, etc. And the price of horses. And children’s clothes.

  4. I loved Miss Dunstable, too, and you’re right, he does go against individuals as representives as parts but not all of classes or other social groupings, which I think is what makes him so warm and attractive to read.

    • Strangely modern, isn’t it, Liz, that refusal to typecast or group people according to occupation, affiliations, etc. Even clergymen are men, he points out, subject to the same passions and weaknesses as lay folk.

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