- Title: Doctor Thorne
- Author: Anthony Trollope
- Published: 1858
- Rating: 4/5
Having seen the ITV’s mini-series of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne last year I was inspired to read his novel. Published in 1858, it is the third novel in Trollope’s series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire. The novel starts with a recollection of events from the past – to the time when Doctor Thorne’s brother Henry had an affair and impregnated Mary Scatcherd, sister to Roger Scatcherd, a stone-mason. Roger becomes furious and murdered Henry, consequently he is imprisoned. Meanwhile, Mary gives birth to a baby girl. Doctor Thorne then advises her to marry her old fiancé and move to America whilst he cares and attends to the baby girl, named after her mother.
The novel omits twenty years and we are presented with a grown up Mary Thorne (we are told that she takes her uncle’s name). She has been brought up in the county of Greshamsbury and within the Gresham household, sharing lessons with the daughters of the local squire, Mr Gresham. Mr Gresham married the daughter of an Earl, Lady Arabella and due to her extravagant lifestyle and his incompetency the family fortune is in ruins.
The principal story starts with Frank Gresham’s coming of age party (he is the eldest and only Gresham son). Foolishly, he announces his love to Mary and proposes. This has negative effects as he is sent by his family to meet Miss Dunstable (a wealthy heiress) in the hope that he might marry money and restore the Gresham family to their former glory. Whilst Mary is banished and isolated from the Gresham’s household. Throughout we follow the trying tribulations of the two young lovers.
I’ve never read any of Trollope’s novels before so this was a new experience for me. Initially, I found his style of narration to be confusing. It’s a cross between the 3rd person omniscient narrator – who knows more than everyone else and who narrates events not from the characters internal thoughts but from a Birdseye perspective. But at the same time he engages in an almost conversational style with the reader. This came across as kind of jarring (at least for me it was). I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be experiencing an intimate and personal retelling of the narrators opinions or whether I was supposed to be experiencing the story irrespective of this.
However, I personally would argue that Trollope utilises his narratorial voice specifically to guide the readers opinions, for example he states that the hero of the novel is ‘pre-occupied by the village doctor’. Trollope goes on to argue that for ‘those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead’. Although this seems to give the reader freedom of thought, it gives the impression, especially from Trollope’s tone that he is subtly and cleverly stating that any reversal from his idea of the hero is wrong. Again guiding the reader’s response to the novel and its events.
Furthermore, there were moments were his conversational style meant that the narration would sometimes drift off in an unexpected route, leaving you wondering what it was that was being discussed in the first place. However, once I got into the storyline I found this style to be rather comical which added a certain charm to his writing.
In terms of themes there are several that link and which are relevant to today’s society, such as political, social and gender issues. Politics and the voting system are at the heart of this novel which begs us to find the parallelisms to today. With the wire-tapping, allegations of voter fraud in the US Presidential elections, claims that the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on the future membership of the EU and that accusations about the misuse of public funds against candidates in the French Presidential elections, Trollope’s novel instead of being a form escapism seems to reinforce the idea that as a civilisation and as a country we have failed to improve and progress from the abuses of political power seen within this novel.
However, I think the biggest issues within this novel are that of the ambiguities within the gender and social class. Mary Thorne is considered an ill match for a nobleman like Frank because of her suspicious birth, her blood and poverty. Through Mary, Trollope questions what makes a gentlewoman, whether it is these aforementioned factors or whether it is her superiority of being, her mannerisms, her knowledge, intelligence and not superficial things like wealth.
‘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 spiritualised 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?’
In an age where social and gender equality is becoming essential this novel provides a harsh truth about what it was previously like for women. There was neither opportunity for expressions of thought nor any way for them to stand against and speak out about male domination. Women were considered inferior and were expected to be submissive and passive. They were defined and referred to through their husbands social standing. Most importantly this novel details women who often underwent social humiliations, except those who were the exception to the rule, the rich heiresses like Miss Dunstable.
This was a brilliant read! If you’re looking for something comical and beautifully written but also thought-provoking then I couldn’t recommend this novel enough.