My commentary contains major spoilers.
The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope is the fifth novel in the "Chronicles of Barsetshire" series. Perhaps wanting to inject variety into the series, this entry takes what is, for Trollope, a fairly dark, or at least grey, turn. This is another superb novel in the series.
The story centers on the Dale family, who reside in the small house of the title. Mrs. Dale, a widow, resides there with her two daughters, Lilly and Bell. The plot revolves around the marital prospects of both. Each has what I would call a “good” suitor and a “bad” suitor. This is Trollope, and as usual the “good” suitors have some very negative character flaws and the “bad” suitors some good character traits.
Lilly and her wooers are the primary focus of the plot, and they are more interesting characters than Bell and her suitors. Thus, I will concentrate on them.
Both of Lilly’s love interests are complex and realistic literary creations. Adolphus Crosbie, her “bad” suitor, becomes engaged to Lilly for complex reasons, which include his desire for financial and social advancement. Despite the fact that he does begin to really fall in love with Lilly, when it becomes clear that Lilly’s uncle will not come up with the hoped for dowry, Crosbie reluctantly breaks off the engagement. This betrayal devastates Lilly, and her ensuing depression is a major factor in the story. He quickly becomes engaged to the shallow and materialistic Lady Alexandrina de Courcy. He spends the remainder of the novel regretting his decision, both before and after his marriage.
John Eames is Lilly’s “good” love interest. A man of lower social status as well as one with less confidence than Crosbie, he has been in love with Lilly for years. An imperfect creation, though often brave and virtuous, Eames shows character flaws, which he seems to work out throughout the story. He behaves dishonestly with another girl named Amelia Roper. Though Amelia is aggressive in her pursuit of Eames, he is at times false to her regards to his feelings. This provides Trollope with another opportunity to display his marvelous meta-fiction and odd point of view. At several points in the book, the usually unseen narrator shows himself and lectures Eames from afar on his behavior. This suddenly obtrusive narrator even calls Eames an “Ass” and a “Blockhead.”
As is typical with Trollope, there are numerous additional characters and subplots. Once again, there are so many areas that I could talk about that I could write an entire series of posts. This book is different from the previous entries in the series. Not only are there dark moments, but, unlike the other books, there is no really happy ending here. Though there are signs of hope, several of the characters end the story in a state just short of melancholy.
I do want to focus a little on one extraordinary and important passage. It is the carriage ride that Alexandrina and Crosbie take from their wedding to their honeymoon lodgings. This is my fifth Trollope novel, and I find it to be perhaps the darkest passage that I have encountered thus far in my readings of the author. It is deeply affective and brilliantly written.
It is clear that there is no affection between the two newlyweds despite some half-hearted attempts at tenderness by Crosbie. Personally, if I took a carriage ride with a pleasant person that I just met, I think that there would be more human connection involved. Making matters worse, Crosbie understands that he has made a terrible mistake, and it is Lilly who is on his mind.
Just a part of it is below,
And as he seated himself opposite to Alexandrina, having properly tucked her up with all her bright-coloured trappings, he remembered that he had never in truth been alone with her before. He had danced with her frequently, and been left with her for a few minutes between the figures. He had flirted with her in crowded drawing-rooms, and had once found a moment at Courcy Castle to tell her that he was willing to marry her in spite of his engagement with Lilian Dale. But he had never walked with her for hours together….as he had walked with Lily.
The tragedy here is that although Crosbie has done a terrible thing by abandoning Lilly, he has a lot of substance to him. He is intelligent and cultured, and he can be thoughtful and sensitive.
Another part the passage highlights this,
He had never talked to her about government, and politics, and books, nor had she talked to him of poetry, of religion, and of the little duties and comforts of life. He had known the Lady Alexandrina for the last six or seven years; but he had never known her,— perhaps never would know her,— as he had learned to know Lily Dale within the space of two months… It was in this that Crosbie's failure had been so grievous,— that he had seen and approved the better course, but had chosen for himself to walk in that which was worse.
Even though he has acted abominably, these thoughts, as well as the mood that Trollope creates, manifest upon Crosbie’s wedding day and reach a very high level of pathos.
The scene goes on for multiple pages. I find it to be a gem, and it alone would make the book worth reading.
As in every other book that I have read in this series, there are a lot of other good reasons to read this novel. It rises to the level of Trollope’s usual typical high quality. There are so many great characters and interactions worth noting, including the incredibly complex relationship between the Dale women and Mrs. Dale’s brother-in-law, The Squire of Allington. What I would describe as a grey ending fits in well both with the themes and with the characters. In my opinion, the sad outcomes raise this novel up a couple notches on the aesthetic scale. I still think that Barchester Towers is the best in the series so far, but this one comes in a close second for me.
Although this is the fifth book in the series, it can be read as standalone. Characters from the other books take on small to moderately important parts here. I have just one more book to read in the Chronicles of Barsetshire" series, The Last Chronicle of Barset . I cannot wait to delve into that one!
My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.
My commentary on the Fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Framley Parsonage is here and as it relates to gender roles here.
My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.