Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope is the third book in the author’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Though some familiar characters make short appearances, this entry mostly focuses on characters who were unseen residents of the county in the previous books. Dr. Thorne is a physician who operates on the outskirts of the county of Barchester. The narrative is mostly concerned with his niece, Mary Thorne, and her romantic interactions with Frank Gresham, heir of the squire of Greshamsbury.
Mary is the illegitimate daughter of a poor, working class girl and the late, scandalously immoral brother of the Dr. Thorne. Upon her father’s death and her mother’s departure for America, Thorne adapts the infant Mary. Brought up by the headstrong but moral and decent doctor, Mary grows into her twenties as a person of substance. Thorne is a member of a distinguished family, but he himself is not wealthy. His slightly difficult personality gets him into moderate social and professional difficulties.
Courted by the young Frank Gresham, Mary is placed into a compromising social situation. She has grown up with the Gresham children and is close to the family. The Greshams are members of the local gentry who have found themselves in great financial difficulty. Frank’s mother, the extremely overbearing, selfish and socially scheming Lady Arabella, is determined that Frank “marry money” and rescue the family from financial ruin. Much of the plot involves the efforts of Lady Arabella to keep Mary and Frank apart. Thus, Mary is banned from all social interaction with the Gresham family. This puts the ever suffering Mary in the position of a social pariah. Frank, in his ardor for Mary, eventually comes to resist his mother’s edicts. Though the two eventually become engaged, Frank’s mother continues to go to great lengths to prevent the marriage. Great aguish and sacrifice ensues for Mary. Unbeknownst to the Greshams, or to Mary, is the fact that Trollope’s heroine is the potential heir to another of her uncles’ fortune, which includes the mortgaged titles to the Gresham’s estate. There are numerous additional characters and subplots.
Though filled with themes and ideas, the main philosophical thrust of the book explores the complex relationship between class, wealth, especially the wealth embodied by the new capitalistic class sprung from poverty, and genuine character. One thread of this involves what are the persistent efforts of the old aristocratic class, who have frequently fallen into hard financial times, to rescue themselves by marrying into the newly rich capitalist families. Multiple such arrangements are attempted as these upper class families attempt to arrange marriages for their sons and daughters into nouveau riche clans that they consider to be their social inferiors.
Like the previous entries in the series, Trollope’s characters show incredible nuance. Even the best of them show some flaws. The weaknesses are indeed realistic shortcomings that are characteristic of real people. I am amazed at how well Trollope is able to craft such realistic personas.
Frank Gresham is a good example. Frank is mostly a sympathetic character and is really the male protagonist of the book. Both his fellow characters as well as Trollope heap praise upon him, which is often deserved. At one point, Trollope comments upon Frank, and points out that he is a more pivotal character than Doctor Thorne, while at the same time praising him,
Those who don't approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, "The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger."
And Master Frank Gresham was not ill adapted for playing the part of a hero of this sort
Indeed Frank is virtuous, he shows his substance by choosing true love over money, he is loyal, respectful, etc.
Trollope is better than this however, and there is often more here than initially meets the eye. A close reading of Frank reveals a few flaws. Like many young men, he shows a little narcissism and insensitivity.
When Frank reveals his engagement to Mary, his conniving mother devises a plan to get him out of the country. Furthermore, under extreme familial pressure, he agrees to a complete embargo on correspondence and communication with Mary for a year or so.
This decision puts Mary in a terrible position; she is already a social outcast as a result of Lady Arabella’ s machinations and is now alone and without support as she is subject to nasty social attacks. She is also subject to hearing mostly unfounded rumors of Frank’s infidelity to her while abroad. Isolated and without friends, Mary endures the hardships quietly and with grace. Frank, who really should know better, seems oblivious to all of this. He proceeds on a pleasant world tour. He flirts with women and is tempted to go further, but is convinced to stay true to Mary by the advice of his platonic, spirited and astute friend, Miss Dunstable.
Along with this lack of perception for the suffering of others comes a little too much self-assurance. At one point , Trollope observes,
“His manners were easy, his voice under his control, and words were at his command: he was no longer either shy or noisy; but, perhaps, was open to the charge of seeming, at least, to be too conscious of his own merits. “
Trollope reveals more complexity. Even after his return, Frank comes under enormous and relentless pressure from family and friends to break the engagement. The pressure is exacerbated by the fact that his financial future with Mary looks to be bleaker and bleaker. It is almost understandable that he inwardly begins to harbor a few doubts. Once again, Trollope hints that if not for the influence of Miss Dunstable, the heir to squire of Greshamsbury would waiver.
This is, of course, just one aspect to Frank. When one looks at the big picture he is mostly a noble character who does what is right, even while under great pressure. It is to Trollope’s credit that he has been fashioned with a few very believable imperfections.
I found Doctor Thorne to be just a little less compelling then the previous two books. The plot seemed a little less interesting. What were innovations of style and character in the previous books are still wonderful touches here, but such touches are just not as unique as they were. Regardless, this is still an excellent novel. It is characterized by amusing and interesting characters, many of whom I have not even mentioned here. It is fairly well packed with ideas and musings upon life. It is funny and entertaining. Trollope continues to engage in his unorthodox point of view and use of meta-fiction, as I describe here. Highly recommended, but I would read the first two books first.
My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.
My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.