This post contains major spoilers involving both The Small House at Allington The Last Chronicle of Barset
Literature is filed with love affairs that do not work out. There are plenty of rejected suitors, unrequited loves, as well as sadness and tragedy. So why focus on one unrequited love affair that spans the last two books of Anthony Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire? There are several reasons. One reason is that this pair is so interesting, is the fact that of all the romances that seemed “meant to be” in this series, this is the only one ends unsuccessfully.
The relationship between John and Lily is complex, full of nuance and false directions. The two grew up as childhood friends. John fell in love with Lily as they both matured. Lily was aware of John’s affection, but only saw him as friend. Enter Adolphus Crosbie, a complex but ultimately untrustworthy and a scheming man who sweeps Lily off of her feet. The two becomes engaged. Shortly thereafter however, Crosbie breaks off the engagement when he sees a better opportunity in a union with the wealthy and connected Lady Alexandrina De Courcy.
As a result of the broken engagement, Lilly is plunged into a depression that lasts for years. Though John proposes to her multiple times she cannot bring herself to see him as anything other then a friend. She is also still in love with Crosbie.
Over the course of the two books John’s chances seem to improve. He matures and is seen by all as more successful and confident. Then years after being jilted, Lily encounters a now widowed Crosbie, who attempts to resume the relationship with her. Ironically this encounter seems a tonic to Lily, as the new impression of Crosbie is that he is not the man she imagined him.
Though she falls out of love with Crosbie, Lily still seems damaged. She seems to want to bring herself to accept John’s proposal, but cannot quite bring herself to take the plunge. She rejects him during what he declares is his final attempt. However she pledges to never marry anyone else and to die an old maid.
In a poignant passage Trollope writes,
“I can only ask the reader to believe that she was in earnest, and express my own opinion, in this last word that I shall ever write respecting her, that she will live and die as Lily Dale.”
Likewise there are strong hints that John will also never marry anyone else.
“Johnny Eames, when last I heard of him, was still a bachelor, and, as I think, likely to remain so.”
Because the union of Johnny Eames and Lily Dale never comes to be, it is unique relationship in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. The two are the only couple in the series, that though they seem destined to marry, never actually do. The fact that every other prospective pair portrayed in the books overcame adversity and entered into relatively happy marriages, seems to give the failure of this match, some extra gravitas.
Indeed, since the pathetic end of this aborted union was so different, the reader is left a bit surprised and emotionally disappointed. I stress emotionally disappointed because I would argue that the pathos created by this resolution is aesthetically satisfying and strong.
What are we to make of the life choices of our protagonists? As is typical of Trollope’s creations, the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the each is complex, and answers are not simple.
I think that there are two distinct things going on with Lily. First, try as she seems to love John, she can only really view him as friend and not as a romantic interest. Such feelings and attractions in people are inscrutable and one is tempted to simply say that such things are what they are, and leave it at that.
But there is more going on here. Lily’s psyche has been irreparably injured by her broken engagement with Crosbie. He has hurt her in a profound way. Even after she gets over her love for him she is unable to form a romantic attachment with anyone else. It is suggested that had Crosbie never come along, she might have eventually developed different feelings for John. But the damage has been done.
By today’s standards such pinning over short time relationship for the remainder of one’s life would seem to indicate at least neurosis. It would not be viewed as normal. Though I do not usually like to go beyond the text in my commentary, Trollope did write about the fictional relationship outside of the novels. His comments seem helpful and relevant,
“Lily Dale, one of the characters which readers of my novels have liked the best. In the love with which she has been greeted I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a… prig. She became first engaged to a snob, who jilted her; and then, though in truth she loved another man who was hardly good enough, she could not extricate herself sufficiently from the collapse of her first great misfortune to be able to make up her mind to be the wife of one whom, though she loved him, she did not altogether reverence.”
The above seems to be conclusive evidence that the odd lifetime rut that Lily, and possibly John, fall into, is not meant to be seen as normal human response, even in the 19th century.
This is Trollope and he is always complex. Lilly is far from a shallow person. She is intelligent, lively, and kind. As the above also indicates, Lilly Dale is admired by many readers.
Another aspect that seems very different concerning the relationship between this pair is very ironic. Most of the other couples who struggled to end up together met opposition from friends and/or relatives. This was true of Major Grantly and Grace Crawley as well as Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham to name a few. Those couples overcame this resistance. In contrast, virtually all of John and Lilly’s friends and relatives are pulling for the two to get married. Many aid John in his endeavors to woo Lily. Some bring pressure upon Lilly. The irony here is interesting in that the couples who encountered obstruction ended up marrying and the one couple who was encouraged to marry by everyone does not end up together.
I find Trollope to be a mostly optimistic writer. Oddly enough the sad resolution to the relationship between Lilly and John gives more weight to his optimism in my eyes. Someone who recognizes that not everything turns out all right in the end, but who nevertheless views the world from an optimistic point of view, seems to be on stronger footing. It shows that the thinker is not just living in a Pollyannaish and unrealistic world, but instead has derived their opinion from a credible look at reality.
The relationship between Lilly and John is one of many ways that Trollope looks at the complexity of the human condition. As this is one relationship that the author has fashioned a little differently, I decided that a slightly closer look was warranted . It is one of many reasons why I love The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
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 the fifth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series The Small House at Allington is here.
My commentary on the sixth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire The Last Chronicle of Barset is here.