This post contains major spoilers involving both The Small House at Allington and 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 first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden is here.
My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.
My commentary on the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Doctor Thorne 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.
My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Point of View is here.
Wonderful essay about this relationship. I agree that a novel can be optimistic even when not everything turns out as it's "supposed to." It's more lifelike and shows that we can find strength to deal with our misfortunes in varying ways. I'm looking forward to reading these books.
Indeed, at least John seems to derive streagnth from the failed relationship.
Very interesting commentary, Brian Joseph. I like the idea that the author is optimistic overall, although the characters and situations portrayed are complex. You have certainly whetted my interest in Lily Dale and The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
Great post, Brian. I really like your idea of focusing on the relationship between these two characters from the final novels in the series. Yet another reason for me to try these books at some stage!
Hi Suko - I think that you would like this series. Lily is just one of many interesting characters.
Thanks Jacqui - I think that you would like this series. Lily and John are just one part of a big tapestry of characters.
Just stopping by to say hello. I'm in the midst of a year-long Barsetshire project now, and have recently finished Doctor Thorne. Will begin Framley Parsonage in a few weeks. Trollope has definitely become a new favorite! I will be back to read your posts in detail after I've finished these books.
Hi JoAnn - Thanks for stopping by. It seems that it was not that long ago that I discovered Trollope myself. Now he is one of my favorites too.
I look forward to reading your posts on these novels.
While Trollope is optimistic he is also realistic. His realism seems akin to that of Balzac although his sunny disposition and interest in the pastoral lead in some different directions.
The complexity that you comment on seems of key importance in the success of this series of novels.
Hi James - I really need to get around to reading Balzac sooner rather then later.
The complexity is one of the reasons that I love Trollope.
Great commentary Brian, I'm really enjoying your focusing on certain issues.
Thanks Tracy. I so do not like comprehenive reviews. I find these little bits so much more fun.
yes I think you're right, overall Trollope is an optimistic writer.
Hi Guy - Without a doubt Trollope sees more light then dark, Even when it comes to John, one gets the sense that while he might nit ever marry, that he will e OK.
I'd like to read this one. I like how he seems able to create a complex character who can make poor or incomprehensible choices while not being "a bad person" or thoroughly unlikeable. (That's a trap others fall into.) I also like how there's a mix of motives behind the characters' actions, like violated trust and the fact that one can't force romantic feelings or bring those emotions to life with logical arguments.
Hi Hila - The entire series was filled with such complex characters and relationships.
Indeed, romantic feelings were an enigma in Trollope's time as they are in ours.
I suppose if I'm going to be able to read your posts I'm going to have to read these books first. I did read the first paragraph about unrequited love.
I wonder why that is such a common theme in so many books? Is it because it is so common? Or do people perceive it to be common? I know some people believe that once you've set your sights on someone there's no changing it while others are more practical and think, "OK, this person's not interested. 'Next!'"
Perhaps it is conditional vs. unconditional love. I personally think that agape love is unconditional but eros love needs to be conditional. If someone doesn't love you romantically you need to move on, even though you can still love them agape-wise.
It's an interesting topic, to me at least.
Hi Sharon - i always try to put up spoiler alerts :)
Unrequited love seems so very common in young people. Unlike the characters in this novel most people do eventually move on. With that, there is often a period of angst and pain that is rich fodder for literature. It is indeed an interesting topic.
Great post on this love affair. The ones that do not work out are my favorites kinds in literature. There is something satisfying in a love story that does not have a happy ending.
But it sounds like Lily should have moved on after what Crosbie did, no man is worth becoming an old maid over, especially with John there professing his love. I get that she sees him as only a friend, but then at least keep her options open for another man then. Why commit to dying alone?
Maybe Trollope felt heartbreak in his own life and committed these two characters to heartache.
Great commentary as usual.
As a lover of romance novels, I am hopelessly addicted to happy endings....so, reading about John and Lily's situation would be rather painful for me. It's hard for me to accept the fact that such things DO happen in the real world.....
Indeed, I had such an experience myself, while I was in college. I had a HUGE crush on a fellow art student. First of all, I considered him a BRILLIANT artist; from what I saw of his work, he was MORE talented than most of the art teachers there! He was also a very intelligent young man; I discovered that he read a lot, and even wrote sonnets. I immediately put him up on a pedestal....He wasn't bad-looking, either, so my initial admiration for him turned into something deeper. Oh, but I feel HARD. But alas, he never saw me as anything other than a fellow art student; in fact, we never really even became friends.....
While this experience was hard for me to get over, I eventually did overcome it. Perhaps this was what turned me into such an avid romance novel reader later on.
The fact of the matter is that love is something that simply cannot be forced. Furthermore, the whole process of feeling attracted to someone and then falling in love with them, is, as many a writer has stated, a rather irrational one. In fact, as Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know."
I do agree that Lily's inability to get over her broken engagement with Crosbie is pathological. Although she could never feel love for John, she could certainly have set her sights elsewhere.
I'm not sure about this, but I'm thinking that perhaps her refusal to accept John as a lover might have been Trollope advocating for feminism. After all, all of Lily's friends were encouraging her to marry John. She instead decided to remain true to herself. She did not feel love for him, so she was determined to remain firm in her refusal. Given the time period, this was actually admirable. She did not give in to social pressures. However, I still think she could have looked elsewhere, instead of remaining stubbornly single. This is highly ironic, too; in one sense, she was a feminist, but in another, she remained a prisoner of the belief that, just because she had that one bad experience, she could not move on, and find someone she could really love.
If this was Trollope's intention in his portrayal of Lily, it was a brilliant one. This might be the reason that this particular character is so beloved. Many of us women can probably relate to Lily's dilemma. Besides, human personality is so complex! We frequently find ourselves doing the exact opposite of what we say we believe in.
This romance that never came to be is obviously very interesting reading, from a psychological point of view. From a romantic one, though, I think it would be sheer torture for me to read....
Thanks for another detailed, thoroughly fascinating analysis of an aspect of Trollope's work!! : )
There is something terribly satisfying and unsatisfying about fictional these affairs that do not work out.
Indeed by both modern standards and by the standards of the time both Lily and John should have moved on. That is one of the saddest things about the end of this book.
Hi Maria – Thanks for the great comments.
I too have been in the situation that you describe. I think that many people have and it is indeed a difficult thing to face. It is a difficult thing to read about also. As I read these books I did not actually know how this affair would turn out. As all the other troubled romances ended up working out this ending was a little bit of a surprise for me.
Your comments about feminism is interesting. Trollope was a big advocate for what was called at the time the women’s rights movement. I can detect his sympathy towards the plight of women throughout these novels. Lily is certainly an independent spirit. Yet she allowed Crosbie’s actions to damage her for life. This is indeed a paradox.
Very insightful essays, glad to come accross your page. Hurts my heart that Lily and John did not end up together.
Thanks for the good word and thanks for stopping by.
It seems that so many people over the past one hundred and fifty years or so have been vexed that Lily and John never married.
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