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Book Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope

A novel about class, money, and the Victorian marriage market.


Doctor Thorne

Originally published in 1858, 557 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Anthony Trollope once said, "A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos." Trollope admirably fulfills his own criteria in this charming third novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

Doctor Thorne adopts his niece Mary, keeping secret her illegitimate birth as he introduces her to the best local social circles. There she meets and falls in love with Frank Gresham - the heir to a vastly mortgaged estate and obliged to find a wealthy wife. Only Doctor Thorne knows that Mary is to inherit a large legacy that will make her acceptable to the otherwise disapproving middle-class society to which Frank belongs. Where fiery passion fails, understated English virtues of patience, persistence, and good humor prevail in this most appealing of Trollope's comedies.




If you follow my reviews you probably know I am a pretty big fan of Charles Dickens (my goal is to get through all of his novels before I die). His contemporary, Anthony Trollope, was never quite as famous or quite as big a best-seller as Dickens. I've now read three of his books, and I'd rank Doctor Thorne (the third of the Barchester series, though I didn't know that when I started it, and I think they all more or less stand alone) in the middle. Nothing compares to his epic The Way We Live Now, but I found Doctor Thorne entertaining and amusing, in an almost Dickensian fashion, while Can You Forgive Her? was rather more dry and tedious.

Doctor Thorne is very much in the well-trod genre of Victorian marriage market comedies, which means the plot follows a fairly predictable trajectory. The book's namesake, Dr. Thorne, adopted the illegitimate daughter of his sister, who went off to America to escape her disgrace. (This being Victorian England, it's presented as the morally correct thing to do, as opposed to being presented as abandoning her child because she was pumped and dumped by an asshole.) Mary is a typical Victorian heroine who will be familiar to all Dickens readers — she is perfect, mannerly, sunny, gracious, kind, and lovely.

While Trollope by necessity had to make his heroine devoid of any real moral flaws, I will give him a point in his favor over Dickens — he seemed to have an awareness that women were actually human beings with their own minds, which means his female characters display a range of personality and behavior between angelic maiden and brute she-orc, a range Dickens rarely displayed. Mary, while unquestionably a "good girl" in every way, does have some self-respect and can even be a little bit cheeky when facing down her wealthy neighbors who think themselves above her by virtue of money, despite her technically being in the same social class.

Here she is teasing her friend, after being chided for being insufficiently obsequious to some visiting aristocrats:


"Have I?" said Mary, kneeling down on the ground at her friend's feet. "If I humble myself very low; if I kneel through the whole evening in a corner; if I put my neck down and let all your cousins trample on it, and then your aunt, would not that make atonement? I would not object to wearing sackcloth, either; and I'd eat a little ashes—or, at any rate, I'd try."

"I know you're clever, Mary; but still I think you're a fool. I do, indeed."

"I am a fool, Trichy, I do confess it; and am not a bit clever; but don't scold me; you see how humble I am; not only humble but umble, which I look upon to be the comparative, or, indeed, superlative degree. Or perhaps there are four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble; and then, when one is absolutely in the dirt at their feet, perhaps these big people won't wish one to stoop any further."

"Oh, Mary!"

"And, oh, Trichy! you don't mean to say I mayn't speak out before you. There, perhaps you'd like to put your foot on my neck." And then she put her head down to the footstool and kissed Beatrice's feet.

"I'd like, if I dared, to put my hand on your cheek and give you a good slap for being such a goose."


I found Mary quite likeable, which is fortunate since this is a romance and so of course the story revolves around whether or not she ends up being happily married to her childhood sweetheart, Frank Gresham.

Frank, the son of a squire who is unfortunately deeply in debt thanks to a social-climbing wife and some unfortunate bids for Parliament, has been admonished by his mother in no uncertain terms: "Frank, you must marry money!"

Trollope dealt with money in a way that Dickens dealt with social justice: he was intimately familiar with it, and with an insufficiency of it, and so he wrote about it in dramatic terms. In Dr Thorne, all the characters are quite forthright about the financial value of a given bride or groom and how this steers everyone's matrimonial ambitions. Frank and Mary are no Romeo and Juliet seeking to run away together; they may love each other but they're also quite aware of the drawbacks of a broke gentleman's son marrying the penniless niece of a country doctor.

Trollope, of course, contrives to give them a happier ending than that; the manner in which they come into money is the sort of plot that Dickens might have written, or for that matter, Jane Austen an era earlier. But Trollope makes the journey a bit harder and less comical, and his characters are not as farcical as Dickens'. On the one hand, Trollope's characters feel more like actual people. On the other hand, there is nothing like Dickens's alliterative grotesques.

Trollope and Dickens

There are many literary essays comparing Trollope to Dickens, some favoring one, some favoring the other. Trollope is generally considered to be the "rich man's Dickens" — being less popular, he was not serialized in mass market media as much as Dickens was, which meant he had to sell completed novels, which is why his novels tend to be more fully developed and slightly less bloated (but only slightly).

Doctor Thorne will almost certainly appeal to anyone who likes Dickens, as well as fans of period dramas in general. It's probably not sufficiently novel to make you a Trollope fan by itself — you may still feel like if you've read one Victorian marriage market novel, you've read them all. But as an example of the genre, it's a fine book, and I think Trollope is worth reading more of.



Also by Anthony Trollope: My reviews of Can You Forgive Her? and The Way We Live Now.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: anthony trollope, books, literary, reviews
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