Monday, 11 April 2016

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope: part 1


published 1858
 
 
Dr Thorne 1
 
 
[Dr Thorne, taking tea with his niece Mary, asks her to imagine that she is rich]

"Mary," said he, "suppose you were to find out to-morrow morning that, by some accident, you had become a great heiress, would you be able to suppress your exultation?"…

"The… thing would be to send to Paris for a French bonnet exactly like the one Patience Oriel had on…. do look at Miss Oriel's bonnet the next time you see her. I cannot understand why it should be so, but I am sure of this— no English fingers could put together such a bonnet as that; and I am nearly sure that no French fingers could do it in England."

"But you don't care so much about bonnets, Mary!" This the doctor said as an assertion; but there was, nevertheless, somewhat of a question involved in it.

"Don't I, though?" said she. "I do care very much about bonnets; especially since I saw Patience this morning. I asked how much it cost— guess."

"Oh! I don't know— a pound?"

"A pound, uncle!"

"What! a great deal more? Ten pounds?"

"Oh, uncle."

"What! more than ten pounds? Then I don't think even Patience Oriel ought to give it."

"No, of course she would not; but, uncle, it really cost a hundred francs!"

"Oh! a hundred francs; that's four pounds, isn't it? Well, and how much did your last new bonnet cost?"

"Mine! oh, nothing— five and ninepence, perhaps; I trimmed it myself. If I were left a great fortune, I'd send to Paris to-morrow; no, I'd go myself to Paris to buy a bonnet, and I'd take you with me to choose it."
 
 
Dr Thorne 2
 

commentary: I love to know about the finances in novels, and particularly of course the finances of fashion (this may be a niche interest, I do realize), and I enjoyed finding out the relative cost of bonnets. And I used my trusty toy, the historic currency converter, to find out today’s prices: Patience’s bonnet would cost around £200 today ($280), while Mary would expect to pay £12/13 (up to $18) for hers.

The book is the third of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (though self-contained) and is very readable, very entertaining – though it lacks any element of surprise. From very early on it is clear what is going to happen, and Trollope merely works his way through the laid-out twists and turns of the narrative in a brisk and on the whole funny manner.

The novel begins with a dark and melodramatic tale from 20 years earlier: Dr Thorne’s brother Henry seduces a young woman in the village. Her brother attacks Henry Thorne, accidentally kills him, and goes to prison for manslaughter. Mary is the result of this alliance: her mother starts a new life elsewhere, and the good Doctor takes charge of the baby. So Mary is of low and scandalous birth, though most people don’t know that, and has no money. She is very friendly with the local squire’s family, and when she catches the eye of Frank, the son and heir, consternation ensues: he must marry a rich bride or face ruin.

It is obvious (to us) that Mary IS going to become rich: her father’s killer (ie her uncle on the other side – although this sounds complicated, it is very easy to follow in the book) became a wealthy businessman when he was released from prison, and he makes her his heir, although – further complications – he doesn’t know exactly who she is. On the one hand, this is a fairytale (though satisfying when all those who have been snooty with Mary get their come-uppance for having snubbed and maligned her) – but on the other, Trollope is making a wider satirical point, which is that Mary’s birth may be shocking and disgraceful, but that all this can be wiped clean by the application of money.

He is a very modern writer: his young people are straightforward and talk of love and marriage and flirting openly – no Victorian coyness here – and his woman are strong and sometimes stupid but always convincing. There is a splendid moment when Trollope is pursuing a side-tangent and says that he must complete this story now because he won’t have time
when Mary is breaking her heart on her death-bed in the last chapter, or otherwise accomplishing her destiny
--but this is not a spoiler, it is a post-modernist joke.

There was one thing I disliked: When Mary inherits her money, and the way is open for her to marry her beloved Frank, the men surrounding them assume that her money is his (this is before they have even affirmed their engagement, let alone made their plans). Frank’s father had sold property to Mary’s uncle, and now the assumption is:
Look here; these are the Boxall Hill title-deeds; that's the simplest part of the whole affair; and Frank may go and settle himself there to-morrow if he pleases.
No he couldn’t – the land and house belong to Mary, not him. I suppose I can’t expect too much feminism from Trollope.

The 1850s French bonnets are from the NYPL: a picture from the same series featured in a blogpost on Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, published in the same decade,

dr thorne 3

-- where it is implied that a new bonnet might make a woman look better, and even perhaps get her a husband. (The character who believes this is treated rather dismissively, but still….)

Such a long novel - it will need another blogpost later this week. 
































20 comments:

  1. And is it set in 1858? I hope? Interesting and rather frumpy fashion moment. If Dr Thorne/Mary's uncle didn't tie up her money and property, it would all become Frank's when they married, despite "With all my wordly goods I thee endow". The CoE marriage service contained this outright lie for – centuries?

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    1. The main action begins in 1854, and covers the next couple of years. The pictures 1855. I was interested to see that in the TV version the young women wore wreaths of fresh flowers in their hair, which I presume is authentic....?
      Married women's property - indeed. But Trollope really was jumping the gun saying Frank could move in 'tomorrow', as at this point he and Mary are not even officially engaged. Dr Thorne - very much the goodie - is not really shown as an honest broker in his business dealings with the various parties.

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    2. I meant tie up her property so that it was ipso facto hers! Perhaps giving them an income, but locked up so that Frank cdn't get his mitts on it. Only option open to kind-hearted Victorian dad.

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    3. I see what you mean - and Dr Thorne is not someone I would have any faith in in this respect. The question of settlements does come up in the book, with regard to the possible marriages of Frank's sisters ie the squire's daughters.

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  2. I find it really interesting what fashion used to cost, Moira. I'm glad you gave some perspective there. This sounds like an interesting take on the 'rags to riches' theme, and what I find interesting is the difference between Mary's road to wealth, and that of the stereotypical Horatio Alger hero. Shows you the difference in the way the sexes are treated...

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    1. Ooh great point Margot! There is a moment where the Doctor says that on marriage "A man raises a woman to his own standard, but a woman must take that of the man she marries." Another interesting theory....

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  3. Did you watch the recent ITV production, I enjoyed it, even though they distilled part of the novel into 3 hours.
    Bonnets were an important part of a ladies wardrobe

    And whether we like it or not, the expectation then was that a woman's money would become her husbands.
    Google Married Womans Property Act 1882

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    1. Yes indeed, but as I just said to Lucy above - at this stage Mary and Frank are not actually engaged, yet Dr Thorne (who is her guardian and the executor of the will by which she inherits) says Frank can now have back the property his father sold some years before, and move in 'tomorrow'. I think he would have had to wait till they were actually married...

      I'm doing a second post, which will also look at the TV series - I enjoyed it too, even though they had to compress.

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    2. Expectation? All a woman owned became her husband's. People joked that a married woman owned nothing more than a hairbrush. Ha ha very funny I don't think!

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    3. Did you ever read any of those Lawrence Stone books on the history of marriage, divorce and the laws concerning them? I found them riveting, but too sad for words. Extraordinary stories of eg a 18thC woman whose husband ran off. So she set to, opened a hat shop, became a successful businesswoman. Husband tips up from wherever he's been, and is legally able to claim every penny she has made.

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  4. I like the idea of a historic money converter. I'm often reading and when money is mentioned I wonder what it would be or cost in modern terms.

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    1. I really enjoy using it. The one I found is in the UK http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/ - and then it is easy enough to convert pounds to dollars.

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  5. I need to read more Trollope. Some years back I had a sort of Trollope marathon, but haven't looked at anything by him since then. I do love the rather dry and sarcastic first person narration, which gives the books such a modern feel. THE WARDEN has a lovely moment where Trollope comments about how the financial scandal concerning Mr Harding is treated by other novelists, especially Dickens, who is referred to as 'Mr Popular Sentiment'. Trollope is commenting on his own story as he tells it, which is very post-modern. It's the sort of thing that TV adaptions, however good, can't do. Like you say, DOCTOR THORNE isn't really about generating tension with various plot-twists, but more about making some very salient points about class and money.

    Bonnets have always reminded me of frilly buckets, and I wonder if they are the Victorian version of expensive shoes--some women love buying them, but most men can't tell a cheap one from an expensive one.

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    1. Yes - I'm always struck by how modern Trollope seems, particularly when compared to Dickens or Thackerary. (Wilkie Collins is more of a modern writer too.) I'm always intrigued by bonnets, the shoe comparison is probably apt. Clever girls could trim their own and make them look good, like Mary above. I do like looking at them in TV adaptations...

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  6. I had thought I might like to try Trollope, but his books are (mostly) all so long.

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    1. They are, you are right. There is a short one - The WArden - which isn't his best, but would give you an idea whether you would enjoy them. Or try a TV adaptation.

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  7. Moira, I have read very little Trollope and that includes his Autobiography, which I'd describe as brilliant writing. I recommend it to whoever seeks my advice on nonfiction. I'm interested in knowing more about the society Trollope wrote about as opposed to, say, that of Thomas Hardy which I'm familiar with. This particular novel, for instance, seems fairly bold for its time, as was Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" among other books.

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    1. I think you may have mentioned his autobiography before, and I meant to get hold of it - I'm glad you reminded me. It's nice that you can usually get his books for free for the kindle.

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  8. I do love dear old Trollope and agree that he is in some ways very modern. He understood so well the workings of the Victorian marriage market and was sympathetic to the difficult choices women often had to make. He understood that for the most part they simply HAD to get married. Have you read The American Senator? It's not so well known, but I think it is awfully good.

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    1. Yes, he seems such a nice man, and so very aware of the double standard. No, haven't read American Senator, but now I will!

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