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Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope: Troubled Love

Is there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans? Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr  Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?.

Not a chance….  Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.

Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers – Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town. 

In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella.

As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.

The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that  “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.

Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty.

Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way.

Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.

It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard.

Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day. 

During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face …  leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.

Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.

Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment.“

It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.

Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.

Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.  He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor.

Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg. 

But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise.

How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan –Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……

Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope: Endnotes

About The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barsester Chronicles. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother.  A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.

Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope

About The Author  In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website. 

Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

29 thoughts on “Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope: Troubled Love

  • I loved Dr. Thorne. Such a humble but stand up character. I actually saw a pretty good video version of this on PBS. Great post.

    • It was indeed a good book. Dr Thorne re-appears in Framley Parsonage by the way

      • I didn’t know this was a series. I’ll look into it. Thanks.

        • They can be read as standalone books but I think you get the most out of them by starting at the beginning

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  • I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers, so I guess it’s time for me to read this one! I hope I haven’t waited too long between books to remember characters who reappear.

  • I read or more accurately devoured The Barchester Chronicles when I was in school – there was something about them I loved. It’s also the source of the most memorable line from my education – after I’d played a poor game one Saturday in rugby the teacher in lamenting my performance said “Spend more time with your nose in the scrum than with your nose in that Anthony-bloody-whatever-he’s-called!’ Not long after I moved down to the Second XV but didn’t care!!!

    • I can see why that comment lingered. the comment from a teacher I remembered most is when she told me ‘you have the handwriting of a thirteenth century monk’. I know it was not meant as a compliment but when you see those illustrated manuscripts I feel i am in illustrious company!

  • I loved this and your review reminds me that I’m long overdue reading the next in the series!

    • I was long overdue reading this one in fact – I’d even made a specific request for this as a christmas present so mega guilt feelings

  • Thats been my experience too Christine – to me thats the mark of a classic, it can withstand multiple re-readings

  • Kaggsy (hi there!) is right, IMO, human nature doesn’t change and that is what distinguishes his novels, and why they’ve lasted.
    It’s interesting to compare Lady Arabella with Mrs Bennett (in P&P), who although of a different class, has the same preoccupation with marrying well.

    • I have a lot of sympathy for Mrs B – she has a husband whose head seems to be in the clouds, their house is entailed so they’ll be at the mercy of the future owner and she has five daughters who – unless they marry well – will be destined to live very poorly as governesses or seamstresses. Not many other options for them

  • piningforthewest

    I love Trollope and am always amazed at how little seems to have changed since those days – in political circles anyway. The Three Clerks is great but in some ways it’s quite depressing that as a society we haven’t moved on from the same problems.

    • ive not heard of The Three Clerks but having just looked it up on Wikipedia it does sound interesting. Thanks for pointing me towards it.

  • I really must re-read this. I know I loved it the first time around.

  • With this series yes I think its worth beginning at the beginning – some of the characters do crop up again in later books

  • Have you seen the recent TV version of this? I thought it was ok–not much more. Nowhere near the quality of The Way We Live Now

    • I didnt realise until recently that there had been this new version – all the pre-transmission publicity totally escaped me. i like Tom Hollander but not sure he has the gravitas for the role of Dr Thorne

  • What’s that phrase? Plus ça change? Not much is different in politics by the sound of it! I really *must* read some Trollope!!

  • I do need to read more Trollope. In grad school I read his autobiography and Phineas Finn, but I haven’t read anything by him since then. I suppose I should begin at the beginning of this series with The Warden?

    • Probably best to begin at the beginning Rebecca – otherwise you miss out on the wonderful character of Septimus Harding


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