The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

It’s taken me almost three months to get through The Small House at Allington, book number five in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

It was a lengthy read – my edition totalled 695 pages. But reading all the previous books in the series had got me accustomed to Anthony Trollope’s verbosity. Dr Thorne (book number 3) was more than 500 pages and Framley Parsonage (number 4 in the series) had 573.

I came to love those doorsteppers for their wit and satirical commentary about the church, politics and the aristocracy. They also had some utterly memorable characters like Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s wife; Septimus Harding, the meek, elderly warden of almshouses and Obadiah Slope, a brash and unctuous social climber. 

Sadly, The Small House at Allington, had few of those elements. Instead of intrigues in the bishopric palaces and grand country estates, we get inter-woven tales of thwarted romances, unrequited love and marriage in all its guises.

Most of the plot revolves around the two Dale sisters who live with their widowed mother at the Small House. It’s a grace and favour house owned by Squire Dale, brother in law to Mrs Dale.

The squire’s cherished wish is that Bell will marry his nephew and heir Bernard and inherit the whole estate. But he is thwarted in his aim because Bell rejects the marriage proposal and marries the local doctor instead.

Lily falls deeply in love with Bernard’s friend, the handsome Adolphus Crosbie, not realising that he’s a self-seeking social climber. Just weeks after his engagement, Crosbie decides marriage with an Earl’s daughter is a more -advantageous match. He ditches Lily and gets hitched to the Lady, believing that association with the de Courcy family will help him rise in the world.

He gets his come upance when the de Courcy family’s financial status is revealed to be little more than smoke and mirrors. And his marriage bed turns distinctly chilly when his Lady wife turns out to be a bore, always whining that she has no social life and no carriage. Adolphus begins to wish he’d married Lily after all.

There are other stories in the background, most of which relate to portrayals of marriage. Trollope seems to be something of a cynic when it comes to affairs of the heart. Although Bell does marry for love, the majority of the featured couples marry for reasons of expediency. Making a “good match” is shown as especially important in the upper echelons of society, helping to advance the status of the dynasty or protecting its interests. But the result is a sterile life where the two people involved have little to say to each other and can barely tolerate being in the same room.

That theme, and some scenes set in a London boarding house, are about the most interesting aspects of The Small House at Allington. The plot is OK, but Trollope takes an age over it and could easily have wrapped up the whole novel with considerably fewer pages. I could have forgiven him his bagginess if only he’d given us some sparkling characters. But I found most of them to be lacking dynamism.

Lily is meant to be the heroine. Early on in the novel, Trollope introduces her thus:

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale – for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale… 

When Lily’s heart is broken she doesn’t succumb to weeping and wailing. Nor does she collapse under the strain of her abandonment (though she does succumb to scarlet fever). She just carries on her life; playing matchmaker on behalf of her sister, teasing the gardener and generally acting in a kindly way to all.

Her refusal to say anything bad about the man who jilted her, shows admirable decency. We can also admire the way she steadfastly refuses to marry long time friend Johnny Eames. He was once a hobbledehoy but is now a fine, upstanding young man with a good future ahead of him. Lily’s mother thinks he’s the perfect match for her daughter. Her uncle and sister are in agreement. But Lily is adamant: her heart still belongs to Crosbie.

I imagine contemporary readers wanted Trollope to give her a happy ending, but they don’t get it. Lily in effect resigns herself to widowhood.

There is only so much fortitude and forbearance I can take. And Lily wore me out on that score. The more she insisted Crosbie would always be the love of her life, the more she closed her mind to other people’s opinions he’d acted a cad, the more frustrated I became. Even Trollope ended up less than enamoured with his heroine. In his autobiography he commented:

In the love with which she has been greeted, I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a female prig.

Former British Prime Minister John Major who was a fan of Trollope’s work, declared The Small House at Allington to be his favourite book of all time. It certainly isn’t mine. In fact its the least interesting of all the Barset novels I’ve read. I’m just hoping that the final book – Last Chronicle of Barset – marks a return to his previous form.

About BookerTalk

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

Posted on September 1, 2020, in Book Reviews, Classics Club and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. About 35 years ago my husband and I watched the PBS series The Pallisers, based on a series of novels by Trollope. We loved the TV series and still sometimes talk about it. Despite that experience, I’ve never wanted to actually read any of Trollope’s novels, so my hat is off to you!

  2. Agree that Lily’s travails are not very interesting. But the chapters about John Eames’s life in London and his (Civil Service) job are what I remember best – perhaps they were the reason John Major liked it so much. … I think you’ll find the Last Chronicle more absorbing

    • I did like the scenes with his new boss who kept name dropping about all these famous people he claimed he knew and getting his people to run around with his shoes

  3. I just checked on my posts on this a couple of years ago, and find that I came to much the same conclusion. I quoted Lily and her sister talking metafictionally about novels: ‘a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.’ Hence her fate. I much preferred the portrait of squire Dale. The romances were lukewarm and dull.

  4. I don’t read enough Victorians. But I’ve just been looking at my Audible account. I should go back and choose a Trollope. Long books are ideal for long trips.

  5. I don’t remember any of the Trollopes too distinctly, though I’ve read and liked them all (that is, I think I’ve read them all)… but I was younger then and more romantic so maybe that’s why The Small House at Allington joins the others as one of my favourites.

  6. Memories of my Victorian novel course, my last semester of college. I loved Trollope then but don’t think I could do it again today. I love your comment about Lily wearing you out! I started feeling that way about Elena Ferrante’s characters by the middle of Book 3, and still haven’t read the fourth .

  7. Many thanks for your reviews of the Barsetshire novels. Many years ago the BBC serialised the books for the radio which I remember listening to. It now behoves me to read all the books! I have read and enjoyed his parliamentary novels because Trollop gives such a wonderful picture of Victorian high society and political life.

    • Its that picture which is somewhat lacking in this novel. I’m planning to read the Palliser novels at some point which I think might have a political background to them. Have you read/listened to any of those?

      • I have read them all. Even though I began with the third one in the series(First one I found in a charity shop) The Eustace Diamonds I think they do need to be read in order as characters do tend to keep popping up. Having said that The Eustace Diamonds can be read as a stand alone book. The first one “Can You Forgive Her?” is quite a chunk – my copy has nearly 900 pages and some illustrations. I’m sure you will enjoy them.

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