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.