How Did He Do It? is not the title of a novel by Anthony Trollope, though it could be (cf. Can You Forgive Her? Is He Popenjoy?, Did He Steal It?). No, it reflects my amazement at the astonishingly prolific output of a man who managed to hold down a highly responsible job while producing 47 novels, 12 volumes of short stories, 18 works of non-fiction and two plays. And not just any old novels, mind you -- although his reputation was a bit up and down at first, there's no doubt -- in my mind at least -- that he was one of the most important novelists of the nineteenth century. And in fact, one reason why he was looked at with a rather beady eye by some of his contemporaries was the very fact that he wrote so much and in such an organised way -- he paid his servant an extra £5 a year to wake him up with a cup of coffee at 5am so that he could write for three hours before he went to work. What's wrong with that, you may ask? Well, there was a view at the time that you had to wait for the Muse to strike you before you picked up your pen, so Trollope's method seemed a good deal too mundane. Also, he was not much liked for his most delightful way of suddenly addressing the reader, or, in more contemporary parlance, drawing attention to the act of writing:
But it will be too much, perhaps, to tell the reader what she wore as Beatrice's bridesmaid, seeing that a couple of pages, at least, must be devoted to her marriage dress, and seeing, also, that we have only a few pages left to finish everything...
I've read a few of Trollope's novels over the years, though only reviewed one on here, the not very well known Lady Anna. Dr Thorne is much better known, being the fourth of the so-called Barchester Novels, of which I have read the first three, though in pre-blogging days. The eponymous doctor is a middle-aged gentleman of modest means, who lives in the village of Greshamsbury. Twenty or so years before the story begins, he adopted the illegitimate baby daughter of his ne-er do well brother, who had been murdered by the brother of the village girl he made pregnant. The child's mother has married and gone to America, the brother has served his sentence and subsequently become stupendously rich, but the doctor and his beloved adopted Mary have gone on quietly with their lives in domestic peace and comfort. Mary has become very close to the daughters of the neighbouring squire Mr Gresham, with whom she has shared lessons throughout her teenage years. Now, as the novel begins, the Gresham's only son Frank has reached twenty-one, and the whole neighbourhood is sharing in the celebrations. As we soon learn, Frank and Mary have fallen in love, but from this seemingly innocent fact springs the whole convoluted and often nail-biting plot.
Money, social class and "blood". To these and their often complex interactions are owed the trials and tribulations of poor Mary and Frank. For Frank's father has managed to get himself into deep financial trouble, and that part of his estate that he has not sold is heavily mortgaged. Thus it is that, certainly as far as his mother and her aristocratic relations are concerned, Frank has but one duty -- to marry money. Mary has neither money nor that second prerequisite, "blood" (of the blue variety), and indeed her illegitimacy puts her beyond the pale. Of course, the immensely wealthy heiress who the family would like Frank to marry is the daughter of a tradesman, but her riches overrule what would otherwise be an absolute barrier.
As anyone who is familiar with Trollope will know, these are his common concerns. But that does not make this novel any less appealing. Trollope manages to satirise the worst excesses of the appalling aristocrats and the dreadfulness of their lawyers in a way which is both funny and horrifically convincing. But he also manages to create characters who have undoubted faults and yet make them surprisingly sympathetic. And then of course there is Mary, the most admirable heroine, intelligent and feisty as well as pretty, who suffers dreadfully through a great part of the novel but bears it with great courage, and dear, good-hearted, loyal Frank, and the delightful doctor himself, very human and not always right but always having at heart the best interests of those he loves.
I am so happy to have rediscovered Trollope. After a rather worrying reading block earlier this year, it is exciting to find that there are more than forty unread novels to look forward to! I've started one already, and another is on its way, so keep a watch on here for more reviews soon. Any fellow Trollope fans out there? What's your favorite?