When I visited my parents in Vancouver last May, one of the many nice things we did was watch the recent adaptation of Doctor Thorne. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Trollope (like Austen) adapts very well–much better, in my opinion, than Dickens or George Eliot, the brilliance of whose fiction lies so much in the narrator’s voice and in the other very written qualities of their novels that (for me) adaptations almost always seem inadequate.
It has been many years since I read Doctor Thorne: I think it was in 2002 or thereabouts that I read straight through both the complete Barsetshire series and all of the Palliser novels. What I remember most about that experience is how after a while you just accept the pace of Trollope’s fiction, and how complete and engrossing his world becomes–as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, it seems “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.”
The very qualities that make Trollope such a pleasure to read, though, also make him a bit challenging to teach. The thing about people just “going about their daily business” is that often not much is really happening–there’s not much action, or at least not much dramatic action. To put it another way, the action and the drama in Trollope are often internal, and usually subtle: the characters puzzle through personal and moral problems in infinite shades of grey, rather than the more “glaring colours” of a writer like Dickens (that’s Trollope’s own characterization of Dickens’s method, from the parody of him as “Mr. Popular Sentiment” in The Warden). Given that Trollope’s novels are mostly also quite long, there’s a significant risk that students’ reaction will be boredom: pressed for time as they are, and unaccustomed to fiction that rolls out quite so slowly, they can struggle to find pleasure or interest in the process.
That, at least, has been my experience with Barchester Towers, which I have tried in my standard 19th-century fiction class a couple of times. I’ve had somewhat better reactions to The Warden, which is delightful (if odd) and also short. He Knew He Was Right was a surprise hit in my undergraduate seminar on the ‘Woman Question,’ though I’ve never dared try to replicate that success; The Eustace Diamonds went just okay (as I recall) when I assigned it in a graduate seminar.
I bring up teaching because by and large I only reread 19th-century fiction these days for work. Much as I liked the Doctor Thorne adaptation, I didn’t rush back to that or any other Trollope novel. One reason is that my non-work reading is a zero sum game and when there are so many other novels (including other classic novels) I want to read for the first time, rereading seems (perhaps oddly) kind of wasteful. Another is that when I’m reading “just” for pleasure there’s always, in the back of my mind, the distracting hum of other things I need to get to, and so I too can get restless taking a leisurely stroll in Trollope’s world: I start looking around and lose the rhythm.
It was the longing to get away from just those humming distractions that sent me back to Doctor Thorne last week: not just my own to-do list, but the overwhelming clatter and clutter of the rest of the world. Especially on the news and on social media, what a constant clamor of catastrophes there is, big and small, near and far away, with everything from Can Lit to the CDC in crisis, all demanding attention, all generating takes and counter-takes in an unceasing cascade of anger, fear, and weaponized self-righteousness–much of it wholly justified, but all of it eventually exhausting. It’s all very well to advise simply “unplugging,” but even setting aside the obligation we might have to be informed citizens of both our personal and our political worlds, for me there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad–a lot of people and issues I don’t want to lose contact with or miss insight into.
What I needed was an alternative reality to visit for a while, a place where there’s room for nuance and indecision and confusion over competing and seemingly incompatible goods; where not knowing exactly what to do is a strength, not a weakness; where, above all, there’s time to spend thinking things through. Trollope’s Barsetshire is just such a place. Most of its people are decent, kind, and loving, but they’re often imperfect, as are their circumstances. There are villains in Barsetshire, but usually they aren’t so bad; even when they do irreparable harm, it’s more often out of flawed humanity than real malevolence.
There’s a chapter in Doctor Thorne called “The Doctor Drinks His Tea.” The chapter title alone epitomizes the small scale of Trollopian drama! But of course it’s not just about the doctor’s tea, though he does knock back a fair amount of it (six “jorums” by the end). It’s actually about his struggle to decide what to do about the possibility that his beloved niece will inherit a fortune. How could that be a bad thing? Well, for lots of reasons, from Doctor Thorne’s uneasy knowledge that the relevant will was made without knowing Mary’s true identity to his longstanding view “that of all the vile objects of a man’s ambition, wealth, wealth merely for its own sake, was the vilest.” But what about wealth for Mary’s sake? Would he be right to “fling away the golden chance which might accrue to his niece”? “After all,” he remarks to Mary, apropos (as far as she knows) of nothing in particular,
“money is a fine thing.”
“Very fine, when it is well come by,” she answered; “that is, without detriment to the heart or soul.”
Mary, it seems, is immune to the lure of “wealth merely for its own sake,” but what else might be the consequences of such an upset to her life, and their life together, the doctor can hardly imagine. And so for the moment he does nothing in particular, not because he doesn’t care but because he cares too much to risk doing the wrong thing. Virtue, in Trollope’s world, is a process as much as a product; what makes Doctor Thorne the hero of his novel is less any specific action that he takes than his determination to act with integrity. Then there’s Mary herself–smart, proud, and loving–and Frank Gresham, who grows from being “an arrant puppy, and an egregious ass” (“but then, it must be remembered in his favour that he was only twenty-one”) into a resolute, principled man who not only loves her but deserves her. There is not a moment of doubt from the beginning to the end of the novel about how things will turn out–but that certainty makes the twists and turns of the journey all the more enjoyable.
I’ve been thinking since I finished rereading Doctor Thorne that right now the real world seems to be dominated by those “glaring” and surreal Dickensian colors–certainly by a glaringly Dickensian villain. I think that’s one reason it gets so exhausting. Of course, Dickens offers us salvation, too, or rather he reminds us that it lies within our own hearts (“Dear readers,” he concludes Hard Times, “it rests with you and me…”). Trollope’s world offers some welcome respite from the noise and the glare, but in his quiet way he makes the same point: the real world is what we make it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make it a little more like Barsetshire! In the meantime, at least we can take a time out there and come back soothed by its charm, moderation, and fundamental optimism.