Christmas at Thompson Hall by Anthony Trollope

Christmas StoriesChristmas at Thompson Hall

Those of you who have read Anthony Trollope’s novels know that he is a master of the art of character creation.  Each of the people who populate his novels have distinct personalities that bring them alive to the reader and draw them into his world.  With a short story, however, I wondered if Trollope’s fine skills would hold up using a smaller palette.  And so I began to read Christmas at Thompson Hall with a somewhat apprehensive curiosity.


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The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

“Of course there was a Great House at Allington.”

Lily (Lilian), Bell (Isabella), and their mother, Mrs. Dale, live in a cottage on the estate of her brother-in-law, Squire Dale.  The squire, their benefactor, is a stern implacable man who feels a responsibility to the family, yet does not exhibit affection or understanding towards them or their plight.  In spite of the strained relations, the Dale women live a contented, happy life.  However, their cousin, Bernard, one day brings his friend, Adolphus Crosbie home to visit and an attachment grows between him and Lily.  Crosbie is a charming young man, without name or fortune, but with a charisma that captures Lily’s heart, despite his flaws of selfishness and worldliness.  Does Crosbie love Lily?  He certainly convinces himself that he does and as he proposes he anticipates a respectable dowry that he assumes will be bestowed upon Lily by Squire Dale.  But assumptions can go awry and when Crosbie learns that Lily will be the benefactress of nothing but goodwill, her charms begin to diminish in his materialistic eyes.  All attempts to convince himself that love will overcome practicalities fail and he is lured away by a daughter of an earl, Alexandrina deCourcy, of whom he once was an admirer.  Weak and irresolute, Crosbie soon finds himself engaged to the girl despite his own misgivings and the threat of censure that he is certain to receive from various aspects of society.

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Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

“When young Mark Robarts was leaving college, his father might well declare that all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition.”

In Framley Parsonage, the fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope gives us a lively romp through the lives of the inhabitants of East Barsetshire, introducing us not only to their whims and follies, but through their actions, the culture and society of a 19th century English town. 

Mark Robarts, a parson of the village of Framley, and a beneficiary of Lady Lufton whose son was his schoolmate, is married to Fanny, a genteel lady of respectable birth.  Yet his patroness is at times difficult to please, and Robarts must navigate the storms of friendship, duty, and financial matters, often muddying the waters that he is trying desperately to clear.  When his father dies and his sister, Lucy, comes to live at the parsonage, an unexpected complication develops that was unforeseen by all and upsets the carefully calibrated balance of societal acceptance.  Robarts encounters further obstacles when he embroils himself with a member of parliament, Nathaniel Sowerby, and his financial dealings.  His trusting, artless, clerical nature is in sharp contrast to the Machiavellian intrigue of men of enterprise, and it appears nothing good will come of the connection.

The Parsonage Farm, Rickmansworth (c. 1840)
John White
source ArtUK

In Mark Roberts financial dealings with Sowerby, one wonders if Trollope was offering a subtle indictment as to the interactions and associations of church and state.  The innocent perceptions of one is unable to account for the devious machinations of the other and, because of Robarts’ influence on those around him, they are affected by the imprudent alliance as well.  Add to that Lady Lufton’s displeasure at the Duke of Omnium’s vulgar societal group and a possible marriage between a peer and a commoner, and you have class conflict at its finest, a subject of which Trollope is most adept at exploring with a light-heartedness that often belies the deeper implications.

Trollope reintroduces characters from the previous Barsetshire books: The Warden, Barchester Towers and Dr. Thorne.  Miss Dunstable displays her wily financial prowess, Dr. Thorne his ability to be influenced, the Grantley’s are in top form with not one, but two suitors in their daughter’s wake, and even gentle old Septimus Harding makes a brief appearance.

The Houses of Parliament (c. 1844?)
George Chambers II
source ArtUK

Two years it took me to complete this novel.  Isn’t that ridiculous?  For some reason, the first part of it just dragged, but as soon as I hit the half-way point, I was completely hooked and drawn in to the characters and their stories.  Next in line is A Small House at Allington, which I’ve heard is excellent.  It won’t take me two years to read through this one, I promise!

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

“Before the reader is introduced to the modest country medical practitioner who is to be the chief personage of the following tale, it will be well that he should be made acquainted with some particulars as to the locality in which, and the neighbours among whom, our doctor followed his profession.”

Good, dependable Doctor Thorne, our esteemed doctor of Greshambury, lives with his young niece named, Mary.  Yet there is a secret around Mary’s birth that few people know; she is the illegitimate daughter of Doctor Thorne’s older brother and the sister of Roger Scatcherd, a former poor stonemason and prison inmate, who has amassed a fortune that makes him the rich owner of a large estate.  The ruling family, the Greshams, accept Mary’s company and she is friends with some of the daughters, but when it is learned that Frank, the only son, is in love with her, she becomes persona non grata and is ostracized from their company.  A lively plot begins as Frank is determined to marry Mary, Roger Scatcherd is determined to drink himself to death, an inheritance is unclear, and society struggles to maintain its traditional structure.

As much as I enjoyed this book, there were a few disappointments, as well. Because this novel was serialized, I found the pacing somewhat inconsistent, which took away a little bit of the enjoyment. After building up slowly with the characters and their situations, Trollope suddenly had nearly a year pass by, a declaration, and then another year was gone, all in the space of a few dozen pages. My second disappointment dealt with the plot itself. One aspect that I enjoy about Jane Austen’s writing, for example, is her ability to take a traditional situation and explore possibilities just outside of that tradition. Trollope lulls the reader into expecting the same, yet at the end of the tale, tradition wins out: Scatcherd is shown as an example of what can happen to those who try to rise above their station, Mary becomes an heiress, she marries Frank, and everyone is happy only because convention is followed.  Well, I say, “bah!” to convention!  While I realize departing drastically from societal norms wouldn’t be believable, one would think that Trollope could have challenged convention in a plausible way that would have made the story more intriguing. But ultimately money remains the commodity that is worshiped, everyone is happily kept in their social positions, with the same perceptions and the same prejudices, and with nothing unusual or radical to stir them out of their complacency.  Bah!

Perhaps you are wondering why I have barely mentioned Doctor Thorne, who bears the prestigious title of the novel.  Well, curiously, the tale revolves around many characters other than Doctor Thorne.  But while the action circulates around these characters, his importance in this tale is inescapable. He is the respected thread that holds the neighbours together, the good sense in the quandry, the steadying force in the chaos.  He is like the eye of the hurricane, a calm centre while everything else blows in a whirlwind around him.  His tranquil, composed demeanor and sincere warmth and compassion never falter.  In this I can agree with Trollope; he was certainly the hero for me.

The next book up is Framley Parsonage.  So far my favourite is still The Warden but, with three more to go, a new favourite is not out of the question!

The Barsetshire Series

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

“In the latter days of July in the year 185–, a most important question was for ten days hourly asked in the cathedral city of Barchester, and answered every hour in various ways —- Who was to be the new bishop?”

War has broken out in the city of Barchester.  The different factions are preparing by arming themselves with disingenuous weapons.  Tongues are being exercised, rapier wit is being sharpened, and soon a victor will be declared.

The new chaplain, Mr. Obadiah Slope has arrived in Barchester with the new bishop Proudie and his termagant wife .  Whilst Mr. Slope shows the high opinion he holds of himself, the clergy and certain townspeople take a strong dislike to his oily sycophancy and the fight is on.  Will Archdeacon Grantly be able to run Mr. Slope out of Barchester? Or will Mr. Slope become the new Dean?  Yet his marriage to the widow Eleanor Bold, Mr. Septimus Harding’s daughter, is a certainty.  Or is it?  Bertie Stanhope, the indolent son of Dr. Vessey Stanhope, is a contender for her affections but, oops ….. into the picture strides Mr. Arabin, vicar of St. Ewold and Grantly’s ally, to further muddy the marital waters.  And, as for the battle over the appointment of the new warden of Hiram’s Hospital, will Mr. Harding recover this honoured position, or will Mr. Quiverful triumph over his competitor, effectively providing his wife and children with the support they had heretofore been lacking?

In a town amongst characters, where black can seem white, and up suddenly down, the romping hilarity of the story firmly keeps the reader engaged and attentive.   Trollope, himself had a personal love for his masterpiece:  “In the writing of Barchester Towers I took great delight.  The bishop and Mrs. Proudie were very real to me, as were also the troubles of the archdeacon and the loves of Mr. Slope.”  Sadly his publishers were not initially in accord, claiming the novel to be full of “vulgarity and exaggeration.”  How fortunate, in spite of this initial critique, that this novel has captured the imagination and humour of readers worldwide for nearly 160 years, and has given the people of Barchester an immorality that was originally in jeopardy.

The Barsetshire Chronicles

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

“The Revd Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ______, let us call it Barchester.”

The Honest Gossip Newspaper

In many a town in England there are given charitable bequests to church dioceses, and the honest public assumes that the monies are distributed in a fair and equitable way, in a manner that benefits all who have need of them.  Yet this learned reporter has discovered that in a small holding in Barsetshire, there has been a shocking exploitation of this practice, resulting in twelve respectable old gentlemen being cheated out of their livelihood.  And who is the avaricious fiend to be so bold as to expropriate funds which are not solely meant for him?

The Revd Septimus Harding, the warden of Hiram’s Hospital in Barsetshire, it has been discovered, earns 800 pounds per annum for his position as warden and overseer of the legacy left by the philanthropic John Hiram, namesake of Hiram’s Hospital, yet the gentlemen who were meant to benefit from his legacy, receive housing and a paltry one shilling four pence per day to meet all their needs in their tender and uncertain later years of life.

Ask yourself, can you as a common man remain indifferent to the plight of others?   Can you remain indifferent to the misappropriation of funds by a man who not only takes bread out of the mouths of his brothers, but whose actions leaves a stain on the offices of the sacred and respected agents of mother Church?  Oh, for shame you vainglorious men who have no respect for what is sacred, yet greedily engorge yourselves with money to line your already comfortable existence!  Is it to be borne?  No!  Mr. Harding must be revealed as the avaricious culprit he is, and the money given to the rightful recipients, who deserve it far more than a warden who presently lives comfortably on this legacy while doing nothing to earn its bestowal.  Who will see that justice is served in such a uncomfortable yet critical situation?  This reporter knows just the man!

Our young and zealous reformer, Mr. John Bold, has been working industriously to illuminate this unfortunate circumstance and expose the corruption that has so carefully been concealed .  Can we trust this gentleman in his noble purpose?  Certainly!  Not only does his estimable reputation speak volumes, but in spite of his relationship to the aforementioned’s lovely daughter, Eleanor, he will not let possible future familial ties stand in the way of serving justice.  We have learned that he has wisely consulted a respectable and reputable law firm to deal with this perplexing and delicate matter and that, once begun, nothing will stand in his way.  The bishop and his pretentious son, the archdeacon Theophilus Grantly (also son-in-law to the accused), can puff and blow all they like, but we all know which side is valiantly trumpeting the truth.  It will be heard, and the Reverend Harding will be made to choke on it.


Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
John Constable 1831
(Trollope said his first vision for The Warden came while walking in
the cathedral close of Salisbury Cathedral)
source Wikipedia

This is a sample of what poor Septimus Harding, warden of Hiram’s Hospital had to withstand: an unfair accusation, judgement, an attack on his character and the possible loss of his livelihood.  His son-in-law, the archdeacon, attempts to defend his father-in-law, yet in a worldly, materialistic, dictatorial manner, which his father-in-law cannot respect or accept.  Harding’s simple, gentle, sacrificial nature, while at first bends under the pressure of his contemporaries, eventually asserts itself in his determination to act in an honourable manner.  In a case where people’s good intentions do more harm than good, we realize that law and justice followed blindly, can have unexpected negative repercussions.  Love and friendship hold a human value that money can never equal, and the loss of the former can create an emotional deprivation that is felt long after the incident is over.

What others said:

Behold the Stars:  “I love it, though – it’s a gentle novel, with real, ‘whole’ characters (George Orwell described it as one of his best works), and Septimus Harding is one of my favourite characters of all time.”

Avid Reader’s Musings:  “Bold sees his purpose as noble and right even though he’s hurting the people he loves.  It makes the reader question his decision, is it truly motivated by his beliefs or by his pride?”

Fig and Thistle:  “Each character is vividly unique and the dialogue is engaging.  This book certainly has a heavy dose of wit and shrewd society skewering, but without cynicism.”

This first book in the Barsetshire Chronicles read-along, hosted by Avid Reader’s Musings and Fig & Thistle, proved to be an excellent introduction to Anthony Trollope and I have already cracked open the next book, Barchester Towers, to continue my visits with the characters and happenings of Barsetshire.

The Barsetshire Chronicles

Chronicles of Barsetshire Read-Along

Yes, another read-along, and this time hosted by Melissa at Avid Reader and Amanda of Fig and Thistle.  We will be reading through the Barsetshire Chronicles by Anthony Trollope.

The novels are scheduled as follows:

March:  The Warden
April:  Barchester Towers
May:  Doctor Thorne
June:  Framely Parsonage
July:  The Small House at Allington
August:  The Last Chronicle of Barset  

Now before everyone thinks that I’ve lost my mind, I had already planned to read all these novels beginning in May along with some friends in my Dead Writers Society group, so while I will participate in the read-along, I will be two months behind schedule.

If anyone else cares to join in the fun, please pop over to Avid Reader or Fig and Thistle to sign up!