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.
Johnny Eames, who is initially introduced to us as a hobbledyhoy, loves Lily with a quiet, unwavering devotion, however her attachment to Crosbie appears insurmountable in spite of his abominable treatment of her. Even Eames’ preferment by the honourable Lord de Guest does not seem to sway Lily’s heart in his favour. Meanwhile, her sister, Bell, refuses the proposal of her cousin, Bernard, who is influenced by their uncle, Squire Dale. The Squire’s desire for the union overrides both parties, and he nearly drives his family away, physically and emotionally. Yet there is another suitor waiting in the wings, Dr. Crofts, and the pair display a long-standing bond that is quiet and endurable. Love puts on many faces in this book, yet happiness can be elusive in spite of good intentions.
Lily Dale is a character that is both frustrating and pitiful. Her devotion to a man of questionable character and weak will is truly appalling. One can understand her love and finally her disappointment, but it is beyond conceivability that she could maintain such an unwavering allegiance to such a scoundrel. There are few characters I could claim to fully dislike in classic fiction, but I would have to say, Lily Dale is one of them.
During the Barset Chronicles series, one gets accustomed to Trollope’s palate of numerous multi-faceted characters, that populate his pages with a kaleidescope of colourful behaviours and a weaving of personal happenings. However, with this book, I was somewhat disappointed. The story itself was more simplified than the other books of the Chronicles, which is not a detriment in itself, but the major focus on the love story of Lily and its many pitfalls left one with a disquieted feeling. Because there is little commitment, deep feeling, or love on one side, and an excess of it on the other, there is an inequality of sentiment produced that colours the whole book. Blindness is a factor in many circumstances and, in spite of Trollope’s lighthearted treatment of some of the characters, there is perhaps a more damning conviction against society at large for its inability to see what is in front of its face, for its lack of motivation to change circumstances, and perhaps even for its helplessness at the hands of fate.