The Small House at Allington is the fifth novel in Anthony Trollope’s wonderful “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. After reading the previous novels in the series plus all six of the Palliser novels, all in relatively short span of time, you’d think I’d be getting sick of Trollope by now. I actually tried to read this one critically, to find something in it I didn’t like. The plot is hackneyed enough: two sisters with opposite personalities, one of whom gets herself romantically involved with a cad, ala Sense and Sensibility. But hackneyed plot or not Trollope seems to be incapable of producing bad writing. I hung on every word.
In this novel, the two sisters are Lily and Bell Dale, ages 19 and year or so older. They live rent-free in a house provided by their stern Uncle Christopher Dale, along with their wise, self-sacrificing, saintly mother, Mrs. Dale, who reminds me of Marmee of Little Women, except that Mrs. Dale is widowed while Marmee’s husband is merely off fighting a war. The small house is actually part of the Allington estate. It is a charming house and is only small in relation to the rich uncle’s nearby mansion.
Relations between the mother and daughters and Uncle Christopher are a little strained because Mrs. Dale thinks her brother-in-law has never liked her and is only allowing them the house grudgingly on account of the girls, and Uncle Christopher can’t understand why Mrs. Dale never accepts his generous invitations to dinner. It drives me crazy, in these Victorian novels, how many tangled problems could be cleared up with ten minutes of clear communication; but then we wouldn’t get to enjoy 700 pages of sharp social commentary and hilarious story telling.
An even more serious problem is that in addition to these two lovely nieces, Uncle Christopher has a nephew and heir to the Dale property, and it is the most cherished desire of his heart that this nephew – Bernard Dale – should marry his cousin Bell. Bernard, who is not the deepest guy in the world, thinks Bell is pretty enough and wants to please the uncle who is giving him money and property, so he is up for the plan. But things can never be that easy and Bell, the quiet sensible sister, refuses to acquiesce.
Meanwhile Bernard introduces into the family circle a handsome friend named Adolphus Crosbie. Lily falls for Crosbie and after a whirlwind summer romance they become engaged to be married. Now in the Land of Trollope, at least among the gentry, once you get engaged, it is a really big deal to change one’s mind. Backing out of an engagement is pretty much the same as jilting your lover at the altar. When it is the man who breaks it off, the woman is so disgraced that her family and friends are not surprised if she takes to her bed and dies.
Trollope drops hints that the Crosbie/Lily romance is going to run into trouble. Crosbie is a guy who really likes the excitement and freedom of a bachelor. Also he is a bit of a social climber and has doubts about having enough income to support a family. The saintly mother does not like the man, but of course keeps her opinions to herself. Uncle Christopher does not object to the engagement, but is not thrilled enough about it to bestow any money on his niece for the purpose. Still, for Lily’s sake, you hope against hope things do not go awry. Lily, the outgoing energetic sister, is what we might call a drama queen, and sometimes she can get a bit annoying in the way drama queens do. Still I wanted things to work out for her.
This novel is is bursting with engaging characters that seem as real as your next door neighbor. There is Johnny Eames, the sweet neighbor boy who has been secretly in love with Lily Dale most of his life. Trollope characterizes him as a “hobbledehoy” – a young man who is beyond boyhood but has not yet grown into his full manhood. Johnny is kind of an awkward loser but lovable and the story of how he improves his fortunes and grows in confidence is one of the things I enjoyed most about the novel. I have read that Johnny Eames is really Trollope himself as youth. There is Lord deGuest and his sister Lady Julia, a pair of wealthy gentry in the neighboring village of Guestwick. Lord deGuest is sort of the earthy medieval king type, a down-to-earth lover of the outdoors and a plain speaker, and yet majestic when he needs to be. He and his honest outspoken old sister Lady Julia take a liking to young Johnny, especially when Johnny saves the Earl’s life when a favorite bull goes wild.
And then there is the De Courcy family who first appeared in Doctor Thorne. They are awful superficial snobbish people in that novel, but in The Small House we get to know them more intimately. We could almost wish we didn’t. In the previous novel they were kind of funny, providing foils to the deep the sincerity of the main characters. In this novel we get to know see them behind the facade of high-class glamour and the sight is not pretty. They are struggling financially to keep up appearances and their domestic life is fraying at the seams. Earl De Courcy is ailing, angry, and abusive to his wife, the daughters are unhappy and bored, the oldest son does not speak to his father, and the youngest son is (of course) a dissipated spendthrift. There is no real love in the home. As this family moves from caricatures to real people, we begin to sense the true sadness of it all.
Also we get to catch up with Griselda Grantly, now Lady Dumbello, the stunningly vapid girl who played a large part in Framley Parsonage and appeared as a child in Barchester Towers. Connected with Lady Dumbello, Plantagenet Palliser makes his first appearance as the 25-year-old heir to the Duke of Omnium. I had not realized how much continuity there was between the two series.
I love the entire pair of series and dreading coming to the end of the my next and final book: The Last Chronicle of Barset. Oh well. There are still other Trollope novels and an autobiography yet to read, and I have not even tapped into the BBC productions and other films based on these novels. It’s hard to imagine a better written series offering a community of characters more real and alive. I may try reading Game of Thrones just for comparison, but I have a feeling it will just make me wish all the more that Anthony Trollope was still alive cranking out novels two per year.