Doctor Thorne (1858) is a good novel, but it is not a great novel, and after the excellencies (dramatic, pathetic, comic) of the compact The Warden, and the wonderful (sometimes slapstick!) humor of the much longer sequel, it disappoints.
Why? What is the problem with Doctor Thorne? Almost all of the characters are new, and the one cleric is in the background, but otherwise the subject is the same. The narrator still shoulders the burden of chronicling the lives of a handful of middle-to-upper class residents of Barsetshire, his imaginary English county. As before, the scope widens and contracts as the narrator moves from the stories of individuals (romance, jealousy, ambition, charity) to social commentary and the criticism of institutions (political machinations in Parliament, the temporal ambitions of the clergy, the difficulty of listening to a dull sermon, the influence of the London press).
The narrator's tone is no different than before: he remains gentle. He need not be otherwise. His heroes and heroines marry one another and inherit fortunes. His poor are contented. His good old people die in peace, and his bad old people die offstage. His villains can be cruel, but they are never violent, and even the cruelty is likely to be tempered by narratorial intervention:
Before we go on we must say one word further as to Lady Arabella's character. It will probably be said that she was a consummate hypocrite; but at the present moment she was not hypocritical...
God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, but this complacency (gratitude?) is to be expected in Trollope. The characters and plot are, on the whole, engaging. The parallels between the villains (Lady Arabella and Sir Louis Scatcherd) are revealed gradually and with some subtlety. The ventriloquism, from kitchen maid to nouveau riche heiress to blue blood countess, is accomplished and varied. There are some great jokes. What is the problem, then?
I suspect it lies in narrative economy. "Large, loose, baggy monster" seems a good description of Doctor Thorne, even though it is several hundred pages shorter than Barchester Towers. Much of the plot is advanced through conversations (in drawing rooms, over tea), and some, too many, of these conversations are redundant. It is quite plausible that a husband and wife who are customarily at variance with one another would repeat the same arguments, or sting one another with the same words -- but it is not very interesting.
There are also some striking parallels between Doctor Thorne and George Eliot's wonderfully brief Silas Marner (1861). Trollope can't be blamed for the high quality of his competition, but anyone who has read these two novels will prefer the economical Eliot.
Finally there is the heroine. Trollope tells us to expect great things from Mary Thorne's wit, but he is welcome to her. I'll take Patience Oriel, who drops out after the first few chapters, or Miss Dunstable, whose appearance in the middle is far too brief. Mary's lover, Frank Gresham, is a wonderful creation, and I entirely believed in his development over the two year period. The title character acquits himself with aplomb in a characteristically Victorian moral quandary involving a fortune, a will, and a bastard heir.
High points: Frank's birthday speech (Chapter 5), every line from Miss Dunstable, the genially corrupt election (Chapter 17), and the chastely tragic epistolary sequence (Chapter 38).