The Small House at Allington (1862-4) is the fifth Chronicle of Barsetshire. (Here is the Simon Vance narration). I'd like to comment on the hero and heroine.

Hero duty, as Trollope's narrator tells us early in the book, is divided among several figures. Who are our leading men? To proceed according to rank, first there is Squire Dale, lord of the estate at Allington. Second is his nephew and heir, Bernard Dale, a military man. Then there are the heroine's two suitors, who work in London and visit Allington as they can: Adolphus Crosbie the villain, whom Trollope nevertheless makes you pity, and Johnny Eames, whose love goes wholly unrequited. As any introduction to the novel will tell you, Johnny is something of a stand-in for the young Trollope. Here's Trollope on his hero(s):

I do not say that Mr. Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments. Whatever of the magnificent may be produced will be diluted and apportioned out in very moderate quantities among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen—to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action. (Chapter 2)

In the allusive title of Chapter 36, and explicitly in the final paragraphs of the penultimate chapter (59), Trollope reverses his judgment and names Eames the hero of the novel. Eames is certainly an interesting creation; I like him best wandering through the woods. Bernard disappears too soon to be of much consequence. Crosbie's unexpected moral depth can't redeem him. For my money the real protagonist is not Eames, and is in fact not even a young man. The squire (aged about 70) is the most interesting male character. He approaches tragedy in that his deep feelings for and good intentions toward his neighbors are constantly thwarted by his limited powers of expression (like the gawky Eames). Trollope eventually relieves the pressure as if by accident, when his sister-in-law Mrs Dale suddenly penetrates through his obscurities; somehow, in context, this does not seem unlikely.

Heroine duty is not split, though again there are four primary figures: a wealthy villainess the Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the widowed Mrs Dale, and her daughters "the two pearls of Allington." The three Dale ladies live together in the "Small House" of the title. The younger girl Lily is the object of Crosbie and Eames's affections; the elder Bell is pursued first by Bernard (who fails) and second by a minor character Dr Crofts (who succeeds). The central event in the plot is that, after Lily and Crosbie become engaged, he abandons her for Alexandrina. Villain and villainess marry, and are miserable.

Lily is the heroine. Alas, she is unpleasant. I didn't like her from the beginning; her wit sparkles but lacks the good cheer that animates the heroines of Doctor Thorne (good) and Framley Parsonage (excellent). Most of the blame must fall on Crosbie who behaves awfully. The betrayal practically ruins Lily for (we are told) she trusted him wholly, too much, more than was prudent. After the breakup, genuine good cheer would have been quite an achievement.

But even after the breakup, Lily takes a hand in her own ruin. I'm hardly the first reader to say this. Scan the first few goodreads reviews. According to the editor's Introduction in the Penguin* edition, the novel has been considered morbid since its initial publication. (In this way the book is significantly unlike the previous four volumes of the series.) The frustrated marriages probably have something to do with this response, but in Chapter 44 there is an additional, more disturbing reason. It is the morning of the villains' wedding, and Lily (with the banter typical of Trollope's heroines) refuses to let her mother and sister feel angry.

"Mamma," she said, "how cold they'll be!" Her mother had announced to her the fact of the black frost, and these were the first words she spoke.

"I fear their hearts will be cold also," said Mrs. Dale. She ought not to have said so. She was transgressing the acknowledged rule of the house in saying any word that could be construed as being inimical to Crosbie or his bride. But her feeling on the matter was too strong, and she could not restrain herself.

"Why should their hearts be cold? Oh, mamma, that is a terrible thing to say. Why should their hearts be cold?"

"I hope it may not be so."

"Of course you do; of course we all hope it. He was not cold-hearted, at any rate. A man is not cold-hearted, because he does not know himself. Mamma, I want you to wish for their happiness."

Mrs. Dale was silent for a minute or two before she answered this, but then she did answer it. "I think I do," said she. "I think I do wish for it."

"I am very sure that I do," said Lily.

A few lines later, with her sister,

Bell for a moment turned her face away, and beat with her foot against the ground. Her anger was more difficult of restraint than was even her mother's,—and now, not restraining it, but wishing to hide it, she gave it vent in this way.

"I understand, Bell. I know what your foot means when it goes in that way; and you shan't do it. Come here, Bell, and let me teach you Christianity. I'm a fine sort of teacher, am I not? And I did not quite mean that."

"I wish I could learn it from some one," said Bell. "There are circumstances in which what we call Christianity seems to me to be hardly possible."

"When your foot goes in that way it is a very unchristian foot, and you ought to keep it still."

This is charming in its way, but I am afraid it is not sanctity. The response to Bell is at first too clever, and then suddenly too silly ("a very unchristian foot"). There is some truth and goodness in Lily's response, but mingled with serious self-deception. If we are to find Lily credible as a character, she must be either saintly or slightly mad, and whatever her virtues the former seems unlikely. (See the narrator's comments in Chapter 38.) This judgment is confirmed when we read the account of Lily's insistent, self-mutilating, imaginative play: wondering whether the bride has now arrived at the church, whether the ceremony is now completed, etc. If she could only allow herself to express (or feel) some entirely justified anger, she would not be so unpleasantly strange. Decked out with persiflage, her behavior cannot be called charity, but no one is permitted the relief of pity.

Toward the end, Lily refuses Eames's renewed proposal of marriage. This is entirely consonant with her character, and an admirable artistic decision in Trollope. She will remain (like her mother) a "perpetual widow" because she still loves Crosbie (Chapter 54). This seems most unlikely; no one in the novel seems to find her love credible. None of us understand her. And then, worst of all, she takes refuge in an old lie: "I am not blaming him, remember. These things are different with a man." It is outrageous to hear a cad rationalize his behavior with such an argument, but to hear it from the victim -- and such an intelligent victim -- is very painful. Still she fails to excite sympathy.

It is with relief that one reads Trollope's mature judgment:

Prig as she was, she made her way into the hearts of many readers, both young and old; so that, from that time to this, I have been continually honoured with letters, the purport of which has always been to beg me to marry Lily Dale to Johnny Eames. Had I done so, however, Lily would never have so endeared herself to these people as to induce them to write letters to the author concerning her fate. It was because she could not get over her troubles that they loved her. (Autobiography, Chapter 10)

In the end, as with the men, it is to the old one we should look for the most remarkable creation. Mrs Dale is a wonderful female character, from her introduction in Chapters 2 (offstage) and 3 (onstage). The drama of her shifting relations with her brother-in-law is subtle, poignant, and credible.

* The current Penguin edition is terrible on the Kindle. If you read e-books, get a free copy made by amateurs instead.

AuthorSeth Holler