Almost before I knew who Anthony Trollope was, I was being warned by other readers of how disappointing I would find The Small House at Allington. Lily Dale was a drip, I was told, and the entire book a drag to read. Old visitors to Barsetshire happily skip it when rereading the series. Forewarned, I put off reading the novel for months after finishing Framley Parsonage. But then I went into Trollope withdrawal and, rather than turning to one of the standalone novels, decided to soldier on in Barsetshire. I picked up The Small House at Allington with no great expectations. I put it down a few days later convinced that it was the best Trollope I’ve read yet.
Even people who have never read Trollope themselves are familiar with Lily Dale, the jilted heroine of The Small House at Allington, whose constancy to her former fiancé so appealed to Victorian readers and so enrages modern ones. Lily lives with her mother and elder sister at the Small House at Allington (as opposed to the Large House, inhabited by her uncle, Squire Dale). In the novel’s early chapters, she meets and falls in love with Aldolphus Crosbie, a winsome and ambitious young man. Unfortunately, shortly after their engagement Crosbie abandons Lily to make a socially advantageous marriage to Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the eldest daughter of a well known and unpleasant family familiar from earlier Barsetshire books. Meanwhile, young Johnny Eames, a friend of Lily’s since childhood, longs to avenge the wrong that was done to her by Crosbie and to win her for himself…if only he could get his rather messy London life sorted out first.
I can see why modern readers find Lily enraging and also why Victorian readers adored her. She is affectionate and resilient but, when it matters, introverted to the extent that neither the reader nor her own family can really know what is going on in her mind or heart. Trollope later referred to her as a “prig” but the Lily he presents here, obstinate as she is, seems too bold to be branded with such a milksop label. She teases that she is a domestic tyrant and throughout the book goes along, doing just as she likes, happily ignoring the well-meant and generally sensible advice of those who love her. When she is abandoned by Crosbie, Lily does not go immediately into a decline; she has no delicate feminine constitution that collapses under the emotional strain of her broken engagement. She soldiers on, laughing and teasing, taking joy in others’ happiness. But you never quite know what is going on in her head. Her lighthearted flirtation and sharp banter seem at odds with the devotion she shows to Crosbie. I think I like her and yet I am not quite sure. I am certainly fascinated by her.
Poor Aldolphus Crosbie is perhaps the most interesting and, in many ways, the most sympathetic character. The reader – and Lily – knows from the start that he is young, full of more flash than substance, more ambition than moral certainty. But it is his half-formed character that makes him so sympathetic. He is a man with no cruelty in him, no badness, just weakness. And he is more than punished for his youthful foolishness by his marriage to Lady Alexandrina – and into the heartless de Courcy family. He tasted enough true intimacy and affection with Lily to know what he is missing. His about-face so shortly after becoming engaged to Lily is upsetting but wonderfully written. He is being true to himself, if not to Lily; one of the first things Trollope shared about Crosbie was his acknowledgement that “he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money.” Foolishly, it is only after becoming engaged to Lily that he sets out to discover if her uncle, the squire, intends to settle any money on her. He, a childless bachelor who one would expect to do better (and who does indeed reconsider his position over the course of the novel), refuses to give Crosbie the assurance that she will receive any money on her marriage. With the prospect of trying to support a wife on only his meager salary, Crosbie sets out on the fateful trip to Courcy castle where, with the thirty-something – but dowered and well-connected – Lady Alexandrina on display, ambition wins out over affection.
This is a thick novel and over the rest of it Crosbie has much time to repent of his decision. His arrogance and confidence, his dreams of a bright professional future, are slowly ground down as the frightful and demanding de Courcys invade every corner of his life. Meanwhile, his timid would-have-been-rival for Lily’s affections, Johnny Eames, finds himself rising in the world. Johnny works moderately hard at his job but, more importantly, finds himself with a well-connected patron, Lord de Guest, whom he saved from a charging bull in a delightfully comic scene. Lord de Guest helps champion Johnny’s bid for Lily’s hand but it is of no use: Lily has no interest in any other man than Crosbie, feeling herself bound to him despite the abrupt end to their relationship.
I feel like I ought to have liked Johnny Eames more than I did. He is appealingly green and insecure, the sort of young man who Trollope excelled at writing about sympathetically. But, in his way, he is crueller to the women in his life than Crosbie was to Lily. The scenes in Johnny’s squalid London boarding house make it that much easier to understand the appeal of gently-bred Lily but that does not make his treatment of Amelia Roper, the landlady’s daughter to whom he declared his half-hearted love, acceptable.
What I did love about Johnny Eames – and Crosbie – were the details of their working lives in London. I adore Trollope for many reasons and one of them is the insight he gives into the professional careers of middle-class Victorians. I delight in learning about the sort of hours clerks worked, or the amounts they were paid, or what they did on their weekends, or how they furnished their houses and how they managed to afford to marry and support children. And I adore reading about office politics and the hierarchies within the departments where Trollope’s characters work. The Three Clerks was a perfect book for this but The Small House at Allington, which spends a significant portion focused on Crosbie and Eames, is almost as good.
Another joy of reading Trollope is being privy to his authorial asides, be they about society or his characters. He has a habit of defending his characters before anyone can criticize them which feels adorably parental. But, best of all, he likes to insert reminders every now and then for his readers:
Young men, very young men – men so young that it may be almost a question whether or no they have as yet reached their manhood – are more inclined to be earnest and thoughtful when alone than they ever are when with others, even though those others be their elders. I fancy that, as we grow old ourselves, we are apt to forget that it was so with us; and, forgetting it, we do not believe that it is so with our children.
I feel like every Trollope book has at least one of these timeless reminders that is wildly appropriate for my life at that moment. I often find myself copying them out and forwarding them on to friends or family members.
The genius of The Small House at Allington, where it rises about the rest of the equally entertaining Barsetshire books, is that it is perfectly put together. The plotting is tight, the characters compelling (if not always comprehensible), and there are none of the extraneous scenes or storylines that distract from the action in his other novels. That’s not to say that there aren’t secondary storylines: there are several. While Lily is pledging herself to eternal maidenhood, her sister Bell is confusedly falling in love with the village doctor. And in a more exalted strata of society, the awkward and shy Plantagenet Palliser is falling inappropriately in love with the exquisite Lady Dumbello, to the horror of both their families. This sets up the Palliser books nicely and makes me eager to start them, but not before I finished with Barsetshire. The Last Chronicle of Barset awaits.