Thursday, July 14, 2011

Augusta could not serve God and Mammon - a Doctor Thorne mini-novel

Near the end of Doctor Thorne, in Chapter 38, there is an unusual epistolary chapter.  Only three letters, actually, and what is truly unusual* is that Trollope draws attention to the letters, “a mode of novel-writing which used to be much in vogue, but which has now gone out of fashion,” one that is “very expressive when in good hands.”  Trollope fears, prophetically, that he will lapse into “commonplace narrative” before the chapter ends.

The chapter is almost a mini-novel, by which I mean it could easily (easily for Trollope!) have been blown up to a volume or three.  Augusta has received a proposal from a well-to-do attorney.  She asks her cousin, the daughter of an earl, if it is proper to marry so far below her rank.  The cousin says no.  Augusta submits.  Those are the three letters.  Then there is a big twist, and then a small twist.  It’s a good story.  Pitiful, but also a bit, what do I want to say.  Savage.

Augusta genuinely wants to marry the attorney, or so a reader should infer.  “I don’t wish to speak at all of my own feelings” is what she actually writes.  The narrator, though, can read between the lines:

Poor Augusta prayed very hard for her husband; but she prayed to a bosom that on this subject was as hard as a flint, and she prayed in vain.  Augusta Gresham was twenty-two, Lady Amelia de Courcy was thirty-four; was it likely that Lady Amelia would permit Augusta to marry, the issue having thus been left in her hands?

She prayed; her calm and careful letter is a prayer!  A few pages later, after Lady Amelia’s cold-hearted reply, Trollope returns to the religious metaphor:

Augusta could not serve God and Mammon.  She must either be true to the god of her cousin's idolatry, and remain single, or serve the Mammon of her own inclinations, and marry Mr. Gazebee.

Mammon here is not money, but love, following your own heart (“[S]he would have loved with that sort of love which it was in her power to bestow,” the narrator later claims, with clear-eyed pity), while God is the tyrannical cousin’s prejudice about good blood (“You must acknowledge that such an admixture should be looked on by a De Courcy, or even by a Gresham, as a pollution” – this is the ugliest line in the cousin’s letter).  This is not Trollope as the Great Sympathizer – he has chosen sides.  The metaphor is monstrous.

Augusta Gresham and Lady Amelia de Courcy are peripheral characters in Doctor Thorne.  The entire chapter should, following standard Just-in- Time fiction writing principles, be jettisoned.  It serves as a strong thematic counterpoint – the novel’s hero and heroine behave quite differently than Augusta  – but otherwise the main story would not notice its absence.  Thus, just the place to inspect most carefully.

*  In her amusing and instructive 1999 lecture “Partly Told In Letters: Trollope's Story-telling Art,” Ellen Moody demonstrates that Trollope’s novels are “chock full of letters.”


  1. Love that little episode - typically Trollpeian ;)

  2. Maybe that little chapter doesn't affect the story line, but it certainly, as you say, provides a strong counterpoint, which I feel adds much to the overall themes of the Barchester series.

    It adds depth to the work for it demonstrates that this attitude is representative of the culture and not just an anomaly in one family.

    By the way, I just finished reading the sixth and final novel in the series, _The Last Chronicle of Barset_.

  3. Absolutely - it is just chapters like this one that deepen the novel.

    I don't know when I will catch up with you, Fred, but I think I have enough to Trollopean momentum to plow forward to Framley Parsonage.

    I have actually read the Barchester books before, and just those. Sometime I should try a new Trollope novel.

  4. You might want to try _The Eustace Diamonds_. It's part of the "Palliser series," but it's really a standalone novel.

    I read it with an online group, and I was so impressed by it, I decided to delay reading the "Barchester series" and start the "Palliser series." It's the third, I think, in the series, but there's no need to read the first two prior to reading this one. I read it first and had no problems with it.

  5. I will bet you that I am neurotic enough that I will read the Palliser novels in order, but it is useful to know that there is no real need.

  6. Well, we eventually did read them in order. There are two, I think, that should be read in order: _Phineas Finn_ and _Phineas Redux_.

    We weren't sure why _The Eustace Diamonds_ was included in the Palliser series.