When Audrey announced her #6Barsets project, to mark the bicentennial of Anthony Trollope's birth this year, I happily signed on to read the six Barsetshire books with her. Technically, I would be re-reading them, most for the second or third time. However, I had only read The Small House at Allington once, more than ten years ago. Of the six books, this was the one I was most curious to read again. I disliked it at the time, but having read many more of Trollope's books in the years since, I suspected that my opinion would be different this time.
Though this is counted as a "Barsetshire" book, Allington and its Small House are not located in Barsetshire, but just outside its borders, to the west. At the center of the story are the widowed Mary Dale and her two daughters, Bell and Lily. Their small house is part of the Dale estate, which belongs to Mrs. Dale's brother-in-law Christopher Dale, the Squire. His nephew and heir, Captain Bernard Dale, is a frequent visitor to the great house. One day he brings with him a friend from London, Augustus Crosbie. A rising young man in a government office, and a well-known man about town, Crosbie falls in love with Lily and becomes engaged to her. He does not consider his income sufficient to marry, but he has expectations of Lily's rich Uncle Christopher.
As I expected, I enjoyed this book very much on a second reading. As always with Trollope, there are multiple plots winding through the story, which he balances with his usual skill. The relationship between the Great and Small Houses is complicated. Christopher Dale wants to do the best he can for his nieces and his sister-in-law. He loves them, but he is unable to express that affection. He tends to sulk if he doesn't get his way, feeling that nobody loves him. Bell Dale also has her suitors, one of whom like Augustus Crosbie thinks himself too poor to support a wife. There is Johnny Eames, a young neighbor in love with Lily, who works at the Income Tax office in London. He is, to use one of Trollope's favorite words, a "hobbledehoy."
There is a class of young men who never get petted, though they may not be the less esteemed, or perhaps loved. They do not come forth to the world as Apollos, nor shine at all, keeping what light they may have for inward purposes. Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.(As I tend to do, I started to make a list of hobbledehoys in other books. I thought immediately of Louisa May Alcott: Jo March in Little Women is a classic female version, while Tom Shaw in An Old-Fashioned Girl fits Trollope's description to the proverbial T.)
Trollope himself had great affection for these young men, I think in large part because he had been one himself, as he would later write in his autobiography. And Johnny is really the hero of this book. He has a widowed mother and younger sister Mary, who looks up to him despite his hobbledehoyhood. (Trollope calls Mary "somewhat of a hobbledehoya herself," which delighted me, since I was very much one myself.) Down in the country, he is befriended by Earl De Guest, connected by marriage to the Dale family. Up in London, he is (despite his love for Lily) drawn into an uneasy romance with Amelia Roper, whose mother keeps the seedy boarding house where he lives. Alongside these stories, we also meet again the De Courcys, introduced in Doctor Thorne, a very unhappy family with a lot of children to settle on very little money. I had forgotten that Plantagenet Palliser makes his debut in this book. I learned from the Oxford Companion that Trollope began writing the first of the Palliser novels just months after this was finished, in 1863 - and wrote Rachel Ray in between! Finally, in this book Trollope gives us a very unhappy marriage, one that goes wrong almost from the start, because neither party can meet the other's expectations, nor can they make each other happy. It was fascinating to read all the details, like finding a house, choosing furniture and rugs and household goods, which are usually glossed over in the Victorian novels I've read. Here Trollope uses them to highlight the problems in the relationship, which left unresolved will follow the couple into marriage.
There are so many wonderful characters in this story. I am particularly fond of Miss Spruce, an elderly cousin of the Ropers who boards with them. She watches the bad behavior of her fellow boarders but fends off any attempt to draw her in with the constant refrain, "I am only an old woman..." It's practically her only line, and it just got funnier and funnier as the story went on. I also like Earl De Guest, an old bachelor farmer who develops a real kindness for Johnny Eames. The only character I really didn't care for was the central one: Lily Dale. Trollope wrote in his autobiography that many readers considered Lily their favorite character, but he thought she "is somewhat of a female prig." I don't think she is at all "excessively precise, proper and smug," to quote Webster's dictionary. Did "prig" mean something different to the Victorians? I just find her rather tiresome, too volatile and emotional. She reminded me of Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility. Like Marianne, she needs a good dose of sense to balance out all that sensibility.
I am very glad that Audrey inspired me to re-read this, and glad to find that I appreciated it more the second time around. The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire is up next, in November and December - and there is talk of #6Pallisers in 2016, if you are inclined to join us.