Friday, September 02, 2016

The Small House at Allington

I really enjoyed The Small House at Allington, the 5th book in the Barsetshire series by Anthony Trollope, until the end.  What is it about endings that make even great writers like Trollope go all wobbly?

The Small House at Allington was strongly reminiscent for me of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility, but different enough that it was not just a rehashing of the themes Austen explored.  Let's start with the basic premise and plot.  Like S&S, The Small House at Allington revolves around the lives and loves of two sisters, Isabel (aka Bell) and Lily Dale and their widowed mother, who live together in a house provided by a rich relative, in this case the mother's brother-in-law.

The older daughter, Bell, is the sensible, quiet, pragmatic one, quietly courted by a good and steady man.  Thank goodness he didn't have a girl on the side, ala Lucy Steele!  The younger daughter, Lily, is passionate, believes that someone can only really love once, and falls hopelessly and very publicly in love with a charming reprobate who breaks her heart when he jilts her to marry an earl's daughter.
I simply cannot believe that given the parameters of the story that Trollope was not inspired by S&S.

If you want more info about Austen's influence on Trollope, check out this post comparing Framley Parsonage with Pride and Prejudice.

One of the big differences is that in The Small House in Allington, the reader gets to hear the men's side of the story. Much of the book is really caught up in explaining how and why Adolphus Crosbie, the Apollo that Lily Dale falls for, comes to mess up his life so completely, how he comes to totally regret throwing Lily away for a harpy of a wife, and how he contrives to live a less happy but not completely unhappy life in the end. Early on, the narrator promises that the story is not about Crosbie, but then he lets him dominate most of the book.  It could be that Trollope was just more comfortable telling a man's story just as Austen was more comfortable telling a woman's story.

As in S&S, the major themes in The Small House in Allington are constancy, familial duty, and being true to one's own self.  As in S&S, Trollope's characters journey to self-awareness within the confines of fairly rigid social structures, but in the end, it is the individual who decides whether they will be happy and productive or miserable and slothful.

There are some wonderful characters surrounding the Dale family--in particular, I quite fell in love with Johnny Eames, the Colonel Brandon character, but in this case he is young, poor, hardworking, big-hearted, and bright.  He ends up entangled with the daughter of his landlady and spends most of the novel trying to extricate himself from her clutches so that he can be worthy of Lily when she finally comes to her senses and gets over Crosbie and falls in love with him.

***Spoilers below***
The frustrating part came in that after reading this long book--almost 600 pages--the reader really didn't get a satisfactory Victorian novel wrap up.  Lily never does get over Crosbie.  She should, she knows she should--like Marianne in S&S, she becomes dangerously ill with grief and emerges with the will to overcome her lost love, but she never matures to the point of being able to fall in love with the man she should.

Maybe Trollope never really bought that Marianne came to love Colonel Brandon as he deserved to be love and so made his S&S story one in which the passionate girl who declares that only first loves are real lives by that conviction.

We get the marriage of Bell to the good Dr. Crofts, and we get that Crosbie's wife deserts him, leaving him happily alone as a bachelor again.  But no resolution as to what happens to Johnny Eames, my personal favorite.

The last 50 pages of the novel are pretty much devoted to the wretched De Courcy family, none of whom I care about in the least.  Why, Trollope, why ruin a perfectly good novel by veering off at the end and not providing adequate closure of the main story?  It's not that I always have to have a happy ending--life isn't like that.  But I do like an ending!

This book is part of my Back to the Classics challenge for 2017--nicely filling the category "Classic which includes the name in the title." It also is part of the Big Book Summer Challenge, which runs through Labor Day.


  1. I just love reading your impressions of Trollope's novels in some detail like this and the astute comparisons you make, drawing on your deep reading of classics old and new. My memory of Allington is sketchy, perhaps because of the diffuse ending you describe. I have always felt quite caught up while reading Trollope, but usually come away only with an idea of the characters and setting and the brilliancy of his narration. Plots in the Palliser novels come more readily to mind. In the Barchester books, it is only the church intrigue I recall, and the various marrying couples seem to run together :). Thanks for your commentary! Even with the novel's digressive ending, your description makes me want to reread this one.

  2. By coincidence I just finished Can You Forgive Her? this morning.

    I liked this book a lot, but I saw it as just part of a bigger story. Some of the wrap-up that you understandably longed for here is taken care of in the next book of the series. After reading that one I came to see this book as a kind of bridge story and I tend to view the entire The Chronicles of Barsetshire as a single work.

  3. Wonderful post! I will echo Brian's comments above and say you really must read The Last Chronicle of Barset. While there is a new 'main story' in the final book, Trollope allows us to spend more time with the Small House inhabitants. I absolutely loved the series and will probably spend 2017 reading The Pallisers.

  4. I so loved the Barsetshire Chronicles. Lily's stubbornness and the lack of a tidy ending didn't really bother me much, however.

  5. Just as JoAnn writes, you must read The Last Chronicle of Barset. While it may not give you complete satisfaction, you will see much more of John Eames and Lily Dale. I loved your review of Small House.

  6. Endings you're not happy with are bad enough with short books but what a huge disappointment after 600 pages!