My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Speeding through Trollope is never wise: each of his books are long, drawn out performances, where the various threads he weaves throughout eventually come together in the end—the different characters of different social stations and statuses; the bickering family members, neighbors, and parish members; and also the young men and women (typically, the latter) who defy gender norms and conventions, but who, by the novels’ ends, adhere to a Victorian readership’s expectations and satisfy their sense of closure, of right made wrong, of good triumphing over evil.
But this is to overlook Trollope’s greatest strength as a novelist: he never condemns those who have transgressed against social norms; he doesn’t join the neighbors who gossip and spread rumor and cast stones. In each of Trollope’s characters—both the worthy and the unworthy—we see facets of human nature, and, in turn, we see shimmer of ourselves, to be examined and never judged. In short, Trollope recognizes that all of us are as capable of evil as well as of good, and he explores the thin line that divides what society and culture would view as extremes, and which he views as humanity merely toeing the line.
As the fifth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Small House at Allington casts a much smaller net than its predecessors, and, from what I recall, from the finale that follows. Whereas The Warden began the series on a somewhat tentative note, almost unsure of itself or where it stood (standalone book or part of a series?), Trollope’s ventures from Barchester Towers—the most widely-read of Trollope’s novels, perhaps, and not a good indication of his scope, as I wrote in my linked review—to Doctor Thorne, and from Framley Parsonage (perhaps the most successful thus far of the series; see my review there) to this title show a steady progress toward world-building and the reader who tackles these books in order will be a much happier reader for the dipping in and out of characters from previous volumes, many of whose backstories Trollope takes for granted that you know.
While the second through fourth books highlight how skilled Trollope is at assembling a wide range of characters and having plots and subplots abound, all of which intersect around a certain character or a problem (usually money or marriage), The Small House at Allington is much smaller in scope, dealing almost solely with the same group of characters during and after the young, beautiful, but immensely annoying Lily Dale is jilted by Adolphous Crosbie for a woman of rank and, so he thinks, money, the Lady Alexandrina de Courcy. In her introduction to the lovely new Oxford editions of the series, Dinah Birch states that this was the most popular of the Barsetshire books for Victorian readers (and was even viewed by Trollope as such: “I do not think that I have ever done better work,” he wrote in An Autobiography), but she does note that today the novel “divides its readers, and the character of Lily Dale has always been the central point of contention.”
Allington is a much bleaker world than we see in the other Barsetshire novels: characters don’t change much here; they don’t learn much in their toils of troubles; they don’t succeed or triumph in ways that most readers of Trollope expect from his characters. And, in some ways, that is this book’s strength: it categorically refuses to give readers what they expect from a novel, what they have grown to expect from a certain author, and, as such, Trollope can take liberties that he has not done before. However, while Lily Dale’s jilting is the central problematic around which numerous characters revolve, some of the more interesting characters do get more room in the spotlight: the “hobbledehoy” John Eames, who is trying to make his way in the London world of business and busyness, longing all the while for his childhood sweetheart, Lily Dale; Crosbie, who has won Lily’s heart but who has his own selfish desire for power and wealth in mind when he jilts her; Mrs. Dale, who is a fascinating study of motherhood and female power (as well as restraint) in dealing with widowhood, bringing up two daughters alone, and being forced to live off the “generosity” of her dead husband’s family; and earls, squires, ladies, and lords galore. Unlike the previous books in the series, though, Trollope fails to unite these refracted characters; and, as a result, the novel does not read as well thought-out or as well-plotted as his others. Indeed, there are even three or four chapters on Plantagenet Palliser’s dangerous liaison with Lady Griselda Dumbello (whom one will recall from earlier Barsetshire novels) which seem to add nothing to the main plot here at all; Trollope was working on the Palliser series’ first book, Can You Forgive Her?, as he was writing Allington, and appears to have got some of his signals crossed.
I do still strongly recommend that those new to Trollope begin with his lesser-known, but wonderfully executed, The Claverings (you can read my review there).
Still… yet still… ah, still, still… There is nothing quite like spending a month immersed in a 600-or-more page Trollope. It is very much like a holiday, getting acquainted and reacquainted with characters; getting close to them, seeing them flaws and all and being almost as nonjudgmental as the narrator/author is about their deeds and misdeeds. It opens one’s eyes to human nature in microcosm, and forces one to see things in oneself that one might prefer to keep buried or cloaked in shadow. Allington is very much the bridge to the finale of the series, and I look forward to revisiting that before the year’s end, before I take my leave of Barsetshire for the world of the Pallisers.