What makes this novel so polarizing is Lily Dale. About half of readers and critics find Lily's unwavering love for a total rotter charming. Her basic premise of "his love changed, but why should that mean that my love must?" is seen as a paragon of "true" love. The other half find her obsession with the execrable Crosbie "creepy," as you say, neurotic, and disturbing. Trollope, in his characteristic way, tells us that we are meant to love her in the first few pages, but he then makes it not entirely easy to do so, despite her many charms.
I was fascinated that Trollope decided to subvert the obvious marriage plot. I remember us speculating, "Suppose Mary Thorne had not inherited the fortune. Would Frank still have married her?" and "Suppose Lady Lufton had stuck by her guns and never accepted Lucy. Would Lucy have relented and married Lord Lufton anyway?" In both cases, any reader would naturally assume that it will all turn out right, and the young lovers will be united. (Doctor Thorne is totally a "marriage plot" novel. Framley Parsonage's main plot is probably Mark's financial woes, but Lucy's "marriage plot" is hardly a subplot--more of a co-main plot, I would say.) These externals not coming right seem more probable than Lily's psychological fixation. And yet, this is the path that Trollope decided to follow. He sets us up naturally to assume that Johnny and Lily will eventually be wed, only to dash our hopes. We now have the answer to our "What if..." questions.
Trollope's affectionate portrait of his younger self in Johnny Eames is charming. To some extent, I could identify with the callow young man who is brave is some ways and timid in others, although I was not such a hobbledehoy. (I had to look that word up since I've never seen it before. It is a fine word, and English otherwise lacks such a specific word for a callow, awkward young man. I wish it were still in general usage.) On the other hand, Crosbie's midnight rationalizations hit uncomfortably close to home for me at times. I hope that I have never done anything as selfish and cold-blooded as Crosbie, but I have certainly found myself justifying behavior that I knew to be less than proper. I have never broken an engagement or anything like that, but in my younger days I had dalliances with young ladies from whom I moved on. It is blood-chilling to think that one of them might have fallen unwaveringly in love with me and sacrificed her future happiness. Surely not. Scary thought, though.
Lord de Guest is indeed a wonderful guy. He seems like a distant, Victorian cousin of Squire Western in Tom Jones. Much nicer fellow, though. I confess that I had not considered that Squire Dale might have romantic feeling for his sister-in-law, but yet another thwarted romance makes perfect sense in this novel. True, Bell marries Dr. Crofts, but there is another thwarted romance in Bell and Bernard. I thought that Bernard's feelings might run stronger than he was able to express, which may be why he felt the need to leave for the Continent.
Anyway, a very different and darker novel than the earlier Barset novels. After reading it, I'm even more intrigued that Virginia Woolf called Pride and Prejudice and The Small House at Allington two perfect novels of their type., since one resolves happily and one not. Perhaps Ms. Woolf felt that these were the only two possible outcomes of the marriage plot, and that Austen and Trollope had accomplished these stories so admirably that there was no point in writing anything similar that is unlikely to be as good.
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