The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope houses three occupants in the 1860s. Mrs. Dale is a widow with two teenage daughters, Lily and Bell. Lily is lively and outgoing, almost a little saucy, and rash sometimes. Bell is quieter and more mature.
The “small house” belongs to the manor house owned by Squire Dale, Mrs. Dale’s brother-in-law. The squire had not cared for his brother’s wife, but he wants to care for her girls since his brother died by giving them a place to stay and introducing them to society they otherwise would not have encountered. Mrs. Dale and the squire maintain a polite atmosphere but avoid each other as much as possible.
Bernard Dale, the squire’s nephew by another brother, stays with the squire several months out of the year and is in line to be the squire’s heir. Lily and Bell don’t mind the squire’s preference for Bernard: they’re simply grateful for the squire’s beneficence toward them.
On one of Bernard’s lengthy visits, he brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie. Crobie falls in love with Lily “with all his heart,—with all the heart that he had for such purposes.” And though he thinks she is a dear, sweet girl, he has high ambitions. Crosbie knows Lily has no money or rank and therefore would not be welcome in the circles he aspires to. They become engaged, and Lily gives her whole heart to Crosbie. However, inwardly he wonders about an earl’s daughter he met from de Courcy castle.
Johnnie Eames is a neighbor of the Dales’ and has loved Lily since childhood. But he dares not speak to her of his feelings. He knows he has nothing to offer. Lily senses his regard and is kind to him, but does not encourage him. John is now a clerk living in a boarding house in London. His landlady’s daughter sets her cap toward him, not out of love, but to entrap him into a commitment. It seems if a girl had written proof of a man’s matrimonial intentions towards her, and then he backs out, she could sue him.
Doctor Crofts is a dear friend of the family and loves Bell, but he is early in his practice and does not have much money.
Meanwhile, Squire Dale wants Bernard and Bell to marry (I guess cousins could wed in those days). Bernard doesn’t love Bell, but he’s amenable to the arrangements. Bell, however, only thinks of Bernard as a brother and does not want to hear about marriage. It’s not until Bell refuses, multiple times, that Bernard begins to be in earnest about wanting to marry her,
Whew. Though much of the book traces this romantic heptagon, there are other strands of plot as well. There are a couple of other romances—or at least flirtations—not involving these characters.One young man helps an earl out in a crisis, and the earl becomes a patron and mentor of sorts. One young man rises in others’ regard while another sinks, though they make similar mistakes. Some of the office politics of both are seen.
I especially enjoyed the growth in Mrs. Dale’s and the squire’s relationship. He is described as one of those men who comes across as gruff, but really does have a tender heart.
All of these happenings are couched within the times. Trollope makes wry observations regarding class consciousness, gossip, hypocrisies, city vs. town life, etc. A couple of examples: when two of the young men come to blows over the wrongs of one of them, an older lady who is a righteous, upstanding woman and the moral center of her set expresses “by the light of her eyes anything but Christian horror at the wickedness of the deed.” When the police are called over the incident: “‘What’s all this?’ said the superintendent, still keeping on his hat, for he was aware how much of the excellence of his personal dignity was owing to the arrangement of that article.”
The ending was disappointing to me. One character got his comeuppance in a away. But one couple I was rooting for didn’t come to the end I had hoped. I saw one character’s name in some chapter titles of the next book, so perhaps their happy ending comes later.
Still, I enjoyed the book as a whole.
This book is the fifth and next to last in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Though several of the characters are new, it was fun to see several old friends from earlier books. When I read the fourth, Framley Parsonage, I decided maybe I’d better go ahead and read the rest of the series in succession so I didn’t have to remind myself of who the characters were and their relationship with each other with each book.
The Kindle edition of this book is free at this time, and the audiobook was included as part of my Audible subscription. They were synced so that I could pick up where I left off in either one, which worked out nicely. Simon Vance was the excellent narrator for this, and I think for all the Barsetshire series I’ve listened to.
I’m counting this for the “Classic set in a place you’d like to visit” for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.