Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
January 29, 2017
“The Small House at Allington”
“The squires of Allington had been squires of Allington since squires,
such as squires are now, were first known in England.”
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
The Small House at Allington, 1864
If one wants facts, read non-fiction. If one wants to understand character, read fiction. Novels allow authors to explore emotions and responses, unencumbered by historical events or bothersome statistics. This was especially true before the advent of movies or television. Mythology, stories from the Bible and Shakespeare provide examples of fictional character traits we recognize in everyday relationships, as do 19th Century novelists like Trollope, Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Hardy and the Bronte sisters.
Male-female relations have been fodder for novels since books were first written. “None but the most heartless of women know the extent of their power over men,” wrote Trollope in The Small House at Allington,” – as none but the most heartless of men know the extent of their power over women.” This story is one of triangulated and unrequited love – that of Lily Dale, one of Trollope’s most enduring (and endearing) creations, for Adolphus Crosbie, and of Johnny Eames for Lily Dale. Lily, who is the heroine of the story, lives with her widowed mother and elder sister Bell in the “Small House” as guests of her brother-in-law, the Squire of Allington, who owns the Big House. The late critic Stephen Wall said of Lily, that while she is “instantly recognizable, she remains a mystery.” Trollope thrived on the complexities of people and relationships. Among the best-known episodes in the book is the walk in the moonlight, where Lily first realizes her love for Crosbie. The reader, however, gets a harbinger of things to come: To Lily, moonlight and poetry represented romance; to Crosbie, they were nonsense.
Having been jilted, Lily Dale might today be considered a victim of false promises, thus a candidate for #MeToo. Maybe she would have marched, but I suspect she was too independent. Romances do not always have story-book endings, which Trollope understood. Crosbie, though older, is weak and immature – “a swell,” as Lily described him. She is young, pretty, smart, and headstrong. She knows her mind, but loses her heart. The reader understands, even though Lily does not, that she is better off without him.
At 600-plus pages, with multiple characters and plots, the story is too complex to summarize. In part, the reader is left unsettled: why, for example, did Lily not reciprocate Johnny Eames’ love? After all, in the story he stops being a “hobbledehoy and enters manhood.” Regardless, the mark of a good book is when the reader is sorry to turn the last page, and when we miss those we cheered and jeered. However, Trollope’s characters often return in future books. This is the penultimate in the Barsetshire series. So, I look forward to The Last Chronicle of Barset, in which Lily, Johnny and Ambrose reappear. After all, to paraphrase Robert Frost on birches, one could do worse than be a reader of Trollope.