Like all true Trollopians I carry in my mind a vivid picture of Barsetshire and its people. For me it is a landscape of rolling countryside with ancient churches and great houses, with Barchester a compact cathedral city of great elegance, as if Peterborough cathedral had been miraculously transported ten miles into Stamford. In Trollope’s novels, the characters are so convincing they seem like people you know. They appear to do what they do because of who they are. Essentially the novels probe the psychological depths, moral dilemmas and inconsistencies of the characters in a way that would not be seen again until well into the 20th century. As P. G. Wodehouse wrote to an American friend from Paris in 1945 on reading Trollope for the first time, ‘it is rather like listening to somebody who is a little long winded telling you a story about real people.’
So how did the TV adaptation of Doctor Thorne stack up? When I first see a favourite novel transferred to screen I am usually struck first by the production and whether I feel transported into the world of the book. The adaptation was unexpected at first: there was the rolling countryside and stunning National Trust houses of course. But the sun was always shining during outdoor scenes and the candles cast an equally warm glow inside. There was also a pace and freshness to the action quite unlike previous small-screen Trollope adaptations which tended to present the Victorian world as stiff and frankly rather colourless. Surely the costumes in Doctor Thorne were too colourful and the ladies’ hairstyles involved too many flowers? Frank and Mary couldn’t have flirted so openly? Or could they? I rapidly became engrossed in this new take on a familiar world. But what about the story? Could Lord Fellowes succeed in turning this bitter-sweet novel of moral choice, alcoholism, money and love into compelling Sunday night TV drama for the post-Downton Abbey viewer? I think it was a success, though I am sure not all Trollopians will agree. Trollope is a personal thing as you may have realised by now.
Trollope begins chapter one of Doctor Thorne with a somewhat dreary description of Barsetshire, the houses and the characters. Fellowes began episode one with a gritty scene of Barchester some 20 years before the main action of the story begins. We learn from the outset the events that drive the plot. Scatcherd – enraged that his unwed sister had been impregnated by Dr Thorne’s dissolute brother Henry – murders him in a fit of anger. The sister emigrates leaving Dr Thorne to bring up the child Mary as his own. We soon learn that Mary’s mysterious parentage and lack of a dowry could limit her options in the marriage market, especially when her suitor Frank Gresham ‘must marry money’ because the entailed family estate is on its last legs and mortgaged to Scatcherd – who is by now – an ennobled and seriously wealthy construction magnate.
Frankly, it doesn’t take us long to work out Mary will inherit Scatcherd’s wealth and so be able to marry Frank and save his estate, but Fellowes’s screenplay kept me entertained to the end, for the most part because of the well-crafted writing of the supporting scenes and of course, the fine cast. The election episode is a standard in many Trollope novels (the author himself stood unsuccessfully for a seat in Beverley) and Fellowes couldn’t resist giving this a lively treatment complete with a rowdy hustings scene featuring rustic ‘downstairs’ folk and their livestock alongside the wealthy candidates Moffat and Scatcherd.
Fellowes seemed to make ample use of Trollope’s own words, giving a lively recreation of many of the book’s amusing passages. Lady Arabella Gresham’s frustration with her husband’s financial mismanagement, and her desire for her son Frank to ‘marry money’ were well portrayed, as were her scheming encounters with her better off and supremely snobbish sister Lady De Courcy.
Other amusing scenes come from the flirtatious yet chaste friendship between Frank and Miss Dunstable. Strangely this thirty-something patent medicine heiress became American in the TV adaptation, perhaps as homage to Lady Cora of Downton Abbey fame? Trollope did, after all, introduce several American women characters into some of his novels, usually to provide commentary on ‘Englishness’ or as economically desirable marriage prospects.
Fellowes took few liberties with the plot. For the most part scenes mirrored the novel with just a smattering of additional explanations to make the plot flow. Sneakily, though, he couldn’t resist hinting to the viewers that Dr Thorne himself would find love, and with none other than the wealthy Miss Dunstable, something that readers won’t discover until the later novel Framley Parsonage!
Featured image: Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne, Tom Hollander as Dr. Thorne, Harry Richardson as Frank Gresham and Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham. Image courtesy of Hatrick Productions and ITV.