[Dr Thorne, taking tea with his niece Mary, asks her to imagine that she is rich]
"Mary," said he, "suppose you were to find out to-morrow morning that, by some accident, you had become a great heiress, would you be able to suppress your exultation?"…
"The… thing would be to send to Paris for a French bonnet exactly like the one Patience Oriel had on…. do look at Miss Oriel's bonnet the next time you see her. I cannot understand why it should be so, but I am sure of this— no English fingers could put together such a bonnet as that; and I am nearly sure that no French fingers could do it in England."
"But you don't care so much about bonnets, Mary!" This the doctor said as an assertion; but there was, nevertheless, somewhat of a question involved in it.
"Don't I, though?" said she. "I do care very much about bonnets; especially since I saw Patience this morning. I asked how much it cost— guess."
"Oh! I don't know— a pound?"
"A pound, uncle!"
"What! a great deal more? Ten pounds?"
"What! more than ten pounds? Then I don't think even Patience Oriel ought to give it."
"No, of course she would not; but, uncle, it really cost a hundred francs!"
"Oh! a hundred francs; that's four pounds, isn't it? Well, and how much did your last new bonnet cost?"
"Mine! oh, nothing— five and ninepence, perhaps; I trimmed it myself. If I were left a great fortune, I'd send to Paris to-morrow; no, I'd go myself to Paris to buy a bonnet, and I'd take you with me to choose it."
commentary: I love to know about the finances in novels, and particularly of course the finances of fashion (this may be a niche interest, I do realize), and I enjoyed finding out the relative cost of bonnets. And I used my trusty toy, the historic currency converter, to find out today’s prices: Patience’s bonnet would cost around £200 today ($280), while Mary would expect to pay £12/13 (up to $18) for hers.
The book is the third of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (though self-contained) and is very readable, very entertaining – though it lacks any element of surprise. From very early on it is clear what is going to happen, and Trollope merely works his way through the laid-out twists and turns of the narrative in a brisk and on the whole funny manner.
The novel begins with a dark and melodramatic tale from 20 years earlier: Dr Thorne’s brother Henry seduces a young woman in the village. Her brother attacks Henry Thorne, accidentally kills him, and goes to prison for manslaughter. Mary is the result of this alliance: her mother starts a new life elsewhere, and the good Doctor takes charge of the baby. So Mary is of low and scandalous birth, though most people don’t know that, and has no money. She is very friendly with the local squire’s family, and when she catches the eye of Frank, the son and heir, consternation ensues: he must marry a rich bride or face ruin.
It is obvious (to us) that Mary IS going to become rich: her father’s killer (ie her uncle on the other side – although this sounds complicated, it is very easy to follow in the book) became a wealthy businessman when he was released from prison, and he makes her his heir, although – further complications – he doesn’t know exactly who she is. On the one hand, this is a fairytale (though satisfying when all those who have been snooty with Mary get their come-uppance for having snubbed and maligned her) – but on the other, Trollope is making a wider satirical point, which is that Mary’s birth may be shocking and disgraceful, but that all this can be wiped clean by the application of money.
He is a very modern writer: his young people are straightforward and talk of love and marriage and flirting openly – no Victorian coyness here – and his woman are strong and sometimes stupid but always convincing. There is a splendid moment when Trollope is pursuing a side-tangent and says that he must complete this story now because he won’t have time
when Mary is breaking her heart on her death-bed in the last chapter, or otherwise accomplishing her destiny--but this is not a spoiler, it is a post-modernist joke.
There was one thing I disliked: When Mary inherits her money, and the way is open for her to marry her beloved Frank, the men surrounding them assume that her money is his (this is before they have even affirmed their engagement, let alone made their plans). Frank’s father had sold property to Mary’s uncle, and now the assumption is:
Look here; these are the Boxall Hill title-deeds; that's the simplest part of the whole affair; and Frank may go and settle himself there to-morrow if he pleases.No he couldn’t – the land and house belong to Mary, not him. I suppose I can’t expect too much feminism from Trollope.
The 1850s French bonnets are from the NYPL: a picture from the same series featured in a blogpost on Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, published in the same decade,
-- where it is implied that a new bonnet might make a woman look better, and even perhaps get her a husband. (The character who believes this is treated rather dismissively, but still….)
Such a long novel - it will need another blogpost later this week.