onsdag 22 juni 2016

Doctor Thorne without the thorns - and all the better for it

It isn't surprising that Julian Fellowes has a soft spot for Anthony Trollope. They operate within the same genre, after all - the (often genteel) comedy of manners. Why Fellowes would choose to adapt Doctor Thorne of all Trollope novels is a mystery to me, though. I read it so I would be able to make a comparison between the novel and the adaptation, and did not only find it tedious - I positively disliked it. Not only did it suffer from well-known Trollopian drawbacks such as long-windedness, superfluous sub-plots and some far-from-fascinating characters, I also found it unpleasantly snobbish.

How, you might ask, can a novel that promotes a match between the squire's son and the illegitimate niece of a country doctor - who also happens to be the niece of an alcoholic ex-stonemason - be called snobbish? Did I miss the satirical thrusts directed at the De Courcys, from whom the squire's wife hails, and at the Duke of Omnium, who can't be bothered to entertain his guests? No, but the kind of snobbishness displayed in Doctor Thorne - I'm tempted to call it the English kind - is more concerned about ancient lineage and customs than rank. Mary Thorne, the doctor's niece, is implicitly on a par with Frank Gresham the squire's son because both the Thornes and the Greshams are old county families. The De Courcys are more recent, and Whigs too (as is the Duke of Omnium), which is why they can be comfortably sneered at.

Early on, there is an apparently irony-free endorsement of the British feudal spirit. Elsewhere, we have the plot-unrelated lamenting of the demise of an old coach town in the uncouth age of commerce and railways. Augusta Gresham's bourgeois fiancé, Mr Moffat, is derided, but to quote Elizabeth Bennet, his guilt and his descent appear to be the same: he is accused of nothing worse than of being the son of a tailor. When he jilts Augusta for mercenary reasons, it is hard to find it so very terrible since her reasons for agreeing to a marriage were equally mercenary. Yet not only are we supposed to like Frank for horsewhipping the absconded suitor, we're supposed to find it funny too.

Then there's the patronising treatment of the Scatcherds. Sir Roger Scatcherd is the drunk stonemason who makes good thanks to his engineering skills and becomes both a baronet and a very rich man, albeit still drunk. He is one of the more memorable characters, but his successes are never given their due: rather, it is heavily hinted that he would have been better off if he had known his place and remained a stonemason. Why, one might ask, as he is destined to die by the bottle anyway? Better then. surely, to die in affluence and comfort than in poverty and hardship? And what about all those buildings, railways and bridges he has built: isn't the country better off with them than without? Why is it so lamentable that Sir Roger's son is not taught to fend for himself, when he receives exactly the same kind of education as young Frank, who as it happens is more in need of gaining his own bread? Why is it a "joke" that the good and honest Lady Scatcherd is called "my lady"?

What's more, the protagonists aren't that easy to warm to. Frank is puppyish and flirts with other women. The possibility of making money rather than marrying it enters his dim brain very late in the day, and then the best he can come up with is a notion to take over one of his father's tenant farms: this in a situation where his family risks losing the estate, tenant farms and all. Mary is accused of pertness by one of the De Courcy ladies, and not without reason. Doctor Thorne himself is supposed to be the moral heart of the book, but it is hard to be too impressed. One of the reasons we are given to think him noble is that he does his best to keep Sir Roger's son Louis alive, when he secretly wishes the wretch could die so Mary can get her mitts on Sir Roger's money and marry Frank. But there is nothing very admirable in suppressing such a wish: in fact it's pretty disgraceful to harbour it in the first place. What earthly right has Mary to Sir Roger's money - Sir Roger, whom Doctor Thorne considered beneath her and never introduced her to - compared to Louis Scatcherd, who though a wash-out is after all Sir Roger's only child?

All this fuming gives me little room to discuss the TV adaptation, but you may have guessed where I'm heading. Fellowes has done an admirable job in excising and smoothing over all the irritating aspects of the book. Gone is Frank's infirmity of purpose and inconstancy and Mary's initial coldness: their love is the real thing from the word go. Gone are the tedious subplots about the feud between Doctor Thorne and another country doctor, questionable campaigning in the local elections and ducal dinners. Chapter upon chapter of exposition are neatly summarised in a few exchanges - though this simplification does land Mr Gresham with a vice he didn't have in the book (gambling) in order to explain the dire state of his finances. Gone is Frank's idiotic idea of taking over a farm. Gone is the horsewhipping of Mr Moffat. And, crucially, the Scatcherds - father and son - are given the time of day. Unlike Trollope, Fellowes seems genuinely impressed by Sir Roger's achievements.

In an interview, Fellowes unwisely invited a comparison between Trollope and Dickens (why do Trollopians do this?) by saying that Dickens's heroines were "whiter than white" and his villains "blacker than black". This implies that Trollope's offerings are somehow more complex. However, the Trollope villains I've come across are just as morally objectionable as any villain in Dickens, while not being half as much fun. In fact, they're a bit rubbish. I would back the worst Dickens can come up with baddie-wise against the best Trollope can come up with any day - even Bounderby would have made a better fist of the Parliament appearances that Melmotte (the most creditable Trollope villain effort I've come across) bungled. Maybe the rubbishness of Trollope's bad guys is deliberate - perhaps he did not wish to glamourise wickedness, even in the interest of good storytelling - but lack of panache is hardly the same as complexity.

Louis Scatcherd, Sir Roger's weak and pathetic son who has inherited his alcoholism but none of his talents, is a case in point. So what does Fellowes do but oomph him up a bit? After all, he knows what a successful villain looks like (which makes the Dickens comment even more of a faux pas). Instead of despising Louis with all his might, Doctor Thorne (Sir Roger's business advisor and Louis's guardian) is uncomfortably aware that he may be guilty of neglecting the Scatcherd interest for the benefit of the Greshams, and shows sympathy towards the wayward young man, as does Mary and ultimately even Frank. Louis is given a bitter diatribe where he flings his justified grievances in the faces of assembled goodies - much like those "blacker than black" Dickens villains, in fact. "Don't you pity me", he spits to Frank, giving the viewer a pleasureable sense of Downton déjà-vu, before he gallops off and is killed not by drink but by a riding accident, which acquits the doctor of wishing the life out of his body. Louis Scatcherd à la Fellowes still isn't much cop, but a considerable improvement on the one in the novel, and as played by Edward Franklin not unfetching.

As costume dramas go, Doctor Thorne is pleasant and well-acted, with all the annoying bits from the novel taken out. What remains, though, is a not very remarkable love story, given a bit of extra polish by the likes of Tom Hollander as Thorne, Ian McShane as Sir Roger and Rebecca Front - always a delight - as firm matriarch Arabella Gresham. In the end, I can't help harbouring the catty suspicion that one of the reasons Fellowes chose to adapt this novel is because it was so easy to improve on.