He did love her; so he declared to himself. But was he a man who ought to throw the world away for love? Such men there were; but was he one of them? Could he be happy in that small house, somewhere near the New Road, with five children and horrid misgivings as to the baker's bill? [Chapter 15, “The Last Day”]

Thackeray's decorated initial L

he Small House at Allington, like Thackeray's Vanity Fair, is very much “a novel without a hero,” something about which Trollope informs the reader immediately after Lily Dale has teased her sister Isabella with the remark that “Mr. Crosbie is only a mere clerk.” The narrator then explains that Lily refers to a “ gentleman with whom we shall have much concern in these pages,” but immediately adds, “I do not say that Mr. Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments. Whatever of the magnificent may be produced will be diluted and apportioned out in very moderate quantities among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen—to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action.”

By “hero” Trollope apparently means both “protagonist” — principal character — and someone who acts heroically, and the only male character who comes even close to heroic action is the immature John Eames, who saves the Earl from a rampaging bull at the cost of torn trousers and a lost hat. These potential heroes turn out to be gentleman (or would-be gentlemen) behaving badly: Eames, one of Trollope's favorite characters in the novel, fails to win the hand of the jilted Bell, and he has been guilty of trifling with a young woman in his boarding house. Bernard Crosbie fails to marry Bell, and goes off to India. Adolphus Crosbie jilts Lily for a a loveless marriage to the equally unhappy Lady Alexandrina de Courcy. The elderly Squire, who almost drives away his beloved nieces and their mother, does not marry his brother's widow, as he well might in another novel of the period that would have tied things up too neatly (and Trollope teases the reader when late in the book the Squire and Mrs. Dale warm toward each other and appreciate each other's merits — but that's as far as the relationship goes). Finally, Plantagent Palliser, the future Duke of Omnium and the center of the Palliser novels, would have fallen into an adulterous relationship were it not for the lady's rejection. The Small House at Allington offers us this panoply of men behaving badly as a way of placing the not-so-heroic actions of Crosbie near the darkest end of a spectrum of flawed men.

Crosbie is by far the most villainous character in the novel, but Trollope works hard to prevent him from becoming a stereotypical villain. Adolphus Crosbie is a clubman, a swell, and a man of fashion rising quickly in his government agency, but realizes that he does not have enough of an income to maintain a wife and retain his beloved lifestyle:

Was he absolutely about to destroy all the good that he had done for himself throughout the past years of his hitherto successful life? or rather, as he at last put the question to himself more strongly,—was it not the case that he had already destroyed all that success? His marriage with Lily, whether it was to be for good or bad, was now a settled thing, and was not regarded as a matter admitting of any doubt. To do the man justice, I must declare that in all these moments of misery he still did the best he could to think of Lily herself as of a great treasure which he had won,—as of a treasure which should, and perhaps would, compensate him for his misery. But there was the misery very plain. He must give up his clubs, and his fashion, and all that he had hitherto gained, and be content to live a plain, humdrum, domestic life, with eight hundred a year, and a small house, full of babies. It was not the kind of Elysium for which he had tutored himself. Lily was very nice, very nice indeed. She was, as he said to himself, "by odds, the nicest girl that he had ever seen." Whatever might now turn up, her happiness should be his first care. But as for his own,—he began to fear that the compensation would hardly be perfect. "It is my own doing," he said to himself, intending to be rather noble in the purport of his soliloquy, "I have trained myself for other things,—very foolishly. Of course I must suffer,—suffer damnably. But she shall never know it. Dear, sweet, innocent, pretty little thing!" [Chapter 7, “The beginning of troubles”]

Under the mistaken belief that her uncle would settle money upon her as he had promised to do for her elder sister, he approaches Squire Dale and learns that such is not the case: Lilian Dale comes with no dowry. Crosbie becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his engagement to the point that he finds annoying the lovely young woman's “conscious little tricks of love.” “The bold assurance of her love when they two were alone together he did like. What man does not like such assurances on such occasions? But perhaps he would have been better pleased had Lily shown more reticence,—been more secret, as it were, as to her feelings, when others were around them. It was not that he accused her in his thoughts of any want of delicacy. . . . He did not like to be presented, even to the world of Allington, as a victim caught for the sacrifice, and bound with ribbon for the altar.” (ch. 9, “Mrs. Dale's Party”). Crosbie decides to explain his economic situation to Lily, making her realize “that the world would call him very imprudent in taking a girl who had nothing” (ch. 15, “The Last Day”). Still deeply in love, too deeply in love, Lily tells him that she is “afraid of poverty for you” and offers to release him from the engagement, at which point, “racked with doubt,” he considers taking her at her word, thinking “Some few would say bitter things against him, but such bitter things had been said against many another man without harming him. Would it not be well for both if he should take her at her word? She would recover and love again, as other girls had done; and as for him, he would thus escape from the ruin at which he had been gazing for the last week past.” Nonetheless, “awed by her great love,” for “a few hours he was minded to throw the world behind him” and remain true to her.

Nonetheless, he spends the last part of his vacation at Courcy Castle, where he denies reports of his engagement and ends up proposing to Lady Alexandrina. When Squire Dale comes to London to confront him at his club, he has a friend meet him instead and flees, not because his is afraid of physical danger but because he knows he is guilty: “He did not fear personal ill-usage;—he was not afraid lest he should be kicked or beaten; but he did not dare to face the just anger of the angry man” (ch. 25, “Adolphus Crosbie spends an evening at his club”). Trollope, who devotes a good deal of text examining Crosbie's thoughts, shows how he comes to realize his guilt:

While resolving, during his first four or five days at the castle, that he would throw Lily Dale overboard, he had contrived to quiet his conscience by inward allusions to sundry heroes of romance. He had thought of Lothario, Don Juan, and of Lovelace; and had told himself that the world had ever been full of such heroes. And the world, too, had treated such heroes well; not punishing them at all as villains, but caressing them rather, and calling them curled darlings. Why should not he be a curled darling as well as another? Ladies had ever been fond of the Don Juan character, and Don Juan had generally been popular with men also. And then he named to himself a dozen modern Lotharios,—men who were holding their heads well above water, although it was known that they had played this lady false, and brought that other one to death's door, or perhaps even to death itself. War and love were alike, and the world was prepared to forgive any guile to militants in either camp.

But now that he had done the deed he found himself forced to look at it from quite another point of view. Suddenly that character of Lothario showed itself to him in a different light, and one in which it did not please him to look at it as belonging to himself. [ch. 25, “Adolphus Crosbie spends an evening at his club”]

Still, Trollope wants us to understand that the man is not completely evil: “I beg that it may be understood that Crosbie was not altogether a villain. He could not sit down and write a letter as coming from his heart, of which as he wrote it he knew the words to be false. He was an ungenerous, worldly, inconstant man, very prone to think well of himself, and to give himself credit for virtues which he did not possess; but he could not be false with premeditated cruelty to a woman he had sworn to love” And, in the end, Crosbie not only leads a miserable life, without a wife (or at least one who lives in England), without a comfortable home, and without his former reputation as a Man of Fashion and life at the club, all the while remembering the love of Lily. He receives his just punishment, to be sure, but Trollope seems more interested in examining the psychology of betrayal, the route by which a man who, in different circumstances, might have become a good man with a happier life. Therefore, he interweaves the Crosbie narrative with plot lines in which two other men — Eames and Palliser — escape his moral failure and consequent disaster through no fault of their own. Here Trollope's motto might be “There but for the grace of God go I.”

References

Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Turek and revised by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D., and an anonymous Project Gutenberg volunteer.


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Last modified 26 September 2013