‘Dr Wortle’s School’ by Anthony Trollope (Review)

As regular readers will know, most of my reading these days is fiction in translation, but I occasionally find time for some English-language favourites, too, and it’s become a bit of a habit to try to fit something by Anthony Trollope into my December reading.  Over the past few years, I’ve had a look at some stories, including a festive-themed selection, but today’s choice is another novel, one of the few well-known ones I hadn’t previously got around to.  It’s a nice short book, unlike many of Trollope’s works, but it has a lot in common with a couple of his more famous stories – and even, if we’re to believe the introduction, with the writer himself…

Dr Wortle’s School is an enjoyable novel set in an exclusive preparatory school somewhere in the English countryside.  The good doctor of the title is both a clergyman and the school’s owner, and in order to relieve himself of some of this burden, he looks out for a schoolmaster worthy of his establishment.  Luckily, he hears of Mr Peacocke, a former classics scholar at Oxford, who has just returned to England after several years in the United States, and with Peacocke’s beautiful American wife agreeing to act as the school’s matron, life at the school runs along merrily.

However, it isn’t long before rumours start to spread regarding the Peacockes, and when an unwelcome visitor forces himself into Dr Wortle’s study, the new teacher is forced to reveal his secret – namely that he and his wife aren’t really married at all.  There are extenuating circumstances, though, and while Peacocke heads off to America in an attempt to salvage his wife’s reputation, his employer allows Mrs Peacocke to stay on as a guest, despite the talk in the town, and beyond.  It isn’t going to be easy to ignore public opinion, but, as we’ll see, the doctor isn’t a man to be turned from his beliefs, no matter how contrary they are to the norm.

I’m sure anyone who has read more than a few of Trollope’s books will be able to predict the course and outcome of the novel, and the writer himself (in the form of his omniscient narrator) makes it clear early on that if you’re looking for suspense, you’d be better served going elsewhere for your reading pleasure:

It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest, – should you choose to go on with my chronicle, – simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others. […]  It may be that when I shall have once told you the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you.  That there are many such readers of novels I know.  I doubt whether the greater number be not such.
p.25 (Penguin Classics, 1999)

That’s some impressive grand-standing from the writer, challenging the reader, towards the end of the first of eight parts, to stop reading.  Now, there’s confidence for you…

Of course, by this stage (the book was serialised in 1880, a few years before his death), Trollope knew his craft very well, and even if the book was completed in twenty-two days, there’s little evidence here of his phoning it in.  There is a rather superfluous romantic sub-plot between the doctor’s daughter, Mary, and a dashing young student, and the American scenes are rather cartoonish and out of place, but these are his only nods towards the entertainment of his readers.  For the most part, Trollope keeps his word about the focus being on character, not action.

It’s clear from the title that the focus of the story is not on Peacocke and his marital woes, but on Dr Wortle himself.  Trollope spends the first chapters introducing his hero, a successful man moving from middle- to old age, one used to getting his own way, but kind and generous to those who allow him to do so.  Having got the better of a series of bishops in his diocese, he’s secure in his beliefs and abilities, and when confronted with Peacocke’s dilemma, it’s this iron-clad confidence that allows him to take the teacher’s side against the mock dismay of the townsfolk.

The beauty of the story is the way in which the writer develops the irascible doctor over the course of the novel by forcing him to examine his actions and beliefs, and testing him in the court of public opinion.  As is the case in earlier Trollope novels (such as The Warden), one of the doctor’s major trials comes when his case is taken up by a newspaper, in the form of a satirical article suggesting that Wortle’s enthusiasm for defending Peacocke has more to do with the beautiful wife than the erudite husband.  One of the major lessons learned here is the need to endure and ignore these sarcastic jibes.  The doctor is very good on the attack; now he must learn to defend and take blows in silence.

In truth, though, the novel has less to do with Wortle’s battles with outsiders than with the one he must wage with his own conscience.  At times, he is torn between wanting to protect a couple who acted no differently to how he thinks he would have, and fulfilling his duty to his parishioners, students and family, all of whom may suffer from any prolongued conflict.  Even his wife, usually totally compliant, is unable to let matters rest without making her disapproval felt:

“Ought we not to be kind to one to whom Fortune has been so unkind?”
“If we can do so without sin.”
“Sin!  I despise the fear of sin which makes us think that its contact will soil us.  Her sin, if it be sin, is so near akin to virtue, that I doubt whether we should not learn of her rather than avoid her.” (p.80)

Poor Wortle, as much as he might put on a brave face in public, is constantly in turmoil behind this mask, trying his best to discern what doing the right thing really entails.

Of course, while our focus is very much on the doctor, there are other characters involved, and Trollope skilfully uses the situation to show how their characters are affected by the scandal.  Mrs Wortle inevitably comes around to her husband’s way of thinking, but others disappoint by their failure to support their old acquaintance, with the doctor forced to reevaluate who his friends really are.  Fortunately, that works both ways, and there are other people, such as fellow clergyman Mr Puddicombe, who prove themselves to have much stronger characters, even if they don’t completely agree with Wortle’s views.

Having read so many of Tony T.’s books, I enjoy finding connections between them, and there are certainly many links between Dr Wortle’s School and earlier works.  As mentioned above, The Warden is an obvious candidate, with Septimus Harding being confronted with a vicious attack by the press and public opinion, although the main character there has a far different, more delicate disposition.  Another likely candidate for an earlier Wortle is Josiah Crawley, particular in The Last Chronicle of Barset, a hard-headed man determined to follow his conscience, even at the risk of personal annihilation.  In truth, Wortle is somewhere between those two predecessors, more robust than Harding but more worldly and cunning than the upright, cantankerous Crawley.

However, Mick Imlah’s introduction has a different idea, identifying Wortle as Trollope himself, which certainly makes sense.  The writer, like Wortle, was by all acounts a jovial, opinionated fellow, larger than life, irritable but good-natured (his An Autobiography painted that picture, anyway).  In addition, the character of Mrs Peacocke, a beautiful American woman whom the doctor admires platonically, is said to be based on Kate Field, a younger American woman who was a long-time friend of Trollope’s.  It’s probably pushing things to say the two women are identical, but Wortle’s championing of his teacher’s wife does provide some insights into the writer’s own life.

Overall, Dr Wortle’s School, despite its engaging protagonist, isn’t a book likely to enthral the newcomer.  At just over two-hundred pages, it’s fairly short with some rather unnecessary developments.  However, Trollope aficionadoes are likely to enjoy it, and if you count yourself amongst that number, I’d certainly recommend it.  That’s epecially true as the core idea, the issue Wortle faces, is as true today as it was back then, if not more so.  When you, or a friend, are being judged online, will you have the courage to stand up for your convictions, even when they’re unpopular?  I wonder how many of us would truly have the courage of the good doctor, the bravery to stand by a friend even at the cost of personal ruin…

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