The first two books in Trollope’s Barsetshire series featured the clergy in the cathedral town. With Dr. Thorne, the author branches out into the county and features the landed gentry and the professional class. The book can stand on its own; one doesn’t have to have read the first two Barsetshire books to understand any of it.
Dr. Thorne, a country physician, assumes the care of his niece Mary, the illegitimate daughter of his late brother and a woman who abandoned the child and moved to America. Dr. Thorne manages to keep the details of Mary’s birth vague, even from the maternal uncle, who at Mary’s birth was in prison for killing the father in a rage over the pregnancy. Mary grows up a friend of the Gresham family, the local landed gentry. Frank Gresham, the only son in the family, falls in love with her, but his father has bankrupted the estate, so Frank is pressured to marry money.
After leaving prison, the brother of Mary’s mother made a fortune in railroad construction and became a baronet, but he is drinking himself to death. His will secretly leaves his fortune to his sister’s eldest child if his son doesn’t live till 25. The son, also an alcoholic, is likely to follow his father to the grave early, but the dying father charged Dr. Thorne with keeping the son alive. As readers wonder whether Mary will inherit the money (and thus be able to marry Frank), only Dr. Thorne among the book's characters knows about the will.
To 19th-century Brits, distinguished bloodlines were a great source of pride, although penniless gentry could be excused for marrying money made by trade. Mary has neither blood nor money, as far as Frank’s family knows for most of the story. Dr. Thorne himself respects blood, and so does Mary, who offers to let Frank go. Frank, to his credit, refuses. Dr. Thorne also does the right thing, keeping the secret about the will and treating the young baronet.
This novel is less overtly satirical than the previous two of the series. Lacking the biting wit of Barchester Towers, it’s not quite as entertaining a read. On the other hand, the romantic angle is more prominent, so it may tug at the heartstrings more.
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