Dr. Wortle's School, by Anthony Trollope
This was my first choice for Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday month, partly because my other choice was Can You Forgive Her? and Dr Wortle is much shorter, so I knew I could read it in the time. Sure enough, I'm over halfway through Can You Forgive, and I'm loving it but I don't think I'll be done by the end of the month! Anyway, I read Dr Wortle in about two days; I couldn't put it down. This novel has a really boring title, but it's a very good read.
Trollope tackles a moral question that people ran into more often before the days of fast communication, Internet, and credit cards. What do you do when you discover that you're an accidental bigamist?
Mr. Peacocke is a classical scholar, newly appointed at Dr. Wortle's exclusive boys' prep school. He has lived in America for the past several years and has brought his lovely American wife back to England, and they are well-liked but oddly reclusive. Then Mrs. Peacocke's rotten brother-in-law shows up to try to blackmail them, and the secret is revealed; her first husband was not dead (as they believed) when she married Mr. Peacocke. For several years, the Peacockes have lived in an intolerable moral dilemma: should they part, which would leave Mrs. Peacocke to starve, or should they continue to live together despite not being married?
None of this is really a spoiler; it's the setup for what Trollope is interested in, which is how to deal with the situation. Another, more melodramatic author might have made the dreadful secret the point of the plot and used it as the climax, but Trollope wants to talk about what happens when honest people find themselves in an awful situation through no fault of their own.
The Peacockes are a lovable, admirable couple. Mr. Peacocke is Trollope's ideal husband, I think, and I love him. Mrs. Peacocke is less of a personality; she has one and all, but her troubles have so weighed her down that it's hard for her to shine. There are a lot of other important players, too. Dr. Wortle, of course, has a lot of influence (pay attention to him; he's something of a self-portrait) and his wife isn't necessarily on the same page as he is. Neighbors' reactions are examined closely; there's a lot of moral reasoning and judgement going on here (on Trollope's part) and not all of the neighbors are acting as they ought to. Also, I think Trollope does kind of hint that while the Peacockes live together, they are not living completely as man and wife.
The resolution and tying-up of plot strands is too short and pat. This isn't one of the best Trollope titles ever. But I enjoyed this lesser-known novel quite a bit, and would recommend it to people wanting to give Trollope a try but intimidated by the giant chunksters he produced so often. If you're already a fan, be sure to pick this one up someday.
Oddly, in the last week I've run into two more plots that mention an Enoch Arden kind of theme.
O informs me that Dr. Wortle's school is based on Lowick in Northamptonshire.