I don’t think this is quite entertaining enough to grip the nation on Sunday nights in the way that Downton Abbey or Poldark did, but the subject matter’s quite possibly much more interesting. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how accurately the TV adaptation reflects it, but we’ve got a rural area of the fictional county of Barsetshire (maybe somewhere in the West Country?), at some point in the mid-19th century, in which live Dr Thorne, his niece Mary, Sir Roger Scatcherd who is a working-class man who’s made a fortune and been made a baronet, and the posh Greshams. We’re told very early on that Mary is the illegitimate daughter of Dr Thorne’s brother and Sir Roger’s sister … and that Sir Roger, angered that his sister had been seduced and left with an illegitimate child on the way, killed Dr Thorne’s brother. Well, that’s more original than seduced female obligingly dying. She’d in fact come out of it quite well, going off to America to start a new life with a former suitor who was still keen on her.
Mary, instead of being sent off somewhere discreet, has been raised by Dr Thorne as if she were his legitimate niece, and has been a childhood friend of the Gresham children … but, as they reach marriageable age, poor old Mary is not allowed to be a bridesmaid for her friend. Even worse, she and the Greshams’ heir have taken a shine to each other, but of course this won’t do, partly because of her illegitimacy and also because the Greshams have fallen on hard times and need him to bag an heiress. Meanwhile, Sir Roger, who is in poor health (due to excessive boozing) has a huge pile of dough, so presumably the situation is about to become further complicated if Mary cops for it all. Sir Roger does have a son, who rejoices in the name of Louis Philippe – I’m not sure why he would have named his son after the “Citizen King”, but never mind! – but, as we’ve been told that Sir Roger’s will leaves his money to his sister’s eldest child if his son dies young, presumably both Scatcherds will cark it in time for Mary to inherit before Frank Gresham has married anyone else.
Mary herself accepts the limitations which her illegitimacy imposes on her, but her uncle doesn’t. There’s no “bad blood will out” going on here: there’s nothing about Mary which the Greshams or anyone else can criticise, other than her background and lack of money. Enough of the irony now: this is all very, very sad. There are two things going on. One is the age-old story of a couple being kept apart by either the mores of their society or the needs of one of their families, and, in this case, it’s both. Frank needs to marry an heiress to “save” his family, and Mary won’t do for a member of the gentry as she is illegitimate. The other is the stigma of illegitimacy, which has fallen on an innocent young woman who is of irreproachable character and has done nothing with which anyone can find fault, but who cannot take a full part in her society, no matter how hard her kind uncle has tried, because of the circumstances of her birth. “The tyranny of the majority.” I’m assuming that we will get a happy ending here, but that’s because it’s fiction and fiction is supposed to provide happy endings. Real life, unfortunately, tends not to be as obliging.
Sorry, that sounds rather grumpy! But it’s true. There are some things about Victorian society which it might be nice to get back to, but there are many other things which we have to be very glad that we’ve moved on from.