Dr Wortle’s School (1881) is a standalone and the fortieth book written by Victorian author Anthony Trollope and focuses on themes of social propriety, gossip and justice, with an incidental thread of romance.
Dr Wortle is the proprietor of a boys’ school which prepares students to go on to Eton and eventually Oxford. He is a scholar himself and also employs others; the boys are given the best teachers and facilities and his establishment is well spoken of and possibly one of the most expensive of its kind. Dr Wortle also serves as rector of Bowick and is described as an ‘affectionate tyrant’, used to having his way in most things, not taking kindly to being questioned, domineering but never meaning anyone any ill. Dr Wortle lives in a house next to the school with his wife and daughter Mary.
In this school, Dr Wortle comes to employ a former Oxford man, an acknowledged scholar and clergyman Mr Peacocke as classics master while Mrs Peacocke is to act as a sort of matron, looking after the linens and taking meals with the boys. Mr Peacocke had spent some time teaching in America where he had married Mrs Peacocke. Both husband and wife perform their duties with perfection, and while on the whole friendly, refuse any hospitality in terms of visits.
This gives rise to some talk of secrets, and it is revealed (not much of a spoiler as we are told this fairly early on) that Mrs Peacocke was married to a rather unsavoury man, Ferdinand Lefroy who had abandoned her, and was later heard to have died. After ascertaining the fact of his death, Mr Peacocke married the lady. But suddenly, Ferdinand Lefroy himself appeared in their home, before once again disappearing from the scene.
Once this is made known, Dr Wortle, who sympathises with the Peacockes for the misfortune that circumstances have brought upon them, comes up with a plan to help them. But Dr Wortle extending help to the unfortunate Peacockes is not taken in the same sense by everyone else (including Mrs Wortle herself) who cannot and do not see beyond the morality of the situation.
Mrs Stantiloup, parent to a former student, who had quarrelled with Dr Wortle prior to the Peacockes arrival at the school, and thus views the Doctor as somewhat of an enemy, takes advantage of the situation. She soon begins maligning the establishment and persuading whoever she can to withdraw their children from it. Dr Wortle has to withstand this storm but stands his ground. The news also reaches the Bishop’s ears, and this brings more trouble for our poor doctor.
Meanwhile we also follow an incidental thread of romance between Mary, Dr Wortle’s daughter, and young Lord Carstairs a pupil at the establishment, who is heading up to Oxford soon.
This was pretty much the first book that I’ve heard entirely on audio (via Librivox), something I have been very sceptical of since I wasn’t sure I’d be able to concentrate (as I do when actually reading), but this turned out t be a really enjoyable experience and I loved it.
The first thing that stood out to me in Dr Wortle’s School was the establishment itself, and what a contrast it is in comparison to the usual picture of Victorian schools (well, the Dickensian variety at least) we tend to form; here is a school that not only teaches its students well but gives them the best of everything—including good and plentiful food, and a place that students actually enjoy being at!
The central theme the story deals with is situations where rigid adherence to social propriety seems to conflict with what seems ‘right’ or ‘just’ in a situation; is one justified then to stick to perceptions of morality and condemn people who have simply been victims of circumstance? As a society we seem to find it easy to look down on those less fortunate, ones who should in fact receive our sympathy. Then we also have the role of gossip—society gossip and rumourmongers who delight in stirring up trouble at the slightest opportunity, and also the press who are happy to use it to their advantage with little thought to the impact on those involved. Standards may have changed from the time this story was written but one can’t say the same about attitudes.
In the book, Dr Wortle himself I thought made for a rather exceptional character. He acts in accordance with what he believes to be right (and what is ‘just’ rather than too rigid interpretations of propriety and morality), and stands by it strongly. None of this is simply a question of obstinacy, or taking a position that is opposed to others. What I thought especially admirable was his support to the Peacockes; in his position, it would have been easy for him (as any other may have done) to take a moral high ground and chastise them or turn them out. Instead, he is the only one to truly understand their situation and extend every support. This is not to say that he is a flawless character but admirable nonetheless.
Of the others Mr Peacocke and Mr Puddicome, Dr Wortle’s friend and advisor, surprised me when I least expected it, and the ‘villain’ of sorts, Robert Lefroy was well done too. The romance thread too brings with it some surprises.
Trollope’s picture of America and Americans in the book reminded me rather of Dickens’ observations (in Martin Chuzzlewit) and caused me to wonder if indeed the general impression of the country amongst the English was such at the time—something to read more about certainly.
Trollope is a wonderful story-teller, and here too, even though this is a much smaller work which focuses for the most part on one theme and one character, I found it engaging and enjoyable all through.