Epistolarity in Dr Thorne: Miss Dunstable as an Ironic Festival Figure; Her Epistolary Exchanges

The first three postings meditate the initiating conception of Miss Dunstable in Chapters 15- 19 of Dr Thorne; the fourth examines the uses made of her letters from the standpoint of Chapters 28-30:

Subject: [trollope-l] Miss Dunstable

From: Sigmund Eisner

I think something should be said about Martha Dunstable, who has always been one of my favorite characters. She comes on the scene as the clear possessor of thousands of pounds, thanks to the lucrative Ointment of Lebanon. But she is not a spoiled rich girl. In fact, she is hardly a girl, having passed, we are told, her thirtieth birthday. She knows she is rich and determines to use her money for her own advantage. When she was chided for wearing curls which were a bit out of style, she answered, "they will always pass muster,... when they are done up with bank-notes." Now there is a perceptive lady. Other men beside Frank want to woo her, and she always puts them off, usually graciously, but with a threat that she can hold her own when she tells Mr. Moffat that she will report to Augusta Gresham all the sweet things that Mr. Moffat plans to say to her. Miss Dunstable will go through the rest of our Barsetshire novels unchanged. He voice is always loud, her perceptions are right on the button, and she remains rich. We have many delightful moments ahead of us from Miss Dunstable.


Subject: Re: [trollope-l] Miss Dunstable

From: Lmatlantic@aol.com

Miss Dunstable is one of Trollopes most delicious creations. She remains with me long after I hear her voice on the page. Perhaps that is part of it, she is so real, so idiosyncratic, so direct, so invincible. There are elements of Mrs. Proudy and other wholly alive creations. The contrast with the simpering, sweet, never a bad thought word spoken-or even thought, in Trollope's "feminine" young heroines is astonishing.


From: "Judy Warner"

Well said, I love Miss Dunstable too. Too bad none of the men realizes her worth--entirely aside from her money. Judy Warner

To which Sig replied:

Judy: "none" is a very strong word. Hang in there, and you will see.


Re: Dr Thorne: The Perceptive Miss Dunstable: An Ironic Festival Figure

I too revel in Miss Dunstable. Why? Because she's so perceptive, so very smart. She's the kind of character who can only be born from the magic of intuitive genius. How to explain how Trollope lights just on the right word, the right nuance, the right gesture to suggest to us that she sees through the hypocrisies of everyone else and remains above it all? That's the magic here. More: since she is so rich, they all kowtow to her while in the tonal words Trollope choses for those around her to her and for her thoughts we know she's not bothered. She laughs at them. In short she's as unflappable as Colonel Stubbs -- with this difference, her acid mind never for moment ceases to register how in their hearts they despise her and find her a bit distasteful.

The curious result for us is a release. Most of us are not rich. Hence no one kowtows. Thus we have no chance to have people suck up. I use the crude language deliberately. Since no one sucks up, but many still may cut or otherwise slight us, we are not in a position to dismiss at them in our hearts. We are not far above in the manner of Miss Dunstable -- who is forever showing off about her high position through money (that's why all the amused talk about how she doctors her doctor and must humour her lawyer). She is what we wish we could be except she's so much smarter. Trollope gives her preternatural perceptions -- which he gives no one else. No one else in the book thus far has registered the hypocrisies of those around them with this kind of awareness or sparkle.

Miss Dunstable is an ironic festival figure . A kind of Falstaff whe deflates all around her while holding her own . It's realistic because without her money she wouldn't manage it. Our joy in her really has little to do with her spunk or aggression -- because she isn't very aggressive. She fits in. What we joy in is how she remains untouched by the venality around her, is not angered or embittered, keeps her honest values and integrity and can recognise and become friends with those she recognises as spirits like her -- say Frank and later Dr Thorne and Mary.

The magic of Trollope's genius does this -- or his intuitive literary tact and control. It's a rare gift to be able to write dialogue which conveys this and is yet naturalistic. Yet he does it. The letters exchanged between Miss Dunstable and the Honourable George are delicious because she sees through him beyond his seeking her just for her money. She can pick out where he has tactlessly given away how he longs for his brother to die (people do, without much realising it -- as George does in his letter). She takes each turn of his letter and 'reads' or interprets it in the light of honesty and integrity and decency and shows him to be the callow knave/fool he is. Yet she remains good-tempered (Houghton Mifflin Dr Thorne, ed EBowen, Ch 18, pp. 192-95). But in a way it's easier to do this kind of thing in letters. You can be explicit; you can spin out the interlocutors as if they were sparring duellists. Not so in a dialogue.

The way Trollope does it is to continually have her wryly undercut whatever she is told that is at all phony, debunk it, and bring forth the truth. For example, when Frank attempts to tell Miss Dunstable the Countess and he talked of Miss Dunstable's prudence, virtue and beauty:

'Virtues and prudence! She said I was prudent and virtuous?'

'Yes'. 'And you talked of my beauty. That was so kind of you! You didn't either of you say anything about other matters?'

'What other matters?'

'Oh! I don't knowl Only some people are sometimes valued rather for what they've got than for any good qualities belonging to themselves intrinsically' (p. 190).

Trollope depends on us to know that Frank has to be lying. People don't talk about other people's prudence, virtue, and beauty even when they've got it. Miss Dunstable is no beauty. Trollope depends upon us to translate 'other matters' into money. Miss Dunstable emerges as sharp yet she expresses herself ironically, enigmatically and in the following line moves on to praise Frank who is not all that deserving of her praise. (She is just attracted to the awkward well-meaning young man.) So she seems good humoured and under control and within limits indifferent to these sorts of lies.

The same method underlies her dialogues with the Honourable George and Mr Moffat. Their lies are obvious; her corrections enigmatic but the reference of the irony is clear to us; she remains good-humoured, in control. The result is a wry strong festival release. We have had to endure the Franks, Georges, and Moffats and not done as well in life; here we can enjoy the power Trollope's method seems to endow her with. So we feel better. At least with Miss Dunstable they don't get away with it. And they can't hurt her. She seems impervious -- though she is not. She does register hurt now and again. The wryness does that. We like her for that too.

Miss Dunstable is one of several wonderful character conceptions in this book: Roger Scatcherd, Dr Thorne are two others.

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

To Trollope-l

November 10, 1999

Re: Dr Thorne, Chs 28-30: Miss Dunstable's Letters

An interesting aspect of the presentation and role of Miss Dunstable in Dr Thorne is that 1) she writes or answers a number of the letters in this novel; and 2) her letters come at those points in the novel where Frank needs someone to help him stay with Mary. Not that Frank or the narrator lets us get so far as to suspect Frank could be inconstant -- Kindness forbid. But that just when Frank is being pushed hard by someone to desert Mary, he takes out a recent letter by Miss Dunstable re-inspiriting him on Mary's behalf and his resolve is fortified. She's like a good genie in a bottle Frank carries around in his pockets.

There is a particularly good moment late in the book when Mary has written Frank and her letter has been delayed in delivery; by the time Frank gets it, he has been harried and harassed, and is feeling if not serious doubts, at least hesitant. But there is a letter from Miss Dunstable: the narrator quotes part, Frank reads, and he is steadied in his course to write Mary back. It is a letter from Miss Dunstable that leads to Frank going to Boxall Hill, the scene on the donkey and the engagement of Frank and Mary with which this volume (or phase of the novel) closes.

This letter-writing and inspiriting role of Miss Dunstable connects to the depiction of Frank's crises in two ways. One, again and again in conversation when it is brought up to him Mary is a nobody, nothing, has no family, he replies, What was Miss Dunstable and you would have had me marry her. In this week's chapters a letter from Miss Dunstable combines with two conversations in which Frank's mother attacks him on the score of not succeeding with Miss Dunstable (Penguin Dr Thorne, ed Ruth Rendell, Ch 28, p. 338). Frank's father is not so obtuse, and it is Frank who brings Miss Dunstable up when his father urges him to think of Mary's bastardy (of course the squire doesn't say this word explicitly, but it's what is meant, Ch 30, p, 359). It was Miss Dunstable who refused Frank's proposal, for however boyishly and inadequately, he did attempt to propose. She stopped him, and commanded him to be true to whatever was in his heart.

Miss Dunstable plays the role of good fairy on Mary's behalf quietly. Miss Dunstable's values are embodied in Frank's stubborn adhesion to Mary with all her detractions: bastardy, apparent poverty, and also lack of ambition to compete in the manner of a De Courcy.

Miss Dunstable's letters are also fun. They provide a release against the oppressive hierarchy of the book. She does not mince words and shows us the falseness, the indifference, the venality and maneuvring of human nature by 1) explicitly or implicitly speaking of it to Frank face-to-face or in the quoted letters. We like her wry implicit approach. Really they reach a height early in the book when we have Lord George's obviously egregiously manipulative and stupid letter (as when he just about looks forward to the possibility of his elder brother's death), and Miss Dunstable's polite one which through a series of responses shows us exactly wherein George deviated from truth, humanity, decency, even awareness of what his words mean (Ch 18, pp 216-18).

So, like Dr Thorne, although she is not on stage continually, Miss Dunstable's presence -- her values -- form a choral voice of goodness and wisdom in the book. She also plays an active role in bringing about its comic resolution in a group of country copulatives (as Touchstone would have put it).

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Updated 9 January 2003