Kathryn Huie Harrison, Review of Julian Fellowes’s Doctor Thorne

Kathryn Huie Harrison is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research investigates Victorian treatment of the female body and the ramifications of Victorian ideology on the contemporary conceptions of women’s bodies. Her current research focuses on the Victorian breast, breastfeeding, and miscarriage.


Although it premiered in the UK months ago, Julian Fellowes’s 4-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne only recently became available in the U.S. As reviews and blog posts began appearing from UK viewers, I carefully avoided reading them, not wanting any details spoiled as I waited anxiously to be able to view an adaptation to which, I was confident, I would be instantly glued. When the time finally came, I wished I had read some of those reviews, as I’d have been better prepared for what renowned Trollope scholar Ellen Moody has aptly called a “telling travesty”. I had hoped that, because he was producing a short series and not a movie, time constraints would not be prohibitive and Fellowes would create a comprehensive adaptation. I realize now that my expectations were too high – 4 episodes of less than 45-minutes each could never allow for the depth a Trollope novel requires, and Fellowes left out details on many of the subplots that I find the most interesting, a decision that flattened both the plot and many of the characters.

Trollope’s novel is ripe with subplots. Doctor Thorne is part of the larger Chronicles of Barsetshire series, and Trollope is known for interweaving small details into his work about characters who reappear, often in very small roles, in other novels. Each plot carries important weight, both for Trollope’s fiction and for critics who use such work for the sake of Victorian literary and cultural studies. Small details and various subplots, of course, create a number of difficulties for anyone hoping to adapt a work into a shorter form. Thus, I recognize that plot elements must be cut, but I disagree with Fellowes’s decisions regarding many of those changes. As Katherine Byrne has already noted, Fellowes’s “treatment of Trollope involves removing many of the complicated subplots of a work which famously apologises to the reader for its long dull opening descriptions.” In removing these subplots, Fellowes creates the space for a short adaptation of a comparatively lengthy novel, but he loses many of the elements that do the novel’s best work from a cultural studies perspective. The simplified plot, combined with Fellowes’s topical interjections at the beginning and end of each episode, situate the storyline well for everyday contemporary audiences, but its diminishment or removal of many subplots takes away from complex, nuanced subjects that make the Victorian period, and Doctor Thorne in particular, so interesting.

The titular character, whom Trollope insists is also the hero, is a medical doctor, and his role as such is important enough that his professional title is part of the actual title of both the novel and miniseries. As such, I read and view Doctor Thorne with the assumption that the hero’s medical role will do interesting work within the plot, and in the novel, it absolutely does. In Trollope’s original work, readers can find overt discussions of subjects like alcoholism and subtle cultural commentary on hotly debated issues like wet nursing, breastfeeding, and I would argue, even breast cancer. Alison Moulds of Victorian Clinic has already demonstrated some of the losses Fellowes’s series suffers because Fellowes essentially removes Thorne’s medical practice from the plot, entirely leaving out his encounters with his rival, Dr. Fillgrave, and never showing him attending to patients he can actually help. I’m frustrated not just with the removal of most of Thorne’s medical practice, but mostly with the cultural commentary and character depth that disappear with the minimization of medical subjects. Fellowes really only addresses alcoholism, which he uses to indicate the brutishness of lower-class breeding more than to engage with any medical or cultural discussions of the subject.

Although Fellowes does play up Lady Scatcherd’s role as Frank Gresham’s former nurse, he doesn’t articulate that role in a way that shows any of the complexities of wet nursing during the 1850s (and a titillating and tense subject it was!) In the novel, Lady Arabella chooses not to nurse her infant son, a circumstance Trollope mocks, stating, “Of course Lady Arabella could not suckle the young heir herself; Ladies Arabella never can. . . . Nature gives them bosoms for show, but not for use.” Trollope plays up the fact that the now Lady Scatcherd nurses Frank instead of her own son, and his descriptions of the young men throughout the novel play into numerous debates about infant feeding at the time—Frank is healthier than Louis throughout the entire novel, Frank bears no resemblance to the biological mother who did not nurse him, and Lady Scatcherd has a maternal attachment to her nursling even more than to her son.

One of the most interesting elements of the novel, in my opinion, is the stark difference between the health of bottle-fed Louis Scatcherd and the breastfed Frank Gresham. Even outside of his drinking habit, Trollope’s Louis is described as being weak and feeble, while Frank is strong and healthy. These descriptions play largely into Victorian ideas concerning infant feeding—without reliable infant formula, most babies who were bottle-fed either died or were believed to be weak and sickly in adulthood. This difference between the characters is an especially unfortunate one to minimize because of the numerous ways in which contemporary audiences could relate to it—debates between breast and bottle feeding are still relevant and rampant today. While I never expected Fellowes to explore this debate in explicit detail, I had hoped the subtle commentary would appear the same way it does in Trollope’s novel. I was disappointed to see that, in Fellowes’s version, Louis’s health issues arise specifically from his drinking and that, until his horse accident, he demonstrates few health problems at all. In appearance, Fellowes’s Louis (Edward Franklin) is actually more robust than Frank (Harry Richardson), a circumstance that differs from Trollope’s version and removes interesting cultural critiques from the plot.

Louis’s sudden death following a fall from his horse during a drunken rage certainly worked well for dramatic effect, but the scene is all Fellowes and no Trollope. It played much more believably into Fellowes’s revised plot line in which Louis’s birthday was fast approaching, allowing him to plot the downfall of the Gresham estate. Louis must die in order for Trollope’s ending to work, and until his horse accident, Fellowes does nothing to indicate that such a death is likely. Trollope’s original plot—Louis suffering from lifelong ill health and eventual dying from “delirium tremens” wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic for contemporary audiences. And yet, by removing Louis’ previous history of ill health, Fellowes also removes many nuanced plot elements that are important to Victorian medical debates about infant feeding, a debate still relevant and interesting to contemporary viewers. Further, because readers of Trollope’s novel are aware of Louis’s likely demise in a way that viewers of Fellowes’s series are not, the abundant moral complexities of the doctor who keeps his niece’s likely good fortune a secret vanish. Tom Hollander’s strong performance as Dr. Thorne cannot compensate for the relatively flat character Fellowes gives him to play.

Both plot lines and characters lose complexity due to the lack of attention Fellowes pays to medical details. Another major medical omission downplays the significance of Mary’s banishment from Greshamsbury. In the novel, Trollope makes only vague allusions to an illness from which Lady Arabella suffers, providing the reader with very little information about her condition, leaving Dr. Thorne and Lady Arabella to discuss such issues in private, even away from the eyes of the reader. Because of such an insistence on privacy (and for a number of other reasons), I believe that Lady Arabella suffers from breast cancer, possibly the result of her decision not to nurse her own children. Despite discussing the illness minimally and with only vague details, Trollope plays up the importance of Lady Arabella’s medical woes, using her sickness to demonstrate the vehemence with which Lady Arabella despises the idea of a marriage between Frank and Mary. In the novel, Lady Arabella puts her own health, and I would argue actually her own life, at risk by firing Dr. Thorne after he refuses to blame Mary for Frank’s attachment. Fellowes portrays Lady Arabella as a one-dimensional snob (and a snob she certainly is), but her willingness to give up her own health (and possibly life) out of anxiety for her son adds a level of complexity to her character that is woefully absent from Fellowes’s version. In the novel, it is Lady Arabella’s eventual reconciliation with Dr. Thorne for the sake of her own health that forms the first reconciliation between the two families. By omitting this illness, Fellowes not only removes an important element of the plot that raises the stakes of Lady Arabella’s campaign against Mary, but he also overlooks a plot aspect that has serious implications for Victorian medical and social discourses. My belief that Lady Arabella suffers from breast cancer is a topic for another day, but is one that I think was apparent to Victorian readers, while nonexistent to contemporary audiences of Fellowes’s miniseries. By omitting this plot line, Fellowes strips the character of Lady Arabella almost entirely of moral complexity, and he misses an opportunity to bring to life an interesting subject that was less speakable for Trollope than for Fellowes.

My qualms with the series are not a complete devaluation of Fellowes’s interpretation, but more a wish that he had interpreted differently. When creating an adaptation, one must certainly decide what they value most and, thus, where their focus should lie. Other issues, simply by nature of recreating a shorter adapted work, must be pushed to the side. Fellowes clearly valued one central plot line the most: the anxiety classes. His focus on the near loss of the centuries-old Greshamsbury estate to the family of a former prisoner and, as Lady Arabella scoffingly calls Sir Roger in the adaptation, “the railway man,” is clearly the central element of Fellowes’s plot. Although he ends the series with the scene of Frank and Mary’s wedding, I’m more convinced of Fellowes’s interest in their marriage for its salvation of Greshamsbury Park than for its opportunities as a marriage plot, mostly because their eventual marriage never seems to be a question. Of course, a love story sells well with contemporary audiences, but Fellowes’s interests are predominantly social, hence one part of the 4-part series being specifically devoted to and focused on an election.

By leaving out many of the subplots Trollope built in, however, many of the complexities of such social anxieties are lost. I’m not certain whether these losses stem from a mere need to cut down the content or from Fellowes’s underestimation of audience’s abilities to grapple with nuance, but I’m leaning toward the latter. Either way, the lost subplots do audiences a major disservice. Although Fellowes claims that his favorite thing about Trollope is the “moral complexities” of his characters, the removal of so many subplots diminishes many of these complexities; the end result is a flatter, much less interesting or sophisticated depiction of this chronicle of Barsetshire than I had hoped to see. There were elements that adhered nicely to the novel and that were done well, and I even appreciated some of the departures from Trollope’s work (my favourite being Fellowes’s decision to make Lady Arabella squirm a bit after informing her of Mary’s sudden fortune). On the whole, though, this series felt largely like a series of missed opportunities, and I can only hope that Fellowes’s viewers will take to Trollope’s novel itself to discover all that was missed.

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