Greshamsbury Park, in the county of Barsetshire, dominates the life of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, Greshamsbury’s lord, Squire Gresham, is rapidly spending himself into poverty. Most of his financial troubles result from the desire of his wife, Lady Arabella De Courcy Gresham, to get him into politics. The squire inherited his father’s seat in Parliament but lost it because of his Whig leanings. Barsetshire is overwhelmingly Tory and does not approve of Gresham’s Whig friends or the fact that his wife’s aristocratic family, the De Courcys, are aggressively Whig in sentiment. Gresham twice tries to regain his seat in the Parliamentary elections because his wife fancies being the wife of a member of Parliament, but he is unsuccessful and loses a great deal of money in financing his campaigns.
Therefore, when his son Frank came of age, Squire Gresham has not much to offer him in the way of financial security. Lady Arabella sees as their only hope the possibility of Frank’s marriage to a wealthy heiress. That he might do such a thing, however, seems rather doubtful, for, much to the distress of his mother and her family, Frank is in love with Mary Thorne, niece of the local doctor. Frank and Mary knew each other all their lives, and Mary was educated along with the young Greshams at Greshamsbury Park.
Mary was brought to live with her uncle, Doctor Thorne, when she was a mere infant. The real circumstances of her birth—that she is the illegitimate child of Doctor Thorne’s brother and Mary Scatcherd, a village girl—are known only to the doctor. Even Mary’s brother Roger, who killed his sister’s betrayer, did not know that Doctor Thorne adopted the child. Roger, a poor stonemason, was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime. When his term was up, he was told that the child had died. Since the doctor stood in high favor with Squire Gresham and regularly cared for Lady Arabella, his niece, an attractive child and near the age of the Gresham children, took her lessons with them. By the time Frank was of age, Mary seemed part of the family. Lady Arabella, however, is determined that this is not to be the literal state of affairs, for Mary has no money.
One of Squire Gresham’s greatest misfortunes is the forced sale of a particularly choice part of his estate to pay off his most pressing debts. Doctor Thorne, acting as agent for the squire, finds a buyer in Sir Roger Scatcherd, the former stonemason, who now possesses a title, a seat in Parliament, and a large fortune. Although he knows nothing of the existence of his sister’s illegitimate child, Sir Roger is in close contact with Doctor Thorne because he is a chronic alcoholic, and Doctor Thorne is often called on to attend to him after his drinking bouts.
The loss of the property greatly diminishes the value and extent of the estate Frank will someday inherit. Fortunately, one of the Gresham daughters is engaged to marry money, a politician who wants the Gresham and De Courcy family connections. A second daughter is to marry the local vicar and is thus assured of a respectable position, although one without much money. Frank is his mother’s real hope, and to save him from his unfortunate entanglement with Mary, Lady Arabella’s family invites Frank to De Courcy Castle for a visit.
The Countess De Courcy hopes to make a match between Frank and Miss Dunstable, a family friend and a woman considered the wealthiest heiress in England. Miss Dunstable, ten years older than Frank and much...
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more worldly wise, is clever and sharp-tongued. When, mostly to humor his aunt, Frank pretends to woo her, he finds her good company. She sees through his pretended amorous interest immediately, and they become the best of friends, after which she becomes Frank’s confidant and adviser.
Sir Roger is in such poor health from excessive drinking that he decides to make his will, leaving everything to Louis Philippe, his equally alcoholic son. When Doctor Thorne learns the terms of the will, he tells Sir Roger that Mary’s child is still living, whereupon Sir Roger makes her his heir in the event of his son’s death.
Lady Arabella, finding Frank’s attachment for Mary unchanged, will not allow the girl to visit Greshamsbury. When Frank arrives home and is made aware of this, he is furious. The family insists, however, that he has to marry wealth, particularly because the sister who was to have made an advantageous marriage was jilted.
Sir Roger is also in difficulties. Having discovered a fraud in his election, the committee unseats him, and the shock is too great for the old man. He goes on another drinking bout and dies from the effects. Louis Philippe, who inherits the estate, meanwhile also forms an attachment for Mary, but she remains true to Frank. The only hope for the happiness of Mary and Frank seems to lie in the death of Louis Philippe, who is well on his way to following his father to the grave. Having paid a visit to the squire for the purpose of foreclosing on some debts, Louis Philippe goes on a drinking spree that leaves him weak and very ill.
In a stormy interview soon afterward, Lady Arabella demands that Mary end her engagement to Frank. Mary refuses to be the one to break her promise, but she does ask the young man to release her because of the hopelessness of the situation in which they find themselves. Frank refuses, insisting that they love each other. Then Louis Philippe dies. When Doctor Thorne jubilantly tells Mary the news of her inheritance, her marriage to Frank becomes possible. With Mary now an heiress, not even the proud De Courcys can object to so excellent a match. For the first time in years, an atmosphere of rejoicing hangs over Greshamsbury Park.