anthony trollope, what would you think of us today?

Doctor Thorne

So I am a period drama junkie.  18th and 19th century are particular favorites. And first half of 20th century. Poldark, Downton Abbey, anything Jane Austen, Upstairs Downstairs, Duchess of Duke Street, Lillie and so on.

I had remembered hearing Amazon had picked up Julian Fellowes next series Doctor Thorne, This is four part television drama adaptation of the Anthony Trollope novel.

Anthony Trollope was a prolific writer. I think he produced over 80 works in his lifetime. Most were novels, but he wrote a couple of plays and also wrote a few biographies. He was born in 1815 and died in 1882. He wrote novels on political, social, and gender issues, and on other topical matters. Doctor Thorne is really the story of oprhan Mary Thorne, penniless and with undisclosed parentage, who grows up under the guardianship of her uncle Doctor Thorne. She spends much of her growing up in the company of the   Gresham family at Greshamsbury Park estate.

As the years progress, the past starts to impinge and the financial woes of the Gresham family threaten to tear relationships apart. We are introduced to the characters, the daughters of the seemingly elite Gresham Family are planning a wedding.  Then we are introduced to the class structure of Victorian England in all it’s glory.

As the New York Times said in its May 2016 review:

Mr. Fellowes adapted “Doctor Thorne” (which was directed by Niall MacCormick) from an 1858 novel by Anthony Trollope, the third in his Barchester series. Trollope remains largely unknown in America, which Mr. Fellowes notes regretfully. But “Doctor Thorne” will feel familiar to fans of Trollope’s more famous near-contemporary, Jane Austen. It’s about a smart, unmarriageable young woman and the various scenarios that could eventually render her marriageable.

Maybe that is why I like Trollope as a writer, because he in Austenesque.  But it is a lovely mini-series with amazing photography, terrific acting, and costumes and settings to day dream about.  If you have Amazon Prime you can watch it for free, and I also bet it is available on DVD.

Doctor Thorne got me thinking about the Main Line.  I bet if Anthony Trollope were alive today and live in the Philadelphia area, he would have some fun with the “Main Line”.

After all, we have the Main Line of yesterday, and the more homogenized suburb meets urban sprawl it has become.

The Main Line historically was founded along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Main Line”, it  from downtown Philadelphia parallel to Lancaster Avenue, ending in Paoli. (Not Malvern. The Main Line ended at Paoli. Although if you remember the old mnemonic “Old Maids Never Wed And Have Babies” there is that debate. But the Main Line never included Malvern for example – which is just fine in my humble opinion.) The history of the area which dates back to yes, the late 1600s, became more famous with the birth of the railroad line that bought privileged Philadelphia families. I ought to know, I am related to one of the servents, interestingly enough.

My great grandmother on my mother’s side, Rebecca Nesbitt Gallen was the summer housekeeper to the Cassatt family in Haverford.  As a matter of fact, my late maternal grandfather John Francis Xavier Gallen and one of his brothers (Bill I think) learned how to ride a bicycle on Grays Lane from pieces they put together to form a bike that they found in Cassatt family stables or a barn or something.)

Here is an accounting of that property from a Bryn Mawr College web page/student paper from 1997: 

Alexander J. Cassatt

Born in 1839 in Pittsburgh, Cassatt was a leading civil engineer and railroad executive of his time. The son of a wealthy banker, he received much of his education in Europe prior to graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Known for being hardworking, arrogant, and somewhat reserved, Cassatt embodied the qualities of the Industrial Age, notably those of dignity, strength, and discipline. He was rather aristocratic in appearance and was a member of every prominent club, including the Farmer’s Club, a social organization of some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest men who met at one another’s estates to discuss livestock breeding and horticultural practices. An avid sportsman who was particularly fond of thoroughbred horses, Cassatt was the proprietor of a 600-acre farm in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. In addition to owning an art gallery, the man of ample resources enjoyed cricket, hunting, yachting, and coaching. Cassatt was one of the original officers of the Merion Cricket Club, located next to Haverford station on Montgomery Avenue. His sister was the famous painter, Mary Cassatt, and his wife was the niece of former president James Buchanan. Although Cassatt’s accomplishments are numerous, he is particularly known for having improved the operating conditions of the railroad, as well as having introduced the air brake and instigated the construction of Pennsylvania Station, one of the two principal rail terminals in New York. Having risen through the various ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Cassatt was summoned from retirement to become the company’s seventh president. He died in office at the age of sixty-seven.

Built in 1872, Cassatt’s Haverford estate was called Cheswold. Hotchkin describes the house as being situated on a “large, verdant, undulating lawn” (141). Although it has since been demolished, the structure was constructed on forty acres of land acquired from Edmund Evans, a prominent Philadlphian who later became a close friend of Cassatt. The country residence was originally intended as a summer retreat for Cassatt and his family, but a fire destroyed the dwelling in 1935. Designed in a late Victorian-Gothic style, the house contained approximately thirty rooms. In her biography on Cassatt, Patricia Davis includes some description of the interior of the dwelling. She states the vast entrance hall was accented by walnut paneling and stained glass windows (43). Each of the seven bedrooms contained a marble fireplace, and the study was enhanced by a copper chandelier, in addition to wall and ceiling paneling in mahogany (43). There was a stable attached to the house, where Cassatt kept his horses, but the gatehouse is the only trace of the residence which remains today. Although certain historians have attributed the building’s design to Frank Furness and Allen Evans, recent research has disputed this claim. It is believed, however, that Furness was responsible for the alteration of Cassatt’s Philadelphia residence, which he purchased in the late 1880s.

The photograph showing an exterior view of Cheswold dates from 1880.
The interior view shows the library in 1890.

Now the farm referred to is a good portion of the land bulldozed to create the development we know as Chesterbrook. Then it was known as Chesterbrook Farm.

The families and stories of the original Main Line inspired novels and movies (The Young Philadelphians, The Philadelphia Story, High Society, Kitty Foyle for example.)

Philadelphia Society was at one time no joke.  Old Philadelphia families and the Social Register. What is the Social Register? Why a directory of names and addresses of prominent American families who are claimed to be from the social elite. Inclusion in the Social Register has historically been limited to members of polite society, members of the American upper class and The Establishment, and/or those of “old money” or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) families, within the Social Register cities. When I was a kid, my favorite part of the Social Register was the special summer volume that had the summer addresses – Maine, the Hamptons, Watch Hill, etc.

Oh no, I am not from a Social Register family.  I am the pure product of Pennsylvania peasant stock and fine with that.  But I went to private school, so I was around members of these storied families every day.  Because I was at Shipley, doors opened.  Living on the Main Line in the “right neighborhoods”, also opened doors.  I did not understand it all then, truthfully I was somewhat oblivious. These were just the people I grew up around. Some were from these families and lived in huge and often drafty old houses and others were from more regular homes.

I will tell you quite honestly that it was moving to the Main Line that made me aware of racial and religious divides.

Back to the Social Register. And an interesting little true story.  Once upon a time when I was in my early 20s I had a roommate whose family for the most part were Social Register. Only to her dismay, her rather liberal mama in a slightly hippy dippy moment chose to exit the Social Register. This old roomie, who would like to forget the long away and far away time of going to Downingtown High School spent a lot of time drafting letters for re-admission to the Social Register and throwing them away.  Her pretensions were somewhat sad as well as amusing.  I do not know if they ever let her back in and what it ultimately got her.

She still lives in a slightly fringe Main Line neighborhood undoubtedly to say she lives on the Main Line.  She grew up in a beautiful part of Chester County. I do not, to this day, understand her need to run from that. I guess it did not meld well with the image she was crafting for herself.

When I was growing up you had these rites of passage. Dancing class. Things like Friday Evenings, Paoli Parties, JDA and SDA. There was one at Merion Cricket too I think, but I can’t remember the name – I seem to remember it was on Tuesdays.  It was quite the mama coup to get your kids into these things. We went kicking and screaming in formal attire.  Personally I developed an aversion to long formal plaid taffeta skirts and a woman named Mrs. Farber.

Mrs. Brent Harrison Farber. She was a dragon lady in Gold Lamé structured enough to be a suit of armor. And she had helmet hair that did.not.move.  How we hated that woman.  My childhood friend David can tell you of the fun we had through all of the years of Junior Dancing Assemblies and Senior Dancing Assemblies (JDA and SDA)  stuffing stale pretzel bits through the grates of the Merion Tribute House where these things were held.  I swear today you can still smell the pretzel bits in your imagination if you walk into the place.

One time Mrs. Farber dragged me into the kitchen of Merion Tribute on a Friday night to read me the riot act (“I will call your MOTHER young lady!’)  She had arbitrarily decided on a dancing partner for me. He was at least six inches shorter than I at the time (I am only 5′ 6″ now so you can only imagine) and he was seriously miserable.

I did these things essentially because my mother wanted me to. Sometimes I enjoyed the things and sometimes I did not.  A lot of the time I did not, if I am honest.  I did not swim with the big fish in the true golden ponds of affluence. We lived in one of the “right neighborhoods” in the North Side of Haverford, but to the manor born I am not.  So while for a lot of my friends all this pre-training for the land of Debutante Balls this stuff was expected and second nature, to me it was expected, yes, but I would question it in my head.

So when we as young ladies graduated from our Main Line Private Schools we did so in white dresses. I guess technically my graduation from Shipley was my first “white party”, wasn’t it.  Then next was college and debutante balls.

I was in the cotillion of the Philadelphia Charity Ball. It started in 1881, so when our crew did the cotillion and some bowed it was the 100th anniversary.  The event was in December, today it is in November.

I did not bow. Thank god.  Bowing meant you were a full fledged debutante. Back way way way back girls making their debut into society meant they were ready to be married off.  In our day it meant staying at the then Belluvue-Stratford and raising hell afterwards. One year a friend’s brother broke his ankle or something using the giant ashtrays that used to be by the elevator doors on the various room floors as hurdles.

I was a member of the cotillion.  The sort of ladies in waiting for the actual debutantes.  We dressed all in white, and had elbow length white kid gloves.  Tom Crater from Nan Duskin personally helped my mother choose my dresses that year.  I forget who the white one was designed by, but I had another dress from that time frame I loved that was Victor Costa.  Back in the day, that man , Tom Crater, was the first and last word in Philadelphia fashion.

Leading up the Charity Ball there were events where we all met one and other. Something in the summer, I think at Ardrossan back then or some place in Chestnut Hill and then well, pre-ball rehearsals to teach us the cotillion dance.  And Bobby Scott (Robert Montgomery Scott) called our names out as we were all introduced – cotillion members and debutantes alike.

Now I was not dating anyone at the time of my December 1981 cotillion appearance.  That horrified my mother, as a matter of fact every time I was not dating someone and even when it was I often horrified her, but I digress. I chose as my cotillion partner a guy who I was friends with in college who was on the Young Men’s Committee.

No no no said my mother, so she chose me an escort.  A guy older than myself but shorter. A member of the Mask and Wig at Penn.  Nice guy, showed up with the requisite cotillion bouquet from Robertson’s but we had absolutely nothing in common, and nothing to talk about. Long story short is he showed up in the following year’s program book (1982) in a photo sitting by himself on a bench outside the ballroom of the Bellevue reading the 1981 program book.  My mother was pissed off about that for easily 15 years. (“YouEmbarassedMe“)

So in that realm there were other far more exclusive debutante affairs, namely The Assemblies. The Assemblies started around 1848 and well you literally had to be born into certain families to even attend.  I never went to The Assemblies ever because although I think they may have lightened up today, back in 1981 you couldn’t even attend the ball as a guest if you were not from the “list” of select families. (Read about the Assemblies circa 1986 here.) I was literally not eligible to attend.  Which was fine, except I always heard it was a heck of a lot of fun including all their 200 year old rituals. It is one of the oldest social gatherings in this country.

If you want to read a tongue in cheek cliff notes outline of some of the society events and what not that made Philadelphia great, read the very tongue in cheek 2008 article from Philadelphia Magazine titled

The Secret Lives of Wasps: Of Argyles and Ardrossan

A most Waspy timeline


So now that we were young ladies, we were expected as we grew older to do proper Philadelphia volunteer work.  I was co-chair of the Young Friends of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I worked a few years on Opening Night (including co-chairing the young friends event during an Orchestra Strike year), and was briefly on the Main Line Delaware Committee.

Hence my disdain of Orchestra and Orchestra related events today. When you see how the Good Ship Lollipop is run and how the volunteers are treated, and how some of the volunteers themselves behave, you discover it’s a club you do not necessarily need ever again.

I briefly toyed with other events like Historic Landmarks Young Friends or something like that (I liked going to parties at the Physick House and Todd House).  At the time that particular committee was run like a secret society meets mafia by a committee of special ladies who were nice to you as long as you were useful. The trademark of the head bitchy blonde at the time was she promised you a spot on the committee if you helped them out on their events first.  Long story short is she totally used friends of mine and myself for silent auction items and then had the organization’s by-laws changed so she didn’t have to put us on the committee.

Hand to God, it happened.  We were dumbfounded.  There were quite a few of us who got amazing silent auction items for their event, go the wine donated and so on and so forth. And at the end of the day, she used us.  And as chief mean girl, she got to do this and no one publicly said a word.  Behind the scenes, polite murmurings of “how awful”, and “we are so sorry”.

We did a LOT of events back in the day. Ballet, Orchestra, Art Museum, Crafts Show and so on.  Fair committees, garden party committees, antique show committees. We were on some committees together, and just attended events of other committees friends were on.

I pretty much stopped all of it after 9/11.  That was the point that I was comfortable admitting I was done with a lot of those things that might have been for my mother, but were  not truly for me long term. It all also seemed so frivolous and unimportant in the scheme of national current events at the time. That and the epiphany of the fact that the people on those committees would always need someone like me, more than I would ever need them.

I still did some things that I loved like volunteering for the Harriton Plantation Fair (the 26th fair is Saturday September 24th in Bryn Mawr and it is still lovely!) but dumped a lot of the rest of it.  I was much happier and my checkbook was happy too.  All those black tie and cocktail dresses were getting more and more expensive.

Along with the things you were supposed to “do” came the society pages and the society editors. I have touched on this before, in other posts. Until she died in 1986, for the 30 plus years prior, Ruth Seltzer was the first and last word as far as society editors. She wrote a column. It wasn’t all photos with captions, it was maybe a photo or two, but she wrote actual articles – a true column.  She wrote about the charity and who was on the committee and what they wore and the guests.  She would even tell you how the food was and what was served.  It was a really big deal to make it into her column.

When Mrs. Seltzer died, the society editor of the Main Line Times, some say Carol Springer thought she would ascend to the seat of power in the world of society editors.  She did not and grew increasingly bitter and was often unpleasant to deal with.  She played the game of exclusives.  If she was to cover your event, it was to be “exclusive”. She also would only take your photo if you were from the Main Line. So that meant way back when luminaries like Eugene Ormandy or Riccardo Muti would not be in society photos for the Main Line Times.

She died in 2011, so now I can tell an amusing story.  Gaming the society editors when we were in our 20s and early 30s was like a sport.  She was the one we gamed the most because the others were pretty nice at the time. In those days, the society editor asked you to be in a photo, you did not ask them.  So Carol would invite us to gather for a photo (especially if she regularly photographed our parents) and we would grab our friends and the ones from Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Chester County, or wherever would magically be from the Main Line….since she would not photograph them otherwise.

We did this at event after event.  After a while it was hard to have a straight face because some of our friends one week would say they lived in Wayne, and Wynnewood the following week, and Gladwyne after that. Only with her.  A friend of mine and I also had a comical competition going on with a guy we knew at the time back then – to see which group of friends could end up in the society pages more than the other.  That was a lot of fun because you were not supposed to pose for one editor after posing for another paper’s editor.

Carol would not speak to my mother or I for close to a decade because we appeared in the first society page Nancy Gould did for the new newspaper Main Line Life. It was very funny.  She had this whole Queen Victoria we are not amused thing going on. And OMG she would make a face at you.

Now before the last society editor ascended to the role at the now defunct Suburban and Wayne Times there was a truly lovely lady named Helen Duffy who did it.  She was so nice and she  wrote columns as well as did photos.  She died in 1998. I do not know anyone who remembers her less than fondly. She was just nice.

Today Society Editors are a dying breed.  Sort of like actual society.  The newspapers are kind of sort of seemingly doing away with space once reserved for the Society Pages – in the Main Line papers they used to have their own entire separate section weekly. Today the society photos are mostly in the magazines.  I do not recognize most of the folks in the photos. There is one former society editor who has their own website and who covers things and sells photos, but I do not know if she can really be considered a society editor still since she is not attached to any media publication.  She was pleasant years ago, and today is rather miserable. Pity, that.  She was fun to chat with back in the day.

Now let’s talk about who considers themselves society these days.  A mere decade ago they would be learning how to spell Gladwyne and wouldn’t be in society photos.  But today people tell the society editors to take their photos instead of being invited.

I now look at coverage of events with horror.  Not at who had what face life, boob job, or shot of Botox when but often at the self perceived sex symbols of it all.  It’s like the TV show “What Not To Wear” lives on, with a new chapter entitled “women who should never, ever wear Lilly Pulitzer.”

Just because you can afford now to buy the dress, it doesn’t mean you should wear it, after all. I for example, am long past my Lilly wearing days and when I was my friends and I wore mostly vintage Lilly and Vested Gentress.  Vested Gentress was unique to the Main Line and I thought the fabric patterns were whimsical and fun. (Read about the Vested Gentress in this 2014 blog post someone wrote) Now Vested Gentress lives on in the vintage worlds of Ebay and Etsy and I still love looking at the dresses and their patterns which still make me smile.

I have kind of gotten lost with my trip down memory lane.  I guess where I was going when I started all of this comparing to Trollope or Austen was that there used to be rules that people followed. Now it is like the rules do not really exist or are liberally interpreted (queue events like Devon Horse Show and the Academy Ball.)

It used to be a big deal to garner an invitation to certain events. Now it is pretty much as long as your credit card can take the whack, anyone can go.  People cluster in society photos without a clue as to what appropriate dress actually is.   Then there are these organizations that host events.  Membership fees required, like the ones some women join because they say they support and promote women.  Do they? Or are they just an excuse to cocktail occasionally at lunchtime and pose for selfies?  And who are these women?  Are they captains of industry or just housewives with home based direct marketing types of businesses? Are these groups for women who didn’t join sororities or something?

Then there are the fringes of what once was society hanging on and holding court.  They lecture the unsuspecting on manners and decorum.   And who are they again?  Emily Post?

Not quite.

That is why I think Anthony Trollope if he was writing today would be amused.  It is almost like when he was writing and Victorian society in England was being challenged by the newer families who were industrialists and not so old families.  You had the predictable characters much as you do today. You had types, much as you do today.  You even had women who looked ridiculous in certain hats and outfits.

Should we file under the more things change, the more things stay the same? Sort of except I miss the truly beautiful ball gowns.

Way back when before the time of being a being a grown up and raising families we had a heck of a lot of fun at events.   But I still think then it meant more than you were able to buy a ticket.  And I think that is the way it should be in my view of the world.

Besides when you were in your teens and twenties it was really a lot of fun to annoy your mother.  Not enough to make the who’s who of DUIs in the police briefs, just enough to tweak her.

Thanks for stopping by.  Watch Doctor Thorne on Amazon Prime. You’ll like it.