Dr. Wortle's School is basically the story of two couples in love and how their affections disrupt the tranquil setting of the school. The main plot revolves around Dr. Wortle's "usher" or school assistant, Mr. Peacocke and his wife. A scandal from their past threatens their happiness. The second, very minor, plot is the love story between Dr. Wortle's daughter, Mary and the good-natured Lord Carstairs.
The joy of the novel is watching Dr. Wortle deal with these crises. Will he stand by Mr. Peacocke in his time of need? Will he allow his daughter to become engaged to the very young Lord Carstairs? The answers to these questions and the reactions of the other characters are handled in the typical Trollope fashion, with compassion and common sense. Sprinkle the whole thing with deft strokes of humor and you have what is Dr. Wortle's School.
As I mentioned in my review of Castle Richmond, I am amazed what a modern thinker Trollope was. His reputation as a "old-fashioned" author is entirely undeserved. In a day and age (late 1870s)when actions and image were everything, where a hint of scandal could ruin a person, it must have seemed radical to stress that persons should be judged as much on their "nature" or character as anything else. This is one of those general notions that could be applied just as well in 2000 as in 1878.
You might wonder, given what I have already said, why I give Dr. Wortle's School four stars. When you compare them to his towering Last Chronicle of Barset, Orley Farm and The Way We Live Now, it seems a slight injustice to those five star books to give all the others five stars. Dr. Wortle's School is very readable certainly, but it does not quite obtain the status of "masterpiece" that these other novels can claim. As always, Trollop's humor, dialogue, and characterizations make this an enjoyable novel that can be recommeded to anyone.