Title: Barchester Towers
Author: Anthony Trollope
Published: 2016 (originally 1857)
I read The Warden at the beginning of this year – the first in the series of six novels by Anthony Trollope. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped (it was a 2 star read for me), I was eager to pick op the second instalment in the series, not in the least because of Alycia’s positive review of the rest of the series. The fact that the hardback editions published by Penguin Classics were beyond beautiful did help a little as well. Duh.
The Chronicles of Barsetshire are set in the fictitious county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. It tells the story of the clergy and gentry of the county and of the political, religious and social developments between them. While Trollope has passed down an extensive bibliography, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, and Barchester Towers in particular, is his best known work
There is no way of writing well and also of writing easy.
In The Warden the reader is introduced to the county of Barsetshire and to Barchester in particular. We meet the old bishop and his dear friend, Mr Septimus Harding, the warden of Hiram’s Hospital for the poor and the precentor of the cathedral. Mr Harding’s eldest daughter Susan is married to the bishop’s son, Archdeacon Grantly and his wife having died, the Harding household consists only of him and his youngest daughter Eleanor. The Warden primarily focuses on the controversy around the almshouse that arises when the young doctor and zealous reformer John Bold addresses the disparity in the appointment of the charity’s income between the bedesmen (the poor) and Mr Harding (the warden). Trollope follows the politics and polemic that ensues.
Her loveliness was like that of many landscapes, which require to be often seen to be fully enjoyed.
Whereas The Warden focussed too much on politics and neglected the development of the characters, Barchester Towers is more balanced. We revisit Barchester for a second time, a few years after the death of John Bold (leaving his wife, Eleanor Bold and their son), when the old bishop is dying. The back flap: ‘Trollope’s comic masterpiece of plotting and backstabbing opens as the Bishop of Barchester lies on his deathbed. Soon a pitched battle breaks out over who will take power, involving, among others, the zealous reformer Dr Proudie, his fiendish wife and the unctuous schemer Obadiah Slope.’
Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.
With Mr Slope, the new bishop’s chaplain, Trollope has created one of the best ‘love-to-hate’ characters. He is prepared for anything and has an unstoppable ambition to climb both the social ladder and make a lightning career. Both Slope and Mrs Proudie, who, at the beginning of the novel are hand and glove but quickly become each other’s greatest enemy, influence the spineless bishop. As everyone expected the late bishop’s son, Archdeacon Grantly, to succeed his father, Slope makes every effort to cross him even more. He even goes as far as to court the Archdeacon’s sister-in-law, Mrs Bold. Meanwhile, Mrs Proudie has her own private agenda and is relentless in her attempts to achieve sole influence over her husband.
There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.
Meanwhile, the widowed Eleanor (who at the end of The Warden married Mr Bold, her father’s opponent) has three suitors. There is Mr Slope, who does not only want to marry her to belittle the Archdeacon, but also because of her fortune. Eleanor’s fortune is also Bertie Stanhope’s main aim. He’s the son of the wise but unfortunate Dr Stanhope who does not only have a jack-of-all-trades and debtor as a son, but also a crippled daughter who left her abusive husband and flirts with every gentlemen she meets, another daughter who tries to give her siblings everything they want and a wife who doesn’t care at all. Mr Arabin is the third suitor: a quiet and kind Fellow of Lazarus College and a good friend of Archdeacon Grantly. A misunderstanding occurs between Eleanor and her relatives in which they all believe her to be partial and even engaged to Mr Slope (the horror!). Of course many obstacles have to be removed before Eleanor and her Mr Right can be together. (No spoilers here, Trollope himself is very clear about this from the beginning.)
The greatest mistake any man ever made is to suppose that the good things of the world are not worth the winning.
I enjoyed Barchester Towers very, very much. Although it was a bit dry here and there, it was so much better than The Warden. I loved how well we get to know the characters, both the new and the old ones. Trollope himself is the omniscient narrator, but frequently gives us a look into the main character’s hearts and heads. There were some cringing moments here and there concerning women’s rights and place in the household, but in the end I’m okay with that. Those views do not predominate the story (and are even somewhat softened by Trollope’s description of the kind but also independent Eleanor) and I have no problem with ascribing them to the historic context and leaving it at that.
So, for everyone who enjoys a well-written Victorian novel with interesting and detailed characters I would say: read this. Even if you’ve been disappointed by The Warden as was I. It’s so much better!