Last year I read Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope after enjoying a mini-series based on the book. I discovered Doctor Thorne was the third book of a six-part series called The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I liked Doctor Thorne so much, I decided to read the rest of the series.
The first book in the series is The Warden, a position held by a Mr. Septimus Harding. The warden had various functions in the local church. One role unique to this particular church was overseeing a hospital or almshouse for aged men. In previous years, a man named John Hiram had made provision in his will for such a hospital, for twelve men and a warden to care for them.
A young reformer, John Bold, becomes concerned that the set-up for the hospital is unfair to the patients. He thinks the arrangement is not being carried out according to the Hiram’s will and that the warden is getting more money than he should and the pensioners less. John Bold has no personal quarrel with Mr. Harding himself; in fact, he’s in love with Harding’s daughter, Eleanor. But he’s the type of personality that opposes the principle of the thing and can’t let it go. He begins a lawsuit. Newspapers get wind of the situation and cast aspersions at Mr. Harding’s character.
This might not sound like a riveting plot line, but what makes it interesting is the personalities. Mr. Harding is the meekest of men and only wants to do the right thing. He thought he had been doing right, but now he wants to have the will looked into to make sure. His son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, is just the opposite: a take-charge person used to running the show and having his own way. Grantly confers with lawyers to oppose the suit on technical grounds. Grantly probably is probably making too much money from his position: he is described several times as rich. He has no compassion for the old pensioners.
He knew well how strongly he would be supported by Dr Grantly, if he could bring himself to put his case into the archdeacon’s hands and to allow him to fight the battle; but he knew also that he would find no sympathy there for his doubts, no friendly feeling, no inward comfort. Dr Grantly would be ready enough to take up his cudgel against all comers on behalf of the church militant, but he would do so on the distasteful ground of the church’s infallibility. Such a contest would give no comfort to Mr Harding’s doubts. He was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.
Trollope lived and wrote during Dickens’ time, and I wonder what they thought of each other. He satirizes a writer in the story who went by the name Mr Popular Sentiment and who sounds a lot like Dickens or one of his characters. Many of Dickens’ novels seem to have been written to raise awareness and inspire reform. Trollope is not against reform, but he seems to caution here that it can be carried out in a way that hurts innocent people, stirs up negative sentiment without the right basis in facts, and doesn’t accomplish anything good. The question could have been looked into without becoming adversarial. That’s a timely message for these days.
In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so.
I especially like Trollope’s characterizations of the newspaper, which in this story is called the Jupiter. I wonder what he’d think of news media today.
From here issue the only known infallible bulls for the guidance of British souls and bodies. This little court is the Vatican of England. Here reigns a pope, self-nominated, self-consecrated—ay, and much stranger too,—self-believing!—a pope whom, if you cannot obey him, I would advise you to disobey as silently as possible; a pope hitherto afraid of no Luther; a pope who manages his own inquisition, who punishes unbelievers as no most skilful inquisitor of Spain ever dreamt of doing—one who can excommunicate thoroughly, fearfully, radically; put you beyond the pale of men’s charity; make you odious to your dearest friends, and turn you into a monster to be pointed at by the finger!’
Oh heavens! and this is Mount Olympus!
It is a fact amazing to ordinary mortals that the Jupiter is never wrong.
A man may have the best of causes, the best of talents, and the best of tempers; he may write as well as Addison, or as strongly as Junius; but even with all this he cannot successfully answer, when attacked by The Jupiter. In such matters it is omnipotent. What the Czar is in Russia, or the mob in America, that The Jupiter is in England.
I like that Trollope addresses the reader, not just as the narrator and member of the community, but as the author.
It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task—a novel in one volume.
Our tale is now done, and it only remains to us to collect the scattered threads of our little story, and to tie them into a seemly knot. This will not be a work of labour, either to the author or to his readers
I also enjoyed the humorous asides:
The bishop did not whistle. We believe that they lose the power of doing so on being consecrated; and that in these days one might as easily meet a corrupt judge as a whistling bishop; but he looked as though he would have done so, but for his apron.
He never had time to talk, he was so taken up with speaking.
In matters of love men do not see clearly in their own affairs. They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men’s hearts!
[Said of a particular painting] There on her pedestal, framed and glazed, stood the devotional lady looking intently at a lily as no lady ever looked before.
Popularity spoilt him for all further real use, as it has done many another.
I’m thankful I read Doctor Thorne first. It took me a while to get into The Warden, but I came to enjoy it. I especially liked Harding and his youngest daughter, Eleanor. Of Eleanor it was said, “She had no startling brilliancy of beauty, no pearly whiteness, no radiant carnation. She had not the majestic contour that rivets attention, demands instant wonder, and then disappoints by the coldness of its charms. You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.”
According to a few sources, Trollope had not intended to write a series when he published The Warden. But a few years later, he was inspired by the characters and setting to write another story. When his popularity picked up, publishers asked him for more books from Barsetshire. It wasn’t until after the sixth was published that the books were marketed together and called The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Simon Vance.
I’m counting this book for the 19th century classic in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.